Read Any Good Books Lately?

Posted by on 01.25.10 | 8 Comments
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I have made myself way too busy in the last month, and have neglected more important things. My need to check in with the VTH finally overcame the intertia of administrative stuff and has led me to write about a book I just finished. I realize this isn’t necessarily the venue for book reviews, but it is a Virtual Tea House, and people talk about what they have read over tea, don’t they?

Anyway, I recently finished Karen Armstrong’s latest book “The Case for God.” It is well worth the read. For those who don’t know her, Karen was raised a Roman Catholic in England, and as a little girl she aspired to become a nun, which in due course is exactly what she did. Didn’t work. Lots of reasons. She left the convent and organized religion, eventually becoming what she described as an “undifferentiated monotheist.” Along the way she wrote a bunch of books and became one of the non-muslim world’s greatest experts on Islam, a religion she views with great understanding and sympathy.

Her newest book, “The Case for God.” makes the plea for a return to the tradition of what is called “apophatic spirituality,” that way of understanding God which realizes we understand nothing much at all, which in fact finds that when we have pushed the limits of human language, and metaphor and knowledge and understanding and rationality as far as we can go, what is left is nothing but awe and wonder at the still limitless, infinite reality that stretches before us. What we know, most simply put, is that we know nothing about God, and that needs to be enough. It is a spirituality that stresses compassion, rather than comprehension, reconciliation, rather than rote, devotion, rather than dogma, and describes faith not as the ability to agree with certain propositions about the nature of God, but as the ability to trust completely in that which is beyond all understanding. It is a spirituality that is very old, and in the western world anyway, has deep roots in the Hebrew bible and the first thousand years of so of Christian spirituality.

It seems to me that this is also the natural spiritual perspective of the VTH. It isn’t that we all agree, because you don’t have to read very many posts to realize that we all come to this virtual place with not just with different ideas and experiences, but with different ways of framing those ideas and experiences. But I do notice that within the context of this great variety most of us have along the way given up on the notion that faith is about believing concepts, and religion is about ritual enactments. We all have concepts and rituals, and we use them to great effect, but we don’t believe in them in any more; we don’t believe they do any more than to point us in the direction of that ineffable presence that is everywhere, and yet beyond everywhere, that is in everything, and yet is no-thing. In reading her book I found myself rediscovering my own experience through another person’s eyes, which I experienced not so much as a vindication of my own opinions, as an affirmation of the mystery of life itself.

Now Armstrong is what my good friend Ray Jeff Sprier would call a “propeller head.” Her language is not technical – she is really good about writing for non-professional audiences – but it is academic; the footnotes take up a big hunk of the volume. Those seeking an exploration of the deeply affective side of life are not going to find it here. But those who feel lonely in their spirituality in this modern world of certainty about God, who want some company out on the edges where knowledge fails, and rationality collapses into paradox, will find this book richly rewarding, provided you can embrace the style in which she approaches the subject. I could embrace that style, and I am grateful for her company in my own long strange trip.




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