Reasonable Doubts Blog

Karen Armstrong Reevaluates Religion

Posted in defining religion by Cheryl Berman on the August 26th, 2010

I recently watched a TED lecture that was recorded in February of 2008 given by Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong was a nun in her earlier life but eventually abandoned Christianity and became entirely disenchanted with religion. She tried but failed to pursue a career in literature and wound up working for television. She focused on religious programming, mostly debunking the “myths” of religion for an admiring London audience. But at one point, she explains in this TED lecture, she traveled to Israel on assignment for a program on early Christianity. In Israel she encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time. And there in this “tortured city” she goes on to say that she became aware of the profound connection between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Armstrong returned to the study of religion, although this time academically. She pursued a career in comparative religion and wrote such bestsellers as The History of God and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.

It was this new found approach to religion that brought Armstrong back to what she calls the “true sense of what religion can be.” Whereas before religious doctrine has seemed abstract and unlikely Armstrong learned that religious doctrine is not what what truly lies at the root of religion. In her autobiography The Spiral Staircase Armstrong describes a scene in which she is discussing religion with a Hyam Maccoby a Jewish librarian from the Leo Beck College in North London. They were talking about the famous story of the pagan who came to Hillel and asked to be taught the entire Torah on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and responded, “do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” Armstrong was shocked that Hillel could summarize the entire Torah without one word of ideology. Where was belief in God? Hyam explained to her that”theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion really. There’s no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds… No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason you can believe what you like. (235)” Armstrong sat for a while trying to take all that in. It went against everything she had previously understood about religion. Years later she would come to learn what I wrote about in my very first blog post which is that the definition of belief is not an intellectual assent to certain propositions. Belief means to hold something dear, to love. It is an existential position, not a rational one. It was only later on in our history that religious belief took on intellectual overtones. (Armstrong claims it was in the 17th century but I think it must have been earlier – when lists of dogma began to appear in the middle ages.)

So if religion isn’t about certain ideas what is it about? Hyam Maccoby explained to Armstrong that religion is about behavior. Once you start inculcating certain behaviors into your daily life you begin to understand certain truths. And Armstrong witnessed the beauty and the energy of this type of approach when she visited Israel. In The Spiral Staircase she writes “In Judaism, the study of Torah and Talmud had never been as goal directed as some modern scholarship. Yeshiva education was not a matter of acquiring information about Judaism; the process of study itself was just as important as the content, and was itself transforming: the heated arguments, the intensive interaction with a teacher, the question and answer methodology all propelled students into a heightened awareness of the Divine presence.(288)” Even the most intellectual of all religious institutions – Torah learning – is transformed into a religious experience – a behavior – so the student not only has learned something related to Jewish law or ideology, he has also tasted the presence of God. And it is that brief whiff of eternity that ultimately changes him as a person.

In her TED lecture, Armstrong chose to focus on a different aspect of religion. She asked herself the question: What is the common root of all religions? She concluded that compassion was common to every ideology. Every major religion espouses some version of the golden rule as quoted by Hillel above. Armstrong claims that religion has been hijacked by extremists who feel that ideology defines its core when in reality compassion defines its core and I think she has an excellent point on more than one front. Clearly on the larger world stage terrorists and religious extremists have hijacked religion for their own agendas. But even on a smaller scale I think we need to start reevaluating our religious priorities. I don’t know how, but in many communities sleeve length and the size of a person’s kippah has become more important than Hillel’s summary of the entire Torah on one leg. Compassion has taken a back seat to evaluating the level of religious observance of our fellow man and I wonder what Hillel would have to say about that.

Here’s the link to the TED lecture:

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Rav Soloveitchik on Akedat Yitchak

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 18th, 2010

In many ways, of all the stories in the Tanach the Akedah stands out as one of the most perplexing.  Particularly in light of Sefer Devorim which we are currently reading, where the Jews are implored over and over again not to follow in the ways of pagan worship, how could God  request of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  And what could Abraham have been thinking when he unquestioningly saddled his donkey and led his party to the unknown mountain?

