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god doesn’t have to be a 4-letter word

May 10, 2015

Just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which goes well with this article I think. In it, Armstrong explores the history of “God” — a word that we come to discover packs a lot more meaning than simply some celestial Big Brother in the sky — particularly how ideas about God have evolved in the three main monotheistic religions throughout the centuries, and how those ideas have influenced religion, art, science, philosophy, and culture in a dialectical way.

Throughout the book, Armstrong routinely steers away from God as an objective reality or being, focusing instead on the role of God as a subjective experience in our collective lives, the product of the creative imagination, much like music, poetry, and art. From her point of view, God, or spirituality in general, gives expression to certain ideas, feelings, and experiences that we all tend to have, and it’s likely not a coincidence that, “When people try to find an ultimate meaning and value in human life, their minds seem to go in a certain direction. They have not been coerced to do this; it is something that seems natural to humanity” (394).

She continually stresses the symbolic nature of these ideas, however, since the full reality of the absolute can’t be put into words, stressing again and again that they become dangerous when taken too literally and clung to in a fundamentalistic way. Religion is always at its best when this is understood. Our ideas about God, the universe, or anything else for that matter, constantly grow and change, which in turn revolutionizes the way we perceive and interact with the world and one another. She demonstrates that, when one idea of God is no longer tenable or useful, it fades away to be replaced by one that does, illustrating an evolution of consciousness as we expand our understanding of the world and ourselves.

One idea I found especially interesting is that, since the philosophical death of God that’s come about in the last couple hundred years, there’s been nothing to take its place, leaving a void in our psyches. Armstrong suggests that we create a faith for ourselves to cultivate our sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life, but “the aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life” seem to indicate that that’s no longer the case (397-8). We need to create a new focus of meaning, however, not fall back onto fundamentalism, apocalypticism, and ‘instant’ charismatic forms of religiosity that are currently prevalent in the US and other parts of the world.

Although I know there are many who’d strongly disagree with me on this, I’m inclined to side with Armstrong’s assessment. While I think it’s important to try and liberate society from its suffering and alienation by changing the material conditions that support it, which includes building on our scientific understanding of the world, I also think there’s a spiritual dimension that needs to be addressed. Religion, then, isn’t just some kind of spiritual painkiller; it can also be part of the cure.

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