Douthat vs. Armstrong
Ross Douthat’s critical review in the New York Times of Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, takes the author to task for (among other things) implying that “the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.” Armstrong, he says, minimizes the importance of dogma while stressing the centrality of practice. Douthat goes on to say:
“The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of ‘knack’ for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is ‘a symbol, to hell with it.’ But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.”
“This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age.”
I suppose I have more sympathy for this sort of argument than a blogger for dotCommonweal should have, but I still think it misses the point.
The problem isn’t literalism (conservatism) vs. symbolism (liberalism). Moreover, the question of which is prior — dogma or practice — involves a sort of futile chicken and egg regression.
At the risk of over-simplification (but hey, what are blogs for?) I would say to both Armstrong and Douthat that the real divide is between abstraction and presence. Christianity has survived for 2000 years because people have continued to encounter a presence in their midst (primarily through an encounter with human beings in whom this presence is felt rather than through dogma or practice per se). They experience this presence as a fact, something concrete–Christ. But at the same time they perceive that this concrete particularity reveals a mystery, which cannot be reduced to abstraction. (O’Connor, by the way, understood this is a more nuanced way than Douthat seems to realize.)
Problems arise when the encounter is forgotten and the presence is lost, when all that is left are fragments, abstractions, mere discourse (i.e., conservatism and liberalism).