Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review of Karen Armstrong's "A Case for God"

A Case Against The "Belief Centrism" of Fundamentalist Christianity

 (If you are not interested in reading anything about religious history, I advise you to skip this...)

        Whenever I write reviews of religious history books, I can feel this sharp pang of apprehension wracking my mind. It does not stem from my own personal fears of the subject, rather it is conditioned by our polite society's pooh-poohing of true intellectual discourse. Perhaps, my bad experience with Christianity was being subtly pressured into caving into this dogmatic refusal to ask any questions about an area of study where questions are requisite in order to comprehend the difficult abstract concepts explored by religion. Religion should never be something tangible, static, or obtuse: this same mode of religious thinking has led to some pathetic religious thinking as of late. As Karen Armstrong cleverly demonstrates in this novel, our current way of thinking of God is infantile: the woeful obsession of contemporary Christianity with standard, doubtless belief in certain unimaginative propositions of faith has sapped religion of its artistry. More importantly, it has demeaned the innovative questioners and ushered people away who do not just accept the  idolized God of crude, unimaginative thinking. Essentially, we have sculpted God into the perfect punitive idol, who is such a spiteful idea of God that I cringe to think that as a former Christian, I was pressured into believing in "him"  without any inkling of humanity.

       As history has proven, science has greatly radicalized our thinking in a good way. At the same time, the religious fear of science has also turned our way of looking at religion, according to Karen Armstrong, into a faith constructed out of unwavering belief in abstruse doctrines like the trinity, the literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth, and even a number of political issues. If you have been in a church lately, there is always one sermon that is used to eschew compassionate concerns among congregants. Rather, the preacher will often discuss hell with harrowing details, which will effectively scare the complacent followers in not being religious by being compassionate, but being egocentric by obsessively reworking their thinking to make it line up with church thinking. Essentially, religion has become less of an art in the modern age, and has turned into a way to shut off our uncontrollable minds at all costs.

     While modern-day psychology has worked wonders in helping portray the complexities of our minds, I do believe that it has truly made current religion much more neurotic than ever before. In the early twentieth century, the materialist view of our minds has caused many regimes to focus on coercing people to have "pure belief" in certain principals of the regime. This happened in China, around the time of the cultural revolution, and it happened previously in Nazi Germany. In Christianity, the fundamentalist movement helped rapidly promote this ideal of purity of belief that has tainted other denominations to varying degrees. While Christianity or any religion for that matter is not monolithic, some denominations have reduced God to some anthropomorphic fact that needs to believed thoughtlessly and unimaginatively to insure us with "Eternal Life Insurance."

      Throughout this dense book, Karen Armstrong extrapolates that modernity has made Christianity and other religions become much more literal, rather than mystical. When reading some of her other books, I stunningly realized that her insight about the way our religious thinking has become trapped in the mire of certainty is startlingly correct. Karen Armstrong tends to anger both fundamentalist Christians and some atheists because she critiques the ignorance that some atheists and fundamentalist Christians have towards the inherent complicated history of all religions. For nearly twenty years, I knew nothing about the complex history of Christianity. To my surprise, many of the New Testament scriptures were not written till approximately sixty years after Jesus reportedly died. For nearly 250 years or so, early Christians argued about the idea of the trinity, and the supposed divinity of Jesus. Conversely, Sunday School taught me a reductionist history that forcefully taught me that Christianity never had conflict of any sort. The dogma that the church indoctrinated in me was always thought to be  true and inerrant. It is no wonder that I and other inquisitive or artistic Christians have sooner or later lost our traditional faith.

      While the book itself will be ignored by fundamentalists, more inquisitive Christians should not have any problem reading it. The book requires you to think in a nonlinear fashion about religious issues. While I am an agnostic, it has greatly pressured me into not stigmatizing features of Christianity. It is not a monolithic religion, like either Islam or Judaism, it has a rich history filled with disputes and factions just like any country or even a family. These wars and complex moral issues are a natural aspect of our humanity. As "The Case for God" shows, we should learn to look for "God" through our limited caricatures of him. Interestingly, Karen Armstrong shows the history of the mystics and their apophatic method of looking for God. God should be explicated in terms that push beyond our limited understanding or language. That is why much of the Bible or any religious text for that matter is literature, rather than history; they are filled with allegorical stories and myths. As fundamentalism enshrine Biblical Literalism in the place of any true sense of a transcendent God, they have forgotten about the apparent mystery and complexity of the world around them. For nearly 300 years, no actor or director has ever quite ascertained the true Hamlet; there are dozens of interpretations of such an enigmatic figure. If we can't quite figure out "who Hamlet is?,"  "What is the true nature of Quantum physics," or "What is the "God" particle?", How can we be so certain about our ideas of God and pretend to know him better than our next door neighbor or even people in our own family. I highly recommend this book for adventurous thinkers, who are willing to crawl into wonderland to explore deep spiritual questions that are forbidden in churches, public schools, and other sterilized places.

   Why should we just "believe" in God, and  never ponder anything beyond what is orthodox or acceptable?  Madeleine L'Engle was frustrated with the same thing: "Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself."   The obsession with "belief," as Karen Armstrong demonstrates, will never cease to madden and confuse me. While some readers will undoubtedly be irked that I dare review this book on my blog space, I personally think that hiding deep questions just to satisfy people who cannot stand "gadflies" only contributes to our historic human fear of mentally venturing outside of conventional thought patterns. In the end, there are a slew of churches, denominations, and other Christians that throughout history has fought for a less restrictive, more humble form of Christianity. To those that maturely live in peace with a religious identity and doubt, I greatly respect you, and though this post might seem be a scathing criticism of certain elements of religion.Again, I think Karen Armstrong's books only help promote a more honest, intellectual religious identity. For me, I personally feel it should go beyond limited nominal categories. This book, like any of Karen Armstrong's books, come highly recommended from me!

No comments:

Post a Comment