Silence About God

Philosopher Simon Blackburn summarizes Karen Armstrong’s views on religion as more akin to art than science:

the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can’t you fail.

This is a perversion of anything valuable in religious practice, Armstrong writes, and it is only this perverted view that arouses the scorn of modern “militant” atheists. So Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris have chosen a straw man as a target.

So what should the religious adept actually say by way of expressing his or her faith? Nothing. This is the “apophatic” tradition, in which nothing about God can be put into words.

Words such as “God” have to be seen as symbols, not names, but any word falls short of describing what it symbolises, and will always be inadequate, contradictory, metaphorical or allegorical. The mystery at the heart of religious practice is ineffable, unapproachable by reason and by language. Silence is its truest expression.

The religious state is exactly that of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are.” If Alice puts on a dog collar, she will be at one with the tradition.

Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper. That is the vice of theory again, and as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. By contrast, Armstrong promises that her kinds of practice will make us better, wiser, more forgiving, loving, courageous, selfless, hopeful and just. Who can be against that?

Blackburn’s take:

The odd thing is that the book presupposes that such desirable improvements are the same thing as an increase in understanding – only a kind of understanding that has no describable content. It is beyond words, yet is nevertheless to be described in terms of awareness and truth. But why should we accept that? Imagine that I come out of the art gallery or other trance with a beatific smile on my face. I have enjoyed myself, and feel better. Perhaps I give a coin to the beggar I ignored on the way in. Even if I do so, there is no reason to describe the improvement in terms of my having understood anything. If I feel more generous, well and good, but the proof of that pudding is not my beatific smile but how I behave. As Wittgenstein, whose views on religion Armstrong thoroughly endorses, also said, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. You can feel good without being good, and be good without stretching your understanding beyond words. Her experience of “Jabberwocky” may have improved Alice.

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