Sunday, August 23, 2009

Karen Armstrong's Just-So Story

On Karen Armstrong's own account, Western civilization began disappointing her in the 1500s:

During the 16th and 17th centuries Western people began to develop a new kind of civilisation, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment ...
Yes. It was that bad, and by now, we see the signs of its ruinous reductiveness everywhere, right down to the very food we eat, which is now labeled with nutritional data and, where applicable according to "rational" standards, cluttered with disclaimers: this is not a low-calorie food; gluten-free; phenylketonurics. The horror!

It gets even worse: the rot of rationality spread to religion, as Armstrong explains:
As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the Earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts such as faith, revelation, myth, mystery and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors.
Armstrong's is an interesting just-so story about intellectual history, and far be it from me to gainsay it, given her status as a writer-of-books and A-list scholar in theology. Just kidding! This is patent horseshit, and this becomes clearer when she arrives at some of its -- dare I even utter the phrase -- logical entailments:
a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could only be known by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight and, I believe, this is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so difficult today.
It's truer to say that pre-modern Christians reported believing that god's infiniteness exceeded their thoughts -- the writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are littered with claims of that kind -- but as a matter of rubber-meets-road religious practice, early Christians were quite willing to arrive at firm conclusions about the likes and dislikes of god and enforce them.

So, with all that said -- granting, for the sake of argument, that 1500 CE represents an important turning point -- which of the following is wrong: Karen Armstrong's claim that Christianity couldn't be much bothered with theology until the 1500s, or this list (or this one, or this one, or this one) detailing numerous pre-1500's instances in which Christian authorities ostracized, exiled, threatened, detained, tortured, or killed people for theological transgressions?

I say Armstrong is wrong, and laughably so, notwithstanding her frequent appearances on tee-vee programming, book store shelves, and the lecture circuit.

(via Ophelia Benson)

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