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234 of 253 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stimulating Read, An Important Book
Enter the caverns of Lascaux and step back into the world of our early hunter ancestors of the Paleolithic era. We find record of a people who took life and the taking of the life they hunted very seriously and recorded on the stone walls of the caverns their rites performed to return the animals they killed for sustenance to a second life. Enter another cave where...
Published on October 3, 2009 by Amazon Customer

442 of 548 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An interesting polemic, but at its heart problematic
Can I really be the only person who finds Karen Armstrong, the author of fifteen books on religion, writing in her latest that one cannot comment on the divine with words but only with silence, more than a little ironic?

To be fair, Armstrong does offer several interesting insights. Her effort to find universal "truths" that run across faiths is worthwhile and...
Published on September 22, 2009 by J. A Magill

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234 of 253 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stimulating Read, An Important Book, October 3, 2009
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
Enter the caverns of Lascaux and step back into the world of our early hunter ancestors of the Paleolithic era. We find record of a people who took life and the taking of the life they hunted very seriously and recorded on the stone walls of the caverns their rites performed to return the animals they killed for sustenance to a second life. Enter another cave where Plato paints a picture of humanity groping in darkness until some are able to step out into the light, seeing the world for the first time are faint able to make those still in the darkness of the caves comprehend their new vision. Humanity has a history, a long encounter with the sacred. It is expressed in different ways such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, and Dao among others. With all the diverse manners of approaching it humanity has a long, intimate relationship with the transcendent and it is important for anyone to understand the religious impulse in order to understand a vital element of what it means to be human. Karen Armstrong provides a thorough and compelling resource toward this kind of understanding in her book "The Case for God".

It is useful to know before reading this book that it is not a tract attempting to prove the existence of God. It is rather a case for God, not the existence of God. Amid the arguments made by New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, Armstrong makes the case that the religious life can be valuable and healthy. While Logos describes the objective reality that is essential for living, Religion or Mythos, helps us "to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realitites for which there [are] no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life" (318).

I recommend this book for two reasons. The first is that it gives a very thorough exposition of the history and development of religion and philosophy that is by all accounts very valuable to know. You will be more educated after reading this book and that is useful in itself. Both religious and nonreligious people can benefit from a background in the ideas, traditions, and world-views that have shaped and continued to shape the world. Armstrong also gives a summary of many of the major scientific developments of history. With my professional background in science I particularly enjoyed these passages and was impressed by her knowledge in these subjects.

The second reason I recommend this book is because she brings an interesting argument to the discussion over God and it would benefit anyone to be exposed to it. It is not necessary to agree with her positions to enjoy the book. I have always enjoyed the scientific writing of Richard Dawkins and I think "The Selfish Gene" is one of the best popular science books ever written. Dawkins also makes some important points and criticisms of religion that people of faith must confront. On the same note, atheists and agnostics ought to consider the ideas Armstrong presents in "The Case for God". Religious people should consider arguments as well. She proposes that many modern discussions of God are too careless and that the concept of God is much more complex and uncertain then is often recognized.

This book recalled to me William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience". Both distinguished the existential judgment from the proposition of value. In other words, while the veracity of supernatural claims may be significant it may be more meaningful to evaluate the effects of a world-view on those who hold it. Armstrong contends that religion has much to offer in a world of complexity and at times suffering. Says Armstrong: "We have seen too much evil in recent years to indulge in a facile theology... A modern theology must look unflinchingly into the heart of a great darkness and be prepared, perhaps, to enter into the cloud of unknowing" (278).
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276 of 312 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable, fascinating, mindshifting,, September 22, 2009
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
Karen Armstrong is able to do two things which are individually remarkable, and in combination perhaps unique.
- provide a credible, erudite, historical overview of all the main religions in a way that shows how they fit together. ie. the key ideas they have borrowed from each other
- do so in a way which is vivid, accessible and often inspiring.

