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2011年8月26日 星期五

Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" (4)

(Cont'd )

In the final chapter of her book, Armstrong reiterates her points. She emphasizes that God can only be reached, like music or poetry, by what she calls a "wise passiveness", something which appears to have made a "come back", through a long detour through notions of a pre-modern God, to a modernist God,and then to a post-modern God. She says that we are now rediscovering "practices, attitudes and ideals that were central to religion before the advent of the modern period" (CG 306). But this does not mean that all faiths are the same because each tradition has formulated its notions of the Sacred differently and the way they think about it will definitely affect how different people may experience God. She admits that there are important differences between the Hindu Brahman, the Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian God and the Daoist Dao. However, this does not mean that one is "right" and the others "wrong". Like the postmodernist, she thinks that "nobody can have the last word" because all faith systems have been at pains to point out that "the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts." (CG 307)

In the modern world of the West, Christians were taught when they were young during "catechism" that "God is the Supreme Spirit, who alone exists of himself and is infinite in all perfections."  She says that not only is this formula dry, abstract and boring, it is also incorrect (CG 307) because it implies that God is a "fact" and that it is possible to "define" him by words. But we are never taught at a later stage that God is not a spirit, that he has no gender, that we have no idea what we mean when we say that a "being" exists who is "infinite in all perfections." We learned about God at about the same time as we were told about Santa Claus but "while our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured, our theology remained somewhat infantile." (CG 307) It is therefore not surprising that when we attained intellectual maturity, many of us rejected the God we had inherited and denied that he existed.

One of the reasons why we have the kind of God offered to us by modernism is that during the early modern period, "the idea of God was reduced to a scientific hypothesis" whereby God became the ultimate explanation of the universe. 'Instead of symbolizing the ineffable, God was in fact reduced to a deva, a lower-case god that was a member of the cosmos with a precise function and location." (CG 307) Once scientist found alternative explanations of how the universe came about, God was rendered redundant. What is surprising is that even the church had adopted Descartes' rationalist faith that everything should be free from doubt.  God thus became a "clear", "distinct" and self-evident Idea. Had not Descartes, founder of modern philosopher, told them that the existence of God was even clearer and more obvious than one of Euclid's theorems? Did not the great Newton insist that religion should be easy?" (CG 308)

To Armstrong, many people today have forgotten that religious teaching was what the rabbis called miqra: a programme for action in which we had to engage with a symbol imaginatively and become ritually and ethically involved with it and allow it to effect a profound change in us. Only some people can work with the symbol of the modern God in this way now, backed up by ritual and compassionate, self-emptying practice, to give a transcendent meaning to their lives but not every one because "faith" has come to mean "intellectual assent to a set of purely notional doctrines that make no sense" unless practically applied. Many others are "obscurely ashamed" of their "unbelief" and feel "uncomfortably caught between two sets of extremists: religious fundamentalists, whose belligerent piety they find alienating and militant atheists calling for the wholesale extermination of religion. Here I think Armstrong is right about the plight faced by many Christians nowadays. I know many such Christians who have no resource available to them when faced with such a dilemma except to pray harder to their God to ask him to give them more "faith" in believing what they rationally find in their hearts to be unacceptable and incredible! Or else they brush their doubts aside and suppress their doubts by pretending that they do not really exist.

Armstrong thinks that idolatry "has always been one of the pitfalls of monotheism". If the chief symbol of the divine was a personalized deity, there was an inherent danger that people would imagine "him" as a larger, more powerful version of themselves, which they could use to endorse their own ideas, practices, loves and hatreds--sometimes to lethal effect." (CG 308) She argues, "There can only be one absolute, so once a finite idea, theology, nation, polity or ideology is made supreme, it is compelled to destroy anything that opposes it" e.g a particular idea of God, "creation science", "family values", "Islam" or "the Holy Land" etc.. This is idolatrous because it elevates a temporary and historically limited value to an unacceptably high level. Paul Tillich has already pointed out long ago that if we assume that a man-made idea of "God" is an adequate representation of the transcendence which it can only imperfectly gesture, a great deal of mainstream theology is also idolatrous. Atheists rightly object to this. But the tragic irony is that in doing so, they fall into exactly the same kind of intolerance they are accusing their opponents of. But some atheists are uncomfortable with this kind of militancy e.g Julian Baggini who thinks that atheism means "open-hearted commitment to truth and rational enquiry" so that "hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one's own beliefs...is antithetical to such values."   (Atheism: A Very Short Introduction 2003 106)

According to Armstrong, it was only in the early modern period that Western people fell in love with the ideal of absolute certainty that may be in fact be unattainable. Instead of relinquishing it, some tended to overcompensate by claiming certitude for beliefs and doctrines that can only be provisional. This may explain the aggressive tenor of many of modern discourse.Even when the issues debated are too complex and multifaceted for a simple solution, these discussions rarely end in a realistic Socratic aporia or an acknowledgement that the arguments of the "other" side may also have merits. In Armstrong's opinion, "we badly need to consider the nature of religion and discover where and how it goes wrong." (CG 309) However she thinks that "if dialogue lacks either compassion or kenosis, it cannot lead to truly creative insight or enlightenment." (CG 309) She says that in the past, religious truth has always developed communally and orally. Thus the Qu'ran said that religious debates should be conducted "in the most kindly manner". Experience has shown that when fundamentalists feel that they are under attack, they become even more extreme. She therefore thinks that " a scientific critique of conventional beliefs can also be helpful in revealing the limitations of the literalistic mindset that is currently blocking understanding". Thus it may be helpful for people of the faith to face up to the implications of the Darwinian vision of nature "red in tooth and claw" so that it may perhaps lead them to meditate upon the Buddhist truth that "existence is suffering (dukka)", an insight that in nearly all faiths is indispensable for enlightenment.

