Karen Armstrong is a fantastic writer that holds one’s interest while spinning out tales that seamlessly mix religion, history, science, and philosophy. She is, beyond doubt, far more educated than me on these subjects. Yet when Armstrong hit upon a subject that I knew even a little bit about, I would immediately recognize that she was often misunderstanding, misrepresenting, or misquoting her sources. This fact caused me to lose confidence that she was accurately representing her other sources.
In this post I will concentrate on the frequent misinterpretations of her religious sources.
The Modern God vs. The Ancient God
As summarized in this post the crux of Armstrong’s argument is that originally there was a non-literal view of God and scripture that she equates with belief in ‘being itself’. With the advent of science and its (in her view) false quest for certainty, this ancient (and she believes doctrinally correct) belief gave way to a ‘modern’ concept of God as “a” literal and supreme-being with the scriptural accounts being literal rather than symbolic. Therefore, Armstrong positions herself as a sort of restorer of the ancient and correct view of God after an apostasy from this ancient God.
If one’s only knowledge of this topic had come from Armstrong herself, it would have seemed an air tight case due to the narrative fallacies that she weaves for her readers. And, frankly, I am not in a position to assess the vast majority of her claims because I have no familiarity with the subjects and therefore have little choice – in most cases – but to take her at face value. So I will just touch upon the subjects that I do have some familiarity with.
Non-Literal Readings of the Bible
One of Armstrong’s main techniques is to quote ancient rabbis and theologians and to show that they did not take the Bible (or other scripture) literally. Now of course there have always been various viewpoints about religion and God over the millennia. I do not doubt that her views on a non-literal God have ancient roots. What I have doubts on is that this was somehow a primary or majority view that she claims it to be. Even if we do find some ancient theologians that match her views, does it then logically follow that the average peasant had an equally ‘sophisticated’ (in her opinion) view of God?
It seems far more likely to me that she is cherry picking sources that match her views. In fact, outside of the most ancient of religious practices (which happen to fit well into her narrative case), she never hits upon what the common people might have believed in contrast to the ‘sophisticated’ views of the theologians she picks out to quote.
And even when she does find theologians that match her views, she seems to cherry pick only the parts of their views that match her narrative case. For example, she quotes Origen, the third century Christian theologian as saying that “..it was impossible for a modern, Greek-educated Christian to read the Bible in a wholly literal manner.” She goes on to claim that the “glaring anomalies and inconsistencies in scripture forced us to look beyond the literal sense.” (p. 95)
Now I am not an expert on Origen at all. I’ve probably only read a few pages of him. But even within those few pages, I can tell you that she is wholly misrepresenting Origen. His views of non-literal scripture solely applied to the Old Testament stories. He would have been horrified to have his views reapplied (as Armstrong does) to the New Testament and to the story of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, Origen was a controversial figure for having said such things. His theological views were extraordinary at the time and included such (later considered) heresies as a pre-existence. He was extremely innovative for his time. Those that later rejected his doctrines as heresies were only a few centuries later, not the modern post-science civilizations that Armstrong claims created the literal view of God as Supreme Being.
None of this does Armstrong point out when we consider Origen.
Thomas Aquinas’ Literal God
Again, I have very little knowledge of Thomas Aquinas and basically no motivation to care about what he wrote since I believed it was bad philosophy mixed with bad religion, so I didn’t want to waste my limited moral probation on him. But even my passing acquaintance with Aquinas leaves me feeling Armstrong is drawing inappropriate parallels between her views and his.
For example, Aquinas’ view that when we speak of God ‘analogically’ does not seem to fit Armstrong’s case nearly as well as she seems to think it does.
The idea is that God is not “Good” but “Goodness.” Therefore when we speak of God as “being good” He is clearly not “good” in the same sense that some man or woman is “good.” Likewise, God isn’t “a being” but is “being.” So when we speak of God ‘existing’ we can only think of it in terms of what our minds are capable of – namely we think of God as existing in the same sense any of God’s creations do. Yet (according to Aquinas) God, not being a created thing, can’t possibly ‘exist’ in that limited sense. Therefore saying “God exists” must only be an analogy.
