Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: The Case for God (2009) by Karen Armstrong.

"All history becomes subjective."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

--Sir Winston Churchill

In other words, the scriveners of history shape it. Karen Armstrong's sweeping The Case For God illustrates this point. Despite the title, the book is not an apologetic but rather a history text. It explores the history of religion from Part I's "The Unknown God" (30,000 BCE to 1,500 CE) through Part II's "The Modern God" (1,500 CE through the present).

Along the way, Armstrong covers a staggering array of religious history. While Armstrong generally does this reportage in an accurate fashion as far as it goes (with some exceptions), one senses that the book is selecting, arranging and presenting this history with a point in mind. The point isn't to prove God's existence as the title suggests, but rather to lead one to Armstrong's particular experience of God through a religion that is "a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart." (p. xiii.)

In The Case for God, Armstrong attacks the "fundamentalism" emanating from the three major monotheistic religions, but also its "parasitic" reaction: atheism, especially the "new atheism" strain of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Her critique of the "new atheists" is especially sharp: "[I]t is difficult to see how theologians could dialogue fruitfully with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, because their theology is so rudimentary."

Nevertheless, Armstrong insightfully writes that the atheist critique is useful to theists (and hence the Church). Armstrong observes: "An informed atheist critique shall be welcomed, because it can draw our attention to inadequate or idolatrous theological thinking." (323.) She continues: "An intelligent atheistic critique could help us to rinse our minds of the more facile theology that is impending our understanding of the divine." (327.)

Armstrong's book is not immune from critique itself. Armstrong bandies about the hackneyed labels, "fundamentalist" or "fundamentalism" without really defining what she is talking about. In fact, her label is so broad that it appears it would cover Roman Catholics who might be surprised to learn they are considered "fundamentalists". For example, Armstrong states: "Christian fundamentalists take a hard line on what they regard as moral and social decency. They campaign against the teaching of evolution in public schools, are fiercely patriotic and conduct a crusade against abortion." (294). This characterization might describe or pertain to a certain political orientation of some Christians, but it does not define what Christian fundamentalism is. Indeed, people who aren't strictly "Christian fundamentalists" could be accurately described in this passage, and conversely, people who might meet the definition of "Christian fundamentalism" (by assent to certain doctrinal fundamentals) that are not so politically inclined.

Despite some excesses, this book represents an admirable amount of research and a broad, quality history of how people have viewed God over myriad centuries. It's indubitably a feast for the mind, but also the heart.

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