Karen Armstrong is irritating in a great many ways, but one of the major ways is her passion for stringing together resounding words that sound vaguely impressive but don’t actually mean anything that one can figure out – that are carefully chosen not to mean anything. That is a habit that always makes me want to hit things, and she has a really severe case of it.
In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
What on earth is a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence? What does she mean by an indescribable transcendence? What exactly is that?
Whatever you want it to mean, right? After all, she did say it’s indescribable. But if it’s indescribable – why is she talking about it? Why does she do both? Why does she lay down the law about this stuff but choose her language in such a way that she avoids saying anything exact that one can get to grips with?
Well that’s a stupid question; we know why; because she can, because it works, because it sells lots of books, because it wins her an undeserved and indeed ridiculous reputation as an expert on religion among hordes of people who don’t know any better. Because it’s a good wheeze. There’s very little reason (apart from intellectual honesty) for her not to do it, because it does work such a treat.
And yet it surprises me all the same; I suppose it surprises me that she doesn’t make herself sick. It always surprises me that people who peddle meaningless jargon don’t make themselves sick in the process.
The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.
Says Armstrong. But the trouble with that is, it isn’t true. It’s apparently what Armstrong thinks should be true, it’s apparently what she wishes were true, but she expressed it in the indicative, not the conditional or the subjunctive. It would be nice if she were right about what religion is – it would be great if it were a kind of art form. But she isn’t right – she’s just confusing her wishes with reality.