Karen Armstrong, the new physics, and religion

Karen ArmstrongKaren Armstrong’s The Case for God is an impressive, impossible survey of beliefs about God from 30,000 BCE to the current God wars between the new atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) and Christian fundamentalists.  Armstrong synthesizes an enormous amount of material, including basic introductions to Buddhism and Confucianism, while concentrating on the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Her work is aimed at the well-educated lay person. 

Where she goes wrong is in imaging that developments in the new physics, such as indeterminacy, can change the way we think about God.*  She’s wrong because while the new science of sub-atomic physics, strangeness, string theory, and quarks may inspire us to think more flexibly about God, there is no reason that it should.  The same may be said of astrophysics, and the fantastically beautiful images of distant galaxies brought back to us by the Hubble and Webb telescopes.  The situation laid out by Albert Camus remains.  We call out for the universe to tell us that we are not abandoned, isolated, and alone, and the universe is silent.

The absurd is born of the confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (Camus, p 28)

The new science is a source of the sublime, that experience that shatters our previous categories of experience.  “Beauty is the beginning of terror we are still just able to bear,” said Rilke.  The new science is beautiful; the new science is terrifying.  But unless one is looking strictly for inspiration, it does nothing to change the absurdity of human existence.  Humans long for a world that cares about us, and the world cares not.  Camus calls that the absurdity (absurdité) of the human condition, and it’s as good a word as any.

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Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong: one of the best books on religion I’ve read

Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong: one of the best books on religion I’ve read. 

Karen Armstrong was a nun for seven years.  She left the convent, partly because its discipline was harsh and inhuman, but primarily because she was unable to pray, and never even came close to the complete self-surrender which was the only path to God (p 9).

She had begun Oxford University in England while still a nun.  She did well, but soon realized that she had no ideas of her own.  On the contrary, she had been trained not to have them.  A clever woman, she could put together the ideas of others, even use one criticize another, but that’s as far as she could go.  This reminds me so much of graduate school, where I spent almost ten years of my life (I was a slow learner).  At least in the social science and humanities, students are trained to put the ideas of others together in new ways, but rarely encouraged to think on their own.

While at Oxford, she began to experience panic attacks during which she would hallucinate, the world seeming to melt and fragment, faces around her dripping like wax (p 141).  Years of psychoanalysis were useless, and eventually she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.  Proper medication stopped the seizures and the hallucinations.  But the experience of the hallucinations stayed with her.

It is as though a comforting veil of illusion had been ripped away and you see the world without form, without significance, purposeless, blind, trivial, spiteful, and ugly to the core. (p 55)

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