The Midrash sheds light on some of the inner workings of the mind of Abraham as he made his way to the dreaded mountain.  Chazal records a conversation he had with the angel Samuel in which he had to defend his actions against difficult assaults.  The opening of Kierkegard’s Fear and Trembling is dedicated to the various possible scenarios that were going through the mind of Abraham during this impossible time.  All seem to agree: he must have been brutally conflicted.

But in a footnote on pages 156-157 of  The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rav Soloveitchik disagrees with this account of the state of Abraham’s mind during the Akedah, and his description sheds some fascinating light on the nature of faith.  Rav Soloveitchik describes Abraham, whom he considers an example of the Charismatic Personality, as someone who discovered morality on his own and met God later and joined up with Him.  God helped Abraham develop morally but did not impose Himself.  Rather their relationship was a friendship, a bilateral covenant.  Rav Soloveitchik stresses the point that in this covenantal relationship, which also characterizes the Jewish people’s relationship with God, God is a freely elected king as opposed to a self inflicted monarch.  And yet the Akedah seems to be a break in this theme.  Here, God appeared to Abraham  not as a friend but as a terrifying master demanding an ultimate price.  It was contradictory to every previous interaction and yet how did Abraham react?  According to Rav Soloveitchik (and this reading is in consonance with the pesukin) he didn’t even flinch.  In the words of Rav Soloveitchik: “He was not cognizant that by requesting Isaac, God actually annulled everything, including the fellowship between him and Abraham. Naively, almost irrationally, did he conceive the demand as somehow compatible with the whole.  He carried it out as if it were another means leading to the realization of the eternal covenant. … By acting the way he did, Abraham unconsciously relieved the tension and reconciled himself with God.”

Somehow Abraham managed to do the impossible.  Without even having to convince himself, he simply believed the absurd. And in doing this his covenant with God took on a new form.  Before it was simply like any other treaty between two parties, now it became a covenant of an “existential community” where “man sacrificed himself to God” and “God dedicated Himself to man”.  But the Akedah  became more than that.  It became the act that would serve as the future model for a life of faith. According to Rav Soloveitchik “faith represents this peculiar attitude of leading a life fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer.”

I don’t think I ever appreciated the full  significance of the Akedah before I read this footnote.  I always knew that for various reasons  it represented a high point in Jewish history but I never realized that it signified nothing less than the sum of what it means to live a life of faith.  The Akedah is an acknowledgement of the ironies, the tragedies, the intellectual, emotional and physical challenges of a life of faith.  The journey of the faithful was never meant to be paved in rose petals.  People of faith were meant to be forced to stand up to impossible challenges and inner contradictions.  The Akedah was God’s way of  pointing this out and at the same time assuring Abraham and future generations that while the life of the faithful promises to be a difficult one it would ultimately be  rewarding.  It would be the only one that incorporates a singular relationship with God.

Let’s face it.  When most of us are faced with challenges to our faith,  intellectual, emotional or otherwise, we don’t respond like Abraham – we do flinch.  But we need to keep in mind that for whatever reason these challenges are part in parcel of the faith package as God has packaged it.  And if we flinch, it’s all part of achieving a unique relationship with God.  That is the message of the Akedah.

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Lessons in Religious Doubt from Mother Teresa

Posted in Uncategorized by Cheryl Berman on the August 12th, 2010

Recently my attention was drawn to an article in Time Magazine dated August 23, 2007 entitled “Mother’s Teresa’s Crises of Faith.” The article speaks of a book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, which is a compilation of Mother Teresa’s correspondences, many of which she requested be destroyed upon her death. The Catholic Church overrode her wishes and published the letters in order to teach some important lessons regarding religious doubt.

