Over the last 20 years or so religious historian and author Karen Armstrong has written many wonderful and engaging works. Her latest, The Case for God is one of her best. No matter what her subject matter Karen writes beautifully with respect and compassion and somehow always repeats several key messages. She is obviously a patient soul. And optimistic. Some of her themes are (and please, I do not do her justice):
- Myth and logic are two different modes of viewing the world.
- Up until the Enlightenment myth was myth and no one interpreted scripture or myth from the viewpoint of logic. Biblical and religious events happened in mythic time and space not physical time and space.
- Since the enlightenment western religions have lost their way since they have tried to appease the view that scripture and religion has to be rational and subject to proof or falsity.
- This has led to the rise of fundamentalism where scripture and religion are viewed as hard facts and any science/logic that counters that fact must be wrong. Hence creation ‘science’.
- The roots of all religions are ultimately the same; an approach to Mystery which cannot be named or fully experienced but by attempting to do so we are fulfilled and enlarged as humans, becoming more content, creative and wise.
- Religion and scripture make no sense without myth and practice. Ritual, songs, prayers and acts of love are required to understand religion not simply analysis or even faith. We need to practice.
- Compassion is the universal key to approaching the divine. Compassion takes us to the One, and this truth is found in all traditions, all religions.
Of course these are not innovations; Ms Armstrong is simply a wonderful mouthpiece for traditional views though not within any defined grouping like the Schuon traditionalists. Her books are very accessible and I hope very influential. Her ideas and presence as a religious commentator is large enough for her to be chosen recently by the Wall St Journal as a counterpoint to the head-honcho of the new atheists, Richard Dawkins himself. The two of them each wrote a short article responding to the question, “Where does evolution leave God?” The articles were reproduced last week in the Weekend Australia and can be found online here.
I read both articles very keenly and must say that Richard Dawkins really let the side down on this one. Apart from a couple of insipid paragraphs at the end of his piece, Richard does not address the actual theology most mature religious people accept. Like in his The God Delusion he refuses to bring the level of debate to that of sophisticated theology. Instead he is content to attack the literal mindedness, fundamentalistic and simplistic expressions of religion that Karen and others also decry and are trying to change. I was hoping for more, a sort of tit-for-tat back and forth between the two, but alas no.
Now following the advice of St Bob, I once spent a day online getting into the head-space of the ‘New Atheists’ as much as I could (them being folk I naturally do not understand). I revisited a number of the forums before writing this little piece, and can tell you they put the ‘ism’ in Atheism. While I am (pretty) sure that none of the starry-eyed, Christian-bashing online followers of Mr Dawkins would actually worship him, I do believe a goodly few of them would drop to their knees for something else. Talk about sycophants! It seems many new atheists are sheep-like as the average Wiccan at agape.
Now, I am prejudiced towards Ms Armstrong’s views and whilst not dropping to my knees in front of her, would gladly buy her dinner. Her views tie in a lot to my understanding of western esotericism. In various works she charts the turning away from symbolism, myth, metaphor and ritual practice by western religions from the 17th century onwards and the distortion this has created in the western understanding of God and religion. However, the western esoteric traditions never did abandon the traditional way of viewing the world; we never lost the connection. It is no coincidence that the period Ms Armstrong highlights is the same period when Masonry and other esoteric and ritual traditions sprang up as a resort and refuge for the traditional world view and practice.
A favourite line from article is this:
The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.