Thanks to Random House for this review copy. This is part 1 of the review.
Reading other reviews, more conservative readers are simply missing the point of this book. Yes, the author is a liberal religionist, but she is not writing a book on theology or attempting to convert the Faithful to her liberalism, or to defend Christianity. She is writing to show the new, militant, atheists who seek to see all religions in fundamentalists (extremely literal) terms are simply and utterly wrong.
To dismiss her work as somehow a theological treatise or as a proof for the Divine is shows the lack of reading comprehension among many today. Her goal, as she restates several times, is
“As I explained at the outset, my aim is not to give an exhaustive account of religion in any given period, but to highlight a particular trend – the apophatic – that speaks strongly to our current religious perplexity.” (p140)
In the history of religion, we find different strains. What Armstrong is doing is showing that in many of the world’s religions, that while some have taken the more literal approach, many more have taken a mystical, philosophical approach which takes the scared texts of their particular religion into a more symbolic approach to God. While many of us disagree with this approach, our disagreement shouldn’t be with the author, nor with history, which is what many see it as. If you take the book as anything but an attempt to highlight a less-than-literal approach to religion and sacred texts, including those of the Christianity religion, then you sorely miss the point. (Christians shouldn’t see The Case for God in the same light as The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.)
This book was simply not written to me, for me or about me. Instead, the author has written a compelling argument to those unbelievers who see religion only through the eyes of fundamentalism. Currently, the most militant and loudest atheists, while they don’t believe, see religion, especially Christianity, as one does who believes, and stands in 19th century rural America. Everything is extremely literal, with no room for progression in Scripture. No, we no longer kill unruly children. Why? Because in Scripture we have moved past that. Yet, believers and nonbelievers still will focus on the Levitical Law as something which should still be enforced, much to the detriment of the Christian message.
Starting with humanity’s earliest attempts at looking to the Divine and traveling right through to the 15th century, the author produces histories of various religions, although she focuses on Christianity more than the rest. Her history of the Nicene Council leaves a lot out, but in the end, her book is not Church History nor a theological treatise, but a study showing that many have taken a different path towards God than which is taken today. She is merely showing that for a wide majority of religious people, sacred texts are a starting point towards God, just as spoken language is, to set the sights upon realizing that describing God is idolatrous. Indeed, what Calvin and the Reformers warred against was the mysticism of the Dark and Middle Ages of Western Christianity when they first started to elevate the Scriptures to the highest place.
There is much to be gained, for the believer, from some of her history on Christianity, but I will leave that to the reader. While she does have problems with her Christian history, her other problem is with Islamic history, completely ignoring Muhammad’s propensity of marrying young girls among other actions of the sword. While this is offsetting, this is not the point of her book.
(To be continued)