The Greeks, who gave birth to rationalism, were not interested in using rational tools in engaging with spiritual questions. Karen Armstrong suggests that the Greeks intuitively knew that rationalism was the wrong tool for approaching the world of the numinous and the transcendent – it might be compared to trying to eat soup with a fork. A fork is a good instrument for eating fish, but useless in scooping up soup. Logic and reason are excellent tools when it comes to mathematics and science but not helpful in trying to understand the transcendent and ultimate reality that we symbolise by the letters G-o-d. It is like, remarks Armstrong, using reason to explain why a song makes us feel a certain way or the way a poem works – understanding poems, art, and the spiritual dimension requires engaging with a different way of knowing. It requires the use of intuition and the creative imagination. The Greeks, claims Armstrong, sought to understand God through the imagination, the art of their icons and through contemplation.
In her book, The history of God, Armstrong argues that the case that Homo sapiens are also Homo religiosus. Humans have, since coming down from the trees, always worshipped a God or gods. Religions were created at the same time as art was created, most likely as a resource to create meaning and order and deal with the inherent terror and tragedy of life. Also, the early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that is an essential component of human experience.
Similar to anything else, religion can be abused but it seems to be something humanity has always practiced. Many modern-day atheists seem to espouse the notion that religion is the source of so much evil in the world and therefore should be deposed from its place of honour in the collective cultural memory. It is not religion, per se, that causes people to act destructively, but that certain debased religious ideologies tap into primitive and shadowy aspects of the psyche unleashing the destructive power held there. Religion, like any ‘ism’, is simply the vehicle through which this evil can be vented.
The religious impulse has been central to the human condition throughout history – is it reasonable to think that we have ‘moved beyond’ this now? It might be more accurate to say that we have simply, like humans have done throughout history, discarded an old religion and created a new one. Armstrong argues that our western liberal humanism is indeed a form of religion – but one that is unprecedented in human history. It has its own disciplines and principles and provides people with a way to find faith in the ultimate meaning of human life. Like Buddhism, it is a religion without a God.
‘God’ is a nuanced and complex concept. Armstrong points out that the statement ‘I believe in God’ has no objective meaning; it only means something within context. There is no eternal, unchanging idea of God but a whole array of meanings, some of them contradictory. In a culture or society, when one conception of god has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it is replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist, Armstrong points out, would deny this – they believe that how we experience god is the same as how Moses and the prophets experienced god. But each generation must create the image of ‘god’ that works for them.
Armstrong queries: When atheists reject god, what god are they rejecting? Is it the god of the prophets, the patriarchs, the philosophers, the mystics, the pantheists? Armstrong points out that throughout history atheism has often been a ‘transitional state’. Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called atheists by the pagans because they took on a radically different and revolutionary idea of transcendence. Likewise, today, Armstrong suggests, it may be the rise in atheism might lead to a whole new way of understanding God and religion in the future.
Religion is highly pragmatic, writes Armstrong. It is more important for an idea of God to work, than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. When it ceases to be effective it changes. This did not disturb monotheists throughout history because they knew ideas about god were not sacrosanct but ‘provisional’. Like a scientific hypothesis, one’s creation of meaning, one’s conception of divinity was tentative and flexibly; it could be updated and replaced, responding to the continued evolution of humanity and the arising of new needs. Armstrong argues that god is, like poetry and music, a product of the creative imagination.
This issue seems particularly pertinent at this time. The ‘God’ (AKA meaning system) that we have adopted in the western world has led to the brink of environmental destruction and collapse. Perhaps a new conception of ‘God’ could lead to a reversal of this trend. For example, it would be hard to imagine that a culture that saw the natural world as sacred and alive would be capable of abusing it so heavily as we do. The Christian notion of an other-worldly God followed by the worldview of scientific materialism, where the earth is seen as a machine, devoid of soul, filled with dead matter, has allowed us to exploit the earth. Sacralising nature would seem to be an important part of reversing this trend.
Throughout history, writes Armstrong, humans have experienced a dimension of spirit that seems to transcend the mundane. This human experience of transcendence is a fact, however we choose to interpret it. The history of ‘God’ is ultimately the history of the ingenuity and inventiveness of the human imagination as it struggles to express its sense of ‘God’. The history of religion, therefore, is also the history of the human mind; learning more bout it tells us about the nature of the mind and its aspirations.
Far from being dry and abstract, this history, says Armstrong, is passionate and intense. Much struggle and stress is involved in this process of ‘god-creation’; the prophets of Israel experienced God as physical pain that wrenched their limbs, filling them with rage and elation. It is often accompanied by darkness and images of foreboding: mountain tops, desolation, terror and crucifixion. Armstrong points to the increased interest in myth as a desire for more imaginative expression of religious truth.