Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Book Review: "A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam", By Karen Armstrong

I would prefer the subtitle, Man’s Quest to Interpret God. But then, that assumes there is an objective God that one can interpret, which is a God Armstrong does not acknowledge. It is not clear from the book what Armstrong even believes about God, but it is clear that she is steeped in God. What Armstrong does in this sweeping account of the 4000 year history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is unfold the countless conceptions that people have had about God over the course of 4000 years. This is the best “bare bones” historical read on religion I have enjoyed since reading Kenneth Lattourette’s, "History of Christianity". Armstrong is clearly a monkish scholar, having layed out a 4000 year history with such comprehensive, yet intimate knowledge of the subject, that you can imagine her sitting at her desk year after lonely year preparing this work. Her account of Man’s quest to understand and know God appears at first to be remarkably dispassionate and unbiased. She is careful and faithful to the task of unfolding all the relevant data. She doesn’t take sides, but gives fair and equal time to the development of all the known ideas about God within these three religions. Her impartial cause is likely aided by the fact that she was once a cloistered nun who gave up her habit and Catholic Faith for the equally austere but detached world of the historical writer. She seems to understand the God of Man, but she is mindful to keep a scholar's distance from Him. However, for all her impartiality, no one is completely unbiased when writing history. So it is with Armstrong that you find her developing interpretive “themes” of the historical data.

One such thematic interpretation is her recurring interest in showing the interaction between the Zeitgeist (“Spirit of the Age”) and one’s conception of God. We all know that people are influenced by the times in which they live and Armstrong does a fabulous job showing these influences upon humankind's understanding of God. A case in point is the influence of Greek philosophy upon the early Christian writers and subsequent development of the organized Church. She displays that in history there isn’t any conception of God apart from the historical, cultural and social setting of the time. Her message is that God, therefore, is a product of the times; a human creation.

A second theme is her interest in showing us the startling relationship between contemporaneous religions at each critical point in history. For example, she makes an insightful observation that Jesus and Buddhism brought about a like-minded kind of faith at the same period of history, yet in different and independent regions of the world. The Buddhist bodhisattvas was similar to the Christian devotion to Jesus in that both were a movement for the masses without distinction to socio-economic class. This was something new. She is adept at showing these developing ideas of God. In more recent times, such as in the period of the 18th century Enlightenment, Christianity became extremely individualized and pietistic, which was described as the “Great Awakening”. What Christians today may not know is that while Christians then were experiencing the Great Awakening, Judaism was enjoying its own “awakening” with the inception of Hasidism. As she draws these parallels between contemporaneous religions the reader’s take away is that the human quest to know God follows mankind's evolutionary path.

A third theme is the biggest take away of them all; God is evolving and we need to create a God suitable for our Zeitgeist. She writes on page 84, “All religions change and develop. If they do not, they will become obsolete.” If anything is clear about Armstrong’s message in this book, it is that man’s understanding of God has evolved through time in such a way that God has grown with man. And, God will necessarily continue to evolve as does humankind. In her last chapter, entitled, “Does God Have A Future?” she seeks to bring our thinking to a place where we can both understand religion’s potential for good and bad upon society and our need for a God suitable to the times in which we live. The question is, what will God look like in the 21st century? She closes the book with these final words, “…if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.” This interpretation of God in relationship to our Zeitgeist contrasts with the New Atheists, such as Hitchens and Harris, who advocate for Atheism as the only solution for mankind in this age. But, Armstong insightfully disagrees. She writes on page 362, "Like sexuality, religion is a human need that affects life at every level. If suppressed, the results are likely to be as explosive and destructive as any severe sexual repression." My own prediction is that in this shrinking world, God will thrive. But He will do so in a theological climate of reconciliation, ecumenicism, and universalism.

In general, I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in a great overall history of religion. In particular, I would recommend that Christians read this book for no other reason than seeing the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and especially Islam. While the book is comprehensive it is not superficial. You will come away with a solid understanding of the origin and development of each of these religions.


Joe Staub

1 comment:

SirOiLaS said...

Hi there, I enjoyed your review a lot but I would like to leave a little note about the atheist 'writers' you talk about in the end of your piece. although Hitchens is openly against any kind of reconciliation between religion and science, Sam Harris has been demonstrating more and more interest in the spiritual knowledge and development of the humankind. I'm guessing this spirituality, that discredit any kind of supernatural manifestation but searches for the explanations of any phenomenon in biology or chemistry, may be our 'zeitgeist' manifestation in what may come to be a new look at religion or god. it's obvious that Sam Harris believes in a marriage between science and mature spirituality in order for humankind to improve this world. i absolutely agree with him.

i would like to know your views about his position on this and if you think this is a valid path for a development or evolution of religion as we know it.