God Is A Fundamentalist?

"The Mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society" - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is the author of nearly twenty books, including The Great Transformation, and The Spiral Staircase, a spiritual memoir. An internationally renowned expert on religion, Armstrong is a powerful voice for interfaith understanding.

Armstrong's latest 'bestseller' The Battle For God - A History of Fundamentalism is a highly readable account of how the world today faces a clash between religious fundamentalism and secularism.

Library Journal's review of the book said: Armstrong, author of A History of God and other books on the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, writes very perceptively about the intense fear of modernity that has stimulated various fundamentalisms: Protestant, in the United States; Jewish, in Israel; Sunni Muslim, in Egypt; and Shii Muslim, in Iran. Each is ultimately modern in its attempts at converting mythic thinking into logical thinking and in its use of widespread literacy and the democratic ideas about individual importance that modernity fostered, but each is also at war with its liberal co-religionists and with secularists who "have entirely different conceptions of the sacred." Armstrong concludes that both sides--fundamentalists and secularists (including governments)--need compassion in order to be true to their own religious or humanistic values. The historical range and depth of this work, which transcends other treatments of the subject, make this highly recommended for all libraries.

Ray Olsen writing for Booklist commented: Combining synoptic and interpretive historical manners, Armstrong, author of the widely read and well-received History of God (1993), produces another splendid book that, for the considerable readership interested in religion, may prove to be a page-turner. The subject is fundamentalism in the world's great monotheisms--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong represents the dissimilar movements called fundamentalist as fearful reactions to modernity, especially the modernist predispositions for materialist reason and empirical evidence, which have increasingly encouraged denying the validity, or even the possibility, of truths expressed by the symbolic systems of religion. But, she maintains, these fundamentalisms are themselves typical products of modernity, for they tacitly accept the modern scientific devaluation of religious mythos by insisting on the literal truth of sacred writings, as in Christian fundamentalists' use of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a set of predictions of particular historical events and persons. Armstrong works out her interpretation by historically tracing the challenge of modernity and the fundamentalist reaction in the three monotheisms as parallel developments that span some 1,500 years. The typically modern pressure of politics upon religion began in the Middle Ages (Islam has never been free of it). A crucial date is 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the first rational modern state, their united kingdom of Spain, even as they dispatched Columbus, probably a Christianized Jew, in the opening salvo of modern imperialism. Intriguingly, Armstrong says the modernizing process had been launched earlier in the century by the Inquisition--a statement provocative enough to current ideas of what's modern to hook many readers, none of whom will later be the least bit dismayed about having taken the bait.

At the end of the book are a series of fourteen discussion topics which arise from the book's theme and which should aid readers in formulating comments for discussion in this thread.

Is there a battle for God?

Posted November 10, 2007


Peter said...

It’s been some time since I read this book but one thing that surprised me was the story of the persecution of both the Jews and the Muslims in Spain. In 1499 Muslims either had to convert to Christianity or be deported. Then Ferdinand and Isabella signed the Edict of Expulsion to rid Spain of the Jews. Prior to this the religions had all lived together relatively peacefully.

I gathered from the book that secularism or ‘modernity’ for want of better words is now seen as the same threat to religious fundamentalists whether they be Jewish, Muslim, or Protestant. This threat is viewed as one that can only be opposed with force. Therefore one finds ‘Christians’ willing to shoot abortion doctors etc. etc.

I’m looking forward to the discussion on this subject!

Take care,

Roger Spenser said...

Good points, Peter.

I saw a debate on Monday, October 22 between Dinesh D'Souza (Christian) and Christopher Hitchens (Atheist) in whch Dinesh said:

"We live in a very unusual time in which atheism has emerged as a kind of militant phenomenon. On the face of that, it seem a little bit odd, because if you are an unbeliever, why be militant? I don't believe in unicorns; but, I haven't written any books on the subject. I don't spend a lot of time denouncing unicorns; I live my life as though unicorns did not exist. But what we have from the atheist side is a belligerent attack on theism and specifically on Christianity."

I think this is why fundamentalists feel threatened – it may be something to do with what Dinesh is calling ‘militant’ atheism. I liked the way he put it – if you don’t believe in unicorns why get all crazy about them?


Geoff Fox said...

Roger: Good debate! Thanks for the link.

Shiism has 12 imams one of whom is "hidden" and will return . He will bring a reign of peace and justice. He is the light of God in a bad world and its source of hope. Hitchens said in the debate that Shiism is a parody of the Catholic faith.

That was the same thought I had as I read Armstrong’s account of the development of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The mythos surrounding the Hidden Imam is in many ways parallel to the mythos surrounding the Christ.


Michael N. Hull said...