Some religious readers will be shocked to discover that "their" religion is based on ideas that are far more widespread than they may have realized. And they may be uncomfortable that the God Armstrong is arguing for is not one actively involved in day-to-day human concerns, checking off prayer requests or directing the weather, but deeper, mysterious, perhaps ineffable. Some non-religious readers will be shocked by how compelling a case Armstrong makes for a religious mindset based, not so much on "belief" or "faith" but on spirituality and compassion. But all, if they approach this book with an open mind, are likely to emerge with a richer understanding of life's most important questions.
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98 of 116 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Karen Armstrong is a Great Teacher, September 25, 2009
Gerard D. Launay (Berkeley, California) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Case for God (Audio CD)
I believe what Karen Armstrong is trying to do is refine the definition of God and to respect all the real life experiences of so many people, of so many ages, and of so many faiths. Contrary to what some other reviewers have said, I find her argument - her case for "God" - scrupulously argued. Let's be clear about this...Dr. Armstrong is very well read. Time and again, she finds evidences in the thinking of the Bible writers, the early Christian theologians, the Talmudic rabbis of the Middle Ages, the important philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age...or even in practices such as those of the Sufi or Christian mystics. And yes, even the scientists! In a nutshell, the book is an Intellectual History of how the idea of God has been understood and argued, from prehistory to the present, including the recent populism of the New Atheists (as opposed to the 19th century agnostics).

One of the most interesting chapters talks about the early history of Christianity when the idea surfaced that God created the universe from "nothing" as opposed to the idea God shaped and formed what already existed as chaos. Once that new idea surfaced, there were two camps, those who believed that Jesus was divine but had been elevated to that status by an immensely powerful being and those who believed that God could never be characterized as being at all and therefore Jesus could be God from the beginning.

Do not be distracted by "petty disputes" about her presentation. As an example, whether the "antiChrist" is described once or twice in the Bible is irrelevant. To Dr. Armstrong, we must not confuse the reality of God with the language about the existence of God. No one can accurately describe the marvelous ecosystem, power, interconnectedness, and beauty of the ocean in mere words...And yet, the ocean exists.

As I interpret the author's position, I am to understand God as a point of destination that is constantly moving. We find God in our personal quest for ultimate truth, ultimate wisdom, ultimate beauty, and...ultimate compassion. Using these ideas, when Kepler or Newton - for example - were seeking to uncover the laws of the universe, they were seeking God. Indeed, I believe that's how these great scientists did understood their mission.

Karen Armstrong is not so interested - as many wrongly think - in being right. She is interested in imagining God in such a way as to force us to become connected to something larger than ourselves. To be enlightened. To become enriched as human beings. Practicing compassionate acts brings one closer to God. Unleashing hate on others - on the other hand - is the very disrespect of God. She shares the thinking of Shakespeare, let's say, in "The Merchant of Venice" , Act IV, scene 1: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven...It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice."

I think the book is a treasure and the culmination of years and years of Dr. Armstrong's reading and thinking. Highly those of faith and to those of agnostic bent.
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442 of 548 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An interesting polemic, but at its heart problematic, September 22, 2009
J. A Magill (Sacramento, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
Can I really be the only person who finds Karen Armstrong, the author of fifteen books on religion, writing in her latest that one cannot comment on the divine with words but only with silence, more than a little ironic?

To be fair, Armstrong does offer several interesting insights. Her effort to find universal "truths" that run across faiths is worthwhile and thought provoking. One might even imagine that there are many members of exclusivist faiths for whom this would be a revelation, though one can hardly imagine many of them reading Armstrong's work. At the same time, Armstrong offers an intelligent and evocative response to the new wave of atheistic polemicists - Dawkins, Hitchens, etal - and offers a muscular retort to their rather juvenile view of the divine, as almost all of them seem to have decided that they learned all there was to know about religion as teens in Anglican Sunday School. Armstrong deserves great praise for reminding people that theology is an intellectual pursuit, the attempt to seek to understand God, as opposed to what much of religion seems to be today, namely the effort by many to project their own narrow petty views onto the divine.

That said, this work suffers from the same shortcoming of all Armstrong's voluminous work. Were she a theologian, one might forgive her for ignoring all those arguments that ran against her claims of universality, though it would still be intellectually sloppy. However, Armstrong claims to be a historian of religion, and as such she is guilty of appalling sins of omission. When a fact contradicts her thesis, she does not even give it the due regard of inconvenience and seek to reconcile, but simply pretends it is not there. As such, she is not a scholar, but a polemicist, even if a polemicist for a position for which I have sympathy.

