A History of God : the 4000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

by Karen Armstrong

Hardcover, 1993




New York : A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1993.


"As soon as they became recognizably human, men and women--in their hunger to understand their own presence on earth and the mysteries within and around them--began to worship gods. Karen Armstrong's masterly and illuminating book explores the ways in which the idea and experience of God evolved among the monotheists--Jews, Christians and Muslims. Weaving a multicolored fabric of historical, philosophical, intellectual and social developments and insights, Armstrong shows how, at various times through the centuries, each of the monotheistic religions has held a subtly different concept of God. At the same time she draws our attention to the basic and profound similarities among them, making it clear that in all of them God has been and is experienced intensely, passionately and often--especially in the West--traumatically. Some monotheists have seen darkness, desolation and terror, where others have seen light and transfiguration; the reasons for these inherent differences are examined, and the people behind them are brought to life. We look first at the gradual move away from the pagan gods to the full-fledged monotheism of the Jews during the exile in Babylon. Next considered is the development of parallel, yet different, perceptions and beliefs among Christians and Muslims. The book then moves "generationally" through time to examine the God of the philosophers and mystics in all three traditions, the God of the Reformation, the God of the Enlightenment and finally the nineteenth- and twentieth-century challenges of skeptics and atheists, as well as the fiercely reductive faith of the fundamentalists of our own day. Armstrong suggests that any particular idea of God must--if it is to survive--work for the people who develop it, and that ideas of God change when they cease to be effective. She argues that the concept of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves was suited to mankind at a certain stage but no longer works for an increasing number of people." "Understanding the ever-changing ideas of God in the past and their relevance and usefulness in their time, she says, is a way to begin the search for a new concept for the twenty-first century. Her book shows that such a development is virtually inevitable, in spite of the despair of our increasingly "Godless" world, because it is a natural aspect of our humanity to seek a symbol for the ineffable reality that is universally perceived."--Publisher's description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Neutiquam_Erro
It is difficult to know where to begin when reviewing this book. What appears to the eye as a slender tome of some four hundred pages turns out to be quite a long read. The reason for this is that it covers some three thousand years of religious and philosophical history and does not skimp on the details. Sufiism, Kabbalah and Gnosticism, as well as more mainline theological ideas are all well-covered along with a healthy sprinkling of Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian concepts.

Karen Armstrong begins with a discussion of the origins of monotheism and then proceeds to a describe its development within the three main monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While there are probably better, more detailed accounts of each (ie. Hodgson on Islam), she does a credible job of describing many of the nuances of the three. Her primary thesis, agree with it or not as you will, is that religion and its conception of God changes with time. She charts these changes and dwells upon the similarities and relationships between Islam, Christianity and Judaism with considerable insight. She devotes considerable time to the problems of theology each encountered and discusses specific issues such as original sin, the trinity, creation (ex nihilo versus emanation) and the perennial conflict between rationalism and mysticism.

While many who practice the faiths in question will find much of what she says disturbing or heretical, her ideas provoke thoughtful contemplation. She is generally even-handed in her analysis and has a sympathetic tone for almost all of the ideas on which she touches. She is perhaps harshest with Christianity - not surprisingly - since according to the introduction, she spent her early life in the Catholic tradition. Her softest spot seems to be for mystical spirituality and she gives short shrift to modern-day fundamentalism. I find curious her idea that atheism is one in a long line of mystical approaches to the spiritual.

If I have one concern with this book it is that it is too much Karen Armstrong and not enough of anyone else. She holds strong views on nearly everything and is unafraid to state them as if they were objective truths. Dissenting voices are often entirely ignored, leaving the reader unfamiliar with this material feeling that opinions are facts. While the author's analysis is sharp, fresh and eye-opening, it is not necessarily the last word on the subject. Still, as one who comes from the Christian faith, I would recommend this book to those who don't mind having their preconceived notions challenged.
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LibraryThing member ecw0647
I know I'm an atheist and all, but I still enjoy Armstrong. Wrote this review several years ago:

