In April I read two books about religion. One was Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge; the other was this one:
The Case For God (Karen Armstrong)
This was a longish (330 pages), fairly dense book on the history of religion that I nevertheless really enjoyed reading. Philip K. Dick would have liked it too, I’m sure. I decided to read it after two completely unconnected friends mentioned it, and I’m really glad I did. My brain definitely feels a lot bigger.
I wanted to learn more about religion, because after reading Infinite Jest I’ve been interested in a really long time with the idea of how AA-type groups can help you cope with addiction (i.e., life in general, because aren’t we all addicts in one way or another?). In Infinite Jest, Wallace talks about the idea that you need to give yourself up or over to this concept of a “bigger picture”: it doesn’t even have to be a god or anything, it just has to be an acknowledgement that there is something out there that is bigger than you and all your petty little pains, wants and desires. I find this idea really interesting, that maybe a solution to our constant pain is recognizing that there IS a bigger picture, that there IS something larger out there than just your day-to-day “I want this, I want that.” It’s like sometimes when I’m really stressed out, I try to think about that part in “The Tree of Life” where the universe is expanding, and them I’m like, oh, OK, so now I’m here.
The part of Armstrong’s argument that I found most interesting was her contention that religion isn’t something that you have, it’s something that you do. Throughout the book she emphasizes that practical, concrete actions are essential to fulfilling religion’s purpose, which is to help us grapple with the pain and mysteriousness of life. She makes religion sound like any other practice, like yoga, or sitting down at your desk and writing in your journal, or the 12-steps of AA groups. Just like with anything, if you want to get good at it, or to understand its benefits, you need to actually DO it on a regular, committed basis. “You had to engage with a symbol imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved with it, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.” (321) She talks about how this was a lot easier in the older, premodern forms of religion, with their emphasis on rituals, sacrifices, and other concrete actions that really made you feel like you were participating in something.
Another part of Armstrong’s argument that I really liked was her emphasis on the fundamental mystery and unknowability of the figure or force that people like to call “god.” She points out how ridiculous it is when people speak of God as though it’s something that they know intimately, like they can speak of what God “wants” us to do and what God “is.” It’s like, hello? How the heck would you know that?
She also argues that this understanding of God (as a kind of giant, all-knowing, overseeing Father in the sky who intervenes directly in our affairs and gives a crap about what we’re doing) is a modern conception of God that the earliest theologians would have found very bizarre. Basically, Armstrong is a proponent for the earliest Jewish, Christian and Islamic mystics’ conception of God, in which it’s something that we’ll basically never be able to understand or put into words: “He is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” It’s an appealing Borges or Onetti-like conception of truth as ambiguous, not something we can put into words. This is why “do you believe in God?” is ultimately a pointless and useless question: how can you give a good answer to a question that is so poorly phrased?
My favorite parts of the book were the beginning and end chapters. I really enjoyed the opening chapter set in the Lascoux caves in France with their cave paintings, and her discussion of why religion might have developed and what the point of it was. One interesting thing she writes is that the cave paintings might have arose out of a sense of “guilt” that people felt for eating the animals, and so the paintings became a way of honoring them. Anything that connects nature to religious feeling is A-OK with me; I am a big fan of nature as a gateway to transcendence and deeper understanding. Armstrong also talks about how the paintings might have even developed into a ritual, a way for people to recognize that when they ate the animals, they assumed their qualities (sounds like Catholic mass, no?). This ties in to the idea that the purpose of any kind of religious feeling is to speak of or point towards human potential: what we are capable of, if we let ourselves be our most compassionate, kindest, connected-to-nature selves. So the point of religion is NOT to be like “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “do this and don’t do that,” but to instead help keep the bigger picture in mind, so that you’re not tied down or drained by your petty, day-to-day existence of pain and sorrow.
I appreciated all the comparisons of religion to art, and how they’re disciplines that arose for similar reasons, as “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life.” (8) It makes sense to me that in the same way that you can’t use scientific language or processes to explain or understand the effects of art, the same thing would apply to religion. Armstrong says that this is where the fundamentalists all get it wrong: they try to use the language of science to explain the benefits of religion, when they’re actually two radically different disciples with different purposes. She also says that it is this version of religion that all the high-profile anti-religion intellectuals rail against (Hawkins, Hutchins, etc), as opposed to the more mystical kind.
She uses two Greek terms (hearkening back to my college humanities class or AP English) to discuss this scientific vs. religious language conflict: logos vs. mythos. So basically logos is the language or science and reason, and a pragmatic form of thinking that helps us figure out how to function effectively. Mythos is the opposite, the language of religion and art, what helps us find meaning and sooth grief. She also talks about the emphasis in mythos on stepping outside of yourself, of wearing somebody else’s shoes, and then connects this with the universal idea of compassion that you find in the major religion. This made me think about an idea that comes up in yoga or Buddhism a lot, about destroying the ego, or to step outside this desperate conservation of self. This also makes me think about the benefit of looking at a painting or a photograph, or watching a play, or reading a book, or listening to a song: for that one moment, you are not yourself. You are absorbed in the work. You have stepped outside of yourself and your little brain, if only for that moment.
The end chapters talk about the history and development of the atheism movement in Europe and the United States, which I found very interesting because I basically knew nothing about it. I liked how Armstrong didn’t shy away from all the horrible evils that have come out of religion; as an ex-nun, I am sure she knows what she’s talking about and has reflected upon religion’s dark side for a long time. I also liked her discussion of modern physics, and how it’s moving more towards a language of “yeah, there are things in the universe that we can’t explain” (i.e. string theory) as opposed to this Enlightenment-era language of “we are capable of comprehending and knowing EVERYTHING.” It seems like a huge characteristic of our modern times is accepting that WE REALLY DON’T KNOW, and that things are a huge, huge mystery. I like the scientist that she quotes who says “In my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion,” and that we basically just need to be OK with living in a state of unknowing with “astonishment and delight” rather than fear. I feel like this is good advice for life in general: be OK with the mystery, be OK with not knowing what is going to happen or why things are the way there are. Again, this points back to religion’s (and art’s) fundamental purpose: NOT to believe in this or that god, but to search for transcendence, training our minds and hearts to stay fixed on the big picture, and live our lives in a way that is joyful, awake and involved, as opposed to just numbly going through the motions.
This was a really good, informative book to read and I sure did learn a lot. It got to be a bit hard going through the middle: sometimes it feels like Armstrong is getting too textbooky, citing every philosopher or theologian ever (though I’m sure she’s barely grazing the surface). But all the painstaking detail definitely makes you feel like you are going on a journey, an amusement park ride of sorts through the history of religion. I liked the Denys section, for example. I’ve already forgotten about Luther and Aquinas but I know they were really big deals. Its discussion of the importance of myth in human society and the development of the self made me want to read Bill Plotkin again, or even Joseph Campbell (I found a moth-eaten edition of Hero With A Thousand Faces in the downstairs bookshelf last night).
Some other interesting religious-related things I’ve read recently include this Salon interview with Karen Armstrong (I like it when she bitch slaps the interviewer for his “chauvinistic Western view”, LOL), and this Dan Savage segment of a This American Life episode, who basically sums up my own feeling about religion: “If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe. But I’m not that kind of person. Shit.”