Examples are legion. Armstrong claims that no one prior to the Enlightenment no one read the first chapter of Genesis literally. Really? In the Jewish tradition Ibn Ezra did. So did several rabbis in the Talmud. In the Christian tradition one can look to Luther and no lesser figure than Paul. Does that mean that these were majority views? Certainly not in the Jewish tradition, but to pretend that they don't exist is rank intellectual dishonesty and preying on the ignorance of her readers. Likewise, Armstrong's tut tut comparisons between the Crusaders and Jihadists as religiously retrograde, ignores the fact that - certainly in the former group at least - religious warfare was not merely tolerated but extolled near universally through its religious polity of the day as a duty and a path to salvation. By the same method of argument through erasure and faith in her readers ignorance, Armstrong famously whitewashed Muhammad's military career in the efforts to declare him "a great peace maker."

In a recent interview, someone asked Armstrong a question about the anti-Christ. She replied declaring it a "bogeyman" that "isn't even really in the Bible." When the interviewer, plainly ignorant of the bible asked if that claim was true, Armstrong replies "Not really. It's a couple of chance remarks of Saint Paul and then there's the "Book of Revelation." But the whole idea of there being end-time battles reflects a more sort of Zoroastrian view of the world." Oh, just Saint Paul and the Book of Revelations? No biggie.

Of course this isn't my religious tradition, so one might wonder why I would take offense, but readers should beware what any "scholar" has to say who depends mightily on her audiences ignorance in order to succeed in her arguments.
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213 of 273 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Intellectual Feast But in the End Very Little Help to the World's Problems, September 26, 2009
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
In this astounding book, prolific author Karen Armstrong has written an intellectual history of the notion of God down through the centuries, focusing on our western Christian conceptions. In many ways her book covers much of the same territory that Robert Wright did in The Evolution of God, which I reviewed on Amazon. But whereas Wright focuses on the evolution of morality in conceptions of the divine, Armstrong focuses on the practice of religion itself.

I was astonished as time after time she got so many things right in those areas I knew something about. This is an amply documented massive book which cannot be rehearsed in any detail in this short review. But it is an intellectual feast. If you want to be brought up to speed to today's world on the subject of religion in the western world, this book may be the only one you need. From Paleolithic times to postmodern thinking it's all here for the most part. From the Hebrew God Yahweh, to the Greek "logos," to the rise of Christianity, the era of Constantine, the rise of Science, the Enlightenment down to the present day, she covers it all masterfully.

Her main concern throughout the book seems to be the rise of the religious fundamentalist phenomenon and the atheist backlash seen best in the so-called New Atheists like Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens. Against both sides she claims religion is not a set of doctrines to be believed but rather something practiced in ritual and experienced through introspection, art, and music. As such, the New Atheists have not adequately debunked religion at all when they debunk the Bible, creationism, and/or religious ideas of the divine.

Christian fundamentalism according to her, "is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend" (p. xvi). She argues: "Religion was a matter of doing rather than thinking" (p. 25). "Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. The story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event" (p. 15). "Like any myth, its purpose is to help us to contemplate the human predicament" (p. 28). As such, the creation account "was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life" (p. 44). When it comes to Yahweh she argues, "There was no clear, consistent image of God in Genesis" (p. 35). Moreover, "Yahweh was simply one of the 'holy ones' in El's retinue" (p. 34). She challenges fundamentalists to therefore "face up to the implications of the Darwinian vision of nature `red in tooth and claw'" (p. 324). She argues that "if a biblical text appeared to contradict current scientific discoveries the exegete must interpret it differently" (p. 324).

With this understanding of fundamentalism she claims the New Atheist's "analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology" (p. xvi). "Religion," she says, "was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason...Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve; morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life....Religion is a practical discipline" (p. 318). Just like the fundamentalists whom they argue against, Armstrong claims that "the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth...they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem never to have heard of the long tradition of allegoric interpretation or indeed of Higher Criticism" (p. 303). Thus, Dawkins is "not correct to assume that fundamentalist belief either represents or is even typical of either Christianity or religion as a whole" (p. 304). And he "is also wrong to claim that God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations" (p. 305). All told, she shares the same kinds of criticisms of the New Atheists as liberal theologian John F. Haught does in his book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, which I also reviewed on Amazon.

But her analysis is problematic on a number of fronts. When it comes to religion, Armstrong is placing her liberal theological grid on it backward through time. She's right about primitive religion. Their religion was in the rituals, the dances, the human/child/animal sacrifices, the chants, and the drum music. But somewhere along the evolutionary line, especially within Christianity, religious believers developed doctrinal beliefs too. We see them in the historic creeds of the church, a few of which are in the New Testament itself. If they hadn't done so then what can account for such things as the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War between the Catholics and Protestants and between the Protestants themselves? This creedal development happened long before Christian fundamentalism arrived on the scene, by her own account! What she seems to misunderstand is that there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to religion. And so she cannot fault the New Atheists for attacking the fundamentalist religion of today's world since that's what religion is for many many people.

