A History Of God – The 4,000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
“I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” — Karen Armstrong on Powells.com
book by Karen Armstrong (2004)
The idea of a single divine being – God, Yahweh, Allah – has existed for over 4,000 years. But the history of God is also the history of human struggle. While Judaism, Islam and Christianity proclaim the goodness of God, organised religion has too often been the catalyst for violence and ineradicable prejudice. In this fascinating, extensive and original account of the evolution of belief, Karen Armstrong examines Western society’s unerring fidelity to this idea of One God and the many conflicting convictions it engenders. A controversial, extraordinary story of worship and war, A History of God confronts the most fundamental fact – or fiction – of our lives.
Review: 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 us feel a greater appreciation for the present because we better understand our past. Be warned: A History of God is not a tidy linear history. Rather, we learn that the definition of God is constantly being repeated, altered, discarded, and resurrected through the ages, responding to its followers’ practical concerns rather than to mystical mandates. Armstrong also shows us how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have overlapped and influenced one another, gently challenging the secularist history of each of these religions. – Gail Hudson
The Introduction to A History of God:
As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them. I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory. I cannot say, however, that my belief in these religious opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here on earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed. James Joyce got it right in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: I listened to my share of hell-fire sermons. In fact Hell seemed a more potent reality than God, because it was something that I could grasp imaginatively. God, on the other hand, was a somewhat shadowy figure, defined in intellectual abstractions rather than images. When I was about eight years old, I had to memorise this catechism answer to the question, ‘What is God?’: ‘God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.’ Not surprisingly, it meant little to me and I am bound to say that it still leaves me cold. It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition. Since writing this book, however, I have come to believe that it is also incorrect.
As I grew up, I realised that there was more to religion than fear. I read the lives of the saints, the metaphysical poets, T. S. Eliot and some of the simpler writings of the mystics. I began to be moved by the beauty of the liturgy and, though God remained distant, I felt that it was possible to break through to him and that the vision would transfigure the whole of created reality. To do this I entered a religious order and, as a novice and a young nun, I learned a good deal more about the faith. I applied myself to apologetics, scripture, theology and church history. I delved into the history of the monastic life and embarked on a minute discussion of the Rule of my own order, which we had to learn by heart. Strangely enough, God figured very little in any of this. Attention seemed focused on secondary details and the more peripheral aspects of religion. I wrestled with myself in prayer, trying to force my mind to encounter God but he remained a stern taskmaster, who observed my every infringement of the Rule, or tantalisingly absent. The more I read about the raptures of the saints, the more of a failure I felt. I was unhappily aware that what little religious experience I had, had somehow been manufactured by myself as I worked upon my own feelings and imagination. Sometimes a sense of devotion was an aesthetic response to the beauty of the Gregorian chant and the liturgy. But nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself. I never glimpsed the God described by the prophets and mystics. Jesus Christ, about whom we talked far more than about ‘God’, seemed a purely historical figure, inextricably embedded in late antiquity. I also began to have grave doubts about some of the doctrines of the Church. How could anybody possibly know for certain that the man Jesus had been God incarnate and what did such a belief mean? Did the New Testament really teach the elaborate – and highly contradictory – doctrine of the Trinity or was this, like so many other articles of the faith, a fabrication by theologians centuries after the death of Christ in Jerusalem?
Eventually, with regret, I left the religious life and once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away. He had never really impinged upon my life, though I had done my best to enable him to do so. Now that I no longer felt so guilty and anxious about him, he became too remote to be a reality. My interest in religion continued, however, and I made a number of television programmes about the early history of Christianity and the nature of the religious experience. The more I learned about the history of religion, the more my earlier misgivings were justified. The doctrines that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period of time. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be divine. As an epileptic, I had flashes of vision that I knew to be a mere neurological defect: had the visions and raptures of the saints also been a mere mental quirk? Increasingly, God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown.
