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Karen Armstrong: ‘You can’t feel God any more than you can think God’

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The well-known writer on religion finds nothing but tedious theology in the current fundamentalist v. atheist debate over God

She is perhaps the world’s best-known living writer on religion, and Karen Armstrong is tired of the noise of fundamentalists and the new atheists alike. She wants to give God back to the silence that He – or It, as she prefers – properly merits.

Her new book, The Case for God, is an argument of advocacy for apophatic theology: the argument that nothing can be said about God, because God is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define, too vast to be labelled as a being, and only knowable as Being.

She finds nothing but tedious, infantile theology in the current pop debate over whether God is “a big guy in the sky doing stuff” that’s pitting religious fundamentalists against celebrity atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, known collectively as the Ditchkins group.

In Toronto on the last stop of her North American book tour before heading home to London, she sat down to talk about rescuing the God who once was: the God absorbed through music, poetry, art, liturgy – an existential pointing to something that was beyond precise language.

When did we get this new God, the big guy in the sky?

We got to the new God definitively in the 17th century. There’d been signs of it before, as printing started to make religious discourse a much more wordy discipline. Most people before had listened to their scriptures, and always in a liturgical context that put you into a more receptive frame of mind.

Then came Newton. Newton is unable to think mythically. He claimed that the intricacy of the solar system required the existence of an intelligent being as creator that provided scientific proof for the God of the Bible. He said this being is clearly omniscient, omnipotent, massively powerful and obviously very well versed in mechanics and geometry.

Hitherto, people had said the natural world can’t lead us to God. It can make us inspired. It can make us look and wonder. But it can’t give us detailed information about God.

So Newton reversed centuries of tradition, and so did Descartes. Their physics didn’t work without God to start the whole thing off.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before later generations of scientists could dispense with this. Once you’ve got God as a fact, as a scientific explanation, atheism becomes a distinct possibility. Because when that hypothesis [God as architect of the universe] is no longer necessary, and discarded, you’ve had it.

Can we visit these older habits of thought about God for a second? If we go into a church or a synagogue or a mosque 500 years ago, longer, I guess, or sat around a dinner table, how would we have heard God presented?

You would have listened to your scripture, always in a heightened liturgical context. Liturgy at its best could put you into another mind frame. It should be like a great theatrical performance which utterly involves you and takes you into another dimension. There’s music which lifts the heart. There’s beautiful vestments. There’s re-enactments of doctrines.

And think what it must have been like 500 or 600 years ago, when the church was the biggest edifice in town, or if you went into one of the great cathedrals in Europe, which were space-age technology. To get those things to stand up. … a cathedral like Chartres, for example, we still don’t really understand how it works.

But it’s all drawn together into a united vision. And people thought more easily symbolically. So, that’s what I mean by the liturgical experience.

You wouldn’t be poring over the Bible picking out your favourite bits, or saying this bit doesn’t go here. You weren’t worried about the discrepancies in the infancy [of Jesus] narratives.

And similarly in the Muslim world. You listen to the Koran. You’re not supposed to start at Page 1 and slog through to Page 132. You listen to it, and it’s chanted, and it’s a great art, Koran recitation. You’re not flipping through the text to pick out all the bits on jihad. You’re hearing a whole lot of other things: kindness, courtesy, joy. Getting to know things. Friendship. Giving. All sung in this extraordinarily beautiful way. It does something to the psyche.

Michael Sells [a professor of Islamic history at the University of Chicago] writes that when you’re on a crowded bus in Cairo, and the traffic is just ghastly, jammed, and everybody is hot, tired and scratchy, very often the driver will put on a Koran recitation and everybody starts somehow relaxing and calming down.

The idea of God as architect of the universe, isn’t that awe-inspiring? Transcending?

You cannot think of God as a creator in a literal way: whoops-here’s-a-robin kind of thing. God is not another being. So to ask, “Is there a God who created the world?” is a misnomer.

God is not a sort of thing. We can’t say there’s a God, as though he’s an item in a species. God is the all. God is being itself, St. Thomas Aquinas says. Ipsum esse subsistens .

If Aquinas were writing today he’d say, “What happened before the Big Bang?” Scientists can get right up to within perhaps half a second after the Big Bang, but what happened before? We don’t know. So this is what I mean by the apophatic.

[Being] confronted with a universe that we cannot begin to grasp is a source of profound joy, and it’s what makes a human being human, to have that wonder.

Now, the attraction of Newton, of course, was the idea of certainty, the idea of the church adapting to the most advanced thought of the time. The idea that we were actually going to nail reality. Of course, it was hugely attractive. But then it all falls flat on its face when Darwin comes along and we find that the scientific theology doesn’t work. It leads to unbelief, in fact.

I talk in my book about the apophatic starting in the Eastern Orthodox world. There’s Evagrius of Pontus (345-399) saying, “Do not try to frame any idea of the deity.” Empty your mind.


Kenosis. Blessed is he who is without sensations in prayer, says Evagrius. None of this seeking for a great warm glow or something. You can’t feel God any more than you can think God. It’s a perpetual discipline – kenosis – going outside yourself into sort of disciplined unknowing . And that can bring a great satisfaction if you work at it.

You’ve taken on the fundamentalists before. But now you’re taking on the new atheists, the Ditchkins group. Why are they so attractive publicly?

What’s interesting about them is not their works, which I find extremely tedious to read, to be honest, because they don’t know enough. What’s interesting and important about them is that people are clearly unhappy with the God concept that they’ve inherited: even angered by it. It hasn’t delivered for them.

CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc

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