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Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, was recently reviewed in the New York Times by Ross Douthat. Armstrong is a prolific writer whose energy to explore, explain and probe the human proclivity to religious belief is enthusiastically optimistic and beguiling expansive. (You can hear and see Armstrong speaking at TED.)

As a Christian convent escapee, Armstrong thought she was running away from religion, not towards it. But through a number of unexpected career shifts she ended up right back in the fray, writing and researching about world religions and the religious impulse itself. It was her expertise in Islam that ended up catapulting her into the public eye following 9/11.

Her view of religion in general emphasizes the eminence of an unknowable Diety, not the fixation on theological exactitude. It is her claim that approaching religion in this manner allows it to be compatible with a “liberal, scientific, technologically advanced society.”

In this new book, Armstrong furthers the case that religion is not about what a person believes but about how he or she behaves.

From the review:

The early Fathers of the Church…understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.

This liberal interpretation of the religious urge is very appealing to those who, like me, love what is elusive and mystical. But as Douthat wisely notes, that isn’t everybody:

[Religious] literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.

There’s the rub.

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