Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Climbing out of darkness

Earlier this year (July 16-19) I posted a series of comments on Karen Armstrong's newest book, The Case for God: The Real Meaning of Religion. I had many good things to say about the book, and a few quibbles. In particular, I took issue with her thesis that prior to the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment people understood God mythically and metaphorically, and only subsequently has God been understood as an objective being. It is this falsely objectified modern God who is the target of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, says Armstrong.

I think it far more likely that the great majority of people at all times and in all places understood their divinities objectively. In fact, I made the case that by calling the supernatural into question the Scientific Revolution laid the groundwork for exactly the sort of apophatic religion Armstrong espouses: mythos vs. logos, feeling vs. belief, practice vs. discourse, love vs. doctrine.

I wrote:
[S]cience cannot tell us what sort of life to build. Logos alone cannot give meaning to a life. For that, as Armstrong suggests, we need a mythos, a program of action, a way of acting out our relationship to what we do not understand. Humans by nature seem compelled to ask questions that science cannot answer: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the source of the Mystery I intuitively feel in interaction with the world? This, in Armstrong's account, is the "real meaning" of religion.

It is no accident that religious feeling has given us some of the greatest art -- literature, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance -- that the world has known. Art is to mythos what science is to logos. The two are not opposed, as Armstrong sometimes seems to suggest, but complementary. In science we built a solid platform to approach the Mystery, ever higher, ever closer; in art we leap into the unknown.
This past weekend I read Armstrong's 2004 memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, an account of her life from the time she left the convent at age 24 to the flowering of her career as a writer on religious subjects. The book is an honest and moving account of her struggles with what she and her psychiatrists assumed to be debilitating neuroses. It was only when she was correctly diagnosed as an epileptic and given proper pharmaceutical treatment that she began to function fully and successfully in the world. That is to say, it is only because she lives in the post-Enlightenment world of scientific medicine that she was able to find the stability and clarity in her life that enabled her to become such a forceful and valued advocate for apophatic religion.

One wonders if in some earlier time she might have been subjected to exorcisms to rid her of the devils that -- according to her -- no one took literally.


On another note, let me enthusiastically recommend the award-winning 2007 documentary Manufactured Landscapes, based on the work of the renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky, shot mostly in China. I guarantee it will change forever the way you think about your "stuff," where it came from and where it's going. Mind-blowing, depressing -- and breathtakingly artful.

And then, the next evening, to restore your balance, watch again the documentary I recommended once before, Philip Groning's Into Great Silence, recording life in the Grand Chartreuse, a thousand-year-old Carthusian monastery in the French Alps -- mostly silent and exquisitely beautiful.