"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."--BOOK JACKET.
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."
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.
For the first half of the book Armstrong recounts the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a reasonably dispassionate and sympathetic manner; this is what I wanted. Viewing religion as a human historical event is, of course offensive to some, and I’m sure that one hundred scholars would have one thousand objections to her facts and interpretations, but I would take that as unavoidable no matter how excellent the book. Armstrong has obviously done an enormous amount of research and she comes across as both learned and lucid. While it is not an easy read, I never felt puzzled by the concepts. I feel that I have learned a lot and reading this book has been worthwhile for me, despite my upcoming criticisms. I am also willing to cut her a little slack on the subject of Western Christianity; writing in English, she can assume that most of her readers are either familiar with the topic or at least have access to other sources.
She seemed to be focusing upon the formal theology of the religions, and not the day to day aspects as experienced by the typical believer; when this struck me I reminded myself that this is not a cyclopedia of religion and she cannot cover everything.
She then began to become a little partisan, dispraising Western Christianity and idealizing Islam, which I attributed to a laudable desire to enhance the Western view of Islam, although the attack portion of her program probably backfired with some readers. But as I read on, the work becomes more and more judgmental, personal and advocative. Armstrong’s hatred of Western Christianity as the least mystical and most fundamentalist creed is revealed in ever stronger terms as she goes along. According to Armstrong’s theses, Islam and Eastern Christianity should have produced societies that were more tolerant, egalitarian, and generally possessed of fewer social ills than Western Christianity owing to what she considers to be their more advanced and healthier beliefs. I cannot say that all this has ever struck me as being so unfailingly true as to be self-evident, and she does not even attempt to prove it.
Her coverage of the last couple of centuries seems somewhat spotty. Armstrong discusses the effect of European colonization of the Islamic heartland on Muslims, but says nothing of the effect of decades of Communism on any religion. Her section on the Jewish theological response to the Holocaust is somewhat sketchy, and there is little or nothing on the modern divisions of Judaism. Sikhism is briefly noted, but Bahai, oddly enough given her professed admiration for religious fusion, is never mentioned, nor is Mormonism. Meanwhile, and hardest to explain in terms of size limitations or focus, Eastern Christianity virtually vanishes from the book after the fall of the Byzantine empire.
Armstrong sounds remarkably foolish to me for the last fifteen or so pages of the book; perhaps her apparent belligerence is to convince herself. Armstrong proclaims that the failings of Western Christianity make it too brittle to absorb change and have lead to the so-called “Death of God” and for the health of our society *we* need to create a vibrant new mystical faith to assuage the despair of humanity. I have visions of a pageant of piety for the benefit of the *less advanced* or perhaps Prozac communion wafers. Who is "we" and who is "not we?" Are we talking about deluding ourselves, or is an elite going to manipulate the hoi polloi for their own good?
This is where is becomes necessary to consider the typical lay person. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance, but I thought that in dealing with the question of evil, the clergy of most of the monotheistic religions fall back on retribution for sin, divine plans and repentance and prayer, however abstract the official view of God may be. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in a Western Christian version of God even though Armstrong has declared it to be unbelievable. I’m an atheist and I cannot fathom how any intelligent person can believe in traditional Western Christianity, but I’m willing to face the reality that I am very much in the minority and that I know intelligent people who do believe in it. Armstrong is surprised to find that the faithful are being faithful to what they were previously taught. I am astounded that, given her stated belief that the idea of God is extremely important to most of humanity, she would expect that the laity can be so easily led, that their beliefs are so shallow. Without contesting her assertion that the view of God changes, does she really suppose that a self-appointed committee can simply announce that everyone is to drop their lifelong beliefs and adopt new ones and that will instantly happen? It does not appear to me from the history that she cites that we can count on new views of Gods to be adopted quickly, easily and unanimously. Do the theologians that Armstrong favors have halos so that the faithful can tell that they are the Lord’s anointed and their opponents are false prophets? What seems clearest to me from Armstrong’s work is that there are always competing religious views and that isn’t likely to change. Theological developments are not necessarily linear and directional; some themes recur presumably because of the not very changeable nature of human beings.
Science is often said to have discredited arguments such as the Unmoved Mover, but the problems with that argument are more logical than technical. People have been pointing out the logical flaws for centuries, but some people still find the argument convincing. I had also gotten Armstrong’s The Battle for God to read next, but I think I’ll give it a miss; I'm afraid that it will take up where this leaves off.
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.
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.
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
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.
I would still recommend this book (or any book by Karen Armstrong) to anyone who would like a more in-depth look at religion.
Other things I found interesting, just how many ways religious text can be interpreted. In todays society, there seems to be only one way to worship, that is taking the holy book as the complete truth. This is not the way original converts would have seen it - in some cases, the Holy book wasn't even assembled yet!
This is a wonderful reference for an overview of the three major religions. There is just enough information to figure out what is happening without overload, but if you want to find out more about a certain era, this book gives you a good starting point. Highly recommended.