Is Blind Faith in God and the Bible a Modern Invention?
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If you open Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God, expecting to find a list of mysterious cures, scientific curiosities, or certified miracles all pointing toward the physical presence of a divine influence in the world, you will be sorely disappointed. Armstrong has no interest in, and is in fact completely antithetical to, trying to prove God's existence. Despite this, her book is positioned -- both in marketing and from its opening pages -- as a direct challenge to books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. How can you make a defense of God if you've no interest in the existence of God? Quite well, actually, and if you do it as sharply as Armstrong, you can make hundreds of pages of what is basically theological analysis both entertaining and informative.
Armstrong argues for an idea very similar to the "non-overlapping magisteria" that were put forward by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (and in fact, Gould gets several nice mentions in The Case for God). She refers frequently to the idea that, in the past, people tended to break arguments into two groups for which she uses the Greek terms logos and mythos. Logos reflects practical, immediate reasoning -- how do we build that aqueduct, what can we make from this wood, which crop would grow best in that field? Mythos is more aimed at the why -- what does it mean that my friend has died, how can I recapture the joy I felt in a moment of pure experience, how can I find meaning and peace among the world's noise and violence? This sort of approach could easily fall into a gooey cheer for "being spiritual," but Armstrong is not talking about having a nice little breathing session now and then. She focuses on the 3000 year history of monotheism and the great effort that was put into building flexible, thoughtful religions, on how those religions continue to have a meaningful role in the life of millions, and how the recent history of those religions has led to unfortunate developments that are unique over those three millennia.
No civilization of the past thought it could get by without logos. Pyramids were built with extensive use of mathematics and the most advanced technology of the time. The same could be said of the Acropolis and of medieval cathedrals. When we see those past societies as ignorant and driven out of unreasoning "myths" it's because we are the oddities of history. Having acquired so much new data to feed logos over such a short time, we've become completely centered in scientific reasoning and entirely dismissive of mythos -- perversely, that's even true when we talk about fundamentalist religion. We look back on some ritual of the past and dismiss it as mindless following of tradition and superstition. You don't need to plant at midnight, or sacrifice a lamb, or ferry a statue around the town to satisfy some some dumb animal-headed deity. We search for the hint of reasoning that might be behind these rituals, and discount the idea that they served to establish meaning in lives that were just as busy, joyful, tragic, and brief as our own. We've turned "myth" into another word for fantasy, or lie. In doing so:
We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts such as faith, revelation, myth, mystery, and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors.
In particular, the concept of faith comes in for a close examination. We understand faith today as a kind of blind acceptance -- like Indiana Jones stepping off into space in his quest for the Holy Grail. Religious people cheer this kind of "faith" and many Christians tout this as the one and only qualification to be among Christ's chosen. But that's not what the word translated as "faith" meant in Biblical times. It's not even what it meant when the Bible was first translated into English.