Armstrong argues that in the past and even more many Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars all insisted on the paramount importance of intellectual integrity and thinking for oneself so that instead of clinging nervously to the insights of the past, they expected people to be inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.  She says that not only must religion not be allowed to impede progress, it should help people embrace uncertainties of the future. She thinks, like Gould,  that there is no question of a clash between science and theology because each had a different sphere of competence.

Armstrong urges us to be aware of our own cultural mood and biases and not absolutize them. "Today we assume that because we rationalize faith and regard its truths as factual, this is how it was always done." We adopt a double standard. "The past is relativized, in terms of this or that socio-historical analysis. The present, however, remains strangely immune to relativization, The New Testament writers are seen as afflicted with a false consciousness rooted in their time, but the analyst takes the consciousness of his time as an unmixed intellectual blessing " writes sociologist Peter Berger. (A Rumor of Angels 1970 58) . We tend to assume that "modern" means "superior". To Armstrong, this may be true in such fields as mathematics, science and technology, but "it is not necessarily true of the more intuitive disciplines--especially, perhaps, theology" (CG 311).  Nowadays, "belief" no longer means "trust, commitment and engagement" but has become intellectual assent to some propositions and the words "myth" and "mythology" are now often synonymous with untruth and "mystery" no longer refers to a ritualized initiation but is routinely decried as mental laziness and incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. The word "dogma" used to mean a truth which could not be put readily into words but only understood after long immersion in ritual. As the understanding of the community deepened, dogma would change from one generation to another. Today, however, "dogma" has become "a body of opinion formulated and authoritatively stated" and we no longer understand the Greek word "theoria" as the activity "contemplation" but as a "theory", an idea in our head that has to be "proved". Modern religion has become something we think rather than something that we do and practice. (CG 312)

Armstrong thinks that now that science itself has become less determinate, it is perhaps time that we return to a theology that assert less and is more open to silence and unknowing. She suggests that "an intelligent atheistic critique could help us rinse our minds of the more facile theology that is impeding our understanding of the divine. We may find that for a while we have to go into what mystics call the dark night of the soul or the cloud of unknowing. This will not be easy for people used to getting instant information at the click of a mouse." However she thinks that it may be worth doing: "the novelty and strangeness of this negative capability could surprise us into awareness that stringent ratiocination is not the only means of acquiring knowledge." CG 313. She advises us to follow the example of some scholars: "Instead of seeking out exotic raptures, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, Rahner and Lonergan have all suggested that we should explore the normal workings of our mind and notice how frequently these propel us quite naturally into transcendence. Instead of looking for what we call God 'outside ourselves (foris) in the cosmos, we should, like Augustine, turn within and become aware of the way quite ordinary responses seque into 'otherness'. We have seen how the inherent finiitude of language was regularly exploited by teachers like Denys to make the faithful aware of the silence we encounter on the other side of speech." (CG 313-314)

God may never be known completely. She says, "as Basil explained, we can never know the ineffable ousia of God but can only glimpse its traces or effects (energeiai) in our time-bound, sense-bound world." She suggests following the practice of meditation. "It is clear that the mediation, yoga and rituals that work esthetically on a congregation have, when practised assiduously over a lifetime, a marked effect on the personality--an effect that is another form of natural theology." (CG 314) But, there is no dramatic "born again" conversion, only a slow, incremental and imperceptible transformation. Above all, she says, "the habitual practice of compassion and the Golden Rule all day and everyday, demands kenosis. The constant 'stepping outside' of our own preferences, convictions and prejudices is an ekstasis that is not a glamorous rapture but is itself the transcendence that we seek. We got to practise it before we can experience it. In similar manner, imitation of Christ may help to bring intimations of theosis (deification) .

Armstrong concludes that "the point  of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now. Religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world. Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain.They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-heartedly and justly and to inhabit every single part of their humanity. Instead of being a mere workaday cup, they wanted, as Confucius suggested, to transform themselves into a beautiful ritual vessel brimful of the sanctity that they were learning to see in life. They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that honoured the stranger, the alien, the poor and the oppressed. Of course, they often failed. But overall, they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves." Paradoxically, we are most Godly when we are most human! In the same manner that we are taught that Jesus Christ is wholly God, he is wholly man too. Is this not the true meaning of Jesus Christ's Incarnation? Is he not the embodiment of all that is best and most noble in a human being? He shows us that it is possible to be one with God even whilst we are most human.

In the very last paragraph of her book, Armstrong describes how the Buddha doing meditation under under a tree was met by a passing Brahman priest and how he was surprised by his serenity stillness and self-discipline and how his inner strength struck him reminder the latter of a great tusker elephant and how he broke into a question of whether he is a god, an angel or a spirit and the Buddha replied that he was not. The Buddha shows that it is possible for a human being to be god-like. "It was possible to live in this world of conflict and pain at peace and in harmony with one's fellow creatures, There was no point in merely believing it; you would only discover its truth if you practised his method, systematically cutting off egotism at the root. You would then live at the peak of your capacity, activate parts of the psyche that normally lies dormant, and become fully enlightened human beings" Armstrong says. 

In emphasizing a return to religion as a practice through imaginatively reliving our mythic understanding of God through rituals and contemplation and through assiduous effort to understand through experiencing God by following what Jesus urges us to do to perfect our soul and our humanity rather than to treat God as a set of intellectual propositions to be assented, I think Armstrong has her diagnostic finger on the right place where it hurts the body of Christianity. But it will take a great deal of time for modern Christians to follow her advice. Do they have the time? Will they be willing to spend the time even if they have? Even if they have, do they have the capacity for the kind of aporia, the kind of kenosis and the kind of apophatic theology that Armstrong is talking about?