Man’s practical understanding of God, said one religious scholar speaking at Harvard, is “like a goldfish trying to understand a computer. … It will always be beyond us.”
But religion and God can be comprehended in some important ways. That was the theme of the three-day series of William Belden Noble Lectures (Nov. 13-15) delivered by religious historian and author Karen Armstrong.
A former nun, Armstrong has again found her calling in religion. The self-proclaimed “freelance monotheist” has dedicated much of her life to religious study, in particular comparing and contrasting Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
The author of “A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam” (1993) and most recently “The Bible: A Biography” (2007) delivered the series of lectures at Harvard’s Memorial Church. In the first two evenings, she covered the topics “What Is Truth?” and “How Do We Know the Unknowable God?” where she contended that a strong religiosity derives from practices such as prayer, compassion, contemplation, and nonviolence. According to Armstrong, religious doctrine won’t come to fruition unless it is translated into effective action. Such action, she said, is the best way of entering the divine presence. Her final lecture, introduced by Dorothy A. Austin, Sedgwick Associate Minister in the Memorial Church, University chaplain, and co-master of Lowell House, was called “God’s Future.”
“The truths of religion were not simply metaphysical verities … but from the beginning they were delineated as a plan of action that became comprehensible only within a program of ritual and ethical practice that lead to personal transformation,” said Austin in a brief recapitulation of the previous evenings’ lectures by Armstrong.
In the modern world, the notion of compassion and the golden rule — as she put it, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you” — is of critical importance, said Austin.
“At a time when the world is so dangerously divided and the idea of God seems not only tenuous and dubious and even discredited … the selection of compassion might well be the way forward, the only way to find out if the golden rule works is to try it and see,” recounted Austin.
In “God’s Future” Armstrong again contended that in the age of modernity, where instant understanding is often expected, the idea of God has become “increasingly incredible for large numbers of people.” God, she said, has been reduced to a notional concept, something that people seek to explain with metaphysical proof and demonstration.
“How do we recover a sense of God’s vibrant reality? How can we rescue God from a miasma of doctrine and metaphysics?” she asked the audience. “How do we go forward with an inventiveness and confidence in our ability to see the transcendent in mystical, wonderful, mythical, imaginative ways?”
As a solution, she offered a three-part approach.
First, one must recover what she called the “tradition of negative theology.” The term “negative” isn’t used as the opposite to “positive,” Armstrong explained, but represents an awareness that the concept of God is something beyond man’s perception of reality.
According to the prolific author, the idea is linked to the religious truth the Greeks termed “dogma,” which meant, “Everything in religion that could not be said, could not be explained, that you could only discover after a long period of practice and participation in the rituals.”
The sense that God is something that cannot be explained and is always greater than what we can conceive needs to be developed, said Armstrong.
Secondly, she argued, one must always approach religious truth with a mind-set completely different from the one used to approach truth in other disciplines. The scriptures of religious truth, she said, “are held in a ritual setting in a mind-set that is different from normal life.”
She used the example of the Quran to illustrate her point. Westerners who try to read the Quran from cover to cover are completely missing the point, Armstrong lamented. By design, the sacred text of Islam, whose very name means recitation, was meant to be listened to. It’s the very process of hearing the words, the Arabic chanted repeatedly, that brings one to that contemplative state, she said.
“If you listen to this scripture chanted in a wonderful way throughout a lifetime, certain verbal echoes start occurring to you … rather like variations in a piece of music, that add new depth and new subtlety and new layers.”
Thirdly, Armstrong said that one must attempt to evaluate the original meaning of religious doctrines in order to ably apply their lessons in today’s world.
“In our studies, in our Bible groups, in our sermons, [we must] look back at how some of these [doctrines] evolved and then see if we can analogically apply that spirit to our own time.”
In concluding, Armstrong returned to the notion of compassion as a means for understanding God. The idea that religion can provide a path to the compassion that best illuminates the concept of the divine is essential, she said.
“Our great task in our divided, hate-filled world is to find a way to make our doctrines heal these ghastly divisions,” she said. “Unless we are able to make our traditions speak a word of healing and unity we have failed the task that is set us in this terrible time. [We need] to bring out the voice of compassion in all our traditions and make it audible in the clamor of hatred.”