Religion in Our Time
Our Faith Help us to Unite or Will It Continue to Divide?
Text and Illustrations
of the things that had to die was my mind.
We were being trained in Ignatian obedience, which
aims at breaking down the will and the judgement of a
religious so that he unquestioningly accepts the will
of God as it is presented to him through his superior. It is the obedience of the professional
In Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong chronicles
her time as a Catholic nun in the turbulent years of the
were the years right before the modernizing efforts of
the Vatican, and there were strict rules in place that
were meant to dispel any sense of possession, emotion,
independent thought, or even friendship. When the young
initiate was sent to Oxford University her naturally incisive,
rational, mind pulled her in one direction, her strict
religious training in the other, in effect tearing her
in two and ultimately leading to her decision to leave
a stark contrast to the years spent in such intellectual
cloister, Ms. Armstrong went on to become one of the foremost
commentators on religious affairs, and is the best selling
author of a series of scholarly works, such as Buddha,
Islam: A Short History, or the monumental, A History
of God, in which she accomplishes the breathtaking
task of outlining the debates, struggles and recurring
themes of the three major monotheistic faiths that trace
themselves back to Abraham, with consideration along the
way of paganism, Hinduism and Buddhism.
is a somewhat dizzying experience, almost like watching
a pendulum swinging back and forth between the God of
the mystics and the God of the philosophers, those who
thought we could only reach God through our creative imagination
and others who tried to reach him through reason, those
who taught that God was within each of us and those who
considered Him aloof and not of this world. These types of polemics existed within
each of the three monotheistic faiths.
Ms. Armstrong skillfully compares and brings to
life all the various approaches to the idea of the ultimate
truth, with points and counterpoints that ultimately seem
to be leading back into each other, as we get to consider,
for instance, the mystical aspects of Plato, or the scientific
inclinations of the Sufis, who she says had often used
mathematics and science as an aid to contemplation.
is the key." (2)
Armstrong traces the evolution of the first Sky God, to
the growth of Paganism, to the painful return to the idea
of the one God, that of Abraham, which she says got off
to an unfortunate start, "since the tribal deity
Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people." Early on he was used to justify the annihilation of the native
people of Canaan in a way that adds a chilling dimension
to the current events of that region, the modern day Israel. But ultimately the prophets of Israel reformed the old cult
of Yahweh and promoted the ideal of compassion. Yahweh
started out as a god of revolution, but became one of
self-castigation as well. "They thought they were God's Chosen
had entirely misunderstood the nature of the covenant,
which meant responsibility, not privilege,"(3)
Ms. Armstrong paraphrases the prophet Amos.
Over the centuries, the importance of compassion
and respect for our fellow human beings was one of Yahweh's
primary messages, as it would be of all the great world
Armstrong similarly works to dispel some of the preconceptions
of Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant faith.
These prejudices were unfortunately to be lived
up to in modern times by members of some of its own fundamentalist
sects. And yet the Quran adamantly opposed coercion in religious matters,
and its vision was inclusive of all the People of the
Book. It discouraged war, and its early conflicts with
the Quraysh tribe was ultimately resolved by what must
be one of the great campaigns of nonviolence, starting
in 628 when Muhammed set out for Mecca to make the hajj
with about a thousand fellow unarmed Muslims.
one can't consider it an inherently misogynistic faith. Polygamy was in place before Islam,
women were without any political or human rights, and
female infanticide was common.
The Koran strictly forbade the killing of female
children, and reprimanded the Arabs for their disappointment
when a girl was born.
It also gave women legal rights of inheritance
and divorce to which most western women had nothing comparable
until the 19th century.
All three of the monotheistic faiths at one time or another
tried to wed their traditions and their ideas about God
with the rationalism of Ancient Greece. This of course first started with the
Jews, and held an affinity for the Greek Christians, but
was taken up even more extensively by Islam, until they
helped to awaken Europe from out of its Dark Ages.
What they called Falsafah, or "philosophy,"
was the ideal to which Arab Muslims were beginning to
devote themselves in the 9th century.
The Faylasufs wanted to live rationally in accordance
with the laws that governed the universe, which could
be perceived at every level of reality. In this way they were able to combine
their spirituality with an empirical curiosity as well. During the 9th and 10th centuries, more
scientific discoveries had been achieved in the Abbassid
empire than in any previous history of mankind.
Averroes in the 12th century, who was said to have
introduced Aristotle to the West, influenced Maimonedes
and Thomas Aquinas, and helped Europe to acquire a more
rationalistic conception of God.
For so many reasons, whether it be the brutal experience
of the Inquisition, or the conservative spirit after centuries
of Mongol invasions, Judaism and Islam around the 15th
century were starting to lose faith in falsafah, and the
possibility that we could ever know God through rationalism,
and it was around this time that the Western Christians
were just getting started. The Renaissance, the Reformation, and
a new kind of society based on science and technology
was to emerge, and to charge ahead of all its rival world
the God of the Reformation might have made the Western
Christians efficient and powerful, she says, but he did
not make them happy. It was a terrifying and elitist God, predestining the majority
of humanity to hell.
The growing sectarianism, and the wars fought in
God's name, would by the end of the18th century gradually
lead a few disillusioned Europeans to start questioning
God's existence itself, rather than merely the dogma surrounding
God and Science were to become altogether incompatible,
and the new Gods of the West would be those of Pure Rationalism,
Technology, and Progress. As Ms. Armstrong points out, as we come
to realize the toll we’ve been taking on the environment
and the variety of other social ills plaguing western
society, the growing rate of crime, and drug addiction,
perhaps today we are beginning to suspect these new myths
might be just as hollow as some of our older ones.
is a linguistic connection between the words 'myth,' 'mysticism,'
and 'mystery.' All are derived from the Greek verb musteion: to close the
eyes or the mouth.
All three words are rooted in an experience of
darkness and silence. They are not popular words in the West today." (4)
men of the Enlightenment as Newton and Descartes, who
still believed in God, but saw him more as a kind of Great
Mechanic, who sat atop a mechanized universe, had no time
for mystery. But
there are signs that the pendulum might be swinging back,
if not towards an actual God of the Mystics, towards an
attention towards that spiritual, that more mysterious
side of our lives and our psyche.
There is a growing interest in Eastern religions
and practices such as meditation and yoga.
Joseph Campbell's work on mythology is widely read. Celalledin Rumi is currently the best selling poet in the West.
Ms. Armstrong finds evidence for this resurgence
even in the preponderance of people in psychoanalysis,
which she likens to certain kinds of mystical disciplines.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists
were fairly confident that they had conquered almost
everything there was to be conquered, and that science
would be able to solve all our problems.
And yet people were to soon realize that even
secular societies were just as prone to war, and science
itself in the 20th century entered a new era of uncertainty.
Einstein was telling us absolute space and time
did not exist, the notion of simultaneously existing
realties, extra dimensions, would challenge our reliance
on empiricism, as would the world of quantum mechanics,
which some say has brought about the death of determinism.
The most successful theory today, quantum theory,
which makes possible everything from laser beams, transistors
to computers, is actually based on some of the most
bizarre ideas in the history of science. In the quantum world there is always an
element of uncertainty.
Everything is based on probability, and the whole
concept of object, as something existing with well-defined
properties, just does not apply. Somehow an electron does not even exist until we observe it.
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