the case for god 03-09-2009

crap cover, crap title, but a rather wonderful book (by karen armstrong. and I'm speaking as an atheist here. it's emphatically not (despite cover and title) a riposte to dawkins and hitchens (she agrees with many of their arguments). on the contrary it’s an attempt to reassert the primacy of the apophatic tradition in all the major world religions; religion not as an inert set of ideas to which believers subscribe, but as a set of communal practices (meditative, ceremonial…) which help us come to terms with our place in this profoundly and impenetrably mysterious (and therefore ‘sacred’) world, a world from which most of us feel alienated in one way or another.

here's a pivotal passage:

"The word translated 'faith' in the new testament is the greek 'pistis' (verbal form: 'pisteuo'), which means 'trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment'. jesus was not asking people to 'believe' in his divinity, because he was making no such-claim. He was asking for commitment. he wanted disciples who would engage with -his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and trust in the god who was their father... when the new testament was translated from greek into latin by st jerome (C.342-420), 'pistis' became 'fides' ('loyalty'). 'fides' had no verbal form, so for 'pisteuo', jerome used the Latin verb 'credo', a word that derived from 'cor do': 'i give my heart'. he did not think of using 'opinor' ('I hold an opinion'). when the bible was translated into english, 'credo' and 'pisteuo' became 'I believe' in the king james version (16ll). but the word 'belief' has since changed its meaning. In middle english, 'bileven' meant 'to prize; to value; to hold dear'. It was related to the german 'belieben' ('to love'), 'liebe' ('beloved') and the latin libido. So 'belief' originally meant 'loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty'... during the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word 'belief' started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical- and often dubious - proposition. Scientists and philosophers were the first to use it in this sense, but in religious contexts the latin 'credere' and the english 'belief' both retained their original connotations well into the nineteenth century."