The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.
Reviewed by Brian Halverson
In the aftermath of September 11th, as people struggle to understand the causes, impact, and implications of terrorism, Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for God is both timely and particularly relevant. She traces the causes of religious fundamentalism in Islam, particularly in Egypt and Iran, Judaism particularly in Israel, and Christianity, particularly within the Protestant traditions in the United Sates. Armstrong shows the reader the parallel development of fundamentalism within the three religions and how these movements affected one another historically and currently.
As demonstrated in her previous books, The History of God and Jerusalem, Armstrong has a great passion for and knowledge of the three religions. Her commanding use of historical information in supporting her broad and over-arching themes is impressive and a bit daunting, particularly if the reader is not familiar with the religious traditions or their histories. She covers much ground between the year 1492, a year that serves as a mark in the beginning of the modern state in Western Europe, and our current day. Distinguishing the patterns within these histories, she identifies the poles of myth and reason, the masses and the elite, and the past and the future in which religious thought and expression are given sway. The “who and how” questions of religious authority are examined in light of the complex and often contradictory religious goals of the fundamentalist movements.
Armstrong develops the argument that religious fundamentalism can be seen partly as a reaction against the liberal political, economic, and religious ideologies of the modern state. In Christianity, for example, Armstrong cites the Presbyterians of Princeton who in 1910 issued a “list of dogmas which they deemed essential: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the Virgin Birth of Christ, (3) Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross, (4) his bodily resurrection, and (5) the objective reality of his miracles.” (p. 171) Later, between 1910 and 1915, two oil millionaires issued a series of twelve paperback pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals which were aimed at countering the higher criticism of Biblical scholarship taught at theological seminaries and universities. From these writings the conservative movement within the Protestant denominations became known as fundamentalism.
But religious fundamentalism is not only a reaction to the modern state, it also provides a vision for its adherents that gives meaning and constancy to their lives in a world that is constantly changing. It is a new way of being religious when the belief systems of the past have failed. Also, Armstrong is able to show that while the fundamentalist movements are a reaction against the modern state they are also adroit at using modern techniques in their organizing principles, tactics, and mobilization of forces.
Similarly, Armstrong traces the roots of fundamentalism within Judaism and Islam. In Islam, the Irananian Revolution is a clear example of a conservative religious movement, reacting to the liberal modern state and its symbol the Shah, mobilizing masses of disaffected people. Unlike the West the division between the state and religion had not embedded deeply within the culture, and as a result the revolution was successful at reestablishing a theocratic state with the Ayatollah Khomeini as its head.
As Armstrong covers so much historical detail of the three religions over a 600-year period she does not have the luxury, perhaps, of a more nuanced approach to her subject. As a result she can mischaracterize or too easily fit a theologian, a religious leader, or the movement into her scheme. For example, her treatment of Martin Luther could be considered a misrepresentation of Luther and his writings, when she writes:
“In his usual pugnacious way, Luther spoke of Aristotle with hatred, and loathed Erasmus, whom he regarded as the epitome of reason, which, he was convinced, could only lead to atheism. In pushing reason out of the religious sphere, Luther was one of the first Europeans to secularize it.
“Because, for Luther, God was utterly mysterious and hidden, the world was empty of the divine. Luther’s Deus Absconditus could not be discovered either in human institutions or in physical reality. Medieval Christians experienced the sacred in the Church, which Luther now declared to be the Antichrist. Nor was it permissible to reach a knowledge of God by reflecting on the marvelous order of the universe, as the scholastic theologians (also objects of Luther’s rage) had done. In Luther’s writings God had begun to retreat from the physical world, which now had no religious significance at all. Luther also secularized politics. Because mundane reality was utterly opposed to the spiritual, church and state must operate independently, each respecting the other’s proper sphere of activity. Luther’s passionate religious vision had made him one of the first Europeans to advocate the separation of church and state. Yet again, the secularization of politics began as a new way of being religious.” (pp.66-67)
Certainly Luther’s vehemence against his opponents drew and continues to draw criticism, but to try to capture Luther’s whole body of writings and thought into one page of a 400 page book does not do justice to Luther or the reform movement. Did Luther consider the Church the Antichrist or was he criticizing those in power who were usurping its authority for human gain and power? Is Armstrong’s characterization of Luther’s doctrine of Two Kingdoms totally accurate?
That being said, I would recommend this book for its invaluable contribution to the overall treatment of its subject. What is most valuable about this book is that the reader is given a broad and balanced picture of the roots, patterns, and trends of the fundamentalist movement within the three religions, particularly as they are laid out in a parallel fashion. In this way, the reader can more clearly see that the ground of extreme beliefs and practices produces results that can look identical to each other. Yet these movements in their less extreme forms have been instrumental in providing hope and faith to disaffected people and have been built upon as Armstrong also clearly demonstrates.
The fundamentalist movements, like all movements, contain both the seeds of creativity and faithfulness as well as the seeds of destruction and fear. This is a book that lets us look at both.