Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Battle for God

I'm reading The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong now, and I thought I'd give a running commentary of my thoughts on the book. I'm reading it at work, so there'll be gaps every now and then, or she might stop saying provocative things, which would also work against my blogging idea.

Anyway, these are my comments on the introduction and pages 1-22. I don't have the page numbers to reference the introduction, since I hadn't thought about doing this till after the intro, and I didn't feel like rereading it.

In the introduction, the author states that the religious origin myths are not meant to be taken literally. How do we know what the author's intention was? This statement is delivered without any reference of any kind. Unless the author has stated elsewhere that the origin myth is solely allegorical, or what not, the assumption that it is not to be taken literally is iffy at best. Furthermore, I think that a literal origin myth is necessary for all monotheisitic religions with a personal diety (such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the subjects of the book). An eternal God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and ominpotent would not produce a story that, in effect says, "This isn't what I did, or how I did it, you'll have to figure that out on your own, but here's a nice story that will make you happy." Taking an origin myth as a myth denies the godhead considerable power and authority, something which a monotheistic faith cannot allow.

Also in the introduction, the author claims that miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea, are symbolic, in this case as a right of passage. I agree that the parting of the Red Sea is symbolic, but that does not preclude a literal event. The parting of the Red Sea can be symbolic and literal. I think the major problem she has at this point is the concept of a God who is both active and outside of time. Such a God can quite easily perform miracles, and perform them in such a way that they will be a symbol of, foreshadowing, if you will, events which are yet to come. Just because there is a symbolic meaning to a miracle does not mean it did not happen.

Finally, from the introduction, the author claims that peoples in the past had a different view of time from modern man. They saw time as fluid, containing a thread of history. Events were not then unique, but representative of some theme or other. First, how does she know? This is also without reference of any kind. Second, seeing a theme in history does not mean that they did not see it chronologically. The categories are not mutually exclusive. Third, referring to the active God in the point above, such a God could make prophetic typologies throughout history, so that history could repeat itself. Fourth, our modern view, that time is relative, is much more mystical than anything the ancients came up with. We cannot experience relative time, but our sacred symbology has deduced that it is necessary, so we believe.

Page 11-12: Ms. Armstrong claims that scriptures are quite capable of yielding multiple meanings, which is true, but she errs in using this as a supporting argument for her "non-literal interpretation" argument. Multiple meanings, once again, do not preclude a literal meaning. It can be both true and symbolic simultaneously. (Perhaps the best argument in favor of a literal interpretation is that when there are internal references, they tend to refer literally, for example, Christ in Matt 19:4-5, "Have you not read that..." or in Mark 12:6 which refers to the burning bush as a literal event.) Literal events can also be deliberately symbolized after the fact, as in Joshua 4:21, in which they build a cairn to symbolize the crossing.

Page 14 and 22: The author states that "religion is only meaningful in a liturgical context." I wonder if this has anything to do with cognitive dissonance. If one does not practice religion, how can one maintain religiousity? The "rational" mindset to which Ms. Armstrong ascribes does not require any activity. Thus a lack of activity creates no dissonance. If one is religious, how does one worship? Eliminating such practices would very quickly cut the soul out of worship, making it "unsustainable," as she terms it.

That's all for now, I need to read more to comment further.

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