Rarely does one come across a book that is recognized as erudite, essential, and readable simultaneously. Karen Armstrong's The History of God has brilliantly analyzed the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction to the emphasis on logos of the Enlightenment as opposed to mythos that had been essential to one's view of the world. "The economic changes over the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth; and once again, a radical religious change has become necessary." As science and technology began to become associated with such visible successes in overcoming disease and social ills, the tendency was to believe that logos (rational, scientific thinking related exactly to facts and external realities) was the only “means to truth and began to discount mythos [that which is timeless and constant, “looking back to the origins of life . . to the deepest levels of the human mind . . . unconcerned with practical matters” and rooted in the unconscious, that which helps us through the day, mythological stories not intended to be literal, but conveying truth:] as false and superstitious.” The temptation is to think of mythos as meaning myth. Inj this context that would be incorrect. Armstrong uses this word as it relates to mystery and mysticism, rooted ultimately in traditional biblical and Islamic history “which gives meaning to life, but cannot be explained in rational terms.”Logos, however, was unable to assuage pain and suffering leading to a vacuum the fundamentalists sought to revive. The danger unseen by modern fundamentalists is that they have tried to imbue mythos with an element of literalism essential to logos. The difference between these two concepts forms the basis for the battle between modernism and fundamentalism.

She traces the beginning of the fundamentalist movement back to the time of Columbus when a crisis occurred in Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella expelled both Muslims and Jews from Spain. The three religious groups had actually coexisted quite happily and profitably together for several centuries, but the prospect of modernity and threats from a new world view, science, threatened age-old traditions and myths. The fundamentalist movement was an attempt by traditionalists to retain a sectarian view of the world.

For many of these people the world can be divided into two camps: good and evil and those forces that are not allied with their own narrow view of the world are labeled as evil. That these believes are rooted in fear does not lessen their impact or importance to the faithful. Often an arrogance and condescension – I plead guilty here – make secularists insensitive to those who feel their religious beliefs have been undermined and challenged. The seemingly irreconcilable difference between rationalism and mysticism perhaps make militant fundamentalism inevitable. The danger for fundamentalist lies in their attempts to turn mythos into logos, e.g., have sacred texts be read literally and inerrantly as one would read a scientific text. That may lead to inevitable discrepancies between observation and belief that may hasten the defeat of religion.

Of great benefit, is Armstrong's clear explanation of the differences and conflicts that exist in Islam. Shiite and Sunni branches represent very different interpretations of a major faith.

The eventual outcome of the dichotomy of secular versus sectarian remains unknown. What is apparent is that fundamentalism cannot tolerate pluralism or democracy and compromise seems unlikely. The author identifies two major threads in the development of fundamentalism: (a) fear of the modern world and (b) that the response to fear is to try to create an alternative society by preaching "an ideology of exclusion, hatred, and even violence." She warns at the end of the book, "If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more emphatically to the fears, anxieties, and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbors experience but which no society can safely ignore."
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LibraryThing member Tpoi
Armstrong writes pretty well and she covers AN AWFUL lot of material. Too much really. As linear narrative history, it's good, everyone except an expert in the field will learn something, but the interconnections of the 3 faiths of the book is not explored in depth, and surely after summarizing the great histories of all one would want analysis, comparison, a zealous sucking of the marrow of meaning.… (more)
LibraryThing member baswood
‘Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation: they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for somer lessons and warnings’

And so ends Karen Armstrong’s A History of God; the final chapter was entitled ‘Has God a future’ and for believers in God this will not sound a very optimistic note. A.N Wilson has been quoted as saying that this book is the most fascinating and learned survey of the biggest wild-goose chase in history - the quest for God. The History of God according to Armstrong seems to have been an attempt to know the unknowable.

Before her final two chapters which are both questions (The Death of God? and Has God a Future?) Armstrong takes the reader through the history of three monotheist religions; Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, she does this in some detail concerning herself with the history of religious thought, the sacred texts as they were received and the prominent men (nearly all men) who were the prophets, scholars and writers. Judaism being the oldest religion is given precedence in the early part of the book, but it gives the reader the background for christianity and then Islam. I found this early history interesting, but perhaps with too much detail, it took the emergence of Islam for the book to grab my intention. The history of the three religions is then brought up to date with chapters on philosophical thought, mysticism, attempts at reform and then finally the enlightenment.