Despite my years as a nun, I do not believe that my experience of God is unusual. My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of the complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in the kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed. People without my peculiarly religious background may also find that their notion of God was formed in infancy. Since those days, we have put away childish things and have discarded the God of our first years.
Yet my study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognisably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art. This was not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces but these early faiths expressed the wonder and mystery that seems always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world. Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to. Like any other human activity, religion can be abused but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity. Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have yet to see how it will work. It is also true to say that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us; like an appreciation of art or poetry, it has to be cultivated. Humanism is itself a religion without God – not all religions, of course, are theistic. Our ethical secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding faith in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by the more conventional religions.
When I began to research this history of the idea and experience of God in the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I expected to find that God had simply been a projection of human needs and desires. I thought that ‘he’ would mirror the fears and yearnings of society at each stage of its development. My predictions were not entirely unjustified but I have been extremely surprised by some of my findings and I wish that I had learned all this thirty years ago, when I was starting out in the religious life. It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear – from eminent monotheists in all three faiths – that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other Rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was – in any sense – a reality ‘out there’; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary rational process. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist – and yet that ‘he’ was the most important reality in the world.
This book will not be a history of the ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement: ‘I believe in God’ has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement it only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there is not one unchanging idea contained in the word ‘God’ but the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is anti-historical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our three religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of ‘God’: each generation has to create the image of God that works for them. The same is true of atheism. The statement ‘I do not believe in God’ has always meant something slightly different at each period of history. The people who have been dubbed ‘atheists’ over the years have always been denied a particular conception of the divine. Is the ‘God’ who is rejected by atheists today, the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated as the God of the Bible and the Koran by Jews, Christians and Muslims at various points of their history. We shall see that they are very different from one another. Atheism has often been a transitional state: thus Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called ‘atheists’ by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. Is modern atheism a similar denial of a God’ which is no longer adequate to the problems of our time?
Despite its other-worldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We hall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed – sometimes for something radically different. This did not disturb most monotheists before our own day because they were quite clear that their ideas about God were not sacrosanct but could only be provisional. They were man-made – they could be nothing else – and quite separate from the indescribable Reality they symbolised. Some developed quite audacious ways of emphasising this essential distinction. One medieval mystic went so far as to say that this ultimate Reality – mistakenly called ‘God’ – was not even mentioned in the Bible. Throughout history, men and women have experienced a dimension of the spirit that seems to transcend the mundane world. Indeed, it is an arresting characteristic of the human mind to be able to conceive concepts that go beyond it in this way. However we choose to interpret it, this human experience of transcendence has been a fact of life. Not everybody would regard it as divine: Buddhists, as we shall see, would deny that their visions and insights are derived from a supernatural source; they see them as natural to humanity. All the major religions, however, would agree that it is impossible to describe this transcendence in normal conceptual language. Monotheists have called this transcendence ‘God’ but they have hedged this around with important provisos. Jews, for example, are forbidden to pronounce the sacred Name of God and Muslims must not attempt to depict the divine in visual imagery. The discipline is a reminder that the reality that we call ‘God’ exceeds all human expression.
This will not be a history in the usual sense, since the idea of God has not evolved from one point and progressed in a linear fashion to a final conception. Scientific notions work like that but the ideas of art and religion do not. Just as there are only a given number of themes in love poetry, so too people have kept saying the same things about God over and over again. Indeed, we shall find a striking similarity in Jewish, Christian and Muslim ideas of the divine. Even though Jews and Muslims both find the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation almost blasphemous, they have produced their own versions of these controversial theologies. Each expression of these universal themes is slightly different, however, showing the ingenuity and inventiveness of the human imagination as it struggles to express its sense of ‘God’.
