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November 8, 2009: “Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God”

An atheist buys an ancient lamp at an auction, takes it home, and  
begins to polish it. Suddenly, a genie appears, and says, ?I?ll grant  
you three wishes, Master.? The atheist says, ?I wish I could believe  
in you.? The genie snaps his fingers, and suddenly the atheist  
believes in him. The atheist says, ?Wow. I wish all atheists would  
believe this.? The genie snaps his fingers again, and suddenly  
atheists all over the world begin to believe in genies. ?What about  
your third wish?? asks the genie. ?Well,? says the atheist, ?I wish  
for a billion dollars.? The genie snaps his fingers for a third time,  
but nothing happens. ?What?s wrong?? asks the atheist. The genie  
shrugs and says, ?Just because you believe in me, doesn?t necessarily  
mean that I really exist.?

   This is NOT a story from Karen Armstrong?s new book, The Case for  
God, but it could be. Armstrong is a former British nun who became  
disillusioned with religion but is now a well respected and   
best-selling author of books on religious subjects, 18, at last count,  
 teaches at a rabbinical seminary in London, and is in constant  
demand as s speaker, consultant, and  teacher in both the US and  
Europe. Her 1993 bestseller,  A History of God; The 4000 year Quest of  
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, should  be a college /seminary course  
in itself, but she has also written wonderful books on Islam,  
Buddhism, Fundamentalism, and her most recent before this was The  
Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Great Religious Traditions.  
As if the history of God  over the last 4000 years weren?t enough, in  
the this book she goes back a few thousand more years and traces back  
the history of religion itself!  This would be another  
college/seminary course in itself, yet it is eminently readable, not a  
scholarly tome.
   While she does not claim to be a Unitarian Universalistic, I strongly  
suspect her of it! What I mean, of course, is that first she has been  
turned off by her traditional religion
and rejected it. Indeed, another of her great books is her  
autobiography of just that experience, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb  
Out of Darkness.
   Yes she does not reject all religion, she still finds that yearning  
for the spiritual the religious dimension. She finds it in reading  
about religion, in research, in writing, in teaching, in the  
intellectual stimulation-yes that?s another part of UUism!
   Still another part is her universalism, that is the interest in all  
religion, not that they are all alike, but that there are  
commonalities, that there are common patterns.
   And of course the Unitarian part might be the unity or oneness in all  
religions that she sees as well in our common humanity, in humanity?s  
common needs for religion, for that sense of the holy, for the sense  
of God, called by many names and concepts.

   So why do we need A Case for God? It does sound, after all if perhaps  
she is trying to make ?a  case for God,? as if God were on trial or  
somehow threatened. Remember that Armstrong is British, not American.  
Why is that important. In America, surveys show that anywhere from 90  
to 95% of people say they believe in God, whatever that might mean.  
While that same question might not be quoted in her book, she does say  
that recent surveys show only 6 percent of Britons now  attend any  
kind of religious service!  She is responding to the  so called,  ?new  
Atheists?, Richard Dawkins,  Sam Harris., and Christopher Hitchens,  
especially, who are also best selling authors and are also fervent  
indeed, fundamentalist  anti-religionists. Think of A Case for God as   
a case for religion as well.

   Indeed, Armstrong is writing a history of the way we have looked at  
God or a history of how we have tried  to describe God or the sacred  
or religion or higher power as well as how some of our religious  
beliefs have evolved.
   But she wants also to give a historical  perspective to God, and/or  
religion,  that will go beyond fundamentalism of the right and the  
left, that will show us that God will not be so easily boxed in to be  
either known or rejected, nor will religion.

   ?Religion,? she says,  ?is  a practical discipline that teaches us to  
discover  new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the  
major discoveries od this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up  
the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before  
embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth –  
or lack of it- only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or  
ethical activity.?

   She divides the book into two parts:
Part I The Unknown God-(30,000 BCE to 1500 CE)
Part II The Modern God (1500 CE to the PRESENT)

   Yes, let?s start with the paleolithic! Don?t worry, we won?t spend  
much time there. Her point is that the dividing line, astounding  
enough, is about the time of the time of the Protestant Reformation,  
the Discovery of America, and of course, the beginning of  of the  
secularization of Western Society.

 Part I The Unknown God-(30,000 BCE to 1500 CE
   She starts with the Cave paintings some as old as 30,000 BCE-  
paleolithic times in France seem to have religious purpose- to reach  
the  underground caverns of Lascaux, one has to descend into the dark  
tunnel 85 feet down a tunnel, 65 feel below ground to see somewhere  
around 600 frescoes and 1500 engravings in the entire labyrinth. There  
is little doubt by most scholars that this has the beginnings of  
religion here, Armstrong says. And Art and religion were inseparable.   
?Like Art, she says, ?religion is an attempt to construct meaning in  
the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life. … meaning  
seeking creatures, men and women fall easily into disrepair. They have  
created religions and works of art to help them find value in their  
lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. The  
initiating experience also shows that myth, like that of the Animal  
master, derives much of its meaning from the ritualized context in  
which it is imparted.?

