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Religion in Our Time
Our Faith Help us to Unite or Will It Continue to Divide?
Text and Illustrations
To hear a scientist talking about the inadequacies of
language to understand the new discoveries, one almost
thinks one is listening to a religious sage talking of
the impossibility of ever being able to grasp God. In fact God has always been treated and described as a higher
dimensional being, even before the scientific concept
of higher dimensions was introduced.
A scientist may be able to describe higher dimensions
or the nature of the subatomic world in mathematical terms,
but when one tries to do so in ordinary language, through
ordinary logic, one is stumped. The same frustrations are true of the spiritual quest. Religious approaches have often spoken
about the transcendent in the negative, or used silence,
poetry, or unanswerable riddles or koans, as a means to
get beyond our human mind. It seems as though science once again
is beginning to take on the nature of the mystical experience,
and that our spirituality once again might be strengthened
rather than countered by science. In
any case, both endeavors do share certain qualities, as
Ms. Armstrong points out. They both involve a leap of faith, a creative act of imagination,
to envision something that is not there. And this might be an appropriate way to describe all vocations.
If we take
a step back, maybe we can see that all paths are part
of the same human quest to get some kind of divine or
transcendent understanding of our existence.
"Atheism has often been a transitional state: thus
Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called "atheists"
by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted
a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. Is modern atheism a similar denial of
"god" which is no longer adequate to the problems
of our time?" (5)
Armstrong points out that all the great confessional faiths,
the idea of "God," as well as the philosophical
rationalism in Greece, were a product of the city and
of the market place. They developed in a time of growing economic activity and a
spirit of aggressive capitalism, as a counter to the loss
of the earlier communal values, as in Islam, and because
of the growing consciousness of problems of social inequity.
One cannot help but question, now that we are in
this globalized, ever-expanding marketplace, are we in
need of some new outlook, a more expansive vision, in
order to balance what seems to be an ever-growing self-interest? We are so busy struggling to get ahead,
or simply to make ends meet, we cannot see beyond our
own concern for our pocketbook at the gas pump, at the
supermarket, or in the clothing store. Since the Industrial Revolution the nature
of our work has become one of increasing specialization,
which leaves us with even less a sense of the overall
picture, and of the ultimate interconnectedness of things.
it seems so much of our scientific resources and research
goes into how to make a profit, rather than to find what
will be of most benefit for the overall good.
How to make a seed that will not regenerate, or
how to build more and more effective weapons of destruction.
The government, and consumers as well, dismiss
industries that do not appear profitable, or thrifty enough,
but which would have obvious long-term benefit, such as
alternative, sustainable forms of energy.
It seems our spirituality, or our sense of morality,
is in dire need of catching up with our scientific progress.
in a symbiotic relationship with a coercive secularism."
though claiming to be about a return to the old ways,
is in actuality a purely modern phenomenon, modernity's
dark side, as Ms. Armstrong calls it, which exists within
all the world religions. Ms. Armstrong is careful to state that fundamentalism is not
simply a way for using religion for political ends. A purely political historian might give more weight to this
aspect of its existence, but she stresses that these are
a genuine reaction to the exclusion of the divine from
secularist public life, and frequently a desperate attempt
to reintroduce spirituality into the modern world. In the case of Islam, up until the 1920s
she says there had been a real enthusiasm for Western
culture, but by the 1930s, this began to sour as they
saw Britain and France setting up protectorates, and the
dismissive manner in which they treated the native populations.
The rushed and superficial attempt to catch up
with the West left their countries divided between an
elite and the vast majority who had no understanding of
the changes that were quickly making their society unrecognizable. She also cites the 1967 war as a major
turning point, where there was a major disillusionment
with Nasser and his secular policies, and a growth in
fundamentalism on all sides.
an interview that aired on public radio's "Fresh
Air," Ms. Armstrong rather chillingly expresses her
puzzlement over the reports on the terrorists involved
in 9/11, that one of the pilots had been known to be a
frequenter of nightclubs, and Muhammed Ata was drinking
vodka before he got on the plane.
This was quite unlike any of the classic fundamentalists
she had ever known. She comments that all fundamentalism is
getting more extreme and wonders whether we haven't entered
a post-fundamentalism, into a sort of nihilism, or an
antinomian phase. She says there have been various moments
throughout history, when people are feeling extremely
desperate, that this religious extremism can tip over
into nihilism, where all law, even your own sacred one,
is trampled on in your desire to get to the next phase.
