Religion is strange. Most faiths teach that God, or whatever the highest divinity is called, is transcendent, mysterious, ineffable, incapable of being described in words.
Yet these faiths also aren't shy about using a whole lot of words, concepts, dogmas, and such to tell us what God is like and why it is so important to believe in Him, Her, or It. They want to have their cake of mystery and eat it too.
Obviously there are degrees to which something can be precisely described. We can analyze the chemical composition of a strawberry, measure it, photograph it, write reams about it.
But when I pop a delicious Oregon strawberry into my mouth, that's a whole different sort of reality from all of those descriptions. I can't really describe what my direct experience of the taste of a sweet strawberry is like.
Religious believers are fond of saying that this is the same with God: He/She/It can be experienced but not elucidated. In a comment on this post, I acknowledged that argument yet rejected it.
It's sort of like pointing at a strawberry field and saying, "I can't really describe what the berries taste like, or prove to you that I love their juiciness, but I invite you to pick one, put it in your mouth, and taste for yourself."
However, in this case there is evidence for a strawberry field. Just not the taste. I read Myers as saying that if religion posits supernatural forces which operate in the physical world, this is akin to a strawberry field -- something demonstrable, albeit with effects that are essentially immeasurable.
Absent this sort of evidence, Taoism's and Zen's pointing finger really isn't different in kind from religious dogma, such as a Christian saying "I can't show Jesus' love to you, but if you open your heart to him, you'll discover it for yourself."
Pointing a finger at the moon to draw someone's attention to it (as opposed to a reflection in water, say) makes sense because the moon clearly exists.
However, those who claim that some mysterious gesture, utterance, koan, scripture, ritual, or whatever is a means of pointing toward an experience of what God, or the cosmos, is all about are unnecessarily complicating things.
Why not leave mystery alone?
Why give it a name -- "God," "Brahman," "Tao," "Buddha nature" -- and then say, it's beyond all names and descriptions. What's wrong with admitting, the ultimate reality of the cosmos is a big fucking mystery to me, so I'm clueless.
In the introduction to Karen Armstrong's new book, "The Case for God," she says, "People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who 'he' is and what he thinks, loves, and expects."
Well, I'd say more often than sometimes.
Most religious believers aren't reticent about telling us what God, spirit, soul, the afterlife, and other supposedly metaphysical realities are all about. Yet Armstrong challenges this, and is hopeful that mystery can be re-embraced.
We are seeing a great deal of strident dogmatism today, religious and secular, but there is also a growing appreciation of the value of unknowing... There is a long religious tradition that emphasized the importance of recognizing the limits of our knowledge, of silence, reticence, and awe. That is what I hope to explore in this book.
Great. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of it.
However, a well-written and thoughtful Amazon reader review by Paul Fidalgo of "The Case for God" leads me to think that Karen Armstrong's approach to religion is still going to be too religious'y for me, notwithstanding her embrace of mystery.
Armstrong has a particular bone to pick with what we understand today as atheism, most vigorously with the New Atheists, who she says choose the idol-God of the incorrectly-religious to assert the non-existence of.
But Armstrong herself, as many have pointed out before me, defines God out of all notions of existence anyway, leaving nothing to believe in to begin with. Speaking for atheists (if I may for the moment), I think it is safe to say that whether we are talking about a vengeful Old Testament Yahweh or a non-definable, quasi-existent infinite ultimateness of the divine logos, both are equally unprovable, devoid of evidence, and not worthy of acceptance.
Like many of the New Atheists' critics, she complains that they are not sufficiently well-versed in theology, and are therefore in no position to weigh in on the question of God's existence.
This is akin to saying that one cannot assert the nonexistence of the Starship Enterprise unless one has studied every episode of every Star Trek series, earned a degree in startrekology, and published scholarly articles on the debate as to whether resistance truly is futile.
To Armstrong, this rationalist line of thinking shuts out alternate means of arriving at "truths," for Armstrong rests on the also-unprovable notion that truth is a fluid, utterly subjective concept that can be realized by means other than reason. This mindset obviously opens up a formidable can of worms, as any cockamamie "methodology" that someone chooses, and any absurd answers they turn up, suddenly become equally valid.
For Armstrong, there is rational truth and religious truth, and religion--something she insists should be viewed as a discipline and practice rather than a belief system--is equally capable of arriving at truth as science.
What truths religion is supposed to reveal is, of course, not terribly well defined, and one is forced to infer that the correct truths are those that Armstrong has revealed to us; God is too out-there for mere existence, thinking otherwise is wrong, and we should only talk about what God is not, though we're pretty sure it's all about love and tolerance.
Throw in a few dashes of meaningless terms like "the infinite," "ultimate truth," "inner essences," and things that have "no qualities," and you have some idea of what Armstrong is talking about. Or, more likely, you don't.