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In TWO Parts:
I. Reading Karen Armstrong's The Case for God (Stay on This Page)
II. Reading Brian Johnston's In the Realm of Inorganic Beings (Go to Second Page--click here to skip part 1)
In both parts, I drew on a book by Rick Strassman, M.D.: DMT, The Spirit Molecule, A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, and to a much lesser extent, on Carl Sagan's posthumously published and ironically titled: The Varieties of Scientific Experience.
Three things enticed me to buy and read Karen Armstrong's latest opus: The Case for God (Anchor Books 2009).
The first is the author, having read books written by her before, I expected to be informed in a sound, scholarly yet very readable way, and in these terms I was not disappointed.
The second was an endorsement by one of my other favorites, Elaine Pagels, who suggested this book was . . . “illuminating—especially for anyone reflecting on current discussions of atheism, often characterized as conflict between religion and science.” And also on this score I was not disappointed. But I was dismayed: nothing is going to change, not in the remainder of my lifetime. To me this conflict is more hopeless today than the Berlin Wall was in the 70s. We will return to this 'dismay' of mine in a few more paragraphs.
The final selling point was on the back cover: “Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind throughout history has gone in order to experience a “sacred reality.”
This was cause for elation. Why? Because Brian T. Johnston had just sent me his book In The Realm of Inorganic Beings (click on the title to go to where you can buy the book online) and asked me to read it and give my opinion on it. I said I would do so, after I finished what I was intending to review first, which was Armstrong's book.
I told Johnston that it would give me a context for his book.
So I read Armstrong's book for multiple purposes, one among which was looking for contexts that would give me some insight into Johnston's experiences.
I was very satisfied with the greater part of Armstrong's book. In one part I was disappointed, and in yet another part I was dismayed, as I already mentioned.
What part of the Armstrong book was satisfying to me? The part, spread from beginning to end, that showed convincingly that the currently common idea of a personal God is a relatively recent invention: God is being seen as a super being today, especially in fundamentalist circles. Way, way super, superior, but nevertheless a being.
Armstrong shows convincingly that from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, God was not seen as a being, instead God was seen as a concept and force that exceeded all human ability to comprehend or to describe in words. Any words used to describe God were inadequate.
I was surprised and delighted to find out that from before our common era until the 19th century all major religious traditions had at their deeper levels an esoteric God concept that was absolutely ineffable. Defining and limiting God to what could be described in words and likened to human concepts were inadequate exercises and ought not be attempted.
The Case for God that Armstrong makes is the case for a return to this ineffable God in our thinking and beliefs. Toward the end of the book she uses words from Paul Tillich, theologian, to explain this God concept (her pages 281-282):
He saw the modern God as an idolatry that human beings must leave behind.
The concept of a “personal God,” interfering with natural events, or being “an independent cause of natural events”makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.
A God who interfered with human freedom was a tyrant, not so different from the human tyrants who had wrought such havoc in recent history. A God envisaged as a person in a world of his own, an “ego” relating to a “thou,” was simply a being. Even the Supreme Being was just another being, the final item in the series. It was, Tillich insisted, an “idol,” a human construction that had become absolute. As recent history had shown, human beings were chronically predisposed to idolatry. The “idea that the human mind is a perpetual manufacturer of idols is one of the deepest things which can be said about our thinking of God,” Tillich remarked: “even orthodox theology is nothing other than idolatry.” An atheism that passionately rejected a God that had been reduced to a mere being was a religious act.
Armstrong also pleased me when she criticized the three leading authors of modern books purporting to teach the superiority of atheism: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. She suggests their cataloging of the evils done in the name of all major religions historically, and even now, is useful since it ought to help reduce militant self- righteousness. She suggests, however, that these authors are remiss in not also cataloging the good that religions have done and still do. They undeniably also do much good in the world.
She suggests they are vehemently attacking the same personal God that she is showing is not representative of the historical, deeper beliefs of the major religions, or the current belief of the more serious among those religions' believers, their theologians and their more sophisticated clergy and laypersons.
Armstrong also makes a strong case of Biblical, or scriptural inerrancy (and the corollary of Papal inerrancy) being a very modern concept. To my surprise and delight she shows that theologians in the Middle Ages made it quite clear that the Bible, since it was written to be understood by persons living in the time it was received, did not mean to teach science. Science, if it conflicted with Biblical writ and was soundly established by observation, had to be given precedence.
