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2011年8月23日 星期二

Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" (1)

For various reasons, contemporary man needs religion. Jesus said long ago, "Man does not live by bread alone". The revival of belief in God in Asia and Africa is not an illusion, although Sigmund Freud argues long ago in "The Future of an Illusion" (1927) that religion is just an illusion and a disguised longing for a father and Karl Marx that religion is the "opium of the masses" after Ludwig Feuerbach argued in "The Essence of Christianity" (1841) that "In the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature.". Do people need an illusion and a spiritual opium?  We have seen how Andrew Newberg, Eugene d'Aquili  and Vance Rause in "Why God Won't Go Away" (2001) and in Newberg's later book with Mark Robert Waldman "Born to Believe" (2006),  have laid bare the biological and physiological basis for belief in some kind of transcendental being with whom we long to be unified by showing that such belief is hard-wired into the human brain.

Notwithstanding the recent spate of militant atheisms by such authors as Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion 2006), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon 2006) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great: How Religion Poisons everything 2007), Karen Armstrong( A History of God 1993) has written a new book in defence of religion entitled "The Case for God" (2009)(CG). However, her defence is not that there is good evidence that there truly is a God of the Jews, Christians or Muslims. Rather, her case for God is based on how God had been and should now be understood by the great monotheistic religions.

To Armstrong, we are talking "far too much about God these days." and because we live in a democratic society, we assume that "the concept of God should be easy" and that "religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody." (CG 1) She says that everybody thinks that he knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality who created the world and everything in it. But not so! "It is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a being at all and we really don't know what we mean when we say that he is 'good', 'wise' or 'intelligent." (CG 1)

Although in theory, people of faith know that "God is utterly transcendent" in practice, "they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who he is and what he thinks, loves and expects" and to such extent, they have tamed and domesticated God's "otherness". (CG 1) There is another common fallacy: we assume that "though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different world view, people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today." (CG 1). To her, our religious thinking is "sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. In some ways the modern God resembles the High God of remote antiquity, a theology that was unanimously either jettisoned or radically reinterpreted because it was found to be inept." but people in the pre-modern world knew that "it was very difficult indeed to speak about God" (CG 1-2).

Although we have written and talked about God a lot, "the greatest
Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was
important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines
were man-made and therefore, were bound to be inadequate
." Because of
the impossibility of talking about God without there and then distorting that transcendental reality, the ancients have "devised
spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of
thought and speech to help the faithful understand that the words we use
to describe mundane things were simply not suitable for God.
" (CFG 2)
In fact, "God was not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way
that we could understand
".   We can't even say that God "existed" because
the way we understand the word "existence" was too limited. Some of the
sages preferred to refer to God as "Nothing
" because God was not
another being." In the same way, "we could not read our scriptures "literally" as if
they referred to "divine facts".
To some of these theologians, our
modern ideas about God would have seemed "idolatrous
". (CFG 2)

In medieval Europe, Christians were taught to regard the Mass as " a symbolic re-enactment of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.The fact that they could not follow the Latin added to its mystique. Much of the Mass was recited by the priest in an undertone and the solemn silence and liturgical drama, with its music and stylized gestures, put the congregation into a mental 'space' that was separate from ordinary life." (CG 2) In the past, people had an entirely different relationship to the scriptures: they listened to them, recited piecemeal, often in a foreign language and always in a heightened liturgical context. The preachers instructed them not to understand such texts in "a literal way" and suggested "figurative interpretations." They performed "mystery plays" every year during the feast of the Corpus Christi. Such tales were not "historical" in our sense. During such performances, the players were free to improvise. What they are supposed to emphasize and thus "re-enact" is a mythical "reality" which is beyond time.