Furthermore, her book uses the results of Higher Criticism, which is little more than the scientific method applied to historical texts like the Bible. She faults the New Atheists for treating God and religion as a scientific hypothesis but then turns around and uses that the same scientific method when deconstructing the Biblical texts. Can she really have it both ways? Even if she doesn't think the scientific method should be used to examine one's religion or concepts of the divine, she needs to articulate and defend an alternative method that can deliver the same kinds of results. What's the alternative for her? Introspection? Art? Music? What kind of method is that? Such a method would never have allowed her to come to the conclusions she's reached about religion in general, and of Christian fundamentalism in particular.

Suffice it for me to say that I find her religion-as-psychology metaphysically unfulfilling and deeply inadequate. Her god is a distant god and as such her god can be safely ignored as having no relevance for one's life at all. She's practically an atheist. So rather than targeting the New Atheists who are promoting scientific thinking, denouncing religious violence, and proclaiming the follies of authoritarian fundamentalist faith, why doesn't she stand up with them against the fundamentalists who are the source of much, if not most, of the problems in this world?

Think of it this way. What does Armstrong fault the New Atheists for in comparison to the religious fundamentalists? Misunderstanding, at best? That's nothing in comparison to the problems that authoritarian fundamentalist faith produces in the world, and she knows this. She's nitpicking when there's a world that needs her help. After all, who really cares if the New Atheists are attacking what she doesn't consider representative of true religion or true Christianity? They are attacking a real threat to world peace regardless! And who really cares if religion doesn't poison everything as Hitchens proclaims? Religion causes a great deal of suffering.

I highly recommend Victor Stenger's latest book in response to criticims like hers, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, which I also reviewed on Amazon. This is one of the New Atheists that Armstrong failed to mention.

I'm the author of "Why I Became an Atheist," and the edited book, "The Christian Delusion."
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth savoring, June 9, 2010
Jaylia3 (Silver Spring, MD United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
The title of another book out last year excited me--The Evolution of God--but when I heard the author speak I was disappointed. (There was a lot of talk about zero sum game.) Armstrong's book is what I had hoped for from the other. It covers the changing ways people have viewed God and religion, from 30,000 BCE, when humans crawled deep into caves to cover their walls with paintings of animals and maybe shamans, to the present, when both fundamentalists and atheists insist on a strict literal interpretation of scriptures--a legacy of the modern scientific revolution that has left everyone, including the devout, looking for unambiguous, objective truth derived from some kind of logical deliberation. The modern way is simplistic; Armstrong believes religious life involves hard work, pushing finite hearts and minds to the edges of their understanding, toward the infinite.

I took a long time to read this book and as soon as I finished I started reading it again. There is a lot to absorb and a lot that challenged my unexamined beliefs, a mind-blowing experience that's my drug of choice. As an an agnostic leaning toward a non-belligerent atheism, reading is almost my religion, so when Armstrong wrote convincingly about the printing press's drawback of moving learning and religion in a depersonalized and inflexible direction, leading in religion's case to ridiculous disagreements over finer and finer dogmatic distinctions, I was shocked into a speechless, apophatic state. One of many I experienced while reading her book. Which is maybe, or maybe not, ironic because that apophatic experience I got from reading is the right place, Armstrong believes, to begin transcending our everyday world and experiencing God. Religion, Armstrong writes, historically has been and should be more about practice and experience and less about blind belief in particular doctrines. Sounds great to me.
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29 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars True Myth, December 28, 2009
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
Karen Armstrong is a former nun (no longer Catholic or Christian) who lives in England and is a very well-known, graceful writer and speaker on religious topics. Her latest book is entitled The Case for God. I have just finished it. It is a tour de force of religious and especially Western cultural and philosophical history. She should be applauded for striving to give an informed overview of vast cultural development in an age of overspecialization where, too often, the overload of fragmented information leaves many without any possibility of creating a comprehensive vision of the past or of the future.