Scripture spoke to societies at a certain stage of development that no longer applied, hence those time- and culture-specific portions of scripture were not to be taken literally but ought to be studied only to ascertain general principles only. In this sense, some persons in that “Dark” Age were more enlightened than many moderns who now essentially worship a book.
Armstrong makes no apologies for the Church's abuses of power, such as during the Crusades and the Inquisition, which went very much against what some of the learned doctors of the Church were teaching. Of course when they vented their ire, the Church struck back, but not as vehemently or as thoroughly when it came to recognized scientists and scholars as I had supposed from my own meager readings. So this historical discussion about the nature of the Church's abuse of its own intellectuals was also very interesting to me.
One final point that Armstrong makes about the books spouting this new atheism is that they will deepen the commitment of the true believers in the modern (idolatrous) personal God, a God they believe will punish them if they do not fight a holy fight to defend His name and seek to spread belief in Him. She cites some of the militant responses to these books by true believers as cases in point.
She has a point, attack provokes counter attack. But . . . isn't her book going to also be seen as an attack on the God of the true believers? It also decries a personal God and an inerrant Bible as nonsense. Just as the three atheism-promoters do.
I dreaded Armstrong's discussion of modern physics when I got to it. I thought it might get into silly territory like so many other religious and especially new age books do. But her discussion surprised me: it was very level-headed, and it only made the point, and made it very strongly, that modern science is coming to understand that there very likely is an impassible frontier to our knowing.
There are many things we can speculate about and make hypotheses about, but the proofs may be forever elusive. Good point, quite realistic.
Armstrong makes this point in showing that the modern trend to shifting the burden for explaining the universe, and us in it, on to science, is approaching a natural dead end. Science is discovering that the race to undo uncertainty is slowing down, and the grand unifying theory of everything may forever elude human minds, mathematics, and experiments.
Keeping the research going is wonderful, it will teach us much more then we know now, but the burden of explaining who we are and why we are here cannot even begin to be approached by science. It is still the bailiwick of religion.
This reminded me very much of a similar discussion by Carl Sagan in his posthumously published book of lectures ( The Varieties of Scientific Experience, A Personal View of the Search for God (Ed. By Ann Druyan, the Penguin Press 2006). In one lecture (page 64) he spoke of the “God of the gaps:”
So as science advances, there seems to be less and less for God to do. It's a big universe, of course, so He, She, or It could be profitable employed in many places. But what has clearly been happening is that evolving before our eyes has been a God of the Gaps; that is, whatever it is we cannot explain lately is attributed to God. And then, after a while, we explain it, and so that's no longer God's realm. The theologians give that one up, and it walks over onto the science side of the duty roster.
We've seen this happen repeatedly. And so what has happened is that God is moving—if there is a real God of the Western sort, I am, of course, speaking only metaphorically—God has been evolving toward . . . a do-nothing king—who gets the universe going, established the laws of nature, and then retires and goes somewhere else. This is not far at all from the Aristotelian view of the unmoved prime mover, except that Aristotle had several dozen unmoved prime movers, and he felt that this was an argument for polytheism, something that is often overlooked today.
It just reminded me of what Sagan said is all, there is no need to analyze what he said here, except to say he has a point and that Armstrong acknowledges the same reality and points to an end to scientific arrogance and the admission of a gap that will be around for a long, long time to come.
So if I liked all that about Armstrong's book, then what is this “disappointment" and "dismay” all about?
The God concept Armstrong suggests to be the key to reuniting us as a species despite our differing religious traditions—because that God is the God at the root of all religious traditions—is disappointing to me because it gives me no hope: it is not happening. My personal view is pessimistic.
Except for this appearance of this book I see the opposite happening, a veritable Balkanization of God concepts. That is the current trend that I perceive. But isn't that reality precisely why Armstrong wrote her book? Yes, and good for her. I just don't think it will help is all. I am a pessimist.
After reading the book, I re-read the review sentence on the back of the book, the one by Susan Jane Gilman of All Things Considered (National Public Radio) that said:
A stimulating, hopeful work. After I finished it, I felt inspired, I stopped, and I looked up at the starts again. And I wondered what could be.”
That is such a tantalizing sentence! Such a hope- and wonder-filled exclamation! But when I finished the book I actually wondered how she arrived at that hope and enthusiasm? What did this revelatory insight of Gilman's have to do with this book? Did we really read the same book?
In fairness to both Armstrong and Gilman: of course we read the same book, but we certainly read it differently, came at it from different perspectives. And that is how it is with all books.!