According to Armstrong, the Greeks and the civilizations which succeeded them had two recognized ways of thinking,speaking and acquiring knowledge: mythos and logos, both of which were considered essential. Neither of them was considered superior to the other.They were not considered to be opposed to one another but were merely "different" and each "complemented" the other because each had its own competence. Logos was the "pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world" and had thus to conform accurately with external reality e.g in planning their their expedition, in organizing their community and in making weapons. "Logos was forward looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights or inventing something fresh. It was essential for the survival of our species but it could not "assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that, people turned to mythos or myth. (CG 3) However, myth has now fallen into disrepute: it is considered just "self-indulgent fantasy", something untrue. In the past, "it helped people to live creatively in this confusing world , but in a different way.". Myths might appear to be concerned with telling stories about gods, but in essence they were about "how we might face the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the scope of logos.": "When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths descending into the underworld or fighting monsters, these were not understood primarily as factual stories. They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior. People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons." To Armstrong, " a myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time." (CG 3) That is why when Freud and Jung began to explore the obscure regions of the human psyche, they instinctively turned to the study of ancient myths.

To me, Armstrong has hit upon an important insight which is well worth our careful consideration. She says: "a myth would not be effective if people simply 'believed' in it. It was essentially a program for action. It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture but it was up to you to take the next step and and make the 'truth' of the myth a reality in your own life." Thus the myth of the hero taught people how to unlock the secret of their own potentials. The stories and myths which grew around Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad should be treated the same way. "Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity. It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, how to endure the sufferings that flesh is heir to" (CG 3-4). The corollary of this is that if we fail to act on the "reality" portrayed in the relevant myths, they "remain abstract and incredible." (CG 4). Is that not why Thomas Moore advocate "re-enchanting" our everyday lives with the mystique of rituals? (Thomas Moore: The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (1996). To Armstrong, "the only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it" (CG 3) and in that regard, myth and ritual were inseparable: "Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally." (CG 4). In like manner, "religion...was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action." (CG 4) She gives some excellent examples from other spheres: "It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the Highway Code. You cannot learn to dance, paint or cook by perusing texts or recipes." Likewise, you cannot learn to play chess or to bicycle or to swim or dance or to learn any other skill except by doing it. It is a matter of practice not just theory.

Armstrong drives home her insight by stating: "Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart." (CG 4) She hits the nail on the head: "It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood, before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover its truth--or lack of it--if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action." (CG 4) We learn the truths of religion only in the practice of it. Religion is not a series of logical propositions to be affirmed or denied. It is a matter of practising a "religious way of life". If we accept this, then are the fundamentalists and the religious right not barking up the wrong tree when they spend huge amounts of resources in trying to promote "creationism" and its more sophisticated version, "intelligent design"?  Whatever the truth may be as far as the most appropriate religious strategies to be adopted for the promotion of Christianity is concerned, Armstrong thinks pragmatically that like any skill, "religion requires perseverance, hard work and discipline" and "constant, dedicated practice" and  that some will be better in doing that than others. But she is convinced that "those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all." (CG 5).

Armstrong thinks that If we persist in the practice of religion, then we will find that we will somehow achieve something that seemed initially impossible to us. We may not understand why and how we achieve it, "because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious, logical deliberation." (CG 4). Likewise, "religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to soar over the ice on a thin blade." (CG 5). Just like the practice of any skill, we may learn somehow to transcend our original capabilities and some of such practices may bring us "indescribable joy": a musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. "It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely 'feeling good'. It is what the Greeks called ekstasis, a 'stepping outside' the norm". (CG 4) Religion is to Armstrong as what she calls a "knack" acquired by constant practice. She cites two of the examples used by Zhuangzi (c 370-311 BCE) whom she describes as "one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China" in support of her contention that "it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. Just like the carpenter Bian: "When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as it is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So not too softly, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it." She gives another example used by Zhuangzi: "A hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole never missed a single one". He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it, but knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This self-forgetfulness hinted at by , Zhuangz, was an ekstasis that enabled you to 'step outside' the prism of ego and experience the divine." (CG 5). To her, people who have acquired the "knack" will discover "a transcendent dimension of life" that is "not simply an external reality 'out there' but is "identified with the deepest level of their being" variously called God, Dao, Brahman or Nirvana. But this reality cannot be explained in terms of logos. Instead of being frustrating, this imprecision will bring with it an ekstasis that lifts its practitioners beyond the constricting confines of the "self".

