As I mentioned in my last post, Karen Armstrong’s book The Case for God is not really a case for God per se, but instead a case for human spirituality and religious practice. It was written in part as a response to the ‘new atheists’ (i.e. militant atheists) attacks on religion.
Logos and Mythos
Armstrong argues that there are two sources of knowledge in the world. One is logos, which is rationality, and the other is mythos. Logos helped us with daily survival, but could not assist us with human grief or finding ultimate meaning. For ‘ultimate meaning’ humans turned to mythos or “myth” though back then the word was not used (as it is today) as a synonym for untruth. (p. xi, 325) Religion and Mythos are the human way of living “joyously” with realities for which are insoluble, such as mortality, grief, and pain. 
Myth or religion was, according to Armstrong, primarily about doing. What we today call orthopraxy was the original orthodox view of God. One must perform the rituals and practices, such as meditation or scripture study, and become skillful at them or else the mythos is forever impossible to make sense of. (p. xiii)
Armstrong argues that originally the mythical stories, as found in scripture then and now, were originally not intended to be taken literally. Instead, the ancients easily remade their myths depending on their needs. This is why, she claims, there are multiple creation accounts in Jewish tradition and (via the ancient biblical redactors) even merged into one in the Bible.
The Modern God vs. the Ancient God
Only much later, as a reaction to the emergence of the scientific worldview after the Enlightenment, did the “modern God” as a literal factual supreme-being emerge , complete with a literal and factual reading of scripture that would have shocked the ancients. This, in turn, led to the concept of ‘orthodoxy’ where religious belief and dogma became the touchstone of what it meant to be a ‘believer.’
By comparison, the ancients understood what we now call ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in a completely different way. To them it was not about holding the right opinion on a subject, but about trust, loyalty, commitment, and actual practice.  (p. xv, 74, 87)
Armstrong then spends considerable time tracing the history of religion, starting with eastern religions as her starting point. She emphasizes similarities between the later monotheistic religions compared to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Here she finds many ancient parallels. 
No One True Religion and the Apophatic Method
Of particular interest to Christian readers would be a number of Jewish and Christian theologians that emphasized that God, being infinite, was ineffable. Therefore, “nobody can have the last word” about God. (p. xvii)
She backs up this point of view quoting (from a Christian view point) Thomas Aquinas, Denys the Carthusian, Origen, and many others. From Origen she takes the idea that the Bible was not intended to be taken literally. Origen argued that “it was impossible for a modern, Greek-educated Christian to read the Bible in a wholly literal manner.” She argues that he even felt that the “glaring anomalies and inconsistencies in scripture forced us to look beyond the literal sense.” (p. 95) 
From Thomas Aquinas she takes the idea of analogical speaking about God. To Aquinas it is impossible to speak of God in any way but analogically. (i.e. by analogy.) For example, when we say God ‘exists’ we can’t mean it in any way similar to the way we use the word for any of God’s creations. Likewise, God isn’t “good” He is “goodness itself” which we can’t conceive. So any speaking of God at all is only an approximate analogical statement, not a factual truth. (p. 144, 146)
She particularly emphasizes Denys’ threefold dialectical process whereby we affirm what God is through a threefold dialectical method: affirm, deny, deny the denial. So, for example, one would first affirm that God exists and God is one then they’d pay attention to the absurdity of such statements and be “felled by the weight of the absurdity.” This leads to one denying each of the original affirmations, only to find that the denials are just as inaccurate. Finally, one denies the denial. By doing this, Denys intended that such practice would drive us to speechlessness.(126 -127) This method she calls the apophatic method, which means “speechless, wordless, or silent.” She recommends the Trinity doctrine as an example of a good religious doctrine because it forces one’s mind out or reason and into silence.
She even marshals the likes of theologians like Calvin to prove her point that the scriptures were not meant to be taken literally and therefore never to be at odds with logos or reason. 
Armstrong discusses a number of theologians (from various traditions) that accepted that one can’t speak of God at all, but only what God is not. Therefore, authentic religious discourse could not lead to clear, distinct, and empirically verified truth. (p. 21) 
“The ultimate reality was not “a” Supreme Being – an idea that was quite alien to the religious sensibilities of antiquity; it was and all encompassing, wholly transcendent reality that lay beyond neat doctrinal formulation. So religious discourse should not attempt to impart clear information about the divine but should lead to an appreciation of the limits of language and understanding. … [The ultimate]… required a carefully cultivated state of mind and the abnegation of selfishness.” (p. 26)
All of this is true because God is not a Being but Being itself. (p. 141) Therefore, it is impossible to separate God from us and from everything else. This is why “religion [is] not something tracked on to the human condition… The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.” (p. 9)  Only by returning to a concept of God that is Being Itself can we again find the truth worship of God. 
In this sense, religion is much like art. It is “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life. As meaning-seeking creatures, men and women fall very easily into despair. They have created religions and works of art to help them find value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. … [A good religious myth] may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but… [it] will tell us something valuable about the human predicament. Like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us.” (p. 8 )
Armstrong bristles as the charges from the Positivists that science is superior to art and the humanities (and also religion). Indeed, humans have always contemplated questions for which there will never be a definitive solution. 
Armstrong emphasizes throughout the need to not let scripture become a “once for all time” (p. 47) statement. She uses the story of Ezra (amongst many others) to demonstrate the need to continually reinterpret scripture by expounding on it through exegesis, making “radical revisions to the texts and traditions” we’ve inherited. (p. 47)
Armstrong has written a number of books on Islam, so she includes some interesting points about Islam. Whereas we tend to think of Muslims as fundamentalist and religiously intolerant today, she claims that historically it’s been otherwise.
She claims that:
“In one remarkable passage [of the Qur’an], God insists that Muslims accept indiscriminately the revelations of every single one of God’s messengers: Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and all the other prophets.” (p. 100-101) For this reason, Muslims believe that no one must be forced to accept Islam. “It is not God’s will that all human beings should belong to the same faith community.” (p. 101)
Armstrong emphasizes thinkers that believed religion and science to make two non-overlapping spheres of influence. The so-called “separate magisterium” argument made popular by scientists (and atheist) Stephen Jay Gould. “Religion and science were separate magisterial and should not encroach on each other’s domain.” Gould argues. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisterial do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.” (p. 303) But religion has real practical truths available to it that science does not, so we must utilize both. We must find the truths that both logos and mythos can bring to us. 
Therefore, there could be no question of a clash between science and theology, because these disciplines had different spheres of competence altogether. (p. 324)
For example, the desire for what we call God is intrinsic to human nature because which cannot bear the utter meaninglessness of the Cosmos. (paraphrasing Sarte on p. 287) 
“God may be incomprehensible, but people have the option of putting their trust in this ineffable God and affirming a meaning, even in the midst of meaninglessness.” (p. 277)
The Evils of Idolatry
Armstrong pulls no punches on what she calls “idolatry” – a term she uses many times throughout the book. To Armstrong, “idolatry” refers to any belief system that creates a projection of ourselves and worships it instead of God. Before she is done, she includes all of the following on the list: The Deuteronomists (p. 38-39), the crusaders (p. 139), the theologies of Scotus and Ockham (p. 158), John Locke (p. 198), the Nazi’s (p. 276), Descartes (p. 197), and Newton  (p. 207, 321), plus Evangelicals (p. 239)) , or anything at all that fails to show us God is beyond the grasp of the human mind. (p. 142) Indeed any concept of God that involves speaking of God as “a being and substance” located “in the universe” was suspect. (p. 225) The very concept of what she calls ‘the Modern God’ is in danger of becoming an idol (p. 291)
Armstrong makes a number of links between idolatry, belief one has more religious truth than others, and violence. The Deuteronomists, the Crusaders, and the Nazis are examples she uses of how these things can sometimes go together.  Even if physical violence isn’t the end result, often other forms of abuse result. 
Armstrong brings things full circle when she gets to the history of science. While science may have started out as a quest for certain knowledge, it was finally forced to abandon that goal.  As Popper and Kuhn have pointed out, unknowing is part of the human condition. Popper was fond of saying “we don’t know anything” (p. 267) and also pointed out that scientific conjectures have no claim on truth more so than any other belief.  Therefore science and the apophatic method end up having more in common with science than first appears (p. 266) There is no substantial gulf between science and the humanities.
In fact, Armstrong claims that science, with the advent of theories like Quantum Physics, is no longer comprehendible at all and so has become very much like religion in this regard. 
The Future of Religion: God as Symbol of Indescribable Transcendence
Armstrong (not surprisingly) seems to favor a theological point of view similar to the one expressed in this post by German theologian Schleiermacher. For example, she emphasizes the symbolic nature of God:
“The idea of God is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence and has been interpreted in many different ways over the centuries. (p. 278)”
To her, modern theology as taught by Christians and other religious concepts of the ‘modern God’ is often ‘facile’:
…the nice, moral God of liberal Jews seems to anodyne and antiseptic: it ignores life’s inherent tragedy in the hope that things will improve. … We have seen too much evil in recent years to indulge in a facile theology that says – as some have tried to say – that God knows what he is doing, that he has a secret plan that we cannot fathom, or that suffering gives men and women the opportunity to practice heroic virtue. (p. 277-278)
Instead, she favors a move to a “modern theology” that:
…must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter into the cloud of unthinking. (p. 278)
Quoting John Stuart Mills, Armstrong suggests that the future of religion will not have supernatural elements but instead concentrate on moral progress. 
This rather than any belief in the supernatural was the religion of the future. (p. 260)
However, Armstrong rejects a purely Deistic view of God and truth  and prefers Keats formulation of truth whereby beauty is truth if not always factually true.  This, then, is how we experience the Divine. Quoting Tillich, she suggests that we experience the divine in our absolute commitment to ultimate truth, love, beauty, justice, and compassion – even if it requires the sacrifice of our own life. (p. 283) As Rahner advocates, through religious concepts such as the (often Buddhist) idea of “mindfulness” we can struggle to make sense of the world by constantly going beyond ourselves in our search for understanding (p. 283) testing the limits of language to describe the ineffable mysteries of life. 
Liberals, Fundamentalists, and the New Atheists
Armstrong is equally harsh on Liberal Theologians of the past for having – in her view – created the problems we experience today with Fundamentals. By extension, to blames the intolerance of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ for exacerbating the problem today.
Armstrong turns to recent history and claims that political and theological liberals were in fact the first one to start the ‘war’ between conservative and liberal theology today.
In 1917, during a particularly dark period of the war, liberal theologians in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago launched a media offensive against Moody Bible Institute on the other side of town. (p. 271)
Armstrong says that these liberal theologians accused the conservative theologians of working with the Germans and calling their theology a ‘mental aberration.’ (p. 271). She points to the Scopes trials as another example of liberals (political in this case) creating the fundamentalist problems we have today. In the Scopes-Monkey trials she claims the liberal press used every opportunity to ridicule the Christian fundamentalists belief in creationism and that only after this incident did things like creation science come into existence due to the push back of the humiliated fundamentalists who were, in fact, under attack by an implacable enemy out to destroy them. Evolution became a symbol of their humiliation. (p. 274-275)
Armstrong claims that attacks on fundamentalists of all stripes just hardens them more and is concerned for the ‘New Atheist’ intolerance (and mockery) towards them that, she believes, will only make things worse.
Armstrong suggests that the New Atheists are a misguided reaction against the fundamentalists that is just as narrow as they are. They seek to define all religion as fundamentalists never even realizing that the ‘modern God’ is but an idol and corrupted version of the original ancient concept of God that is not in any way at odds with their science.
She also takes exception to the New Atheists for much the same reason she takes exception to the so-called “Death of God” movement that failed back in the 1970s. Such movements are primarily only feasible to “white, middle-class, affluent…” (p. 291) individuals or (as with the ‘New Atheists’ like Dawkins or Harris) rare elite individuals who “do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism [in their views] on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work..” 
Given her belief that there are some things entirely outside the reach of science, she also rejects New Atheism’s view that any sort of superstitious belief is somehow morally wrong.  What the New Atheists are missed is that because there is so much that cannot be proven, there will always be an element of what religious people can “faith” in science as well. (p. 286)
She links the failure of modern science to find certainty, the failure of ‘The Modern God’ to prove God and the failure of the New Atheists to see that they don’t have all the answers. Instead, she recommends:
“Today, when science itself is becoming less determinate, it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing.” (p. 326)
Please note that I made the notes extensive in part to document quotes and concepts that I’ll find important so that In can reference them later.