Having given my accolades, let me be clear that, not surprisingly, I do not share her theological tendencies, the most fundamental of which seems to be that all religious traditions are created equal. I also sense in her work the apparent presumption that it is never appropriate to interpret religious texts as being reliable guides to the accurate depiction of actual historical events. It is not clear to me if she views that working presumption against historically "referential" religious texts as being rebuttable in certain, theologically significant cases. (By "referential" I mean that the text actually refers to some real, objective event in history that observers can verify.) In the end, she paints a picture of worldwide religious fraternity based on the view that the historical details do not really matter as long as the mythic aspect of different religious texts are plumbed for their deeper, universal, and common meanings. Many Christians, especially in the developing world, will view this approach as inadequate to the uniqueness of the Christian Gospel.

Yet, I can recommend the book to readers who are prepared to read critically and are not predisposed toward an uncritical embrace of a particular author's view of history or of religion. In my opinion, she does a fine job of exposing the fact that many of the new militant atheist writers of today are theologically tone deaf in assuming, without justification, that Christianity is tied to a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. She turns the tables on these aggressive atheist writers by calling them "fundamentalists" themselves who refuse to recognize the possibility and reality of a nuanced and literarily responsible interpretation of the Bible's diverse genres.

Yet, my main critique remains and is as follows. She makes much of the distinction between symbolic, non-literal discourse (mythos) and practical, logical discourse referring to objectively observed realities (logos). By viewing religious texts as merely or primarily mythos, she deftly turns back any criticism that such texts may be fictional. But, as a Christian, that approach is a strategy that is not acceptable when applied to the proclamation of the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus and thus is not ultimately favorable to the Christian stance. The key Christian response to her approach was made long ago by C.S. Lewis, an expert in mythology as a genre in both pagan and Christian inspired works. For Lewis, the Gospel is a true myth, which combines the profound symbolic meaning that Armstrong rightly sees in mythos with the objective, historical reference to truly occurring events that Armstrong labels logos. For Christians, in Jesus, the profound yearnings of all humanity expressed in mythos became true in actual history or logos. In short, the tomb was indeed empty. Interestingly, given Armstrong's terminology, Christians in fact view Jesus as the Logos, as even she mentions in the book.

That Armstrong seems to assume that Christianity can somehow overlook the logos part points to her own misunderstanding of the Christian foundational writings known as the New Testament. It is undeniable that Paul, to pick one example from the New Testament writers, understood that the Gospel story must of necessity involve a real death and a real bodily resurrection or else all bets are off. Thus, the well-intentioned Armstrong attempt to divorce logos discourse from the New Testament falls flat. Of course, Christians would have no problem with applying a purely symbolic interpretation to the texts of other religious traditions in an attempt to find common truths in such texts. But the Bible, especially the New Testament, is a very different type of story. The genre of the Gospel proclaimed in the New Testament is, as Lewis noted, true myth (not merely symbolically "true") that combines both mythos and logos, two aspects that cannot be divorced in this particular case. Yet, I still enjoyed the book, but with the above, significant reservations.
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25 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overall, a good summary statement, October 31, 2009
Magyar (The Universe) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
I have read a read a number of Armstrong's book and while I can appreciate the complaints of more scholarly inclined readers (I'm a professor- but not of theology or philosophy- and tend to be very critical of popularized work in my own field), I feel that on the whole the book is valuable as a statement about the current state of religion.

As both a Buddhist and an Episcopalian, I connect very much with her discussion about a apophatic knowing of God and the importance of ritual. The last two chapters are tremendous and I feel the Epilogue could stand very much as a statement on its own.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion about how we , as children, learn about the existence of Santa Claus and God at about the same time, but, as we grow older, our knowledge and belief in Santa Claus "matures" while our belief in God often remains immature. I know that it sounds silly, but actually it is a rather profound thought.

Basically the book captures very well the frustration and tiredness many of us feel about the current state of "debate about God" and proposes a far more productive way to think about this. She shows up the neo-atheists as a bunch of tiresome bores (Actually she is a little more kind than that.) Also I am happy to see that, in contrast to many religious fundamentalists, she has a number of good things to say about postmodernism and what it can offer to us in our thinking about God.

I hope this book gets a wide reading.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Out-pauling Paul, June 7, 2012
Jean E. Pouliot (Newburyport, MA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Case for God (Paperback)
Karen Armstrong's well-meaning book, "The Case for God" is less of an apologia for belief in a deity than a quick tour through the history of (mostly) Christianity. She starts with an artful, if fanciful, reading of the religious mind of Cro-Magnon Man, then moves through the Greeks, Romans and Jews into the modern era, reading the hearts of saint and prophets all the way

Armstrong's refrain is that under the surface, religious giants like Paul, Anselm, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did not really believe the apparent meaning of their own writings. Instead, they meant to convey a metaphorical and spiritualized truth. I found this to be strange, in that Armstrong, with her 20 (!) years of devotion to the subject of religion, insisted that she knew more about the thinking of these men than did centuries of scholars -- or even the men themselves. All in all, I found her presentation unconvincing. It's not a fundamentalist reading of St Paul to see that he believed in the literal meaning of Genesis when he made Christ a Second Adam. And his insistence that "we will meet [Christ] in the air" was not a metaphorical truth, but foresaw a literal aerial appearance of Jesus to his followers at the Parousia.

