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A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong, a British journalist and former nun, guides us along one of the most elusive and fascinating quests of all time--the search for God. Like all beloved historians, Armstrong entertains us with deft storytelling, astounding research, and makes … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: Karen Armstrong
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Publisher: Ballantine Books
1 review about A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of...

A Good Survey of the History of an Idea

  • Apr 10, 2001
This book undertakes an examination of the growth of the God concept from its earliest days in the ancient, and pagan, Middle East, through the development of the idea of the Lord in early biblical Israel and later in the Judaism which grew from that, then on into the blossoming of Christianity (from the ground of Judaism in hellenistic/Roman times), and thence into Islam which arose in the shadow of these two older religions and somewhat off their more mainstream tracks. Along the way, the author, Karen Armstrong, offers us a glimpse of the parallel developments in the farther east where Buddhism and then Hinduism were arising out of a distinct, though perhaps not quite so different, pagan tradition. Nor does she scruple to look at the philosophical tradition evolving in the Greek world at around this same time as it progressed from a world view rooted in the concrete and the knowable to a system of inquiry fascinated with and focused on the metaphysical and the unknowable. All these strains, Ms. Armstrong asserts, went into the idea of God as it developed in the traditional western monotheistic religions and she takes her search right up through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and into our own modern times. Ms. Armstrong sees similarities throughout and ably articluates them, offering us a thorough analysis and then a synthesis of the God idea, in the process.

For Ms. Armstrong, God is an unknowable and yet a real paradox in that mankind inevitably longs to know "him". The result is a spiralling of concepts over thousands of years with frequent circling back by various thinkers and the inevitable echoes of earlier ideas. Although she carefully disects the various God concepts she finds, in the end Ms. Armstrong is plainly an advocate for mysticism, with the understanding that God is not an objective being, merely greater than all other beings, but completely "other", finally a subjective experience of the transcendental "ground of being" which lies beneath and behind all that is. For Ms. Armstrong God is not known through language in the way things of this world are known, but rather through a highly subjective experience akin to the way we experience art, where language and the rituals of religion serve as a kind of symbolism designed to invoke and evoke the experience of the absolute. In this sense, religions fail Ms. Armstrong and only the spiritual experience of the mystic survives and sustains. And yet she does not denounce religion but rather treats it with full respect and intellectual civility, deeming it as worthy of inquiry as any other field of human endeavor.

Where she differs from the straight religionists (those who believe in one dogma or another) is in her refusal to embrace any particular orthodoxy and her adamant insistence on offering intellectual sanctuary to them all. She is, however, rather hard on western Christianity, the tradition out of which she herself came, suggesting that it fell victim, early on in its history, to a naive confusion of the idea of God as a transcendent absolute (a numinous Being behind all beings) with God as a Supreme Being, first among all beings, "himself" knowable in human terms but infinitely greater than any mere human. She very convincingly shows the logical flaws inherent in this kind of thinking and takes western Christianity to task for losing the sense of mystery which Eastern Christianity managed to retain. She shows how the western world lost its sense of God's mystery for this mistake and how this opened the West up to a loss of the sense of the religious and a growth of atheism, the belief in the non-existence of God. But in the end she shows, as well, that true mysticism and true spirituality affirms God's non-existence no less than the atheist, for God cannot be subsumed under any concept, cannot be described or grasped, and is, in the end, no more than "Nothing" where this is defined not as the absence of something where something might be, but rather as the absence of anything since the true idea of God does not allow of any interpretation or discussion. In other words, this idea is not subject to any ordinary linguistic categories (a very Buddhist view, by the way) and so is not really anything at all since it cannot be spoken of. In the end what is it but just Nothing?

Hers is a mystical view finally, and many who are strongly attached to their faiths may find what she has to say somewhat offensive. Still she makes sense if you give her the chance and what she offers does little damage to the God idea, a concept which does not lend itself to easy explication, to say the least, but rather genuinely enhances it. I did have a bone or two to pick with her in that I thought her overview rather more superficial as she advanced into modern times and, after awhile, I started to feel that her personal view was perilously close to pure subjectivity which, in the end, must undermine the more substantial metaphysical insight she seems to be saying religion offers us. But this is tough stuff to talk about and I think she did an admirable job of it, all things considered. An excellent book and well worth reading.

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