Monday, September 21, 2009

Karen Armstrong on Fresh Air

I just heard religions scholar Karen Armstrong interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Not to be too harsh, but wow - she radically misinterpreted the Old Testament and the Koran in ways that would make both books unrecognizable to almost any historical Jewish or Muslim community, no matter what their other differences. Here's her basic interpretive premise: "Since we know that the eastern concept that ultimate reality is impersonal and monistic is the true way to think about God, the Koran and Old Testament must have been only using the idea of "God" as a symbol of that impersonal reality. Anybody who who thinks these books are literally talking about a personal God has missed this much more sophisticated point, (and may be on the way to being a terrorist)"
The grain of truth in this is that, yes, the Judeo-Christian view of God portrayed in the Bible is such that our knowledge of God, even knowledge that God gives us by revelation, is always only analogous to his true nature. As most Christian theologians in history have also said, we never quite know God as he is in himself (in se). That is, God is not "just like us but writ large" (Armstrong's regular phrase). However, to say that God's self-revelation functions as analogous language (which is proper) does not imply that such language is merely symbolic in the sense that is has no correlation with God's actual nature. Analogies have a basis in real similarities between symbol and thing signified. So, while neither Jews and Muslims expected God to possess a literal and gigantic fleshly appendage because of scriptural texts describing God's "strong arm", they understood such texts to mean, at least, that a divine personal being existed who had the ability and will to strongly intervene in human affairs. To say, as Armstrong does, that such texts did not even intend to refer to a personal God is really stretching the plain sense of these scriptures, and the plain sense of language in general. And if we deny that the God referred to in the Bible (or Koran) is not even intended to refer to a personal being,the language isn't really analagous in any sense, it's more of a mere fairy tale. But such texts have never functioned that way in any Jewish, Muslim, or Christian community. As an eastern pantheistic monist (as far as I can tell from listening to her), Armstrong should just acknowledge that the Bible and the Koran simply represent a different view of God, rather than suggesting that anyone who doesn't read such texts through the lens of monism has misunderstood the most basic claims of their holy books.

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