It's nice to see the underlying spiritual commonalities in the words of great religious masters. And Armstrong's focus on apophatic aspects of religions--in which God's being is described by what it is not--was broadening. But to suggest that she has a special insight into the minds and hearts of religion's great personalities is going entirely too far.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Atheists and Believers: Check your Guns at the Door, and Come on In!, December 19, 2009
This review is from: The Case for God (Hardcover)
There is a beauty, scope, and deeply edifying tone about this book that allows the armed-to-the-teeth atheist or Christian/Jewish/Islmamic/Buddhist/Hindu/Daoist believer to lay down their weapons at the door to a metaphorical Theological Café, come in, take a seat, order up a latte or tea, sit back, and ready one's self for that most pleasurable of experiences: a long, careful, cordial, and deeply satisfying day-into-night human discourse.

Armstrong sets the table for her guests by reviewing over 32,000 years of the human search for spiritual meaning. Rarely have the caves of Lascaux and their enigmatic drawings been brought to life as vividly as in the first chapter of this book, and Armstrong draws on this evoked sense of awe and wonder to firmly ground three of the book's themes. First, Armstrong feels that religion at its core is not about dogma or beliefs, it is about becoming aware of an ineffable and unknowable God, a God whose nature is so far beyond the ken of human knowing that to seek to describe the attributes of God can do nothing but diminish the very concept of God. Secondly, Armstrong argues that becoming aware of God takes discipline and practice. Rituals are not in and of themselves "true" (e.g. the consecration of the host is not literally transubstantiation from bread to the actual body of Christ), but the practice of the ritual is an important portal to awareness of God. Thirdly, Armstrong finds cause to believe that from the earliest hints of human religious experience through the vast spiritual menu offered up today, true relationship with God is a life of orthopraxy (right living/action/doing) instead of orthodoxy (right dogma/beliefs/knowing). We don't, Armstrong says, need churches that tell us what to believe; rather we need churches that focus on the disciplines and rituals that bring us awareness of God.

Following her entrancing introduction to Paleolithic spirituality, Armstrong takes us on a 300 plus page exploration of where we humans have gone since emerging from the flickering shadows of the Lascaux caves. Boring? Absolutely not. Armstrong's review of the major religions, the ebb and flow of theological/philosophical tides up to and including the relatively recent cross-current of modern atheism, is fascinating. All but the most erudite of scholars will find engaging new perspectives to both ponder and savor. Is Armstrong always right? I'll refer back to the day-into-night discussion in the café: The Case for God will inspire vigorous, enthusiastic and hopefully civil discourse.

In her closing chapters, Armstrong takes on the Four Horsemen of modern atheism: Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. These chapters are more problematic, in that one of her main contentions is that these outspoken atheists proceed by setting up straw men (e.g. acting as though the religious excesses of fundamentalists represent all of religion) and then knocking them down. In the process, Armstrong sets up a few scarecrows of her own, before knocking the stuffing out of them. Though she does a marvelous job of maintaining an impartial and inclusive tone throughout most of her book, when she discusses the atheists, Armstrong lets loose with a brief volley of the literary equivalent of indignant sniffs.

The Case for God is an important and deeply satisfying book to read, a treat for non-believers and believers alike. I cannot think of a single book that covers more theological territory, and gives a more thorough base of understanding to speak from. Atheists and theologians will have many "Aha!" moments; those who feel secure in their current faith will pause to think, and then find the need to think again.

The Case for God contains a deep conundrum, in that it seeks to make an Ineffable God somewhat effable. It seeks to pursue a God that Armstrong insists cannot be known by rational thought, by making the most rational argument for God that I've personally encountered. The first ten words of this 432 page book are "We are talking far too much about God these days.." Her book is a koan, and more is the pleasure that this is true!
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The Case for God
The Case for God by Karen Armstrong (Hardcover - September 22, 2009)
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