Karen Armstrong -still trying to convince herself those 7 years cooped up in a nunnery weren't a complete waste
Having ploughed my way through Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which I may have even reviewed somewhere in these pages, I can sympathise with anyone else trying to read her, make sense of her, and reflect on whether anything she writes about theology, or rather about the theology of other, historical theologians, really is true to what those theologians thought. So I've enjoyed reading this review, by Eric Macdonald, of a more recent Armstrong offering, The Case for God. Macdonald makes a number of important points about Armstrong's apparently rather repetitive claims about kenosis [self-emptying] and other abstruse ways of extralinguistic knowing. Essentially he questions her claims about a modern failure to recognize or experience earlier understandings of god. She doesn't really prove her point, she merely asserts it, in spite of having no evidence, and much evidence to the contrary.
I like Macdonald's concluding remarks in particular, which deal with her attempts to attack the 'new atheists', and with the problem of her theology, or lack thereof. His last two paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
On several occasions towards the end of her book, Armstrong argues very vehemently that the new atheists are simply making a bad situation worse. Do they not realise that “The history of fundamentalism shows that when these movements are attacked, they nearly always become more extreme?” (295) They should, then, moderate the polemic. Atheists are right, she says, to condemn abuses stemming from idolatrous religion. However, “when they insist that society should no longer tolerate faith and demand the withdrawal of respect from all things religious, they fall prey to the same intolerance.” (308-9) Since she does not cite sources for these claims, it is hard to know what she means. The so-called new atheists have never, to my knowledge, claimed that society should no longer tolerate faith, nor have they demanded the withdrawal of respect from all things religious. What they have said is that religion cannot hide behind the respect that it has been traditionally granted, and that it must be subject, as the expression of all ideas and beliefs must be in a free society, to criticism, to question, and indeed, if need be, to scorn. It has no right to expect special privileges, and it has not unreasonably been suggested that its claiming such special privilege permits it too easily to slip into abuse. If its response to criticism is to become more violent, then it seems clear that more criticism is needed, not less, until those holding beliefs which they believe should be privileged come to understand that, in a free society, none are exempt from criticism and even, it may be, from mockery and scorn. Some religious beliefs have shown themselves to be so deserving.
One comes away from reading Armstrong feeling bruised. The words arise with such force and profusion that the point she is trying to make seems to get lost amongst them. Indeed, it is hard to believe, after the pain of reading one of her books, that she has sold so many of them, for who would willingly submit themselves to such torment? As I said earlier, to some extent Karen Armstrong has but one book, and she has written it many times. This is not unusual. But what is unusual is that she should think the same thing worth saying again and again, when she did not succeed, the first time, to say it convincingly. Armstrong must actually argue for her position. She cannot simply assume that telling the history of it will prove her point. Indeed, what Armstrong needs to do is to develop a theology, not by telling the history of theology, but by doing it. If what she has to say is genuinely worthwhile, this is the next step she will take. If she does not do it, we can be assured that the theology she espouses is as thin as this book is thick. Theology is hard work, as she says, and she has yet to do it.