In my previous post, I referred to the recent article by Karen Armstrong in The Wall Street Journal, in which she trenchantly and convincingly attacked the traditional idea of God as a benign, all-powerful creator - the kind of loving, providential, yet all-good and all-powerful God of tradition, the benevolent Father who loves each of us and worries about the fall of every sparow (not to mention the fate of every sperm cell).
Having dismissed this notion of God, she goes on to defend God as a symbol of something else: some sort of transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that doesn't exist in the normal sense - but seems to have some kind of reality as more than a concept - and the contemplation of which (together with ritual or religious exercises) can lead us to become compassionate. It's difficult to get a fix on what this something-or-other would be like, since it is not describable or knowable, and there is some sense in which it doesn't even "exist". To me, this doesn't seem coherent. It sounds lofty, sonorous, and all that, but I can't attach any real meaning to it.
Well, maybe that just shows my cognitive limitations. However, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will have none of Armstrong's super-sophisticated God. On the Christian site crosswalk.com, he tears into her. To Mohler, Armstrong is just another kind of atheist.
I'm not sure if this is exactly right, since I don't know enough about a transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that has some kind of reality but (in some sense) doesn't "exist" to know whether it should qualify as a god of some sort. I don't quite see how it can, and it's all very baffling, and the question makes my head spin. Still, this much is clear: she is an atheist about the sort of deity that most actual Christians and other monotheists believe in, and I think it's clear that she has good reasons for that, very similar to my own. She, of course, goes further and claims that her understanding of God is the traditional one ... but that's an awfully long bow to draw.
Here's what Mohler has to say about it:
Along the way, Armstrong offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this: Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist. Then along came Sir Issac Newton and the "modern" belief that God must exist in order to be God. When Darwin came along to show "that there could be no proof for God's existence," he was doing God a favor -- allowing his survival as a mere symbol.
Yes, that seems to be Armstrong's position on the historical issue: i.e., "What is the tradition of Abrahamic theism really about?" Her position on that is wildly implausible. What were all those heresy trials really about, not to mention the wars and massacres involving those who believed in the wrong kind of God?
She makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense. Consider this: "In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had -- somehow -- brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis." So she would have us to believe that, in centuries past, cosmology was merely therapy. She simply makes the assertion and moves on. Will anyone believe this nonsense?
Well, yes, some super-sophisticated theologians will believe it, or something like it. Others will argue differently: we used to believe in a traditional sort of God, a benign, all-powerful creator, but now we all know better. No one believes in this God any more. Yeah, right.
I hate to say it, because I sense that I'd like Armstrong more than Mohler if I met them both in person, but it's Mohler who sets the record straight. The God that Armstrong rejects is the one that Christians (most of them) actually believe in and gain comfort from. It is, as Mohler says, Dawkins who best recognises what he rejects.
I almost feel sorry for Armstrong in all this. I don't consider religious people of her kind to be my enemies at all. What's more, she may be a force for good, on balance. However, she's attempting high-wire mental gymnastics that were always going to come to grief. Hers is not a plausible way to defend God ... which is not to deny that it might be a good thing for the world if her version of theism ousted more traditional forms. It might very well be a better world that way. In fact, I'd love to see religion mutate into something innocuous, such as Armstrong imagines it has been in the past and remains in its essence. I'm happy that something like her theological position is taken by lots of nice, genuinely moderate religious people - really I am.
But if she wants to argue for this position about the nature of God, or God-talk, she needs to establish its intellectual merits. It's not enough to argue, implausibly, that her view of the world represents the true, pre-Newtonian tradition. That won't wash. Instead, she needs to tell us more ("us" particularly includes all her religious colleagues around the world). Specifically, why should we actually believe that the transcendent, indescribable something-or-other to which God points is any more real than the traditional sort of benign, all-powerful creator that does the pointing?
It's not enough to think that hers is a nicer idea of God. Maybe it is. But why should we actually give any credence to it?