Armstrong did a very nice job in the introduction of the book in introducing the concepts of mythos and logos and describing how modern societies have tended to lose the mythos side of this pairing.

I particularly like the following where she writes:

We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology.

Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry, or sculpture. Myth only became a reality when it was embodied in cult, rituals, and ceremonies which worked aesthetically upon worshippers, evoking within them a sense of sacred significance and enabling them to apprehend the deeper currents of existence.

In the premodern world, people had a different view of history. They were less interested than we are in what actually happened, but more concerned with the meaning of an event. Historical incidents were not seen as unique occurrences, set in a far-off time, but were thought to be external manifestations of constant, timeless realities. Hence history would tend to repeat itself, because there was nothing new under the sun. Historical narratives tried to bring out this eternal dimension. Thus, we do not know what really occurred when the ancient Israelites escaped from Egypt and passed through the Sea of Reeds. The story has been deliberately written as a myth, and linked with other stories about rites of passage, immersion in the deep, and gods splitting a sea in two to create a new reality. To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the nature and purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.

Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel.

In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile. You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of a pragmatic policy. If you did so, the results could be disastrous, because what worked well in the inner world of the psyche was not readily applicable to the affairs of the external world.

Logos had its limitations too. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of life. That was the preserve of myth and cult.

By the eighteenth century, however, the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think that logos was the only means to truth and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious. It is also true that the new world they were creating contradicted the dynamic of the old mythical spirituality. Our religious experience in the modern world has changed, and because an increasing number of people regard scientific rationalism alone as true, they have often tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalists have also made this attempt. This confusion has led to more problems.

I’m not quite sure that I agree with Armstrong when she says that we have lost the ‘mythos’ part in modern society. That may be true in the religious realm where atheists erroneously apply ‘logos’ in their criticism of what is essential ‘mythos’ and this confusion is exaggerated by ‘fundamentalist’ religious people who insist that the ‘mythos’ of their beliefs is actually ‘logos’. On the other hand, it seems to me that when one studies science we are searching for truths using ‘logos’ (or as I have put it in other threads by using ‘models’) but when we study literature or art we are searching for truths using ‘metaphors’ (‘mythos’ in Armstrong’s terms). ‘Gravity’ or ‘biology’ has to be studied with logos (models) while ‘jealousy’ or ‘love’ has to be studied with mythos (metaphors).


Megan Zamprelli said...

I didn’t realize and was surprised to learn that Calvin and Wesley both seemed to see no contradiction between science and the bible.

Calvin did not believe the bible had any literal information on the geography of the earth or the cosmology of the heavens but that biblical language was ‘balbative’ i.e. a simplification of a truth that was too complex to be stated in any other way.

Wesley seems to have regarded as something to be understood through the heart and not through the head.

Good stuff!

Stan Preston said...

Did anyone pick up on the similarities Armstrong drew between the American Revolution in the 1770s and the recent Iranian revolution in our recent history.

Two statements struck me and I quote:

The leaders of the Revolution – George Washington, John and Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were deists who experienced the revolution as a secular event. The vast majority of Americans were Calvinists and they could not relate to this rationalist ethos. Indeed, many of them regarded deism as a satanic ideology. We shall find a similar alliance of religious and secularist idealism in the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-1979), which was also a declaration of independence against an imperialist power.

The enthusiasm, imagery, and mythology of Christian eschatology gave meaning to the revolutionary struggle and helped secularists and Calvinists alike to make the decisive, dislocation severance from tradition (the link with Britain). In rather the same way as Iranians would later call America “the Great Satan” during their Islamic Revolution, British officials were portrayed as being in league with the devil during the revolutionary crisis. After the passing of the notorious Stamp Act (1765), patriotic poems and songs presented its perpetrators, Lords Bute, Grenville, and North, as the minions of Satan who were conspiring to lure the Americans into the devil’s eternal Kingdom.


Megan Zamprelli said...

The fate of Millerism in the last century where the attempt to treat the bible as logos instead of mythos led to the absurd "Second Coming of Christ" in 1843 apparently is a lesson that is still not learned today!

Regrettably, as Armstrong points out, truth today has been narrowed to what is "demonstrated and demonstratable" which religion aside would exclude the truth told by art, music, and literature.


Avid Reader said...

In my view Armstrong summed the present situation up perfectly in the Afterword to this book when she wrote:

A large number of people still want to be religious and have tried to evolve new forms of faith. Fundamentalism is just one of these modern religious experiments but it has lost sight of some of the most sacred values of the confessional faiths. Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate. The fundamentalist experience shows the truth of this conservative insight. By insisting that the truths of Christianity are factual and scientifically demonstrable, American Protestant fundamentalists have created a caricature of both religion and science.