As Pagels promised, Armstrong does a very nice job showing that the God the atheism-promoting gentlemen torpedo is not the God of historical religions, nor is it the God at the root of current main-line religions. It is the God of the fundamentalists of all persuasions who have created this super-man image: a God who involves himself in every human thought, opinion, vote and endeavor.
This personal God is a God who dictates right thought, right word, right vote, and right action. Armstrong demolished this God, as the atheists do, by showing, as previously mentioned, that this God-notion is a relatively recent construct and it is not at all the God-idea of the thoughtful throughout history, and of those today who are philosophically alive and literate.
God, Armstrong explains in convincing terms, is an ineffable concept, not a person describable in or reducible to words. No virtues that humans can think of apply to God because those very concepts and words would limit God. I am sure that Armstrong thought, at this point, that she is making the same point that Hitchens made when he titled his book “God is not great.” Hitchens was making a rather sardonic comment on the Islamic statement that “God is great,” of course, and Armstrong does not do that.
Armstrong is making the point on a more intellectual level: great or good or any other word cannot possibly be adequate as a modifier of or a description of the ineffable God. That very word places a limit on God by suggesting that God is describable using human terms that are simply greatly extrapolated. This delimits God. This is the super-human personage of the fundamentalists.
But there was also dismay. It was dismay when it came to looking for Armstrong to give me a religio-historical context for Johnston's mystically informed book.
I was dismayed by Armstrong when I arrived at her attitude toward mystics. Mystics and their revelations have greatly inspired me, I must confess. So imagine my surprise when Armstrong puts them down. Seriously.
None of my favorite mystics from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, according to Armstrong, . . .”made any significant contribution to theology.” (Page 152)
She asserts on her page 152 that these mystics were
. . . cultivating a privatized type of prayer that was devoted almost exclusively to the achievement of intense emotional states, which they imagined were an “experience” of God.
After discussing an example, on her page 153 she again generalizes:
This new “mysticism” translated the traditionally symbolic discourse of interiority into a literal exploration of observable, quantifiable psychological states, which had become an end in themselves.
Several times in these two pages she mentions the withdrawal of these mystics into themselves and their not caring about their communities or anyone else, which shows something is wrong since (excerpted out of their context from pages 153 and 154):
The traditions all insist that a mystic must integrate his spirituality healthily with the demands of ordinary life. Zen practitioners insist that meditation makes them more alert and responsive to their surroundings. . . .
Elevated feelings were never supposed to be the end of the spiritual quest: Buddhists insist that after achieving enlightenment, a man or woman must return to the marketplace and there practice compassion for all living beings. This was also true of Christian monks and nuns, who had to serve their communities; . . . .
But as the rift between spirituality and theology developed, a flood of pleasurable and consoling emotions would be seen by more and more people as a sign of God's favor.
Armstrong then goes on to cite Meister Eckhart being “uneasy about this development” (still page 154):
. . . the feeling self could not be the end of the religious quest, because when reason fulfills itself in intellectus, the “I” ends and “God” begins. We pass over into a state that is “nothing,” because it is unlike anything else in our experience. Ultimately, therefore, the intellect was as unnameable as God: . . .
There is going to be a serious misunderstanding if you are reading this without also having read the book, because it is very important to realize that Armstrong's use of the words intellectus and intellect reflects the non-modern definition she gave for these terms on her pages 120 and 121:
Intellectus was not simply the faculty of logic, calculation, and argument. In the ancient world, people saw “reason” as a hinterland, bounded on the one hand by our powers of discursive rationality (ratio) and on the other by intellectus, a kind of pure intelligence, which in India was called buddhi. So intellect was higher than reason, but without it we would not be able to reason at all. . . . There was . . . a realm in the psyche where the mind was able to reach beyond itself. That was the intellect, the mind's acies, its “cutting edge,” and scintilla(“spark”).
It is important to emphasize this pre-modern concept of an innate pure intelligence so as not to malign Eckhart's teachings with a simplistic view that he valued the intellect, as moderns understand that term, as the key to approaching God. Not even close.
One had to essentially empty this modern mind and reach to its outer edges to even get to this intellectus, this pure intelligence within us, before one could then see that God was no thing, and no one, and no person, etc.
