May 19, 2013
Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’
Posted on Dec 4, 2009
But rather than characterizing such a position as a significant concession to the new atheists, Armstrong insists on continuing to regard them as her primary opponents. Moreover, she is unable to hold herself consistently to her own apophatic view. Indeed, passages like the following, in which she relates with apparent approval the reasoning of Athanasius, suggest that on her understanding the apophatic position, rather than discouraging metaphysical speculation, in fact licenses and encourages it:
In other words, it is precisely our lack of knowledge of God that enables us to say, well, pretty much whatever we want about God—except, of course, that God was not in Christ (but only an atheist or heathen would want to say that anyway). This is mysticism and metaphysical hand-waving raised to a truly objectionable level. If you do not know what you are denying then you also do not know what you are asserting; our inability to conceptualize cannot, on the one hand, prevent skeptics from denying Christ’s divinity while at the same time allowing the faithful to assert it.
Armstrong’s apophaticist’s disavowal of God thus appears to be a conceptual Trojan horse—a sop to the skeptic whose real intent is to permit religious speculation to go on as before, unchecked by rational criticism and debate. The strategy reduces to saying “God isn’t this, God isn’t that” without ever giving a positive account of what God is, while still regarding oneself as justified in talking about and orienting one’s life around God. This is like the debater who responds to every objection by insisting “Well that’s not what I meant” without ever managing to say what he does mean.
Ultimately it is doubtful that apophaticism can be made to work. If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about. (If I walk around constantly referring to “bizzers,” and rebuff any request for clarification by saying “I will not place limits on bizzers by defining them, for bizzers transcend all human attempts to come to know them,” I am simply talking nonsense.) In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth—in our ordinary sense of “truth”—by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!”
Moreover, Armstrong’s attempts to find respectable examples of apophaticism sometimes cause her to resort to highly implausible interpretive strategies. Consider what she says about Socrates, for instance:
It requires a profound lack of appreciation of Socratic irony to take Socrates’ insistence that he had nothing to teach at face value. Indeed, Armstrong’s account is not even internally consistent: By her own lights it is false that people learned nothing from Socrates, for what they learned was precisely “how little they knew.” The deep point is, once again, that both practice and transformation involve and require belief: One cannot possibly achieve “a change of mind” without changing one’s view of the world—that is, one’s beliefs. Once again we find Armstrong leaning heavily on a naive and unsustainable either-or dichotomy between belief, on the one hand, and practice on the other.
Then again, where would Armstrong be without her unsustainable dichotomies, her black-and-white either-ors? She steadfastly resists the “religion versus science” dichotomy, identifying it as a modernist artifact, but like many intellectual defenders of religion she adores the “religion or science” dichotomy, as formulated by Stephen Jay Gould:
As a secular ethicist, and poet, I cannot help but find this rather offensive: My intellectual career seems not to exist, according to Gould’s simplistic way of carving up conceptual space. (His view that the magisteria “do not overlap” also implies, very implausibly, that empirical matters can have no bearing at all on moral questions.) Armstrong, though, finds it deeply amenable: Of course morality and meaning must fall under religion’s purview! After all, she is almost unable to imagine a conception of meaningful human life that does not ultimately rest on God:
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