Wednesday, October 07, 2009

scandoulous & sturdy Western monotheism

Peter Rynning sent me this intriguing NY Times Book Review of Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God."

I agreed and disagreed with the author, Armstrong. I pretty much agreed with reviewer, Ross Douthat, though he strings you along for awhile until finally tipping his own hand at the end. . . .

Armstrong argues against a propositional theology in favor of a more experiential, mystical, practiced faith. She blames propositional, systematic theology for the decline of the Christian faith in a modern, enlightened, scientific world.

Though Armstrong is essentially arguing for a liberalized version of Christianity that denies a literal interpretation of the text in favor of a symbolic, mystical interpretation, I think she's right that faith in God is an experience, a journey and process. We have lost the mystery and unknowability of God.

But I don't think a recovery of the mystery of God and the practice of faith depends on an abandonment of doctrinal propositions and a serious reading of the Biblical text, as Armstrong suggests. Once again, its not either/or, but both/and.

Douthat is on to Armstrong and insightfully recognizes the necessity of BOTH doctrine AND mystery:

The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death. Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

I agree with that!

The life of Abraham is not less than historical narrative but a whole lot more. The scriptures tell us what took place in His encounter with God, and in so doing, they inform our own experience of God. We discover, in his story, propositional truths concerning who God is and what it means to be in a faith relationship with Him, but also just how confusing, mysterious and open a relationship with this God really is.

1 comment:

ben collins said...

Over-emphasis on a mystic nature in scripture and a de-emphasis on reality and reliability leave the door open for corroding and corrupting ideas to enter the text. Thanks for the review!
clinging to inerrancy,