Authors: Karen Armstrong
ALSO BY KAREN ARMSTRONG
Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of
Life In and Out of the Convent
Beginning the World
The First Christian: St. Paul’s Impact on
Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious
and Poetic Experience
The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity’s
Creation of the Sex War in the West
Holy War: The Crusades and Their
Impact on Today’s World
The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam
Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths
In the Beginning:
A New Interpretation of Genesis
The Battle for God
Islam: A Short History
Buddha: A Penguin Life
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness
A Short History of Myth
The Great Transformation: The Beginning
of Our Religious Traditions
The Bible: A Biography
For Joan Brown Campbell
The Unknown God
The Modern God
CE TO THE PRESENT
Science and Religion
Death of God?
e are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God
be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody. “That book was really hard!” readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. “Of course it was!” I want to reply. “It was about God.” But many find this puzzling. Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it. They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not
being at all, and that we really don’t understand what we mean when we say that he is “good,” “wise,” or “intelligent.” People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that
know exactly who “he” is and what he thinks, loves, and expects. We tend to tame and domesticate God’s “otherness.” We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our queen, cure our sickness, or give us a fine day for the picnic. We remind God that he has created the world and that we are miserable sinners, as though this may have slipped his mind. Politicians quote God to justify their policies, teachers use him to keep order in the classroom, and terrorists commit atrocities in his name. We beg God to support “our” side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are, presumably, also God’s children and the object of his love and care.
There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different worldview, people have always thought about God in exactly the same way
as we do today. But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. In some ways the modern God resembles the High God of remote antiquity, a theology that was unanimously either jettisoned or radically reinterpreted because it was found to be inept. Many people in the premodern world went out of their way to show that it was very difficult indeed to speak about God.
Theology is, of course, a very wordy discipline. People have written reams and talked unstoppably about God. But some of the greatest Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines were man-made, and therefore were bound to be inadequate. They devised spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of thought and speech to help the faithful understand that the words we use to describe mundane things were simply not suitable for God. “He” was not good, divine, powerful, or intelligent in any way that we could understand. We could not even say that God “existed,” because our concept of existence was too limited. Some of the sages preferred to say that God was “Nothing” because God was not another being. You certainly could not read your scriptures literally, as if they referred to divine facts. To these theologians some of our modern ideas about God would have seemed idolatrous.
It was not just a few radical theologians who took this line. Symbolism came more naturally to people in the premodern world than it does to us today. In medieval Europe, for example, Christians were taught to see the Mass as a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The fact that they could not follow the Latin added to its mystique. Much of the Mass was recited by the priest in an undertone, and the solemn silence and liturgical drama, with its music and stylized gestures, put the congregation into a mental “space” that was separate from ordinary life. Today many are able to own a copy of the Bible or the Qur’an and have the literacy to read them, but in the past most people had an entirely different relationship with their scriptures. They listened to them, recited piecemeal, often in a foreign language and always in a heightened liturgical context. Preachers instructed them not to understand these texts in a purely literal way and suggested figurative interpretations. In the
“mystery plays” performed annually on the feast of Corpus Christi, medievals felt free to change the biblical stories, add new characters, and transpose them into a modern setting. These stories were not historical in our sense, because they were
In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them
Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two.
(“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed
to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition.
was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh.
was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to
Today we live in a society of scientific
, and myth has fallen into disrepute. In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like
, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way.
Myths may have told stories about the gods, but they were really focused on the more elusive, puzzling, and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of
. Myth has been called a primitive form of psychology. When a myth described heroes threading their way through labyrinths, descending into the underworld, or fighting monsters, these were not understood as primarily factual stories. They were designed to help people negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche, which are difficult to access but which profoundly influence our thought and behavior.
People had to enter the warren of their own minds and fight their personal demons. When Freud and Jung began to chart their scientific search for the soul, they instinctively turned to these ancient myths. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was
something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time
But a myth would not be effective if people simply “believed” in it. It was essentially a program of action. It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the “truth” of the myth a reality in your own life. The only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it. The myth of the hero, for example, which takes the same form in nearly all cultural traditions, taught people how to unlock their own heroic potential.
Later the stories of historical figures such as the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad were made to conform to this paradigm so that their followers could imitate them in the same way. Put into practice, a myth could tell us something profoundly true about our humanity. It showed us how to live more richly and intensely, how to cope with our mortality, and how creatively to endure the suffering that flesh is heir to. But if we failed to apply it to our situation, a myth would remain abstract and incredible. From a very early date, people reenacted their myths in stylized ceremonies that worked aesthetically upon participants and, like any work of art, introduced them to a deeper dimension of existence. Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.
Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally.
Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float. You may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible or sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieve these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious, logical deliberation. But somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose
herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely “feeling good.” It is what the Greeks called
, a “stepping outside” the norm.
Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline. Some people will be better at it than others, some appallingly inept, and some will miss the point entirely. But those who do not apply themselves will get nowhere at all. Religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to glide over the ice on a thin blade.