The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Misquoting Religious Sources

Case for GodIn my last two posts, I summarized both Karen Armstrong’s views of religion and God and her negative view of Christian doctrines.

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.

Origen Considered

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.

Misrepresenting Islam

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.

Conclusions

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.

13 thoughts on “The Case Against Karen Armstrong: Misquoting Religious Sources

  1. Not only is she wrong, but even religious historians refute her views. The “consensus” of religious scholars is that religions all started out as literal views of God and then “progressed” into more “sophisticated” and “enlightened” views. Christianity is not immune to this. Once again, scholars have noticed that much of what the Early Christian Fathers were trying to do was de-literalize the beliefs of the common Christian to help it become a “respectable” religion. As you notice the scholars don’t think this was such a bad thing.

    Basically Karen Armstrong is trying to refute modern fundamentalists who are trying, although failing to grasp in my view the implications, to be more literal. To do this she has to reverse the process that years of scholarly research has written about. My guess is that she ignores all other research than her own. I could be wrong not having read the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised with such a divergent viewpoint from important previous works on the same subject.

  2. Agellius, thank you.

    Also, anything you can add about Aquinas’ real views compared to Armstrong’s claims would be appreciated.

    By the way, Agellius is one of the people that has convinced me that Aquinas isn’t as bad as I originally thought. (Though I’m afraid my opinion may still not be very high.) Mark D is the other. I was thinking of him when I added “A Very Short Introduction to Aquinas” to my reading list. Probably would never even bothered if I hadn’t discussed Aquinas with him. So if I end up liking Aquinas I’ll have to retract. :)

    Ivan,

    go to the original post for a discussion of Denys. I’m sorry, but I have to do series like this to get everything in. I believe Armstrong is basically accurate on Denys, so he didn’t fit into the ‘misquoting sources’ argument.

    Geoff,

    Actually, I’d only give her credit for ‘philosophy’ if we use it in the very broad sense. She is really making more of a religious argument. I think her scholarship is about as good as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. i.e. more of a religious apologetic argument.

    Jettboy,

    I think you hit the nail on the head. She has to ignore all evidence to get to her necessary conclusions.

  3. Bruce:

    I’m far from an expert on Aquinas, though I may have read more of him than you, although that’s just a guess. I agree that Aquinas believed that when we apply the same terms to God that we apply to creatures, they often apply to God in a way that is only analogically the same as that in which they apply to us. And “existence” is one of those terms. I also agree that in no way does this mean Aquinas thought God is only an analogical concept or in some sense a “non-literal being”.

    If I may interject an explanation: You say you can’t make heads or tails of Aquinas’ philosophy here. But I don’t think it’s that difficult to grasp: We exist only because God holds us in existence, as he holds all things in existence, both spiritual and material (and I realize we have different views even of those terms). In fact he holds every individual atom in existence. Therefore our existence is dependent on him, or in other words we are contingent beings, capable of either existing or not existing, as God wills. Whereas God exists necessarily, not subject to any contingency, or in other words he cannot not-exist. So this is why “existence” as applied to God and his creatures has the same meaning only analogically. No doubt I’ve missed the pertinent points of why you can’t make heads-or-tails out of him. : )

    Also, you are right that there is no way Aquinas thought all religions have “equal truth value”.

    Finally, you are right when you say, “I do not believe there is a substantial difference between the modern Catholic view of God and Aquinas’”. Though a lot of Modernist (as opposed to “modern”) theologians try to shunt him aside, Aquinas is still officially recognized by the Church as the “gold standard” of Catholic philosophy and theology — In fact they try to shunt him aside for the very reason that he is extremely specific about which statements about God are objectively true and which are not, foiling the attempts of the Modernists to re-define doctrine according to the Modernist (i.e. wishy-washy) paradigm.

  4. Agellius,

    Excellent comments!

    First, let me address this: “But I don’t think it’s that difficult to grasp: We exist only because God holds us in existence, as he holds all things in existence, both spiritual and material (and I realize we have different views even of those terms). In fact he holds every individual atom in existence.”

    Yup, that’s not that hard.

    Apparently I took Karen Armstrong as being truthful here and that wasn’t the case. She did not leave me with this impression at all. I think this is yet another case of her misrepresenting Aquinas.

    As for Armstrong’s take on Catholic theolog compared to Aquinas, I think the problem is that she implies things that she never actually says. Specifically, having made it sound like Aquinas was similar to her beliefs because you can only speak of God analogically, she then covers how the Catholic churched turned against him later. (Probably true, but probably just a specific era would be my guess.) Then, near the end of the book, she talks about her time as a Catholic nun trying to affirm certain statements about God that the Catholic Church beliefs (things like God is supreme or the like, nothing fancy) and then claims that they need to then go on to use the rest of Denys three fold process where you affirm the statement, deny the affirmation, then deny the denial and are driven to silence. She claims that this failure is a short coming in modern Catholic concept of the modern God.

    The end result is that Aquinas seems to have been against modern Catholic doctrine. But she never actually makes such a claim directly.