Because this is such a big subject, I have deliberately confined myself to the One God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims, though I have occasionally considered pagan, Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of ultimate reality to make a monotheistic point clearer. It seems that the idea of God is remarkably close to ideas in religions that developed quite independently. Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration. Despite the secular tenor of much Western society, the idea of God still affects the lives of millions of people. Recent surveys have shown that ninety-nine per cent of Americans say that they believe in God: the question is which ‘God’ of the many on offer do they subscribe to?
Theology often comes across as dull and abstract but the history of God has been passionate and intense. Unlike some other conceptions of the ultimate, it was originally attended by agonising struggle and stress. The prophets of Israel experienced their God as a physical pain that wrenched their every limb and filled them with rage and elation. The reality that they called God was often experienced by monotheists in a state of extremity: we shall read of mountain tops, darkness, desolation, crucifixion and terror. The Western experience of God seemed particularly traumatic. What was the reason for this inherent strain? Other monotheists spoke of light and transfiguration. They used very daring imagery to express the complexity of the reality they experienced, which went far beyond the orthodox theology. There has recently been a revived interest in mythology, which may indicate a widespread desire for a more imaginative expression of religious truth. The work of the late American scholar Joseph Campbell has become extremely popular: he has explored the perennial mythology of mankind, linking ancient myths with those still current in traditional societies, is often assumed that the three God-religions are devoid of mythology and poetic symbolism. Yet, although monotheists originally rejected the myths of their pagan neighbours, these often crept back into the faith at a later date. Mystics have seen God incarnated a woman, for example. Others reverently speak of God’s sexuality and have introduced a female element into the divine.
This brings me to a difficult point. Because this God began as a specifically male deity, monotheists have usually referred to it as ‘he’. In recent years, feminists have understandably objected to this. Since I shall be recording the thoughts and insights of people who called God ‘he’, I have used the conventional masculine terminology, except when ‘it’ has been more appropriate. Yet it is perhaps worth mentioning that the masculine tenor of God-talk is particularly problematic in English. In Hebrew, Arabic and French, however, grammatical gender gives theological discourse a sort of sexual counterpoint and dialectic, which provides a balance that is often lacking in English. Thus in Arabic al-Lah (the supreme name for God) is grammatically masculine, but the word for the divine and inscrutable essence of God – al-Dhat – is feminine.
All talk about God staggers under impossible difficulties. Yet monotheists have all been very positive about language at the same time as they have denied its capacity to express the transcendent reality. The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a God who – in some sense – speaks. His Word is crucial in all three faiths. The Word of God has shaped the history of our culture. We have to decide whether the word ‘God’ has any meaning for us today.
Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous other books on religious affairs –including A History of God, The Battle for God, Holy War, Islam, Buddha, and The Great Transformation – and two memoirs, Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. Her work has been translated into forty-five languages. She has addressed members of the U.S. Congress on three occasions; lectured to policy makers at the U.S. State Department; participated in the World Economic Forum in New York, Jordan, and Davos; addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York; is increasingly invited to speak in Muslim countries; and is now an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations. In February 2008 she was awarded the TED Prize and is currently working with TED on a major international project to launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to be signed in the fall of 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders. She lives in London.
From Publishers Weekly
This searching, profound comparative history of the three major monotheistic faiths fearlessly illuminates the sociopolitical ground in which religious ideas take root, blossom and mutate. Armstrong, a British broadcaster, commentator on religious affairs.., argues that Judaism, Christianity and Islam each developed the idea of a personal God, which has helped believers to mature as full human beings. Yet Armstrong also acknowledges that the idea of a personal God can be dangerous, encouraging us to judge, condemn and marginalize others. Recognizing this, each of the three monotheisms, in their different ways, developed a mystical tradition grounded in a realization that our human idea of God is merely a symbol of an ineffable reality. To Armstrong, modern, aggressively righteous fundamentalists of all three faiths represent “a retreat from God.” She views as inevitable a move away from the idea of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves, and welcomes the grouping of believers toward a notion of God that “works for us in the empirical age.”