   Think about that when you think of all the rituals that we go through  
in out lives and not just in churches or synagogues, but in schools,  
clubs, fraternal organizations, all initiations . Think of all those  
ritual initiations- think of Dan Brown?s new best seller about the  
Mason?s and their ?initiations? and fraternity and sorority  
initiations, those in the armed services, in schools, clubs all of the  
different kinds of ?Initiations? that many of us go through which have  
some kind if not outright religious dimension if not divine presence  
to them,as if we are calling down divine power, sometimes, perhaps  
instead of church or organized religion, like one might argue, the  
Masonic order of other fraternal orders, especially made up of men!

   ?We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion? Armstrong says,?  
before we can move on to new insight. It is not easy to talk about  
what we call, ?God,? and the religious quest often begins with the  
deliberate dissolution of ordinary thought patterns. This may be what  
our earliest ancestors were trying to recreate in their extraordinary  
underground temples.?

   It?s not that the early cave paintings were pictures of God, but were  
rituals, initiations meant set the stage, if you will, for God to be  
present, for the mysterious power behind all nature and all life which  
is beyond al words.

   She traces the history of religion, especially Eastern religions and  
their emphasis on ethical behavior over belief and how the concept of  
God in Eastern thought is not emphasized. ?Religion as defined by the  
great sages of the India. China. and the Middle East, Armstrong says.   
?was not a devotional activity but a practical one; it did not require  
belief ina set of doctrines but rather hard disciplined work, without  
which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible. The  
ultimate reality was not a Supreme Beignet was an encompassing, wholly  
transcendent reality that lay beyond neat doctrinal formulations ?

    In Judaism, there is not just one idea or concept of God, but as one  
reads the scriptures there are conflicting descriptions! ?There is no  
clear, consistent image of God in Genesis.? She says, ?..The Bible  
traces the long process whereby the  confusing deity becomes Israel?s  
only icon of the sacred.?
   Yet the important element in Judaism is that interpretation of  
scripture is crucial to understanding not only God, but religion. So  
there are different ways Jews interpret the idea of God and as we can  
read in the Jewish Scriptures, they are not all positive; indeed, they  
almost beg to be interpreted to be understood. Which God are w talking  
about, we want to ask when reading some of the stories, so we have to   
   And in 70 CE the JEws revolted against Rome and the Temple and  
Jerusalem were destroyed ? In the year 70 CE, Armstrong describes it,  
?a political catastrophe  forced Jews to seek a different religious  
focus. Two new Jewish movements emerged, both influenced, indifferent  
ways by the Greek ethos, both were widely regarded as ?schools of  
philosophy? and would develop their teachings in a manner similar to  
the intellectual….of the Greek academics.?
   They were rabbinical Judaism and Christianity. She traces the history  
of Christianity from the time of Jesus and the various ways he was  
viewed as well as the history of the church and the theology of the  
church. ?They continued to think about God, She writes,? in the  
traditional Jewish way and, like the rabbis, experienced the Holy  
Spirit, the imminent  presence of God, as a tangible, empowering, and  
electrifying force.?  Jesus was not asking people to believe he was  
divine he was asking for a commitment to  religious life. When Jesus  
told his followers to have faith, Armstrong points out, we must  
remember what the word meant.  Faith in NT Greek is pistis. ?trust,  
loyalty, commitment. When the Bible says Jesus  asks for people to  
believe it may mean he is asking them to commit with his mission- to  
feed the hungry, to live with compassion, love  one another, consider  
the lilies of the field.

   Jesus was one of those great prophets who change the world because  
they ar empowered by something inexpressible but that they never claim  
to be be divine, and especially never claim to be God. Often they are  
deified by followers almost against their will and instructions! Like  
Buddha and Mohammed, something unique in history must have dwelt  
within him to cause his followers to see a religion within him! We  
might call it God, but Jews would certainly never have called it the  
same as Yahweh! Jesus was never clear, either; after all he taught in  
parables, and he often even scolded the disciples for not  
understanding him!

   So Armstrong describes the history of Christianity from its  
beginnings to the present and how at the beginning it was open to  
interpretation and the how it evolved into an institution of course,  
especially after the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE  brings the Bishops  
together for the Nicene Council to begin the doctrines of the trinity  
and to adopt Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire after  
being the persecuted minority. The Roman Catholic CHurch begins it?s  
climb to power that will play a part in ruling parts of the Western  
rule for almost 2000 years. It still plays apart in some places.

   Even the theology of the church evolves throughout the centuries just  
as the Greek philosophers will evolve, Plato, Aristotle and Socrates  
will influence the world even though they will be considered, of  
course, pagan philosophers!