What Armstrong seems to be advocating is this feeling of transcendence, of religious or spiritual ekstasis. This is an ability peculiar to man. She says, "one of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seems to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence." I can't agree more. We have concepts of transcendence whose full meanings are never clear to ourselves e.g the concept of infinity, the concept of eternity, the concept of zero, the concept of the maximally great or maximally small, the concept of time. the concept of emergent properties. She cites the example of music, which she likens to religion: "Music has always been inseparable from religious expression, because, like religion at its best, music marks the 'limits of reason'. Because a territory is defined by its extremities, it follows that music must be 'definitively' rational. Music is the most corporeal of the arts: it is produced by breath, voice, horsehair, shells, guts and skins and reaches 'resonances in our bodies at levels deeper than will or consciousness' (George Steiner Real Presences 217) But it is also highly cerebral, requiring the balance of intricately complex energies and form relations, and is intimately connected with mathematics. Yet this intensely rational activity segues into transcendence."Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything." She explains it quite well. Following the poetics of the Aristotle, who thinks that tragedy has a cathartic ( emotionally cleansing) effect, Armstrong writes: " A late Beethoven quartet does not represent sorrow but elicits it in hearer and player alike; and yet it is emphatically not a sad experience. Like tragedy, it brings intense pleasure and insight. We seem to experience sadness directly in a way that transcends ego, because this is not my sadness but sorrow itself. In music, therefore, subjective and objective become one." (CG 6) Likewise, language has limits that we cannot cross. She quotes again George Steiner, "It is precisely the fact that language does have frontiers, that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so marvelously fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours. (George Steiner: Language and Silence 58-59) She continues, "Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof . It is 'brimful of meanings which will not translate into logical structures or verbal expressions (Steiner Real Presences 217) . She says, following Alan Sokal, "all art constantly aspires to the condition of music" but adds, "so too, at its best, does theology.":

Armstrong thinks that it may be difficult for a modern skeptic to accept Steiner's conclusion that "What lies beyond man's words is eloquent of God" (Steiner Language and Silence 58-59) but if so, then she thinks that that might be because the modern man has lost the capacity for experiencing life as a ritual and has lost his capacity for acting upon a mythical understanding of life. "Perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God. We have not been doing our practice and have lost the 'knack' of religion." (CG 6). But it has not always been like that. That started only in the early modern period of European history ie. 16th and 17th centuries, when people started to develop a scientific method which was thought to be the "only reliable means of attaining truth." The theologians followed suit, "As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men standing out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts of faith, revelation, mystery and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors." The whole frame of mind and spirit of religion has changed. " In particular, the meaning of the word 'belief' changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as 'believers' as though accepting orthodox dogma 'on faith' were their most important activity." (CG 7)

Armstrong thinks that this tendency to "scientify" religion is the root cause of fundamentalism."In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion." Hence the campaign for against teaching evolution in the public schools. Contrary to popular thinking, Armstrong says that "historically, atheism has rarely been a blanket denial of the sacred per se but has nearly always rejected a particular conception of the divine." (CG 7) Thus in the early days, both Christians and Muslims were called "atheists" because they did not recognize the Roman emperor as divine. "Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image": The atheism of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were "essentially a response to and dictated by the theological perception of God that had developed in Europe and the United States during the modern period."  However she thinks that the atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is "rather different" because they were directed exclusively on the concept of God developed by the Christian fundamentalists. But to her, "fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend." (CG 7) She regrets that the "new atheists" express themselves so "intemperately" because some of their criticisms are valid in that religious people have indeed committed atrocities and crimes. Another complaint she has against the "new atheists" is that they are not radical enough! She says,"Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is 'nothing' out there." (CG 8)  But such theologians did not mean to "deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence". (CG 8)