My wish: The Charter for Compassion – Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong TED Talk given in 2008
What God is, or isn’t, will continue to morph indefinitely unless…
‘The whole thing about the messiah is a human construct’
The Divine Principle: Questions to consider about Old Testament figures
How “God’s Day” was established on January 1, 1968
Divine Principle – Parallels of History
“… Many Koreans therefore have difficulty understanding and accepting religions that have only one god and emphasize an uncertain and unknowable afterlife rather than the here and now. In the Korean context of things, such religions are anti-life and do not really make sense…” LINK
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Hello there! I hear you want to dig yourself a deeper hole, so I thought I’d help with some asks. General, 43, for either Taang or tokka.
Can always count on you for asks, su lol. Thanks bud!
Taang - General - #43 - “Is the weight of your sins too heavy?”
“What are you wallowing about now, Twinkletoes?”
Aang threw a glare back at Toph, even though it went unnoticed by her. “Not now, Toph. I’m not in the mood.”
She sauntered over next to Aang, ignoring his wishes and sitting down next to him on the grass.
It was a brisk night in the city, but something was bothering the Avatar. He’d been acting weird since they stayed at this particular town for more than a month. And with every added task or request or demand, Aang seemed to spiral further into a mood.
At first, Toph really did try to be nice and understanding of Aang’s feelings. After all, he did the same for her all the time and she wanted to be considerate of the stress and emotions that he was processing.
But he was literally being a broody brat and she had to result in using her tougher tactics. The airhead was slowing progress down with their projects and he was taking his frustration out on others and that was not okay.
So as she sat there next to Aang, she waited for him to break the silence first. Because even though she taught Aang really well, he couldn’t compete with her. Not really.
She knew he’d break soon when she felt him fidget next to her.
Toph feigned innocence. “Don’t what?”
“You wouldn’t understand, so don’t ask.”
“How do you know I wouldn’t?”
“Because this is something only I have to deal with. Being the Avatar—there’s so much responsibility. So much I have to do for the world, and I don’t know if I can do it! No one else in the world understands.”
“Now tell me how you really feel.”
“You know what, Toph? Fuck off. Don’t make fun of my feelings.”
“Can you please get off your pedestal for a second, Aang?” she huffed, annoyed. “Because I’m trying to help you.”
“I just told you! You can’t—”
“—Yeah yeah, the weight of your responsibilities and misdeeds are too heavy for a mere mortal like me to understand,” she snapped. “But did you ever consider you don’t need to do all of this alone?”
“How on earth could you even—”
“—Aang,” she interrupted. “You have a group of friends, people who are your family that will help you through the toughest of times, and you’re choosing to do this alone. Why?
“We may not know all the Avatar, spirity mumbo jumbo, but if you needed help with making decisions or completing missions or anything, we’ve got your back. And I’m literally right here, helping you turn this dump of a town into a city. We’d do anything for you. I’d do anything for you, you should know that.
“So tell me why you’re pushing your family away.”
Aang wilted and sighed. “Sometimes it feels easier to do things alone. The stress of work worries me, and I don’t think my heart couldn’t take any more loss.”
“I can’t lose you guys,” he whispered. “And—and if I can manage my Avatar duties on my own, no one has to risk their life for me.”
“Twinkletoes,” Toph began, a hint of a smirk on her face. She grabbed Aang’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ve already risked our lives for you. On multiple occasions. And we were kids!
“We’re in too deep for you to use that card and have it work.”
Aang chuckled and shook his head. “You’re never wrong, are you, Sifu Toph?”
Toph smiled. “Never.” She shifted in her seated position to get up, but Aang held onto her hand. He asked, “Do you mind if we stay out here for a bit? It’s a nice evening.”
“Sure. Whatever you need, Aang.” Toph repositioned herself close to Aang, and the two sat there, hand in hand, enjoying the evening breeze.
Send me a prompt to write about. Let me know type (Fluff, Angst, General), and ship (ATLA).
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