It seems the very same Mother Teresa who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in December of !979 with the declaration that God is everywhere actually felt bereft of God’s presence for nearly half a century. Her letters to various priests and church officials are replete with pleadings from them to pray for her because while God has a special love for them “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak …” The crises became so extreme it drove her at a certain point to doubt the existence of heaven and even God himself.

Mother Teresa’s pleadings went essentially unanswered for decades until a Christian theologian by the name of Rev. Joseph Neuner provided her with some comfort. He explained three things to her. He said that a)that she was not responsible for her religious state and she could do nothing to affect it b) “Feeling” God is not the only proof of His existence and the fact that she sought Him so desperately was a sign of his hidden existence c) God’s absence was part of the spiritual side of her work.

I must admit I was very impressed with the church’s willingness to publish these letters. Historically, Christianity has banned books that  countered its beliefs and here is an example of a Christian Saint declaring her religious doubts, and the church bent over backwards to bring it to light. The church was making an important point in publishing the book, a point that Jews have recognized for centuries. Religious doubt is a part of faith. It is not something you need to conceal, it is something you need to recognize and deal with.

Judaism has also faced circumstances where some of its adherents began to doubt and it has not been intimidated by it. The Book of Iyov is dedicated to religious doubt, the stories of Acher appear in the Gemara, and the Rambam wrote his Moreh Nevuchim to a student who had religious questions. It seems though that in some segments of Orthodoxy doubt has become stigmatized. People are afraid to ask questions, and to be frank, many rabbis and teachers have lost the ability to give appropriate answers. Fortunately, there are groups out there dealing with these issues. There are books being published. But we aren’t there yet. We need to reach a place where doubters can feel safe enough to start asking their questions … out loud, not just anonymously on the internet. If the Catholic Church can figure this out, why can’t we?

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Philosophy and Faith Together Again

Posted in Defining faith by Cheryl Berman on the August 8th, 2010

There is little more satisfying in life than watching two of your greatest loves meet:  Brown mustard on a barbecued hot dog.  Salted butter on a steaming cob of corn. Or even the first meeting between your parents and your husband-to-be.  I think this is one reason I was so disappointed when my two loves – philosophy and faith- seemed to part so irrevocably with the various discussions and critiques surrounding the proofs for existence of God. Let’s face it.  The medieval rationalists had it easy on this front.  They believed these proofs worked technically so for them philosophy spoke volumes about religion and faith.  But when the proofs were shot down and the metaphysics was shown to be beyond our logical minds, philosophy and faith seemed to part ways.  Religion was thought to be based solely on a blind faith. What more could philosophy possible have to say?

A recent article in the New York Times by Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame rejects this view of the relationship between philosophy and faith. Gutting offers philosophy a second chance at faith by using ideas from philosophers like Hume, Wittgenstein and Platinga.  The three philosophers claim that everyday life is based on “basic beliefs” that we have no good arguments for.  For example we can’t prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.  These are beliefs that we have adopted based on our life experiences.  They can’t really be proven technically. Faith can be viewed as one of these types of beliefs.  We have all experienced the deep beauty of nature, moral obligation, a sense of love and being loved, and through these life experiences we can  speak about a belief in an all good and powerful Being who cares for us.

Gary Gutting admits that this type of belief is far from the specifics of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but his point remains.  Philosophy and religion do not abide on separate islands.  They can still speak to and of each other, and they should.

While there are flaws to his theory I still think Gutting’s point is valid.   Philosophy and religion should not disengage.  There are branches of philosophy like existentialism that can uncover vast treasures of religious ideology (as has been demonstrated by Rav Soloveitchik and others) exposing new elements of the phenomenon of faith. Even the outdated medieval philosophers have something to offer religious thinkers today and they should not be discounted. I admit that not all of philosophy is amenable to religion, but where would we be without Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Buber’s I and Thou, or Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith?

Faith is one of those of those mysterious human qualities that begs to be explored in order to be deepened. And as people who either experience faith or search to rediscover a lost faith we need to understand it. Philosophy is one of our best tools with which we can do so.

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