Thanks to Random House for this review copy. This is part 2 of the review.
While her first part of the book dealt primarily with the inability of humanity to come to terms with a transcendent God, bumbling through the centuries with rituals and language barriers, the second part of her book deals with humanity’s failed attempt to remove the transcendent God.
Starting with a brief overview of the Reformation, she almost proposes a new reason for the Reformation, and that of Rome’s inability to accept new scientific analysis and the hardening of its own theology in regards to Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. It was Calvin, returning to Augustinian Science, who opened the door for a merger of religion and science. Something which will be disconcerting to atheists will be the very real fact that it was the Protestants who first led the way into science and indeed, into biblical criticism, against the march and might of Rome.
She is doing this, to counter the extremely fundamentalist position of the atheists, and indeed, of religionist, who believe that Religion and Science have always, and will always, be at odds, at each others’ throats.
One of her underlying points, perhaps unintentionally, is that with the Protestant Reformation came the loss of religious rituals in Europe. She has spent a lot of time developing the idea that ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ means more than an abstract hope, but a commitment. So, if some one has faith in Christ, it is not that they believe that He existed, but that they have a commitment to Him and His teachings. For Armstrong, the former nun, rituals were important, across the millennium, in connecting people to their cultural gods, and no less when it came to connecting Christians to God. With the loss of the ‘real presence’ in the Eucharist, it become a theological symbol, a mere memorial, which allowed people to become further disconnected from the theology of the Cross.
It might be said, from reading Armstrong, that in a round about way, she blames atheism on the Reformation. Whether right or wrong, the loss of rituals have added to the erosion of Christianity in the lives of many people. There is no longer a ‘constant doing’ in the Christian life, but a mere ‘wait and see’ attitude. There is no commitment, but an abstract hope.
Moving through the ages of the Enlightenment, which was led by at the very last, Deists, she shows the long strides that both Science and Religion have taken to continue hand in hand. Religionists where scientists and scientists where Religionists. The same fact which is found in Christianity (Jonathan Edwards) is the same fact found in other religions as well. While Science could provide cold, hard facts – the how – religion move to answer those things left unanswerable by science – the why. Yet, in the 19th century, when deism started to give way to pre-atheism, fundamentalism arose.
The author makes the point, as so many have recently, that fundamentalism arose as a reactionary measure against what many felt like attacks by pre-atheists. When many in the public square called for the separation of Science and Religion, leaving Religion behind as an antiquated method of, well, destruction human appetites and moral control, which left so many questions seemingly unanswered, their arose a rejection, complete rejection, of science. Suddenly, biblical inerrancy took on a new layer, in that – unlike Augustine and Calvin – every fact, whether astronomical, geological, or physical had to be true of the entire bible and scope of Christian history was false. No more did segments of Christianity see that it was human wisdom that was lacking in understanding the bible, but that it we knew full well what the bible said and regardless of scientific evidences, everyone else was wrong. Fundamentalism become the extreme reactionary backlash against the scientific communities insistence that it alone held the absolute truth to the workings of the universe.
However, moving through the modern era, when the Newtonian God has been debunked, and that there is no real unifying theory of science, the once absolute truths of science provide more questions than answers. Now, when science is becoming less sure of itself, a sort of fundamentalist atheism is arising which is ignorant of the whole of religious, and indeed, Christian history. What Armstrong has done, is to put the atheist on the same level as the fundamentalist – regardless of religion – and scolded them harshly, but in a manner that it might take a while to sink in.
Her theology and Church history is aberrant to me (why is it that everyone thinks Athanasius was the first to declare Christ God?). Her acceptance of the equality of all religion stands squarely against my belief in the exclusivity of Christ. Her belief in a transcendent God does not sit well with my reading of a deeply personal God which I find in the bible. Further, the mere fact that she is a woman schooling some of us might not sit well with some.
However, Armstrong has created a masterful work showcasing the pitfalls of extremists views, and indeed, that the history of religion is nothing of the sort, but one which attempts to lifts humanity to the Creator, giving the answers of ‘why’ and generally ignoring the ‘hows’ as an idolatrous attempt in claiming God and His works for our own.
Can conservative Christians gain from this book? Of course, but they must first know how to approach this book. This book will not cite examples or proofs of God, and doesn’t attempt to in any way prove that God is, so don’t expect that. Nor is it a diatribe against Atheism. Expect, instead, a discussion, harsh sometimes, on the history of human religion which at one time looked to God, and left Him Alone to Speak, but now, we demand what we want from Him, whether we believe or do not.