Craving the Transcendent

Book cover
The Case for Godby By Karen ArmstrongKnopf. 432p $27.95

Somehow it seems fitting that Karen Armstrong should make the case for God. Her earlier works establish her gift for displaying the vast historical range of a topic with little distortion. Here she pursues the human quest for God from the evidence of the cave painters of 30,000 B.C.E. to the musings of postmodern thinkers who opine about God-speculation that is beyond both theism and atheism. The book has two parts; each part has six chapters with abundant footnotes. An introduction, epilogue, glossary and selected bibliography provide solid guidance through and beyond the text.

Part I, “The Unknown God (30,000 BCE to 1500 CE),” quickly orients us to the author’s major themes. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, Armstrong shows that early human beings, through their myths and rituals (which changed as they evolved), cultivated a sense of the transcendent that permitted them to experience ekstasis, stepping outside the ordinary. Rather than bemused dupes cringing before natural phenomena or manipulative priests, the peoples of ancient China and India (for example) developed disciplined rituals that let them recapture—realize—the cosmos as it was before the pain-filled reality that was ordinary life. Such cosmological myths and rituals ideally taught them to live compassionately, emptying themselves (kenosis) of all that impeded access to the transcendent. Similarly, Armstrong’s analysis of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals stories (myths) of the one God who is powerful, benign, fair, ruthless, impartial, arbitrary and faithful. Clearly, Israelite monotheistic insight did not render the nature of God transparent; rather, God’s utter transcendence makes idolatry both horrifying and ever possible. Through the ages, classical Judaism insists that revelation—Torah—must be heard within ritual, which opens the heart to reality beyond reason. From mystery religions to monotheism, myths and rituals are the dual disciplines for transcending ordinary life and finding meaning.


The chapters “Reason” and “Faith” carefully demonstrate how the Greek philosophers and the early adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam harbored analogous interpretations of the role of reason (a practical mode of thought that lets us function effectively in the world). But it is their agreement about faith that is crucial. Faith in these different contexts was closer to trust, commitment, loyalty and engagement than to abstract assent to theoretical or theological truths. Going beyond what reason alone could reach required disciplined living. Eventually such spiritual exercises led theologians and the laity to “the silence of unknowing.” By the Middle Ages, Christianity—East and West—was permeated with the apophatic method: Whatever we say God is, we must affirm, deny and then deny the denial. Unfortunately, the apophatic center did not hold; by the 15th century, theology lost its grounding in liturgy, community and charity. As theology grew more speculative, it was less able to respond to the craving of the human heart for the transcendent.

In Part II, “The Modern God (1500 CE to the Present),” Armstrong details the saga of how we systematically miss the mark spiritually even as we become scientifically sophisticated. For Socrates dialogue meant gentle persuasion with the possibility of both sides changing; dialogue today is often more like a debate, where neither true listening nor understanding occurs. Logic reigns and myth is equated with fiction. Religion is less about spiritual exercises and disciplined lifestyles than about adherence to a set of beliefs. Faith is the intellectual assent to such beliefs, without our being immersed in the experience they symbolize. Armstrong writes that modern people, unwilling or unable to submit to the self-emptying (kenosis) required to penetrate religious symbols, often feel “caught between two sets of extremists: religious fundamentalists, whose belligerent piety they find alienating, on the one hand, and militant atheists calling for the wholesale extermination of religion, on the other.” Without romanticizing the past—bigots and atheists are found in all eras—it is difficult to deny that religious leaders, in Armstrong’s words, “often spend more time enforcing doctrinal conformity than devising spiritual exercises that will make these official ‘beliefs’ a living reality in the daily lives of the faithful.”

In chapters entitled “Science and Religion,” “Scientific Religion,” the “Enlightenment,” “Atheism,” “Un-knowing” and the “Death of God?” the author marshals convincing evidence that the seduction of “objective certitude” lured us away from the pursuit of the ineffable. Armstrong moves us through modernity deftly and with a confidence that brooks little resistance. She relates a story in which American Christianity too is enthralled by positivism, eventually spawning both the literalism of the fundamentalists and the stridency of today’s atheists, whose rejected “God” would scarcely be recognizable to orthodox theologians. From Columbus to Caputo, Armstrong reviews nearly every significant thinker whose work is germane. The result is a densely (and delightfully) written “case for God.” The reader is left with the impression that human beings are perhaps soft-wired for the transcendent. Religiously inclined, we want more than bread: we seek rapture, ekstasis. We long to live generously, compassionately, humanely, lovingly. Augustine’s intuition about the human heart may yet be correct. Sadly, effective help is in short supply. It would be a start, Armstrong suggests, if religious leaders and believers of all faiths used the word dogma—as the Greek fathers did—“to describe a truth that could not be put readily into words, could only be understood after long immersion in ritual, and, as the understanding of the community deepened, changed from one generation to another.”

Who should read this book? Undergraduates in appropriate philosophy or theology courses would benefit from its sweeping account of humanity’s pursuit of transcendence. Another audience would be reading groups interested in the “Why?” and “Why now?” of the New Atheists’ appeal. I especially recommend it to anyone who is intellectually curious and hungry to know and feel the “reasons of the heart.”

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