A writer and travelling lecturer on the history of religion who wants to bridge the gaping gaps between the fundamentalisms etc., Karen Armstrong, took part in on a panel interview on Norwegian National Television (NRK) 18-3-2011. She was interviewed about her once having revoked the Roman Catholic faith after seven utterly fruitless and depressing years as a nun from age 17, returned to religious faith of a diffuse, universal kind when she discovered the fascination of Judaism and Islam, and went on to examine Hinduism, Vedanta and Buddhism.
All of that revived her faith in a transcendental divinity far, far beyond human comprehension, which has given her a sense of purpose in that she now preaches inter-faith dialogue around the globe. (Not quite the same divinity, we suppose, who had remained adamantly silent while she suffered and tried to pray to in her convent). She now propounds awe before the enigmas of existence, and a fascination with mysticism. She had pointed out that she learned about God since she was tiny, as most do, and that many persons get little further in their conception of divinity than this infantile faith. However, despite her late studies, she again expresses a similar kind of awe-faith, a strong attraction to the unexplained mystery. Yet the available objects of religious study are really only the beliefs and practices of other faiths, rituals, theologies the reported experiences of unusual states of mind… in short, only what humans have thought or done. The much-embraced mystery (God) remains occult… this is itself wound together with many wildly non-empirical assumptions about intelligence and speculations about superhuman design in the universe. and the fascination with it is a main driving force behind what is called ‘New Age spirituality’, the success of gurus and ‘spiritual seeking’ of all kinds, arising in more and more ludicrous forms.This interest in mysticism invariably leads only further into to mystification and the piling of uncertainty on uncertainties into a seething mass rather than any genuine clarification of anything. It is all too popular in this religiously highly divided world where fundamentalist terrorisms are now clashing globally in ways never possible before. Armstrong does not dwell on the inherent contradictory certainties at the basis of the “countless warring sects” (Fitzgerald in Omar Khayaam). She is after the unifying aspects, which reminds somewhat of the appeasers trying to reconcile Hitlers and Stalins. Her intentions are no doubt good, but the remedies are based on yet another kind of belief, not on knowledge, science or a pragmatical mindset. Much thought is expended in studying what faiths have in common, where a bridge might be built.
Armstrong came on strongly – rather too enthusiastically for any neutral, balanced researcher it seemed – and she launched into a polished spiel which she has no doubt perfected after countless such self-introductions. One thought at first that she was a debunker of religion, but all the anti-convent story was a preamble to establish her previous qualification as a sceptic who learned to hate religion, before she demonstrated her dialectical conversion back to her species of faith and hope that never die. She eagerly agreed with the Sami, Marie Boine, about the importance of the search for truth. Then Boine punctured her balloon somewhat by telling that a Russian film director had once said “If you see a person who is seeking the truth, follow him. But if he think he has found it, then run away as fast as you can!” Armstrong came up with a howler in her reply to a question about religious fundamentalists, saying that there were “secular fundamentalists”, naming Professor Dawkins as an example. Fundamentalism usually means maintenance in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs, including literal acceptance of creeds. To call secularism ‘fundamentalist’ is misrepresentation, a subreption and this is typical of the zeal and irrationality involved in all faith… but then irrationalism is unavoidable part and parcel of every religionist’s attitudes. Armstrong’s search for truth falls short of science and the philosophical work related to it, as shown by her off-handed rejection of Dawkins… a recognised genius whose brilliant but difficult tour de force ‘The Selfish Gene’ (one of many such) one suspects may be beyond the mind of Armstrong fully to comprehend. She would cheaply label this world-recognised scientist, who is always open to discussion (as his many very polite but penetrating TV interviews in the lion’s dens of religionists demonstrate). That blunder alone destroys any claim she may lay to intellectual integrity, reservation of judgement or balanced appraisal.
Despite her partly informed musings – as a writer in the history of religion – about the religious impulse in early mankind and how it developed, she is evidently unable to grasp the obvious fact that the idea of deities, a god etc. were part of the mythological culture which was unable in any other way to explain natural occurrences… like why it rains, what the sky is (‘heaven’), what makes things grow or not, why droughts occur, why diseases kill people, and so on ad infinitum, and that this confusion has been sustained and developed very widely, gaining an inertial momentum very difficult to overcome in a very under-educated globe. The highly abstract (and literally ‘insubstantial’) ideas of God as a transcendent Unity (and countless variants on that theme) were surely brought about step by step as the more specific beliefs and explanations (enlivened idols, angry dream-spirits and the countless sacrifices, spells, rituals were more and more discredited due to the advance of human knowledge. God became less and less corporeal, an unmoved mover, a being as evidently invisible as ever nowhere to be found by any means whatever (especially prayer), until it ends up as a nothing, which is regarded as the cause and sustainer of everything.
Looking around the web I found an excellent informative, subtle and amusing blog by someone calling himself ‘phil’ (i.e. philosopher, I’s say) where he comments on Armstrong’s (non-)conception of God most aptly, as follows:-
“Doesn’t this run the risk of vaporizing God into something too thin to grasp, even imaginatively? That’s the old knock on the “god of the philosophers.” But if you make Him too “real,” there’s another risk: you won’t like him.”
Highly recommended web log ‘Delight Springs’