Karen Armstrong has written another big book about the various ways people throughout history and across cultures envision and explain what they can neither see nor understand.
This new work by the prolific British author is titled "The Case for God." It takes 411 pages to argue that the postmodern believer must find a theology of silence, a catechism beyond words.
Her message inspires this advice for time-pressed readers who'd like to practice what Armstrong preaches:
Read the introduction, then skip to the final chapter. Make sure you read the Epilogue, but don't worry too much about those 289 pages in between.
Armstrong, who attracted a loyal following with her 1993 best-seller "A History of God," is a brilliant woman and engaging commentator on the philosophical and theological foundations of the world's religions. But she has an annoying tendency to explain the history of everything every time she wants to make a point.
Her point here is a well-reasoned response to the so-called "new atheists," a trio of anti-religionists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) who surprised the publishing world with their own series of best-selling books.
Armstrong rightly points out that these writers have committed literary sins - not so much with their disbelief in God - but in the way they seek to discredit all people of faith by focusing on the intolerant and sometimes violent message promoted by Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists.
In the process, Armstrong argues, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are guilty of the same narrow-mindedness that they seek to expose. "Like all religious fundamentalists," she writes, "the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner."
This former nun and author of 18 other books on religious themes outdoes the new atheists with her own critique of contemporary religious fundamentalism. "It is essential for critics of religion to see fundamentalism in historic context," she writes. "Far from being typical of faith, it is an aberration."
Armstrong does not just go after the easy targets - the Osama bin Ladens and Jerry Falwells of the world. Nor does she avoid the obvious horrors of Christendom - the Crusades, the Inquisition and the wars of religion. She recounts that bloody horror, but continues with a subtler analysis of the way modern theologians sought to rationalize the divine in the wake of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.
Philosophers who mistakenly predicted "the death of God" were dead wrong in that prophecy, but they did seriously injure the Almighty by turning divinity into "a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer or ethical commitment."
"Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason," Armstrong concludes. "Religion's task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us live creatively, peacefully, and even joyfully with realities for which there were no easy explanations."
This is not an easy task. True religion "requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent."
Armstrong does uncover a few gems in her lucid but sometimes tiring recitation of the entire history of Greek philosophy, Jewish mysticism, Christian theology and Muslim thought.
One of them was a sixth century Syrian mystic who used the pseudonym Dionysius the Areopagite, who was St. Paul's first Athenian convert. Here was a Christian writer who appreciated the value of silence and a different kind of knowledge - an "unknowing" that "drives us out of ourselves."
Armstrong writes that Pseudo-Dionysius understood "the inherent finitude of language," and ends her book with the suggestion that "it is perhaps time to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to silence and unknowing."
Let's err on the side of praise, and find mystical paradox in the way Armstrong takes so many words to get us to a truth beyond words. For, in the end, "The Case for God" sounds an enlightened call for people of faith - and people of no faith - to follow a middle path between mindless fundamentalism and rigid atheism.
This review first appeared in the SF Chronicle of Oct. 18, 2009