Taking some more out of context, here is the description of God by Eckhart that Armstrong endorses and interprets on her page 155:
People who became attached to one of the privatized spiritual “ways” currently on offer were “finding 'ways,' and losing God, who in 'ways' is hidden.” The truly detached person did not want an “experience” of the divine presence; indeed, “he does not know or experience or grasp that God lives in him.” The discovery of the “intellect” should be a homecoming rather than a bizarre peak experience, since it is a Platonic recollection of a once known but since lost identity. A felt desire for God can be only an ego need, born of the images we use to fill our emptiness. Any “God” we find in this way is an idol that would actually alienate us from ourselves:
For if you love God as he is God, as he is spirit, as he is person, and as he is image—all this must go! Then how should I love him? You should love him as he is nonGod, a nonspirit, a nonperson, a nonimage, but as he is—pure, unmixed, bright “One” separated from all duality; and in that One we should sink eternally down, out of “something” into “nothing.”
Eckhart's exuberant language, which swings so enthusiastically from the affirmative to the apophatic, demonstrates that precisely because this transformation is not an emotional “experience,” it cannot be described in words.
Armstrong obviously feels strongly about this issue of a false God-experience that is brought about by mysticism so-called. On her pages 156 and 157 she cites The Cloud of Unknowing's reprimand of those who confuse emotional excitement -brought about by so-called spiritual exercises- with God. After several citations Armstrong concludes that . . . “the 'God' with whom these so-called mystics are infatuated is simply the product of their unhinged imagination.”
After reading this I was hoping that when I read Johnston's book, after this, that he would not support her assertion that typical mystics were more concerned with maintaining their alternate states of consciousness than they were with making the present world a better place for its inhabitants. Johnston, as we will see, went through a period where the former accusation would have applied. However, he was healed and became a person trying to improve the lives of others in this world by sharing his tortuous and torturous path to health and well-being today. That is my interpretation, as you will see later.
I have a significant problem with Armstrong's treatment of inner-experience-based mysticism. In my view there were exemplary mystics, like Mechthild of Magdeburg and the enigmatic Catherine who was thought to be associated with Eckhart. These mystics followed a path perhaps quite different from Eckhardt's path, but ended up exactly where Eckhart had been led, in terms of their understanding of God. Eckhardt was presumably inspired by the writings of Mechthild, who approached her spiritual path through suffering, some self-imposed, which is something I have no patience with. Seeking suffering in daily life was, frankly, a way people believed they were imitating Christ.
I am aware of and thrilled with the God concept taught by the aforementioned Catherine (Katrei in German), who went through stupendous states of supreme suffering and emotional ecstasy and, after a period of seeming so dead that some wanted to bury her, came back to life with a great pronouncement on the nature of God.
To me Catherine describes the very God-concept that Armstrong has been writing about. The source of this quote is Martin Buber's Ecstatic Confessions, (San Francisco, Harper and Row Publishers, l985), and a more elaborate discussion of her revelation and revelations of a similarly inspiring nature by other mystics is given on this website (click here to go there).
The epitome of Katrei's mystical experience was this:
She said: "I had concentrated all the faculties of my soul. When I looked into myself, I saw God in myself and everything God ever created in heaven and on earth . . . .
I have nothing to do with angels or saints or anything that was ever created. More: I have nothing to do with anything that has ever become word . . . . I am confirmed in naked divinity, in which never image nor form existed . . . . I am where I was before I was created where there is only bare God in God. In that place there are no angels or saints or choirs or heaven. Many people tell of eight heavens and nine choirs where I am that is not. You should know that all that is put into words and presented to people with images is nothing but a stimulus to God. Know that in God there is nothing but God. Know that no soul can enter into God unless it first becomes God just as it was before it was created.
You should know, that whoever contents himself with what can be put into words--God is a word, the kingdom of heaven is also a word--whoever does not want to go further with the faculties of the soul, with knowledge and love, than ever became word, ought rightfully to be called an unbeliever. What can be put into words is grasped with the lower senses or faculties of the soul, but the higher faculties of the soul are not content with this they press on, further and further, until they come before the source from which the soul flowed....
You must understand this thus: The soul is naked and bare of all things that bear names. So it stands, as one, in the One, so that it has a progression in naked divinity.... So you should know that as long as the good person lives in time, his soul has a constant progression in eternity. That is why good people cherish life.
Is this not exactly what Armstrong is suggesting God to be? Is this attitude toward life not exactly what Armstrong suggests to be the hallmark of spiritual maturity?
GO TO PART TWO, the Johnston book: In The Realm of Inorganic Beings
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