Synopses & Reviews
A nuanced exploration of the part that religion plays in human life, drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age.
Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it called by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao. Focusing especially on Christianity but including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese spiritualities, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors?
Answering these questions with the same depth of knowledge and profound insight that have marked all her acclaimed books, Armstrong makes clear how the changing face of the world has necessarily changed the importance of religion at both the societal and the individual level. Yet she cautions us that religion was never supposed to provide answers that lie within the competence of human reason; that, she says, is the role of logos. The task of religion is “to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there are no easy explanations.” She emphasizes, too, that religion will not work automatically. It is, she says, a practical discipline: its insights are derived not from abstract speculation but from “dedicated intellectual endeavor” and a “compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood.”
Focusing especially on Christianity but including other religions, Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion during a time when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith.
Table of Contents
Part I The Unknown God (30,000 BCE to 1500 CE)
One Homo religiosus
Six Faith and Reason
Part II The Modern God (1500 CE to the Present)
Seven Science and Religion
Eight Scientific Religion
Twelve Death of God?
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Case for God, the masterful new book by the bestselling author of The Spiral Staircase and The Great Transformation.
1. In her introduction, Armstrong writes that “Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart” [p. xiii]. Why does Armstrong repeatedly assert the primacy of religious practice, ritual, and discipline
over merely assenting to a set of abstract beliefs?
2. In what ways is The Case for God surprising? How does it challenge conventional ideas of God, religious history, and the relationship between science and religion?
3. Armstrong writes that her aim “is not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend—the apophatic—that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity” [p. 140]. What are the main features of the apophatic tradition? What is the value of arriving at a state of “unknowing”? How does the apophatic experience speak to our current religious predicament?
4. What is the distinction between mythos and logos? Why is it important that these modes of thought remain separate? In what ways have they been confused in the modern era? What are the consequences of confusing them?
5. Why would premodern Christians regard as misguided the kind of literal interpretation of the Bible favored by fundamentalists today?
6. What are the dangers of idolatry? Why are monotheistic religions, as well as absolutist secular philosophies, especially prone to idolatry?
7. “We tend to tame and domesticate God’s ‘otherness,'” Armstrong writes. “We beg God to support ‘our’ side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are, presumably, also God’s children and the object of his love and care” [p. ix]. What are some recent examples that support these claims?
8. How did theologians respond to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution it engendered? What effect did these large intellectual and historical movements have on the way people viewed the truth of scripture?
9. Armstrong writes:“By revealing the inherent limitation of words and concepts, theology should reduce both the speaker and his audience to silent awe” [p. 142]. What is the value of being reduced to silent awe? Why might a state of silent wonder, or receptivity, be preferable to a state of religious certainty?
10. Why does Armstrong object to the kind of aggressive atheism and vehement anti-religious rhetoric exemplified in the work of writers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins? In what ways do their arguments against religion mirror the thinking of the fundamentalists they so despise?
11. Armstrong writes that “the desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic” [p. 9]. Does this seem true? Why might the desire for transcendence be such a central human impulse?
12. How are postmodernist and deconstructionist ways of reading similar to ancient rabbinical forms of exegesis?
13. Armstrong summarizes the thought of a huge range of philosophers, theologians, and religious figures, from Socrates to Jacques Derrida. Within this broad overview, what religious ideas or practices seem most useful or relevant today?
14. Paul Tillich asserts that “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him” [p. 282]. What is the meaning of this apparent contradiction? In what ways does Tillich’s statement speak to the major themes of The Case for God?
15. The Case for God ends with a provocative question: “. . . how best can we move beyond premodern theism into a perception of ‘God’ that truly speaks to all the complex realities and needs of our time?” [p. 317]. Why is it appropriate that Armstrong end with a question rather than an assertion? How might this question be answered? What are the most pressing needs of our time?
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