 Armstrong on the value of Mythos over Logos:
Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos. Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly as compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage. (p. 318)
 Armstong’s Definition of The Modern God: “…conceived as powerful creator, first cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable – is a recent phenomenon. It was born in a more optimistic era than our own and reflects the firm expectation that scientific rationalilty could bring the apparently inexplicable aspects of life under the control of reason. The God was indeed… a projection of humanity at a time when human beings were achieving unprecedented control over their environment.” (p. 278)
 The word translated in the Bible as ‘belief’ actually is a Greek word for trust, loyalty, and commitment. Not a word that implies holding a certain opinion.
 One examples she repeats many times is the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness.’ As I mentioned in this post on Tibetan Buddhism the Tibetan Buddhists believe that there are no solid objects or concepts, including the self. This is somewhat similar to the ideas of Heraclitus who taught that you can never step into the same river twice. As well see in a future post, Armstrong sees strong parallels between this Hindu/Buddhist concept and the idea that Jesus ‘self-emptied’ Himself as taught by Paul in Philippians 2:6–11.
 Scripture is not literal: Elsewhere, Armstrong uses even stronger language by quoting Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein said that religious language was essentially symbolic; it was “disgusting” if interpreted literally, but symbolically it had the power to manifest a transcendent reality in the same way as the short stories of Tolstoy. (p. 279)
Back in my Mormon Matters days, John Hamer also expressed to me several times the idea to me that scripture was not even supposed to be taken literally. This is discussed in this post <link>
To here, scriptural literalism is a “misplaced loyalty to the past” (p. 92) that fails to address that “truth is constantly changing” (p. 93). She summarizes the correct view of scripture – based on exegesis, personal revelation, and personal application — as “What is Torah? It is the interpretation of Torah.” (p. 93)
 Example of Calvin supporting science over religion: “Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; … He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” (p. 179)
 We can only speak of God as what God is not: This is the same as my concept of ‘negatively defining’ terms or in other words only defining things in terms of what they are not rather than what they are. Armstrong quotes Tennyson as an example of this. (p. 244)
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
 Being itself. This approving quote of Woodsworth does a good job of capturing Armstrong’s feelings about how “Being itself” is the proper concept to be worshipped.
A presence that disturbs me with joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that imples
All thinking things, all objects of all thought
And rolls through all things. (p. 229)
 Finding the true worship of God through Being Itself: (Here Armstrong paraphrases Tillich’s view.)
For centuries, symbols such as “God” or “providence” enabled people to look through the ebb and flow of temporal life to glimpse Being itself. This helped them to endure the terror of life and the horror of death, but now, Tillich argued, many had forgotten how to interpret the old symbolism and regarded it as purely factually. Hence, these symbols had become opaque; transcendence no longer shone throughthem. (p. 282)
 Armstrong on Positivists and questions without solutions that can only be addressed by art and religion, not science “Their narrow definition of truth entailed a wholesale dismissal of the humanities and a refusal to entertain any rival view. Yet human beings have always pondered questions that are not capable of definitive solutions: the contemplation of beauty, morality, and suffering has been an essential part of human experience, and to many it seems not only arrogant but unrealistic to dismiss it out of hand.” (p. 269)
 Utter meaninglessness of the Cosmos: She goes on to say, “Scientific rationality… cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis [of cancer], nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its competence.” (p. 318)
 An example of the truths of Mythos “A scientists will first form a theory and then seek to prove it experimentally; religion works the other way around, and its insights come from practical experience. Where science is concerned with facts, religious truth is symbolic and its symbols will vary according to context; they will change as society changes, and the reason for these changes must be understood. Like arts, religion is transformative.” (p. 218) Through the book, Armstrong gives many examples of how religion changes as the needs of humans change. For example, certain ancient agrarian societies based their worship around hunting and then later changes their religion entirely to be based around the land and crop growing, etc.
