Sunday, September 20, 2009

The strange case of Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong (b. 1944) is a British scholar who has been widely acclaimed for her eirenic studies of the Abrahamic religions. A former Catholic nun, she improbably maintains that "[a]ll the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences." Ostensibly they all share a commitment to compassion, as expressed by way of the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” Her claims of the universality of this precept have been disputed.

Karen Armstrong has published at least twenty-two books. Admired in many quarters for her “inclusive” approach, she has received many awards and honors; for these, see the her entry in Wikopedia.

Since 9/11 she has been a popular speaker and writer on the subject of Islam. In 1999 the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave Armstrong an award for "media fairness.” Without any training in the field, she has been acclaimed for promoting a "more objective" view of Islam to a wide public in Europe and North America. In reality she offers a bland, anodyne image of a humanistic Islam, shorn of the harsh elements of intolerance and violence that are undeniably present in the Qur’an, the hadith traditions, and in the historic expansion of the faith. In devising this construction she starts from the received view, taking no notice of the new scholarship that has cast doubt on much of the traditional wisdom. From this material she selects the components needed to fit her sanitized image of Islam.

The historian Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London, characterizes Armstrong's biography of Muhammad as "revisionist" and inaccurate. He calls her treatment of the controversial issue of the Banu Qurayza tribe in her book "Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time" "a travesty of the truth."

In one of her columns in the British newspaper The Guardian, Armstrong argues that in the present situation it is important to understand our adversaries. Fair enough. Then, however, she turns her principle on its head by insisting that Islamic terrorism must not be referred to as such. “Jihad,” we learn, “is a cherished spiritual value that, for most Muslims, has no connection with violence.” How reassuring.

Yet as David Thompson has noted “[t]he Muslims who do commit acts of terrorism do so, by their own account, because of what they perceive as core Islamic teachings. The names they give themselves--jihadist, mujahedin, shahid--have no meaning outside of an Islamic context. But Armstrong would have us ignore what terrorists repeatedly tell us about themselves and their motives.”

Armstrong asserts that “until recently, no Muslim thinker had ever claimed [violent jihad] was a central tenet of Islam.” This statement is staggering. In fact contemporary jihadists draw upon theological traditions reaching back to Muhammad’s own time. In his famous book “The Muqadimmah,” the fifteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun endorsed the findings of five centuries of prior Sunni theology regarding jihad: “[i]n the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the… mission to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force … Islam is under obligation to gain power over other nations.” Here Ibn Khaldun simply concurs with the deliverances of the ulama, the religious authorities, for as one law manual states, “Islamic holy war against followers of other religions, such as Jews, is required unless they convert to Islam.”

As a military leader, it was inevitable that Muhammed would himself conceive his task as one of expansion by force. In fact Islam is the only major religion that has been spread primarily by conquest. In his book “Legacy of Islam,” Andrew Bostom has reviewed the inception and progress of this tendency. First there were the jihad campaigns of religious “cleansing” throughout the Arab Peninsula. Particularly notable were the five centuries of jihad campaigns in India, during which tens of millions of Hindus and Buddhists were slaughtered or enslaved to further Islamic influence, not to mention similar campaigns in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Armenia, North Africa, Spain, and the Balkans. All these violent endeavors are thoroughly documented by Muslim sources themselves.

In another one of her Guardian columns, Armstrong claims that, “until the 20th century, anti-Semitism was not part of Islamic culture,” insisting that anti-Semitism ranks as a purely Western invention. To be sure, medieval Christianity was a major incubator of anti-Semitism. However, it also occurred in classical antiquity and throughout the history of Islam, beginning with several dismal episodes recorded in the Qur'an itself.

Here Armstrong is playing to a stereotype rampant among the politically correct. In this view, the evil imperialist West is boundlessly capable of spreading corruption wherever it goes. By contrast, the Third World is inherently virtuous, even though, when one looks more closely, this accolade is gained only at the price of its being depicted as passive, unchanging, and devoid of agency. In short, this purported gain in understanding is reached only by donning the otherwise forbidden glasses of Orientalism.

As I suggested at the outset, Armstrong has never considered whitewashing Islam as her sole task. She has set herself up as some kind of ultimate authority on religion itself.

On September 12, the Wall Street Journal published a pair of commissioned articles by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins, who were asked to respond independently to the question "Where does evolution leave God?"

At the start of her piece Armstrong concedes that evolution “has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.”

Curiously enough, this process may offer gain as well as pain. Armstrong maintains that until recent centuries the Abrahamic faiths had generally understood religion merely as a matter of behavior and feeling. “[M]any of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.”

Somehow, she avers, towards the end of the 17th century this marvelous intuitive understanding got lost through an unfortunate overemphasis on “hard fact.” That would be sad--if true. Here she simply expunges centuries of strenuous medieval effort to prove the factual existence of God, beginning with Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109), who originated the ontological argument. Surely an ex-nun should know better than to broadcast such fibs. Still, she obstinately holds that only at the end of the 17th century did It became necessary to prove the objective existence of God. Her only witnesses for this bizarre claim seem to be Sir Isaac Newton and the ubiquitous William Paley.

But there was more to come, for in the 19th century “Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence.” This claim is debatable.

