Strike up the band

Karen Armstrong says God is like a melody.

Every day, music confronts us with a mode of knowledge that defies logical analysis and empirical proof…Hence all art constantly aspires to the condition of music; so too, at its best, does theology.

If you say so (and of course ‘at its best’ covers a multitude of sins – at my best I am a paragon of wit and virtue, but my best is oddly elusive). But that is (I can’t help assuming) because the ‘the’ in ‘theology’ is so flexible, so adaptable, so shape-shifting, so all things to all people, that it makes just as much sense to say that theology at its best aspires to the condition of poetry, or rock climbing, or cookery, or sex, or being drunk. In any case theology at its less than best seems to aspire to the condition of a strange combination of story-telling and scholarship. It makes stuff up but uses scholarly-looking language to talk about the stuff it makes up. If Armstrong wants to think that’s a kind of art form…I’m not going to send her a telegram urging her to stop.

A modern sceptic will find it impossible to accept Steiner’s conclusion that “what lies beyond Man’s word is eloquent of God”. But perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God.

Right…because God is neither this nor that, neither here nor there, neither short nor tall, neither immanent nor transcendent, neither animal nor vegetable (I can go on like this all day) – God is not something that can be pinned down by our puny words nor grasped by our tiny little minds – God is not a toaster nor my left foot, neither is God Chekhov nor is it J K Rowling. God is not a lug wrench, nor a rainy afternoon, nor a blue whale with a headache, nor a petunia, nor a song, nor a sneeze – yet God contains elements of all those – and then again –

In other words it is always possible to spin words about God (or to be silent about God and consider that a branch of theology) – but we live in the real world, where people think God is a literal person who makes rules that we have to obey (no condoms – flog that woman for showing some hair at the edge of her hijab – kill all the infidels – no stem cell research for you – don’t do any work on Saturday and that includes flipping a light switch – slaughter that goat by cutting its throat in the approved way and no other). The world would be a much better place (which is not to say it would be perfect – no, the “new” atheists don’t think everything would be perfect if religion vanished) if the Armstrong idea of God were the only idea of God – but that’s not how it is. She seems to be telling us we’re confused about what God really is – but that’s a mug’s game. Nobody knows ‘what God really is’ – whatever anyone says is made up, so it seems futile to try to say one version is right while another is wrong.

The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion.

No they don’t. They insist that the God that makes rules and answers prayers and prefers one set of people to another set of people and hates atheists is the God that most people mean by the word ‘God’ and the one that the rest of us have to deal with. They insist that pretending that real religion is really something much more sophisticated and ethereal and poetic and music-like and loving and compassionate is just delusional. They insist (to the extent that they insist anything) that it is the bossy intrusive punitive kind of religion that causes problems and so it’s no good trying to pretend it out of existence.

Because “God” is infinite, nobody can have the last word.

See – there you go: how does she know God is infinite? How does she know God doesn’t expire in 357,941,826,098 years plus a week? How does she know God isn’t the size of ten universes laid end to end and not one bit bigger? How does she know God isn’t smaller than a bread box? She doesn’t – but she says things as if she does (and putting scare quotes on “God” won’t save her – we can still see that she’s saying things).

But a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West.

Well if Armstrong can persuage people to go back to that there deliberate and principled reticence about God – I for one will send her a big thank-you letter complete with coupon for a large pizza with 3 toppings for $8.99.

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