   But the church will go through its philosophies as well as its  
mystics in many different ways to think about God and interpret  
scripture and understandings of different ways of even the  
understanding of the the Trinity.

“Religion,? Armstrong writes, ? was never supposed to provide answers  
to questions that lay within the reach of human reason,” Armstrong  
concludes. “Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to  
help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyfully with realities  
for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could  
not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the  
injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all  
cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the  
limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as  
selflessly  and compassionately as possible, they experienced as  
transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with  
serenity and courage. Scientific rationality can tell us why we have  
canc er; in can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the  
terror, disappointment and sorrow that come with its competence.  
Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great  
deal of effort and cannot succeed if is facile, false idolatrous or  

  Part II  The Modern God (1500 CE to the PRESENT)

   The Protestant Reformation is one of the beginnings of the modern  
period along with the exploration of the world 1492 and all that. It  
is the beginning of secularization well.  and, Armstrong points out,  
?As the Reformation proceeded, Protestantism began to morph into a  
bewildering number of sects, each with own doctrinal bias, its own  
interpretation of the Bible, and each convinced that it alone has  
monopoly on truth.?

   In the beginning of the modern period, 16th and 17th centuries  
Western people governed by scientific rationality- ?As theologians  
began to adopt the criteria of science the myhtoi of Christianity were  
interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable  
and forced into style of thinking that ws alien to them…. This  
rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two  
distinctively modern phenomenon: fundamentalism and atheism. The two  
are related. The defensive piety known as fundamentalism erupted in  
almost every major faith during the 20th century.   ?

   She also talks about A form of? secular fundamentalism? that has  
recently developed in the West. like  ?new Atheists,Hawkins, Sam  
Harris…the young American philosopher and student of neuroscience,  
and Christopher Hitchens, critic and journalist, who seem to see  
religion as the cause  of adjust about all of  the problems of the  
world ; and  the source of absolute evil  which ?poisons everything.?  
?They see themselves in the vanguard of a scientific /rational  
movement.? Armstrong says,? that will eventually expunge the idea of  
God from human consciousness….Like all religious fundamentalist, the  
new atheists believe they alone are in possession of truth; like  
Christian fundamentalists they read scripture in an entirely literal  
manner and seem never to have heard of the  long tradition of  
allegoric or Talmudic interoperation or indeed of the Higher  
Criticism…  All three of these proselytizing atheists present  
religion at its absolute worst.?
   She says its too bad because they have a lot of good points, and she  
agrees with much they have to say, but they seem to miss the whole  
point of religion in their hurry to condemn the fundamentalists and  
the perversion of religion which she would agree with condemning!

   The case for God, the case for religion, maybe the reason why we re  
here this morning is that lure of love and compassion and justice and  
a sense of the sacred and beloved community that is beyond name and  
place and time and belief and is called by names and has been for  
30,000 years.

   ?From almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly  
engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity. They evolved  
mythologies, rituals, and ethical disciplines that brought them  
intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to  
enhance  and fulfill their humanity. They wee not religious simply  
because their myths and doctrines were scientifically or historically  
sound, because they sought information about the origins of the  
cosmos, or merely because they wanted a better life in the hereafter.  
They were not bludgeoned into faith by power hungry priests or kings  
indeed religion often helped people oppose tyranny and oppression of  
this kind. The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here  
and now. Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives  
overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate  
with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to  
them in dreams, in their contemplations of nature, and in their  
intercourse with one another and the animal world.?

   The case for God is not that God needs us to argue for him, her, or  
it; the case for God is the case for love, the case for believing that  
life might have purpose and meaning.

   ? Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life,?  
Armstrong continues in her epilogue,? they sought to retain their  
peace and serenity in the midst of pain. They yearned for the courage  
to overcome the terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and  
mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-heartedly, and  
justly, and to inhabit every singly part of their humanity. Instead of  
being a mere workaday cup, they wanted, as Confucius suggested, to  
transform themselves into beautiful ritual vessel brimful of the  
sanctity that they were learning to see in life. They tried to honor  
the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create  
societies that protected and welcomed the stranger, the alien, the  
poor, and the oppressed. Of course, they often failed, sometimes  
abysmally. But overall they found the disciplines of religion helped  
them to do all this.. Those who applied themselves most assiduously  
showed that it was possible for mortal men and women to live  on a  
higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.?

   The case for God is the case for believing that we can make a  
difference in the world, to each other, and that we can help each  
other get through whatever it is we have to et through. Sometimes the  
gathering of the beloved community for the memorial service is the  
religious ritual that is the oldest religious act of human memory and  
I will argue, it doesn?t matter what any of the gathered people  
believe, because they become God!  God among us. God us. Mystery.  
Love. I rest my case.

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be  
upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A  
Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one  
more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to  
ministry. ?Vaya con Dios? is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is  
?Go with God,? So I adapted it to say ?Vaya Con Su Dios, ?Go with your  
idea or interpretation of God.?

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios