A Tolerant Condescension


James Patrick Holding

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Jun 23, 2011

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 6 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong has emerged as a recognized, popular voice on behalf of contemporary, postmodern religious sentiments. Her book The Case for God is the latest of nearly two dozen books she has written on religious subjects, in which she primarily focuses on the great monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).

Despite its title, The Case for God does not present a “case” for God in the sense that it discusses proofs for God’s existence. Rather, Armstrong offers a highly summarized chronological survey of ideas about God, with emphasis on Christian and Jewish thought. Many of the chapters consist of biographical snippets about prominent figures within these traditions, such as the apostle Paul, the philosopher Anselm (1033-1109), and Martin Luther (1483-1546). The book also highlights some prominent figures in Greek and Islamic thought.

Armstrong offers little that is original, primarily distilling the findings and assumptions of liberal religious and biblical scholarship for a popular audience. She takes for granted such positions as that the Pentateuch was not authored by Moses, but was rather composed by four independent authors (designated in modern times as J, E, D, and P) (p. 30f£.) who were generally inaccurate in their reports of history. She also takes for granted that the Gospels were written very late (83), and were not actually authored by the persons whose names are on them. There is no interaction with scholarship offering contrary viewpoints.

For the most part, The Case for God consists of stylized, yet simplified, narrative history and the reportage is generally fairminded. For example, in contrast to many popular treatments, which portray Galileo as a faultless victim of ecclesiastical tyranny and ignorance, he is admitted to have “also made mistakes” (183) and to have represented intolerance after his own fashion.

Factual matters are frequently vehicles through which Armstrong expresses three thematic concerns, and it is clear that she has selected her historical examples in the service of illustrating these concerns.

The Inaccessible Mystery. One such theme is summarized in the statement that it is “very difficult indeed to speak about God” (x). According to Armstrong, the application of reason and logic to religious experience is misguided, and has resulted in extremist understandings of religion, particularly fundamentalism on one hand, and the hostile expressions of the “new atheism” on the other. There is also no possibility of anyone having a “last word” (xvii) about God, because God is “infinite” and the ultimate truth God represents “lies beyond words and concepts” (320). Arguing over religious matters is “counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment” (xvii).

Armstrong offers an illustrative anecdote in which Buddha refuses to answer questions about things like the existence of God, for he regarded the answers to such questions as “useless information” that did not “lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nirvana” (23). It is not hard to reach the conclusion that the reason why concepts such as Nirvana (in Eastern religions, the state of being free from suffering) are “inexplicable” is because there is nothing to explain. One may be rightly suspicious that the designation of ideas as “inexplicable” is a ruse designed to put off those who seek rational explanations. In essence, Armstrong does not resolve the rational aspect of religious belief with this tactic; rather, she declares it off-limits to further discussion.

Armstrong is also insensate to the innate contradiction in her claim that God “lies beyond words and concepts.” Aside from the fact that she is using words to tell us that God is beyond words, in order for Armstrong to say with any authority that one cannot have a “last word” about God, she must presume to have exhaustive knowledge about God. Put another way, unless Armstrong herself has the “last word” on God, she has no grounds to declare that anyone else’s “last word” is inauthentic-and this does not even account for the possibility of God offering self-revelations about His character and purpose.

As noted, Armstrong’s historical examples are selected carefully in order to illustrate her chosen themes. An example of this is found in her decision to highlight the early church writer Origen (94-96). Though a formidable apologist for the Christian faith in his lifetime (AD 185-254), Origen frequently resorted to interpreting Scripture as allegorical, in order to explain apparent discrepancies. Armstrong apparently chooses to feature Origen rather than other commentators of his era with literalist exegetical practices in order to illustrate that Scripture is best interpreted in a nonliteral fashion.

The Nonfactual Experience. A second theme of the book is that religious expression does not require any factual basis; rather, it is to be grounded in experience. This follows naturally from the first theme, in which Armstrong has already discarded rational analysis as a tool for understanding religion.

For Armstrong, religious expression is more about acting than about believing: “It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of a religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover the truth-or lack of it-only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action” (xiii). Religion is created to help us find value in our life (8) and religious experience has the purpose of being therapeutic, such that religious rituals “lift us momentarily beyond ourselves” (10). Correspondingly, Jesus’ demand that people place their faith in Him has nothing to do with believing in His divinity, but rather with following Jesus’ ethical demands to feed the hungry, aid the poor, and “live compassionate lives” (87).

In saying this, Armstrong places the ethical cart before the epistemic horse. Our faith is in vain if Christ has not actually risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15). The historical occurrence of the Resurrection and God’s other actions in history provide us with the necessary substantiation for our own moral reactions. Armstrong’s epistemology provides no rational basis for ethical behavior.

Armstrong also reads “experience” into unwarranted contexts. For example, when she describes the christological controversies of the third century, she claims that the discussion was raised by people because “it touched the heart of their Christian experience” (107). There is little to suggest that “Christian experience,” as opposed to scriptural interpretation, had anything to do with the controversy between those who held to the heretical doctrine of Arius (who believed that Jesus was not eternal, but created at some point in time) and those who held to the orthodox position championed by Athanasius.

It is not surprising to see Armstrong profess that the Trinity “reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call ‘God’ was inaccessible to rational analysis. It was a meditative device to counter the idolatrous tendency of people like Arius” (115). The Trinity is hardly “inaccessible to rational analysis” as Armstrong claims, and there would be a number of expositors who would be quite surprised to hear this. Reducing the doctrine to a mere “meditative device” further implies that Trinitarianism was formulated in such a way as to distract people from considering whether the doctrine was rational.

A Tolerant Condescension. A third frequent theme of the book is that religious traditions are merely mythic expressions intended to aid people in expressing their spirituality. This theme also naturally follows from the first two. Armstrong is quite insistent that literal interpretations of certain religious texts are erroneous. She asserts that humanity has “lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously” (xv). Our own literal interpretations, she says, “would have been very surprising to our ancestors” (xv) and texts like the New Testament were “not primarily concerned with factual accuracy” (83).

But how does Armstrong know this? How does she know that the book of Exodus, or the Gospel narratives, or even pagan creation narratives such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, were not intended to be taken literally? Our primary clue to determine the intention of a document is genre, and in that respect, while we can recognize some biblical texts as nonhistorical in intention (e.g., Psalms and Proverbs), the texts that Armstrong alludes to here are not in this category: Exodus appears to be in the genre of historical narrative, while the Gospels-despite Armstrong’s claim that they are “not biographies in our sense” (83)-are quite definitely in the format of ancient biographies. The genre “package” of these texts indicates that they were generally meant to be taken as literal history. Armstrong’s claim that “our ancestors” would be surprised by such an understanding is not borne out by the evidence. For example, the Gospels, as ancient biographies, are very similar in structure to other ancient biographies such as the Agricola of Tacitus.

It appears that Armstrong’s attempt to reclassify the biblical documents is not based on any sort of serious genre study, but on a desire to place the biblical texts off-limits from historical scrutiny, in accordance with the first two themes that have already designated questions of historical fact irrelevant. It is also clearly intended to validate her contention that the Bible “gives us no single, orthodox message and demands constant reinterpretation” (28). Armstrong firmly resists the idea of a single, indisputable truth in religious matters, which she dismisses as the product of a “fundamentalist mind-set” that holds “the belief that there is only one way of interpreting reality” (308-9).

It must be admitted that Armstrong is equitable in her condemnations. She also decries the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for making blanket statements about religious people being deranged (306) and for “believ[ing] that they alone are in possession of the truth” (303). Nevertheless, in reading Armstrong, one is struck by the implicit irony in her approach. On the one hand, Armstrong would undoubtedly see herself as a model of tolerance, willing to give all religious views “equal time” and equal credence. At the same time, it is clear that this equanimity is grounded in a view that all religious traditions are equal in the sense that they are all substantially wrong, merely artificial creations designed as coping mechanisms for an insecure human race. Armstrong’s veneer of tolerance is thus, ironically, a highly condescending approach in which she places herself in a transcendent position, trying to rescue the rest of us from the grasp of debilitating religious literalism-a classic example of when “tolerance is intolerant.”

There is little question that Karen Armstrong speaks with clarity and passion for the postmodern religious establishment. It is unfortunate that in so doing, she ends up having so little of substance to say.

—James Patrick Holding

James Patrick Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and author of Trusting the New Testament (Xulon Press, 2009).

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