Armstrong cannot leave it at that, and so she swings into high gear with one of her infallible pronunciamentos. “Symbolism was essential to premodern religion, because it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality—God, Tao, Brahman or Nirvana—analogically, since it lay beyond the reach of words. Jews and Christians both developed audaciously innovative and figurative methods of reading the Bible, and every statement of the Qu’ran [sic] is called an ayah ('parable'). St Augustine (354-430), a major authority for both Catholics and Protestants, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted reputable science, it must be interpreted allegorically.” This last assertion is untrue, for like most of his patristic colleagues Augustine required that in every instance the Bible must be interpreted literally as well as allegorically. The allegorical reading supplements the literal one, it does not supplant it.

Then comes another dubious generalization. “Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos ("reason") was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.” Armstrong speaks of “most cultures,” but she cites only the ancient Greeks. Yet the ancient Egyptians, to note just one example, made no distinction between mythos and logos.

Can she top what she has done so far? Yes, she can, for now comes a true whopper. “In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis. Some cosmologies taught people how to unlock their own creativity, others made them aware of the struggle required to maintain social and political order.” This is nonsense. People studied cosmology because among other things observation of the heavenly bodies taught them when to plant crops.

The value of religion, it seems is “to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace.” Religion, we learn, is “a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder.” Well, I taught the history of art for many years and I am certain that it is not like religion.

Here is how she concludes her recital. “But what of the pain and waste that Darwin unveiled? All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth (‘Existence is suffering’), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God."

Nirvana--that is to say, extinction--is God? Isn’t that what Dawkins has been telling us all along, that God is nonexistent?

In his own Wall Street Journal piece, commenting on views like Armstrong’s, Dawkins pertinently asks: “Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain . . .

“Now [Dawkins goes on], there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: ‘Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism.’

“Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist.”


Just now Karen Armstrong has published a kind of summation of her views, “The Case for God: What Religion Really Means.” At present this book is only available in England, so that I know it only through notices, such as the incisive review by Simon Blackburn.

The review, which appeared in The Guardian on July 4, 2009, bears the heading “All quiet on the God front.” Perhaps it should have been entitled “Nothing will come of nothing.” Here is Blackburn.

“. . . Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.
“This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail. This is Armstrong's principal target. With the scientific triumphs of the 17th century, religion stopped being a practice and started to become a theory--in particular the theory of the divine architect. This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is only this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern "militant" atheists. So Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris have chosen a straw man as a target. Real religion is serenely immune to their discovery that it is silly to talk of a divine architect.
“So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the ‘apophatic’ tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words. Armstrong firmly recommends silence, having written at least 15 books on the topic. Words such as "God" have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression. The right kind of silence, of course, not that of the pothead or inebriate. The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem ‘Jabberwocky’: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are." . . .
“Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?
“The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding--only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth. But why should we accept that? Imagine that I come out of the art gallery or other trance with a beatific smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself, and feel better. Perhaps I give a coin to the beggar I ignored on the way in. Even if I do so, there is no reason to describe the improvement in terms of my having understood anything. If I feel more generous, well and good, but the proof of that pudding is not my beatific smile but how I behave. As Wittgenstein, whose views on religion Armstrong thoroughly endorses, also said, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. You can feel good without being good, and be good without stretching your understanding beyond words. Her experience of ‘Jabberwocky’ may have improved Alice.
“Silence is just that. It is a kind of lowest common denominator of the human mind. The machine is idling. Which direction it then goes after a period of idling is a highly unpredictable matter. As David Hume put it, in human nature there is ‘some particle of the dove, mixed in with the wolf and the serpent.’ So we can expect that some directions will be better and others worse. And that is what, alas, we always find, with or without the song and dance.”

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3 Comments:

Blogger Burk Braun said...

Yes, I was attracted to Karen Armstrong's work briefly, until I understood how vacuous it is .. in terms of religion, at least. I think she is acute about psychology and proposes a good way to move into a post-religious world stripped of dogma and superstition, for those who are spiritually inclined. But that is a different matter, considering that she claims to be talking about religion and even defending it, of all things.

The idea of physics-envy is interesting, but as you say, doesn't wash at all from a historical standpoint.

On the antisemitism point, I think one could make the case that European Christians learned the idea of treating Jews separately (e.g. by taxation) from the Muslims, who had done so from early times. So there was a bit of cultural back and forth here, so to speak. Both were perplexed and bitter about the tenacity with which Jews adhered to their "father"- religion. Muhammad himself turned on the local Jews quite viciously in his time.

11:31 AM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

When one has nothing else to defend, claim it is "art."

As a confirmed atheist, I'll be the first to admit that high Roman Catholic pomp and circumstance are high dramaturgy. I even find the unitarian Episcopalian using "sexless language" refreshing, as the women priest addresses the Holy Sacrifice to "The Great Power ... through your bloody Redeemer, in the unity of spirits everywhere." A bit ghoulish, perhaps, but Armisted Maupin's Tales of the City give even a more ghoulish interpretation.

Several years ago I met this extremely handsome androphile returning to the Graduate Theological Union to become a pastor in the M.C.C., and he proclaimed the Queer Resurrection of Jesus through Apostle Paul. I laughed initially, but he did not find the Queer Resurrection funny. I guess I need to be more postmodernist to understand why some fiction died and rose again, so that female priests could offer their sacrifices to the Great Power that seems to elude all people of power. Maybe that is the point. The "Chosen" and "Elect" need to feel special, and women need to wear Roman Collars and eucharistic vestments, as they chant the dramaturgy that still causes me laugh. The androphile died before he was ordained a M.C.C. clergyman. But his Queer Theology was as old as Alfred Whitehead, and even less penetrating. What WE did was quite penetrating.

2:08 PM  
Blogger kaweah said...

Theist on the outside, atheist on the inside.

2:28 PM  

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