I confess I can make neither heads nor tails of Aquinas’ philosophy here. But I think he was quite sincere and I think it stemmed naturally from the merging of his Catholic beliefs and the best philosophical sciences of the time: namely that of Aristotle. From a modern view point we know much that neither Aristotle nor Aquinas could have possibly known, so it is unfair to judge their philosophies by modern standards.
Be that as it may, Aquinas’ views of ‘analogical’ descriptions of God do not seem to me to be even close to Armstrong’s view except when carefully taken out of their original context. Aquinas’ view that God ‘does not exist’ simply did not mean that God was in some sense ‘non-literal.’ Even if he did believe God is somehow ‘being’ I doubt his concept of that has any relationship to Armstrong’s. Outside of some similarity of word choice (once translated, of course) I do not believe Aquinas was agreeing with Armstrong.
The closest it seems to come to her views is an agreement that language is incapable of defining God. But even this similarity is undermined by the context in which Armstrong casts it. For example, she goes on to attack the Catholic view of God whereby they affirm things about God as God being the supreme-being, full of goodness, etc. She desires to position such ‘modern’ Catholic affirmations as at odds with the apophatic method that (she claims) Aquinas supported whereby we are incapable of talking about God in such terms.
But Aquinas spends considerable time talking about God. It’s pretty much all he does. The connection she is trying to make just isn’t there. And, in fact, I do not believe there is a substantial difference between the modern Catholic view of God and Aquinas’, as she tries to claim.
Consider also this: do you honestly think either Origen or Aquinas honestly believed, as Armstrong claims she does, that all religions have equal truth value due to the fact that language about God is limited and thus ‘no one can have the last word?’ I do not believe it.
Armstrong is unfairly taking the ‘analogical’ language of modern Catholics and assuming it at odds with Aquinas because she needs to build her case as a restorer of the original and true God. But, upon any level of scrutiny, the case just doesn’t fly here.
In short, I believe Armstrong simply favors a single point of view, that of Denys (assuming she isn’t misrepresenting him too), and is seeking over all of history to find anything she can to make it look like Denys’ views used to be orthodox and that religion has departed from that orthodox view since.
Another example of this is Armstrong’s misrepresentations of Islam. As I pointed out in the post summarizing her views, she claims that the Qur’an teaches that no one should be forced to accept Islam because all prophets of all religions are true and that Islamic adherents should accept the prophets of all religions. She also claims that Mohamed taught that Christians and Jews should not be forced to accept Islam because they are already true believers.
But what she fails to mention is that Islam severely limits this extra seeming ‘tolerance’ for other religions. Quite specifically, it was only limited to Judaism and Christianity, of which Islam believes was originally a true tradition that came from God until they fell away from the truth and it had to be restored through Mohamed. Other religions Islam did believe needed to convert to Islam.
Further, Islam does not consider ‘the people of the book’ (Judaism and Christianity) to be equivalent to their own religion in terms of having the true doctrines of God. Nor do they believe that Christian and Jewish scripture accurately records the ‘other true prophets of other religions.’ Only the Qur’an does that.
Within this true context, that Armstrong skips over to make her case, it’s not hard to see that the quote from the Qur’an is not supportive of her case. In fact, there really is no reasonable modern sense in which Islam accepts other religions prophets, after all the prophets they do accept of ‘other religions’ they believe to be their prophets.
If we are going to follow Armstrong’s logic to its logical conclusions, we might as well just claim that Christians also feel that all religions should indiscriminately accept prophets of not only their own religion (as contained in the New Testament) but also the prophets of the other major (monotheistic) world religions – well, except for Mohamed, of course. After all, all three of these religions all share the same prophets minus one or two. So there is really nothing at all different between the Qur’an’s teachings and the teachings of Christianity about other religions.
Based these four primary examples: Origen, Aquinas, Denys, and Mohamed only one of them – Denys – seems to be accurate. In fact, I believe this is her main approach: take Denys apophatic method as the ‘correct’ view and then cherry pick anything in history that can even be remotely made to sound similar, and then claim that all were once in agreement on the apophatic method.