  5. I dunno, I’m no religious scholar, but when you consider the credentials that Karen Armstrong packs, as well as her reputation, are you sure your amateur critiques are bulletproof?

  6. I’m hardly an expert on Aquinas either, but I know his work more than well enough to know that he would likely completely disagree with Armstrong’s characterization of him here.

    However, it might be worth mentioning that Aquinas specifically denied that God is the formal or abstract being of all things:

    http://www2.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/gc1_26.htm

    Aquinas, however, does hold a number of curious propositions about God that derive from the precepts of classical theism. For example, Aquinas holds that God is his own Goodness. That is related to the idea that God doesn’t have any parts, so He can’t be separated from His attributes.

    http://www2.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/gc1_38.htm

    Both links are to passages from Summa Contra Gentiles, by Thomas Aquinas.

  7. Trevor,

    I know it seems rediculous that a celebrated authority like Armstrong could be so easily disproven by people who weren’t even trying to study the same sources. That would certainly be a massive blow to the concept of truth coming from authority. To say nothing of the damage it would do to the whole concept of looking to those that are celebrated. So I can certainly understand your skepticism.

    Still, appeal to authority isn’t the same as countering with observations of your own. Do you have any reason (other than appeal to authority) to believe the OP or the comments here have somehow misunderstood the sources ourselves and that Armstrong is actually right that these sources show a break between the ancient concept of God and the ‘modern God’ as she puts it? If so, do tell.

    Or does the OP get something factually wrong that you care to share? For example, did Origen actually believe the NT to be wholly figurative?

    If Armstrong were here, I suspect she’d respond something like this:

    Yes, you are right that Aquinas and Origen are not the same as Denys. But I never directly claimed they were. I was just showing that there is some ancient similarities to Denys.

    But the problem is that the whole back leaves you with the impression that there is this lost view of God that the advent of science killed off. But it’s not true. The real truth is that there have always been many concepts of God and there is no “modern God” as she hypothesizes. It’s not hard to find ancient sources that have at least touch points with her own view of God. It very hard to find ancient sources that wholly agree with her. It’s even harder to miss that most ancient sources mostly disagree with her.

  8. As I said, I’m not a religious scholar, so I can’t claim to know what’s accurate of her material or which of your rebuttals are solid. It’s a perception thing, but even still, I sense that you are reading her quite a bit differently than I am.

    You put words in her mouth when you claim ‘The real truth is that there have always been many concepts of God and there is no “modern God” as she hypothesizes.’ To me, the “modern God” concept was quite clear; it’s the main target of the New Atheist movement, which she meant to rebut. She obviously has a sense of diety distinct from this “modern God”, yet you try to have her insist otherwise.

    Finally, instead of just plain saying, “I disagree with her on this point”, you go further and attack her scholarship/integrity/motives, which seems uncouth and ineffective.

    That’s the kind of feeling your critiques have, I guess I’d say. I haven’t much time to make point-by-point comment on the arguments you make that feel cheap. But mainly I’m interested in seeing how other Mormons read this book, because I feel it contains important information to understand.

  9. Trevor,

    I confess, I must plead “guilty as charged” to all counts. I am writing my thoughts about Armstrong’s book on a blog where there are no expectations or standards of conduct to follow. And without a doubt I’m openly expressing my frustration at all the misrepresentations and context problems I encountered in her book. (To say nothing of the, in my opinion, intentionally misleading title and publicity campaign that made this out as specifically a response to the new atheists even though she only spends a few pages at the end on them.)

    I would hardly expect someone like yourself that liked her book to feel comfortable with my tone. (Any more than I’d expect the New Atheists to feel comfortable with the tone she takes with them in the few pages she does spend actually debunking them. And I’m glad that she didn’t say “I disagree with them on these points” and instead let them have it when it was appropriate.)

    Also, please give me credit for at least representing her point of view neutrally in two posts before I even started to criticize her. (I was so neutral that I actually got a complaint from an M* reader saying I was supporting an anti-Christian point of view when I posted her views on Jesus Christ and didn’t bother to refute them.)

    That being said, I’d encourage you to ignore my sometimes harsh tone and instead look up a few of the facts and judge for yourself. Origen is available online. Go read a bit of him and see if I’m right or not. Or read Aquinas or look up the meaning of ‘believe’ in Strong’s. Or maybe read Popper for yourself. (Up coming post about how Armstrong misrepresents his epistemology and makes it mean nearly the opposite of what it really meant.) Draw your own conclusions for yourself. It’s really not that hard. You don’t need to be a religious scholar to look up original sources like I’m suggesting. Nor do you need to be one to see that she really does misrepresent her sources at times to prop up her own world view at the expense of those she disagrees with. (Such as Christianity.)

    Maybe you’ll read the original sources and disagree with me. Maybe you’ll write your own posts criticizing my criticisms. Good on you. But I suspect that even someone like yourself that is positively disposed to the book will eventually be forced to admit that she is at least leaving out important facts at times to create the illusion of a stronger case than the facts actually warrant.

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