MARCH 16, 2020
BOTH JACK MILES’S Religion as We Know It: An Origin Story and Karen Armstrong’s The Lost Art of Scripture are contributions — powerful in their own ways — to the comparative study of religion. Miles was general editor to the Norton Anthology of World Religions, and his new book — more of a pamphlet really — serves as an introduction to his introductions in that extraordinarily ambitious project. Religion as We Know It sketches how the comparative approach to religion got underway as an academic field, and how Miles himself became an enthusiast. Armstrong’s more substantial volume continues her decades-long rereading of the great texts of the world’s religions as rumination on ineffability, on religious practice as a way of knowing, and on compassion as the vital heart of the major approaches to the sacred. If Miles’s book is not quite a book, Armstrong’s work is an anti-book. She wants to free us from the notion that religion is essentially about holy texts that contain the Truth; she urges us to leave literalism behind in appreciating what can never be written down but can still be lived with authenticity, even devotion.
Both authors are trustworthy, accomplished guides in these explorations. Although they have held distinguished academic positions, they use scholarship to go beyond the academy to speak to large and varied audiences. Miles won a Pulitzer Prize for his God: A Biography, a highly readable and insightful account of the emergence of the deity in the Hebrew Bible. He went on to produce thoughtful and accessible works about God in the Qur’an and about Jesus. Armstrong has been writing learned (and prize-winning) books on religion that reach a general audience for almost 40 years. Having begun with the Christian tradition, she has written on Muhammad and Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and a host of other topics related to the politics and cultural relevance of religion.
Miles’s brief “origin story” concerns the development of the comparative study of religion — a study that began in the West from a Christian perspective. Christianity introduced the notion that one could convert to a religion and still maintain one’s previous ethnic and civic identity. You could become a Christian and still remain a Roman — a conversion he judges “an unprecedented and socially disruptive novelty.” Rabbinic Judaism would reject this form of religiosity, insisting that “there are no ‘Judaists,’ only Jews.” This rejection was in accord with most religious practices elsewhere, but the contrary Christian notion that religion could be separated from culture, politics, and ethnicity spread widely in the wake of European imperialism. Isolating religion from other aspects of identity and society would eventually protect the idea of faith from scientific knowledge — at least for many. It also led to the academic field of “comparative religion,” giving it a subject to study distinguishable from that of a geographical area or a nation state or even a culture. Religion came to be considered its own thing.
Another origin story sketched by Miles here deals with religion as he came to know it. He confesses to an early pessimism, a time when he held firmly to Bertrand Russell’s dictum that “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” The young Miles, also attracted to Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, was determined to accept no consolation that would insulate him from this tough reality. Describing himself in those days as “a sucker for this stuff,” he judges that what he really wanted was “closure.” Eventually he “began to wonder it was really wrong for any of us to seek some kind of interim closure, some way of coping with our own invincible ignorance.” Religion wasn’t, he came to think, a way of defeating ignorance (or even unbelief); it was an acknowledgment of what we do not know. This is, for Miles, not just a theoretical issue: “[T]he hope must be for a reasonable way of coping with the practical impossibility of our ever living a perfectly rational life.”
Karen Armstrong explores how people around the world have responded to this need to cope with what we cannot know, how they have constructed ways of living that are ordered and meaningful without claiming to be being perfectly rational. She presents a historical account, and she proceeds roughly in chronological order. But Armstrong sees historical accounts as always speaking to the concerns of their own time, and hers is certainly aimed at some of our pressing issues today, from Islamophobia to climate change. Much public discourse these days is dominated by dismissive quasi-scientific atheists and committed ultra-orthodox literalists. She is neither. “[T]o read the scriptures correctly and authentically,” she insists, “we must make them speak directly to our modern predicament.”
Some predicaments go back a long way. The ancient, sacred Jewish texts are marked by the traces of destruction, deportation, and displacement, and so it’s no wonder that Hebrew scripture has insisted on the vital importance of memory. Armstrong underscores that most scripture has the function of cultural transmission, especially because these texts are always embedded in rituals. Recitation, song, moving one’s body, scripture should never be taken separately from the forms of life in which it is encountered. Armstrong makes the point in relation to China, but the same can be said in regard to many other parts of the world: “In an age when few people were literate, scripture became a compelling force only if recited and performed.” And performances are arts of memory.
Scripture becomes a compelling force as it evolves in a performative context. Theological proofs were a matter of complete indifference to the Buddha; Buddhist spirituality was rooted instead in bodily, often meditative, practices. When the Qur’an’s verses were committed to memory, it was not to promote literalism, but to liberate the person chanting to achieve a transcendence that words alone would not inspire. Transcendence and the overcoming of ordinary conventions is the goal of the religious practices to which Armstrong is drawn. The stories of baby Krishna express a yearning for “an ekstasis that is impossible in the humdrum world of the habitual.” The habitual is also the world of our everyday language, and the religious practices described in The Lost Art of Scripture always strain toward the ineffable. Whether it’s Sufis or Sikhs, Confucian scholars or Yeshiva bochers, nobody gets the last word because there is no last word. There is no definitive meaning that ends the discussion. Commentaries and interpretations, new chants and dances that build on the old ones, are to be expected and celebrated.
Armstrong is writing against those who think there is a single significance for a text, or final answers to enduring questions. She rejects the Western quest for certainty — or at least for overcoming doubt — that she finds in Cartesian philosophy and in much of the Enlightenment. She also rejects those who claim to “return to scripture” for the final authoritative answer to how one should live. Protestant and Islamic fundamentalists alike don’t have the toleration for ambiguity that her conception of a spiritual life requires. Unfortunately, she herself tries to ground her rejection of scientific reductionism in a neurological reductionism of her own. Throughout the book, Armstrong sprinkles in references to the right hemisphere as the place of metaphor, openness, and empathy in ways that are meant, I suppose, to give her hermeneutics a scientific veneer. For this reader, it is an unnecessary distraction, at best.
Turning all concerns about presentism aside, Armstrong is confident that the “lost art” of the world’s religions can return us to lives of compassion and to the quest for what she calls “social justice.” She minimizes whatever debates there might be about what counts as justice — and about whom one ought to have compassion for in a world in which religious practices, even the bodily ones, lead to intense conflicts. She believes in the modern scientific scriptures enough to have faith that “the idea of compassion is built into our neurology,” but she doesn’t say anything about whether the ideas of hatred and violence are also hard-wired into humans.
Be that as it may, Armstrong’s book is a powerful commentary on spiritual commentaries, a midrash to be added to the debates about the meanings of religious practice. Like Miles, she seeks to cultivate practices that make sense of a world of suffering while acknowledging our invincible ignorance. As she puts it in her “Post-Scripture,” “whatever our ‘beliefs,’ it is essential for human survival that we find a way to rediscover the sacrality of each human being and resacralise our world.” The rest is, and will be, commentary.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.