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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 10 Winter 2009
book cover

The case for God: what religion really means
Karen Armstrong (London: The Bodley Head, 2009)

Karen Armstrongs latest book, The case for God, is a refreshingly readable and interesting study of the history of religion and ideas of God. She starts us off in 30,000 BC with pre-historic cave paintings of animals paired in combinations that would not occur in real life oxen and bison with horses, bison with mammoths and speculates on the spiritual ideas which may have given rise to them. She continues through religious and scientific thinking and controversies over the centuries up to the present day, including the Greek gods, and the pagan gods of the Old Testament.

She examines fully how the ideas of the nature of God have always been in dispute and development, as new knowledge and attitudes raised doubts and new possibilities for both theologians and scientists. She explains fascinatingly some of the major furious and life threatening controversies (like the trial of Galileo by the Church for maintaining that the Earth revolved around the Sun), but it becomes clear that such events were only the tip of a very ancient iceberg. We have always been arguing about the nature of God, often going to war about it, worrying about it, craving for the answer.

This book shows the agonies, ecstasies and obscurities of the search. Do not be misled by the title. We do not get a brief, easily remembered and trotted out formula to prove Gods existence. What we do get is a clear and objective discussion of the views over the centuries of believers, agnostics, atheists, and permutations of all three.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun before becoming a full-time writer. Her conclusion is that any attempt to understand God intellectually, or to define "him", is pointless, because He passes all understanding. The solution is summed up by Anselm of Laon, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093 AD), who saw his writings "advancing through faith to understanding, rather than proceeding through understanding to faith", and explaining that "I do not seek to understand in order that I may have faith (intellegere ut credam), but I commit myself in order that I may understand (credo ut intelligam); and what is sure, I am certain that unless I so commit myself I shall not understand."

For believer, agnostic or atheist, this is a first class exposition of how we got to where we are now. It also shows that change in our understanding has always been occurring.