Armstrong offers no conclusion, but just wishes to state
her deep puzzlement. In her articles she cites the
urgent need for the Muslim people to reclaim their religion
from those who have hijacked it, as well as for those
in the more developed countries not to isolate themselves,
but to inform themselves as much as they can of the conditions
in other parts of the world. What she seems to be
saying is that the qualities that have over the years
defined religion at its best are as vitally important
today: compassion, curiosity, and imagination.
all cultures, human beings have been driven by the same
imperatives: to be intelligent, responsible, reasonable,
loving and, if necessary, to change. The very nature of humanity, therefore,
demands that we transcend ourselves and our current perceptions,
and this principle indicates the presence of what has
been called the divine in the very nature of serious human
inquiry." --on the thinking of Bernard Lonergan(8)
9/11, not surprisingly, there has been an increase in
church attendance in America and a further interest in
most secular people, I have grown to be suspicious of
any kind of organized religion.
Ms. Armstrong also talks of the outdatedness of
so many of our notions of God, and of that God-shaped
hole in our consciousness that Sartre had described, yet
she says people have always come up with new symbols to
act as a focus for spirituality. And it seems important that we continue
to do so, to create a new faith in "God" or
anything else --it matters
little what-- she says. These would be provisional
Gods, which can be discarded, or transcended, as they
are outgrown, as in Buddhism or Hinduism, but it seems
important that we keep creating these ideals to function
as a kind of lodestar for our efforts, and it seems perfectly
fine to allow ourselves to be conscious of our role as
their creator. She
does suggest the God of the Mystics as a viable alternative,
which had never got off to much of a start in the West.
This God is "one that is approached through
the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form,
akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed
the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life."
Like all art, however, she says, "mysticism
requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism as
a safeguard against indulgent emotionalism and projection."(9) The God of Rationality has been able to
accomplish great things, but perhaps it's time, in fact
there seems to be a definite need, that we try to regain
some of the old balance in order to get to the next level.
"Today many people in the West
would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that
God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination. Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief
Human beings are the only animals who have the
capacity to envisage something that is not present or
something that does not yet exist but which is merely
possible. The imagination has thus been the cause
for major achievements in science and technology as well
as in art and religion.
The idea of God, however it is defined, is perhaps
the prime example of an absent reality which, despite
its inbuilt problems, has continued to inspire men and
women for thousands of years.
As in art, the most effective religious symbols
are those informed by an intelligent knowledge and understanding
of the human condition." (10)
Armstrong says that the scientific world might challenge
the traditional religious to reinterpret their scriptures
in a symbolic rather than a literal way. If this were
to take place, perhaps we could perceive even more clearly
the similarities between all the different spiritual paths
that people have taken, and the unifying principles underlying
all of them. Genuine moments of enlightenment seem to
be characterized by a sense of the ultimate interconnectedness
of all things, a coming together of opposites. And this
level of consciousness seems to lead naturally to compassion
and the spirit of collaboration, which is so crucial now
that we have entered the nuclear age, and are faced everyday
with what seem more and more insurmountable problems.
Imagination is vital for us to create our ideals, just
as it is to see the connections between what might otherwise
appear irreconcilable goals or cultures, and to find compassionate
and completely new solutions to the daunting problems
we face. While mystics and the Greek rationalists would
typically consider politics and current events as unworthy
of their speculation, as they were part of the constantly
changing ordinary world, this inner journey which they
prescribed must inevitably have an effect on the world
at large. Will our faith help us to unite or will it continue
to divide? More and more this seems to be a question that
has to at some level be answered within each one of us
alone, and depends on how well we can nourish the faculties
of curiosity, compassion and imagination.
But it also becomes evident from reading Ms. Armstrong's
work that the progress of human thought is an incredibly
intricate collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas
and efforts throughout the millennia and across geographical
locations and intellectual disciplines. If we are to fashion
a vibrant new faith for the 21st century, she says, perhaps
we should look to our past for some valuable lessons and
warnings. Thankfully we have someone like Karen Armstrong
to help us make sense of our rich and diverse heritage.
1. Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong, St. Martin's
Press, New York:1981, pg. 144
2. From an interview on The Atlantic Online,
3. The History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism,
Christianity and Islam, Karen Armstrong, Ballantine
Books, New York: 1994, pg. 46
4. Ibid., pg 211.
5. Ibid., pg. xxi.
6. Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong, Random House,
New York: 2000, pg. 166.
7. From an interview on Fresh Air, National Public Radio
8. A History of God, pg. 385.
9. Ibid., pg. 396.
10. Ibid., pg. 233.
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