Armstrong says that she does not intend to attack anyone's "sincerely held beliefs" because they find "the symbolism of the modern God works well for them: backed up by inspiring rituals and the discipline of living in a vibrant community" which give them "a sense of transcendent meaning". To her, "all the world faiths insist that true spirituality must be expressed consistently in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other" and "if a conventional idea of God inspires empathy and respect for all others, it is doing its job." However, she is "concerned" that "many people are confused as to about the nature of religious truth, a perplexity exacerbated by the contentious nature of so much religious discussion at the moment." She hopes to bring "something new to the table" (CG 8). This is the result of her study of world religions for the past 20 years which "has opened my mind to aspects of religion as practised in other traditions that qualified the parochial and dogmatic faith of my childhood." (CG 8) She learns that "quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment. It not only makes authentic religious impossible but it also violates the Socratic rationalist tradition.". (CG 8-9)

In her book, she surveys how different religious traditions regard scripture, inspiration, creation, miracles, revelation, faith, belief and mystery and examines how the modern concept of God came about, concentrating mainly on Christianity and concentrated on one particular theme which seems to her to be helpful in our contemporary situation: "a determined and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred." (CG 9). Because we have lost sight of this important insight, this may be why "so many Western people find the concept of God so difficult today". But she does not think that this was a universal attitude, only that it was important not only within the Christian tradition but also within other monotheistic traditions and also non-theistic faith traditions. She finds that there is now "a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing...a long religious tradition that stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge" (CG 9) . I am so happy to have found a kindred soul in Armstrong, one who is able to articulate much more systematically and coherently than I can what I myself have for long believed.

Armstrong points out a fundamental error of many Christians: the idea that "religion should provide us with information" like " Is there a God? How did the world come into being?" To her, this is "a modern aberration" because "religion was never supposed to provide answers to question that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos. Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with the realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life." (CG305) Religion to her, is about transcendence. "Over the centuries, people of all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage." As she says, "scientific rationality can tell us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its remit." Religion may do that. But it will not work automatically: "it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent". (CG 305). We cannot be "saved" merely by "believing" in God, as advocated by some Christian sects. To Armstrong, "religion is a practical discipline and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle. She compares this to people coming to Socrates: "participants in a Socratic dialogue discovered how little they knew and that the meaning of even the simplest proposition eluded them. The shock of ignorance and confusion represented a conversion to the philosophic life, which could not begin until you realized that you knew nothing at all." Her approach is almost like that of Zen Buddhism! But the dialogue is never aggressive. The Socratic dialogue is always conducted with courtesy, gentleness and consideration, not malice or spite. "There is no question of forcing your interlocutor to accept your point of view; instead, each offered his opinion as a gift to the others and allowed them to alter his own perceptions". (CG 306)

To Armstrong, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all saw no opposition between reason and the transcendent. "They understood that we feel an imperative need to drive our reasoning powers to the point where they can go no further and segue into a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment. " (CG 306). Religion is never easy. Immense efforts are required of the yogins, hsychasts, Kabbalists, exegetes, rabbis, ritualists, monks, scholars, philosophers, lay people in regular liturgical observance etc. to reach a state of ekstasis, that "drives us out of ourselves". But since religion is not just a question of thinking and comprehension but a question of acting, "religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the 'idols of thought' but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood." (CG 306) Thus "aggressive logos, which seeks to master, control and kill off the opposition, cannot bring this transcendent insight. Experience proved that this was only possible if people cultivated a receptive, listening attitude, not unlike the way we approach art, music or poetry. it required kenosis, 'negative capability', 'wise passiveness' and a heart that 'watches and receives." (CG 306)

(To be cont'd)