thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #1

with 2 comments

Two recent posts (Touched by an angel #7 and Karen’s on the case #1) have mentioned George Steiner because the books I was discussing referred to him. But I had no real background, so I read Real Presences1 first and then Language and silence2.

Those familiar with Steiner’s work will know he wrote them the other way round. Which is the order I will deal with them here.

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

The Karen’s on the case series responds to Karen Armstrong’s The case for God3.

Those who do not have the book can find a sizeable extract from the Introduction (including the Steiner quotes in context) here.

I think my main gripe with The case for God is not the factual content – I bow to Armstrong’s superior scholarship – but pair of linked assumptions she seems to think need no argument. One is (i) that if you do manage to avoid all the deist and/or fundamentalist traps she identifies, and your approach to religion is as über-‘skillful’ as the gospel according to St Karen requires, then you really will get to a real something – another mode of seeing which is beyond everyday perceptions, to a transcendent dimension of life … identical with the deepest level of [your] being. The other assumption is (ii) that this transcendence is necessarily a good thing.

Let me clarify what I am saying and what I am not saying. I do not doubt that religious and spiritual practices have effects. That is an empirical issue. My qualm is with the assumption that these effects have anything to do with the divine, with something transcendent, with the deepest level of one’s being.

There is then another pair of assertions related to how describable or indescribable those effects are:

People… discovered a transcendent dimension of life that was … identical with the deepest level of their being. This reality, which they have called God, Dao, Brahman, or Nirvana, has been a fact of human life. But it was impossible to explain what it was in terms of logos. This imprecision was not frustrating, as a modern Western person might imagine, but brought with it an ekstasis that lifted practitioners beyond the constricting confines of self.

… One of the peculiar characteristics of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. We constantly push our thoughts to an extreme, so that our minds seem to elide naturally into an apprehension of transcendence.

… Language has borders that we cannot cross. When we listen critically to our stuttering attempts to express ourselves, we become aware of an inexpressible otherness.4

There are two distinct assertions here. One is (iii) that the transcendent dimension resulting from religious practice is indescribable. The other is (iv) that the very struggle against the borders of language is itself a path to, or window on, that transcendent dimension.

I am not claiming (iii) and (iv) are unargued assumptions like (i) and (ii). The problems come when they are combined. So for example in the absence of (i), assertion (iii) reverts to something like: ‘the psychological and/or phenomenological effects of religious practice are indescribable’. This may or may not be true – possibly true for some people but not for others. Not something to get worked up about either way.

George Steiner

George Steiner

It gets significant when those effects are seen in terms of transcendence and deepest levels of being – because this can lead to the thought that the transcendence and depth are responsible for the ineffability. This can then lead to the thought that ineffability is a sign that you are in the region of the transcendent and the divine – effectively assertion (iv).

It is in this domain of ‘inexpressible otherness’ that Armstrong enlists the authority of George Steiner:

[I]t is decisively the fact that language does have its frontiers, that it borders on three other modes of statement – light, music, and silence – that gives proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world. It is just because we can go no further, because speech so precisely fails us, that we experience the certitude of a divine meaning surpassing and enfolding ours. What lies beyond man’s world is eloquent of God. [My emphases]5

These are big assertions. But are they sound? A question for next time.


1 George Steiner, Real presences, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

2 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

3 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

4 Karen Armstrong, 2009: see 3 above.

5 George Steiner, 1967: see 2 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

25 October 2009 at 11:32 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I think your primary qualm “with the assumption that [the effects of religious and spiritual practices] have anything to do with the divine” is an important one, especially for Christians to consider. A friend of mine (who is a believer) used to ask me, “How does someone know that her vision/premonition/ecstasy was from the Holy Spirit and not just bad pizza?”

    The Bible, itself, recognizes that all religious or supernatural experiences are not necessarily good:

    “…test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1

    “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” Matthew 7:22-23

    Here we certainly have spiritual experiences–prophesies, exorcisms, and mighty works–that perhaps might be classified as transcendent but are not condoned by God.

    Though I’ve never read Armstrong and have temporarily put aside Real Presences, I think I would have to agree with you in questioning the “goodness” of transcendence, which is, it seems, a morally neutral term.

    However, though a taste of the transcendent may not be equivalent to an encounter with God, it does not necessarily need to be explained away as a mere chemical reaction in the brain triggered by some external stimulus.

    It is simply a piece of evidence. To some, it points to a higher reality, a spiritual realm. To others, it is residue from a lesser evolved stage of our evolutionary development in which religious experiences somehow provided us with a survival advantage.


    29 November 2009 at 6:29 am

    • Thanks again George.

      By the way if you ever get a moment I do recommend Karen Armstrong, if only because of the quality of her writing. For me her best is probably The Great Transformation.

      You may have noticed from other posts I don’t have quite the same opinion of George Steiner. I’m coming to the end of a second reading of Real presences & I feel I’m getting my life back. Can’t quite work out if he writes so badly because he knows too many languages or because he’s trying to hide the fact that he maybe doesn’t have a huge amount to say…


      Chris Lawrence

      29 November 2009 at 3:41 pm

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