Sunday, October 4, 2009

I Left Judaism Because I am Ross Douthat and not Karen Armstrong

10/4/2009—In today’s New York Times book review section, there is a wonderful moment in Ross Douthat’s review of Karen Armstong’s new book The Case for God. Douthat rather praises Armstrong’s description of an important tradition in the monotheistic faiths: the pursuit of an unknowable Deity “to be approached through myth, ritual and ‘apophatic’ theology, which practices ‘a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred.’” Religion is not something to be thought but something to be done. Religion in the West lost this “knack” because it tried to emulate the truth claims of science, which has now led to bizarre attempts to prove the Bible’s compatibility with modern scientific theories. Armstrong shows that most of the Church fathers, for example, did not read Genesis literally, the way that many so-called conservatives do today.

Douthat does not dispute what Armstrong describes—-he apparently agrees that much conservative religion is know-nothing—-but he disputes Armstrong’s ultimate conclusion: that the three monotheisms were essentially liberal religions prior to the scientific age: “It’s true that Augustine…did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection.”

But then Douthat makes a different point, not that liberal religion is less true but that it is less fulfilling and sustainable. “It’s possible to gain some sort of ‘knack’ for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is ‘a symbol, to hell with it.’ But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant¬ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism… .”

Douthat describes essentially my feelings about Judaism. My “faith” is probably very close to that of Armstrong, but it finally seemed false to me to describe it as Judaism. So I call it Hallowed Secularism, which seems more faithful to the break between my beliefs and those of the ancient rabbis. Or, to put it another way, whether God performs miracles or not, they did not doubt that he could do so if he wished. For me, miracles, and the kind of God who could perform them, are ruled out in principle.

This agreement does not mean that the kind of religion Douthat describes is actually possible in the long run. Religion cannot exist if it is inconsistent with the given certainties of the age.


  1. "So I call it Hallowed Secularism, which seems more faithful to the break between my beliefs and those of the ancient rabbis."

    I'm curious why you chose the term 'secular' over Deism or just calling yourself 'spiritual, but not religious.' Either of those would seem like a better fit for you.

  2. Hi Recall. This is a good question and is one I thought about a long time. I use the word secular for its connotation of "this world is all there is". Deists really did still hold to a conception of God as the Creator of the world. That eventually became something of a mere metaphor, but I did not want to borrow their imprecision. Spiritual connotes a dualism between one world and another, the world of spirit and the world of the body. I do not accept such dualism. For me, we are both material and immaterial. The brain produces consciousness, which is itself immaterial. Certainly the world is such that there is a "central order" (as the physicist Werner Heisenberg put it) that the ancients called God, but that God is not outside the world but in it. Richard Niebuhr called God "the order in things".

  3. First off, I think apophatic theology is meaningless and describes almost no one besides Karen Armstrong.

    I'm a Unitarian, which we call a liberal religion because it accepts wide differences of theologies. What Douthat talks about is mainline Protestants who are politically liberal.

    I describe myself as religious, but not spiritual. I define religion with the Latin root sense of "to bind" so I'm 100% behind "religion is not something to be thought but something to be done." The practice, and not primarily belief, of religion is something that does not describe most of Christianity. (However, I do associate this attitude with Judaism. I think that I would be Reform if I was born into the tradition.)

    But I'm not with the argument that western religion tried to emulate the truth claims of science. Christianity and Islam made truth claims centuries before modern science. I agree with Douthat in that the core truth claims of these two are about Jesus and Mohamed - Genesis is an afterthought.

    When science came along, people with scriptural truth statements were forced to grapple with truth statements from science that sometimes directly contradicted scripture. Liberal Christians decided to transform their theology while conservatives did not. (Some fundamentalist Christians kept the truth claims of Genesis as well).

    Not sure if this comment up til now has a point, so I'll try to end with one: your last statement is pretty rubbery because believers will always bend "inconsistent" and "given certainties" so that their religion can continue to exist. See evolution.

  4. Thank you for informing us about the Hallowed Secularism. I enjoy your work; please keep up the good work on your website. Now I was writing my assignment from assignment writing service, and in the meantime I discovered your website, which I really like. best regards