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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Why do theologians write so much?

Why do theologians write so much?  I’m going to take the case of Rudolf Bultmann because the problem is particularly acute with him, but it applies to most, including Karl Barth.  Barth’s Church Dogmatics alone is over six million words.  Together they are the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century.

They write so much because they are writing about what cannot be spoken, or written.  The kerygma (κήρυγμα), which means message or proclamation, refers in general to the gospels, and in Bultmann’s work to the decision to follow the message of Advent, that Christ is risen and we must choose to believe and act accordingly.

Trouble is, the kerygma is prelinguistic.

As counterintuitive as it may initially appear, the logical conclusion is that the kerygma is essentially prelinguistic. (Congdon, p 74) 

This doesn’t make words irrelevant, but it sets their limit.  If “the purpose of theology is to bring to speech the actual event in which one encounters the living God,” then Bultmann’s project is impossible.

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