The book has a glossary, notes, suggestions for further reading and a pretty good index and so it could make a decent reference book and I will keep it on my bookshelf to serve this purpose. All in all a bit too much history for me to enjoy the book as a read through experience, but it was the next book on my shelf to read. 3.5 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member Atomicmutant
This is a wonderful, dense, comprehensive survey. Quite a feat of research to present so many diverse ideas in an engaging and digestible way. The book rarely bogs down, and is staggering in its scope. What a great place to start any sort of study of historical monotheistic religion. Although it's primarily concerned with the Abrahamic religions, Armstrong does take the time to compare and contrast evolving perceptions of God with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other schools of thought. A treasure, for being both educational and absorbing.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheLoisLevel
I read this book to understand the relationship between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism while I was living in the Middle East. It definitely explained that, but also I came to understand how the human interpretation of The God has changed as human understanding has changed.
LibraryThing member rchase
good writer, but her anti-Christian views which she presents as factual are often easily refuted.
LibraryThing member KidSisyphus
Armstrong isn't the greatest word smith, but the breadth of her research is remarkable. A must read.
LibraryThing member GTTexas
Should be required reading.
LibraryThing member annbury
A profound examination of a question that often remains unspoken in all our chatter about religion -- what is God? Specifically, what assumptions have the three great religions rooted in the Old Testament made about the nature and degree of involvement in human affairs of the Deity?
Ms. Armstrong shows that this has not been a static concept, beginning with evolution of the idea of God in the Torah and the other books of the Hebrew bibie. For Christianity, the issue of the nature of God wasn't officially agreed upon for hundreds of years after Jesus' death, and opinions have since diverged radically. Islam, too, has seen a changing perception of God, and different views in different branches of the faith.

This book goes way beyond the history of religion: it brings in philosophy, literature and science. It is exhaustively researched, and -- while it is gracefully written -- is not always an easy read: these can be difficult concepts. Nonetheless, I found it deeply rewarding, and will now read the rest of Ms. Armstrong's writings on religion.
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LibraryThing member billsearth
Too dense and not enough on religions of south Asia and the far-east.
However, there is a sense of a dynamic nature of all religions. In other words, the religions we have today will not be the same as what we will have an another century.
LibraryThing member Cygnus555
Very informative book by a very talented author. Her credibility on the topic immediately caught my attention and I was not let down.
LibraryThing member brett_in_nyc
So so great, and I will keep going with all the rest of her books. Although, it takes time. She really opens the eyes and really loves humanity. I love her back!
LibraryThing member invisibleinkling
As someone who's constantly making comparisons with structured belief systems (and someone with eclectic spirituality herself) this book gave me a new cultural and comparitive look at the "big guns" of monotheism. This book has a very well lain out format where it could have been a comlicated mess of many complex issues at once. There are parts that are a bit drawn out, but that's almost unavoidable because of the subject matter.… (more)
LibraryThing member hrissliss
Follows the formation and development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I felt this book was very informative. While it was very much a survey (due to an incredibly large amount of subject matter) it managed to put all three religions into a historical perspective, all the while remaining, by and large, neutral. (Total neutrality is impossible.) It was cohesive, and explained a lot about how the modern version of these religions were synthesized. While a bit heavy, Armstrong managed to make the material engaging and present. Highly recommend for anyone interested in religion. 10/10… (more)
LibraryThing member jbushnell
An exhaustive, intensely compressed overview of 4,000 years of theological debate. A fascinating book, excellent for newcomers to the topic (like myself) although the sheer density of the volume is occasionally numbing.
LibraryThing member Muscogulus
The author deserves five stars out of five simply for the noble effort. While there are inevitable inaccuracies, it's hard to imagine a better survey of this immense subject.
LibraryThing member pdill8
I just couldn't do it. I'm not much of a non-fiction reader, but I thought I'd try to expand my horizons. It is an interesting subject matter and written in a very acessibly way, but I just plain got bored about half way through. I was going to force my way to the end, but I found that I was avoiding reading altogether because I wasn't very into the book. It's a good book. Really. Just not for me- at least not at the moment.… (more)
LibraryThing member rayski
Never finished it, maybe someday I will. Really reads like a text book. The early chapters were good covering the beginnings of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The later chapters were very dry as it started discussing different views on these religions.
LibraryThing member Tomhartley
I really appreciated how Armstrong talks about God is "ineffable"(not something we should claim to fully understand) and how religions come and go depending upon their relevance and usefulness (not to say they are merely helpful fictions). Fluid prose with interesting & scholarly details.
LibraryThing member AuntieClio
This book is chewy and full of big ideas. Connecting the history of the “Big Three,” Armstrong describes the evolution of the ideas of God, Christ and al-Lah over 4,000 years. Always asking, “How did Believers come by their ideas?” and “Where do Believers go from ‘here.” This is a good one for Searchers to have in their library.… (more)
LibraryThing member awicaks
Karen Armstrong is an Oxford University educated Roman Catholic nun who left her order in 1969 to write widely (and intelligently) on religious matters -- books on Islam, Muhammad, Buddha, and her best-known work, "The Gospel According to Woman." In today's world, when many are trying to make sense of a world full of religious hatred, "A History of God" should be required reading for all. Karen Armstrong shows very clearly what I sensed gazing at the Sinai Peninsula from my diving mask: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are first cousins, closely related, and if there are problems between us, it is family strife rather than the enmity of strangers. All three religions, of course, share what Christians call the "Old Testament" as their starting point.
Religious "truths" are not a static reality but evolve from generation to generation and vary from place to place.