 Newton as Idol Worshipper – An example of her anti Newton, Bentley, and Clarke stance: “In reducing God to a scientific explanation, the scientists and theologians of the seventeenth century were turning God into an idol, a mere human projection. Where Basil, Augustine, and Thomas had insisted the natural world could tell us nothing about God [this is a key point she makes many times], Newton, Bentley, and Clarke argued that nature could tell us everything we needed to know about the divine. God was no longer transcendent, no longer beyond the reach of language and concepts.” (p. 208)
 See p. 28-39 for an extended example of how she believes the Deutoronomists came to believe that they had the only symbol for the divine and this inevitably led to idolatry and violence as they came to believe all points of view about God not equivalent to theirs must be false. The Deutoronomists are the supposed Old Testament sect from the time of Ezra that are generally given credit for the great reforms described in the Bible. They are also believed to have written Deuteronomy as a reimagining of the Torah to fit their current beliefs.
 Other forms of abuse from believing one has more religious truth than others: Armstrong uses the story of Horace Bushnell being denounced for being a heretic for saying fixed forms of dogma leads to error. As is obvious from the rest of Armstrong’s arguments, in her view Bushnell was being denounced for what used to be common place and orthodox doctrine. She goes on to say that “Western Christians had become addicted to scientific proof and were convinced that if God was not an empirically demonstrable fact, there was no sense in which religion could be true.” (p. 245)
 Science’s quests for certain knowledge: Armstrong points out that the Socratatic method, learning that you know nothing, dates back obviously to Socrates. It is modern science that, in Armstrong’s view, mistakenly started on a road to certain knowledge and accidently brought religions along for the ride too. (p. 318-319)
 Popper claimed that scientific conjectures have no claim on truth more so than any other belief – [Popper believed that science] moved forward when scientists came up with bold, imaginative guesses that could never be perfectly verified and were no more reliable than any other “belief,” because testing could show only that a hypothesis was not false. (p. 267)
You’ll have to wait for my criticisms of Armstrong to properly understand what this quote actually meant as I’m not to criticize her in this post.
 On science no longer being comprehendible. Armstrong claims that… “Even physicists did not believe that the equations of quantum theory described what was actually there; these mathematical abstractions could not be put into words, and our knowledge was confined to symbols that were mere shadows of an indescribable reality. Unknowing seemed built into the human condition.” (p. 265)
Given examples like this, Armstrong concludes that Percy Bridgeman is correct: “We have reached the limit of the great pioneers of science, the vision, namely, that we live in a sympathetic world in that it was comprehensible to our minds.” (p. 266) Armstrong thus concludes that “Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians.” (p. 266)
 Quoting John Stuart Mills on the future of religion:
The task of this generation was to promote “the very slow and often almost insensible progress by which good is gradually being ground from evil.”
To do something during life, on even the humblest scale if nothing more is within reach, towards bringing this consummation ever so little nearer, is the most animating and invigorating thought which can inspire a human nature.
 She quotes Pascal to explain her rejection of a purely Deistic view of God, claiming that a God who was merely “the author of mathematical truths and of the order of the elements” could bring no light to the darkness and pain of human existence. It would only cause people to fall into atheism. (p. 199)
 Keats on Beauty and Truth: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – what the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in the Sublime creative of essential Beauty.” (p. 231)
 Limits of language: As noted, Armstrong seems a connection between religions testing the limits of language and poets doing so. She uses Keats use of the term “Negative Capability” to describe the ekstatic attitude that was essential to poetic insight.
It occurred “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Instead of seeking to control the world by aggressive reasoning, Keats was ready to plunge into the dark night of unknowing. (p. 231)
 Armstrong’s harsh assessment of the New Atheists:
Unlike Feurebach, Marx, Ingersoll, or Mill, these new atheists show little concern about poverty, injustice, and humiliation that have inspired many of the atrocities they deplore; they show no yearning for a better world. Nor, like Nietzsche, Sarte, or Camus, do they compel their readers to face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work. (p. 307)
 She summarizes this false view as: “Everybody must stop believing in anything that cannot be verified by the empirical methods of science.” (p. 305), she quotes William Clifford’s point of view that “belief without verification [is] offensive not only intellectually but morally” wrong. (p. 253). His view is that if you could accept superstition you could accept anything. Therefore you should never accept any opinion without sufficient evidence. Clifford’s views, and the deep fallacies in them, deserve a post all their own. Needless to say, Armstrong rejects this point of view entirely and agrees with Kuhn that science is far more like the humanities than Clifford or the new atheists believe. (p. 284-285)
She summarizes this (in her view) false view as: “Everybody must stop believing in anything that cannot be verified by the empirical methods of science.” (p. 305)