By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Impressions of a Current Best Seller

The Case for God
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, it is a commonplace that Christians in fact view Jesus as the Logos, as even she takes care to note in her 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, contains, at crucial theological points, another type of story very different from the mythos described by Armstrong. Yet, having made that point, I am not saying, for example, that a Christian or a practicing Jew cannot view the story of Jonah or even of Ruth as not being straightforward history and as instead being primarily mythos, due to their distinctive literary genres as objectively indicated by various textual clues. In contrast to, say, Ruth or Jonah, 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 the particular case of the Gospel. Nevertheless, even with the above, significant reservations, I still enjoyed Armstrong's book and can recommend it to the critical reader.