Christianity, for instance, embraces such a wide spectrum of thought in the United States today -- from Pat Robertson on the Right to women clerics presiding over gay marriages on the Left -- that is difficult even to think of it as a single religion. Armstrong's book is finally not about God at all, but rather about mankind, the history of how human beings have imagined God, probing the universe for meaning.

Armstrong presents her material objectively -- and a vast scope of material it is, covering 4,000 years of thought! But she isn't afraid to express her own opinions as well: that religious stories are metaphors, parables that the best minds of the past never intended for us to take literally. That "God" is not a personal figure, no dictator in the sky -- neither a He nor a She -- and that to "personalize" the notion of God is to wrongly and dangerously project our own tribal prejudices and human limitations onto a non-human divinity.

I found "A History of God" the sort of book I preferred to read only a few pages at a time, absorbing the intricately varied philosophies of our human attempts to become wise, ethical creatures. Karen Armstrong is a terrific writer, making a difficult subject accessible to the average reader. As for the wisdom, ethics, and divinity of which she writes -- one senses that the human species still has a long way to go.
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LibraryThing member wamser
Challenging, engrossing and illuminating. No one out there writes better on the history of religous thought better than Armstrong.
LibraryThing member Sarah_Buckley
This book was very informative. I felt like a really learned something about the creation of the three "major" religions. However, this is an incredibly dense book and you should maybe have at least a passing knowledge about this topic before you start. It took me a really long time to get through because I kept leaving it to read lighter books and coming back to it. I felt, in the end, that I had a clearer understanding of the worlds different religions and how they came to be. Although I don't attend church I consider myself marginally religious and I am fascinated by religions and their histories. Both amazing good and terrible bad has been done in the name of "God" around the world, and I find it comforting to know that there are people like Karen Armstrong in the world, arguing for peace and compassion.

I would still recommend this book (or any book by Karen Armstrong) to anyone who would like a more in-depth look at religion.
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LibraryThing member b.masonjudy
Karen Armstrong's astute overview of monotheism is an excellent read for anyone looking for a broad conception of theology. She gives insightful oversight into histories and byways of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For me, it gets a bit muddled through the "God of the Philosophers" chapter, but in total she has a coherent vision for the text and wraps up the discourse with grace and elegance.… (more)



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