Karen Armstrong, The Case for God

Knopf, New York, 2009, 406 pp., hc $27.95 (with glossary, bibliography, refs.)

Reviewed by Sjoerd L. Bonting

The first line in the Introduction reads: “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.” And then follow 405 pages about God, but it is a pleasure to read what she has to say. Her clear style of writing makes even complex matters easily understood. Yet, she displays a remarkable breadth of knowledge and understanding of every subject she writes about.

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman-Catholic nun, is a prolific writer, this being her 19th book. Earlier she wrote: A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Juda­ism, Christianity, and Islam (1994). In the present book she goes back to the Pale­oli­thic age. The book is divided in two parts: I. The Unknown God (30,000 BCE to 1500 CE), and II. The Modern God (1500 CE to the present). The at first sight rather strange dividing line at 1500 expresses her idea that then scientific thinking entered the mind of the theologians. Thus she begins Part II with chapters on ‘Science and Religion’ and ‘Scientific Religion’.

    Part I begins with a fascinating description of a visit to the Lascaux cave with its famous murals. She vividly describes the shamanist religion of the people who pro­duced these murals and their veneration of an ‘Animal Master’ who provided them with the animals they hunted. With the advent of agriculture around 9000 BCE religion became based on the fertility of the soil. The Animal Master of the hunters was replaced by the nurturing Earth, called Brahman by the Aryans who settled India and Elohim by the people of Israel. The ultimate reality was not a person­al­ized god, but a transcendent mystery that could never be plumbed. Surprisingly, she doesn’t consider the sequence from animism to poly­­theism to monotheism. Neither does she speak about reincarnation in describing the Hindu and Buddhist religions.

    In chapter 2, ‘God’ the development of  Jewish religion is described, in chapter 3 ‘Reason’ Greek religion and philosophy. Then in chapter 4, ‘Faith’ she starts with the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans to describe the effect on Judaism, the origin of Christianity and of Islam, succinctly but vividly.    She treats the teach­ing of the Apologists, who tried to merge the biblical message with Greek philo­sophy in order to make it attractive to the gentiles. Faith became purely a matter of commitment and practical living. The same is true for Islam, the third of the three monotheisms.                                                                                              

    In chapter 5 ‘Silence’ she compresses twelve centuries of theological develop­ment. She devotes 6 pages to the writings of Denys the Areo­pagite, only 4 1/2 pages to Augustine and none to the four great Councils. She briefly speaks about the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, calling it “the linchpin of Christianity, the truth on which theism stands or falls.” She raises the question whether it doesn’t imply that God was responsible for evil, but without answering it. Apparently, she isn’t aware of my book “Creation and Double Chaos” (For­tress Press, 2005).

    Part I ends with chapter 6, ‘Faith and Reason’, which is mostly devoted to Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Anselm attempts to make traditional Christian teach­ing rationally coherent and thus to prove God’s existence. She finds parallels in Islam (al-Ghazzali) and Judaism. Thomas applies Aristotelian rationalism to theology, providing five ‘proofs’ of God as a Necessary (rather than ‘existing’) Being.                                                                                   

    Part II brings us the ‘Modern God’ through the advent of science, opening with the brilliant chapters 7, ‘Science and Religion’ and 8, ‘Scientific Religion’. This is followed by chapter 9, ‘Enlightenment’ leading to deism. Chapter 10, ‘Atheism’ describes both the reaction in the form of ‘evangelicalism’ and ‘pietism’, and the development of a new form of atheism in Europe (Feuerbach, Darwin, Higher Criti­cism, Nietzsche, Freud). Chapter 11, ‘Unknowing’ deals with the effects of the relativi­ty and quantum theories on religious thinking (Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) and the reaction in the form of funda­mentalism and Pentecostalism. Armstrong finds that these movements are rooted in profound fear. She reviews the Scopes trial, World War II and the holocaust, the depersonalizing of God (Heidegger, Tillich), ending with Thomas Kuhn, Polanyi, Sartre and Camus.

    This logically leads to the last chapter 12 ‘Death of God?’. After discussing the works of Harvey Cox, Thomas Altizer and Paul van Buren, she concludes: “The Death of God movement was flawed: it was essentially a white, middle-class, affluent, and – sometimes offensively – Christian theology…. But despite its limita­tions, Death of God theology was a prophetic voice calling for a critique of con­temporary idols (which included the modern idea of God) and urging a leap from familiar certainties into the unknown that was in tune with the spirit of the sixties.”

She sets this movement against the secularism and Christian and Islamic funda­men­talism of our time, as well as biological fundamentalism (Monod, Dawkins). She ends with postmodernism (Lyotard, Derrida, Vattimo, Caputo), wondering whether this will end atheism. Karen Armstrong concludes her book with an Epilo­gue in which she draws conclusions for our present-day religious thinking.

A book well-worth reading and contemplating!