Saturday, July 18, 2009

Karen Armstrong - Metaphysical Mistake

Religions scholar Karen Armstrong takes on fundamentalist Christianity for The Guardian UK.

Metaphysical mistake

Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion.

Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong
  •, Sunday 12 July 2009 20.00 BST
  • Article history
  • The question: Should we believe in belief?

    The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers", as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity, and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves about the metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data.

    Most other traditions prize practice above creedal orthodoxy: Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Jews and Muslims would say religion is something you do, and that you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness. All good religious teaching – including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically a summons to action. Yet instead of being taught to act creatively upon them, many modern Christians feel it is more important to "believe" them. Why?

    In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos ("reason; science") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.

    Stories of heroes descending to the underworld were not regarded as primarily factual but taught people how to negotiate the obscure regions of the psyche. In the same way, the purpose of a creation myth was therapeutic; before the modern period no sensible person ever thought it gave an accurate account of the origins of life. A cosmology was recited at times of crisis or sickness, when people needed a symbolic influx of the creative energy that had brought something out of nothing. Thus the Genesis myth, a gentle polemic against Babylonian religion, was balm to the bruised spirits of the Israelites who had been defeated and deported by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar during the sixth century BCE. Nobody was required to "believe" it; like most peoples, the Israelites had a number of other mutually-exclusive creation stories and as late as the 16th century, Jews thought nothing of making up a new creation myth that bore no relation to Genesis but spoke more directly to their tragic circumstances at that time.

    Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something "true" about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible and abstract – like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull and meaningless until you start to play.

    Religious truth is, therefore, a species of practical knowledge. Like swimming, we cannot learn it in the abstract; we have to plunge into the pool and acquire the knack by dedicated practice. Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance, and make no sense unless they are accompanied by such spiritual exercises as yoga, prayer, liturgy and a consistently compassionate lifestyle. Skilled practice in these disciplines can lead to intimations of the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. Without such dedicated practice, these concepts remain incoherent, incredible and even absurd.

    But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied. Christians bought into the scientific theology, and some embarked on the doomed venture of turning their faith's mythos into logos.

    It was during the late 17th century, as the western conception of truth became more notional, that the word "belief" changed its meaning. Previously, bileve meant "love, loyalty, commitment". It was related to the Latin libido and used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek pistis ("trust; faithfulness; involvement"). In demanding pistis, therefore, Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity: people must give everything to the poor, follow him to the end, and commit totally to the coming Kingdom.

    By the late 17th century, however, philosophers and scientists had started to use "belief" to mean an intellectual assent to a somewhat dubious proposition. We often assume "modern" means "superior", and while this is true of science and technology, our religious thinking is often undeveloped. In the past, people understood it was unwise to confuse mythos with logos, but today we read the mythoi of scripture with an unparalleled literalism, and in "creation science" we have bad science and inept religion. The question is: how can we extricate ourselves from the religious cul-de-sac we entered about 300 years ago?


    Anonymous said...

    ".. how do we extricate ourselves from the religious cul-de-sac we entered about 300 hundred years ago?"

    Good question!

    So where do we look for the answer?

    "Holy Spirit renew your wonders in our day as by a new Pentecost."
    - Pope John XXIII

    "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth."
    -Jn 16:13

    It happens. . . once upon many years ago -- from being really mad at God -- mad and unbeliving at the same time I suffered because I saw so much suffering in the world.
    "How can a loving God allow so much mysery, so many wars!?"

    Sure, I liked Jesus who seemed like the nicest man in the world. And whatever made me think God's name was "Abraham?".
    Singing at the Catholic Mass made most sense to me and I loved gazing at the serene face of Mother Mary's statue best:)

    As far as I'm concerend the best and fastest way to KNOW who the Lord is, is by having a 'Damascus' experience.
    It happened to me . . . (in 1990)
    And ever since then I had no choice but to live and breathe this Truth.

    I have a book penned by Clark H. Pinnock called Flame Of Love Theology Of The Holy Spirit which was a balm for my soul because there I saw how by Grace and the Helper/Holy Spirt it is possible to know The Light directly.

    From back cover: "It reaps a vast harvest of recent developments in theology -- trinitarian doctrine, Spirit-Christology, theosis-soterio;ogy, sacramental spirituality, charismatic renewal and interreligious dialogue, among others." - Carl E. Braaten

    At any rate, there goeth my two cents. If curious what it's like to live this 'Truth' in this post-modern world feel free to visit my bog at

    I might add that the 'Christian' God is not a jelous God and doesn't mind my writing about Kwan Yin and quote Buddhist teachings.


    william harryman said...


    How one perceives and integrates the notion of "god" depends on the developmental stage one filters such awareness through - I do not believe in an external, mythic god because my worldview doesn't see the world in that way

    for more info on this idea, see the "Who Owns God?" articles listed in the


    Anonymous said...

    Right on Bill, it all depends on the developmental stage.

    "Ideas" can take one to the very edge, but to know what REAL God-union is like is something else entirely.

    Heck, if I couldn't see the gold light aura around my body and my Heavenly Robe -- which looks exactly like a ribbon of blue light -- I would prob. to this day wonder and wonder.
    It happens.
    In my journal I made this short entry "May 94 Saw my Etheric aura!!! Electric Blue!"
    Below scratched in diffent color ink, "by August saw my golden light aura."

    Two or so weeks later, I asked my then 9 year old twin sons to see it they too could see their "blue ribbon of light" (directly next to the skin).
    One kept pocking his finger into it with "oh kool! oh kool!!"

    The other, after several silent minutes, looked at my teary-eye and asked "what is it?"

    Jesus said, "what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit."


    Anonymous said...

    Bill, I know you have no intention of posting my earlier-to-you comment. Call it "off topic" , call it whatever name you want - still it doesn't change the fact that what I shared was not at all "mythic" -- (the blue light and gold aura) and yet you urged me on to read more . . .

    I know you will not post this comment either -- but so what -- matters not to me. But since earlier I mentioned that I had a 'Damascus' experience, I can describe it even if you think I'm off my rocker. I have had doors shut in my face because of this, yet I have no choice but to be the 'Voice' which tells it like it is.
    In 1990 mu husband and I were having a very heated discussion about the meaning of Truth and Beauty. I got all worked up -- so worked up in fact, that according to him my head "lit up like the sun".
    Insted of in my face trying to just shut me up and be happy and normal, at some point he got all silent and walked to the far end of the room and sat on the far end of the sofa.
    With quick glances in my direction and a shooing-away hand gesture, he kept repeating "don't do that I can't see you".
    When the dust settled he told me "I couldn't see you, your head lit up like the sun".

    Well-hell if I had any idea what that was about, but was determined one day I would find out.
    I did.
    According to the Law of Karma I'm supposed to share stuff like that.
    I'm sick and tired, and wish I didn't have to, but yet again I'm doing it.

    Be well. I will not bother you again Bill.