A History of God by Karen Armstrong: “Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.”

A History of God is a heavy book. Not just as a result of its sweeping subject matter – the origins and evolution of Judeo Christian religion – but also because of the author’s brilliance. Karen Armstrong knows so much about religious studies and spiritual history and can’t help but share it in its nuanced glory with readers. For learning’s sake, I’ve shared some of my favorite excerpts below.

Here’s the Amazon link. And here’s a running list of books I’ve finished, by month.

The Faylasufs did not believe that you had to convince yourself of God’s existence rationally before you could have a mystical experience. If anything, it was the other way around. In the Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox worlds, the God of the philosophers was being rapidly overtaken by the God of the mystics.

Today many people in the West would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination. Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.

Reformers like Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, shared the Protestant emphasis on direct experience of God and the need to appropriate revelation and make it uniquely one’s own. The Spiritual Exercises which he evolved for his first Jesuits were intended to induce a conversion, which could be a wracking, painful experience as well as an extremely joyful one.

The Greeks had used the Trinity as a means of holding the mind in a state of wonder and as a reminder that human intellect could never understand the nature of God.

The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, seemed to suggest that there were three gods. Schleiermacher’s disciple Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) saw the doctrine as a flagrant instance of Hellenization. It had corrupted the Christian message by introducing an alien “layer of metaphysical concepts, derived from the natural philosophy of the Greeks,” having nothing at all to do with the pristine Christian experience. Yet Schleiermacher and Ritschl had failed to see that each generation had to create its own imaginative conception of God, just as each Romantic poet had to experience truth upon his own pulse. The Greek Fathers were simply trying to make the Semitic concept of God work for them by expressing it in terms of their own culture.

Atheism had always been a rejection of a current conception of the divine. Jews and Christians had been called “atheists” because they denied pagan notions of divinity, even though they had faith in a God.

C. G. Jung’s (1875–1961) God was similar to the God of the mystics, a psychological truth, subjectively experienced by each individual.

…despite his advocacy of a compassionate ethic, Schopenhauer could not cope with human beings and became a recluse who communicated only with his poodle, Atman.

Freud had wisely seen that any enforced repression of religion could only be destructive. Like sexuality, religion is a human need that affects life at every level.

Islam, however, is a religion of success. The Koran taught that a society which lived according to God’s will (implementing justice, equality, and a fair distribution of wealth) could not fail. Muslim history had seemed to confirm this. Unlike Christ, Muhammad had not been an apparent failure but a dazzling success.

…ardent young socialists such as David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) simply packed their bags and sailed to Palestine, determined to create a model society that would be a light to the Gentiles and herald the socialist millennium. Others had no time for these Marxist dreams. The charismatic Austrian Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) saw the new Jewish venture as a colonial enterprise: under the wing of one of the European imperial powers, the Jewish state would be a vanguard of progress in the Islamic wilderness. Despite its avowed secularism, Zionism expressed itself instinctively in conventionally religious terminology and was essentially a religion without God.

Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of objective fact. Scientists and philosophers who find no room for God in their systems are usually referring to the idea of God as First Cause, a notion eventually abandoned by Jews, Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians during the Middle Ages.

We must do without God and hold on to Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel was “the good news of a free man who has set other men free.” Jesus of Nazareth was the liberator, “the man who defines what it means to be a man.”

In brilliant studies of Dante and Bonaventure, Balthasar shows that Catholics have “seen” God in human form. Their emphasis on beauty in the gestures of ritual, drama and in the great Catholic artists indicates that God is to be found by the senses and not simply by the more cerebral and abstracted parts of the human person.

Leibniz: “Why are there beings at all, rather than just nothing?”

Unless politics and morality somehow include the idea of “God,” they will remain pragmatic and shrewd rather than wise.

The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims got off to an unfortunate start, since the tribal deity Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people. Latter-day crusaders who return to this primitive ethos are elevating the values of the tribe to an unacceptably high status and substituting man-made ideals for the transcendent reality which should challenge our prejudices. They are also denying a crucial monotheistic theme. Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of monotheists has promoted the ideal of compassion.

From the very beginning, God was experienced as an imperative to action. From the moment when—as either El or Yahweh—God called Abraham away from his family in Haran, the cult entailed concrete action in this world and often a painful abandonment of the old sanctities.

When Christians are dismayed by such scientists as Stephen Hawking, who can find no room for God in his cosmology, they are perhaps still thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms as a Being who created the world in the same way as we would. Yet creation was not originally conceived in such a literal manner. Interest in Yahweh as Creator did not enter Judaism until the exile to Babylon. It was a conception that was alien to the Greek world: creation ex nihilo was not an official doctrine of Christianity until the Council of Nicaea in 341. Creation is a central teaching of the Koran, but, like all its utterances about God, this is said to be a “parable” or a “sign” (aya) of an ineffable truth.

The mystics have long insisted that God is not an-Other Being; they have claimed that he does not really exist and that it is better to call him Nothing. This God is in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society, with its distrust of inadequate images of the Absolute. Instead of seeing God as an objective Fact, which can be demonstrated by means of scientific proof, mystics have claimed that he is a subjective experience, mysteriously experienced in the ground of being.

Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life. The aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life seem to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in “God” or anything else—it matters little what—many people are falling into despair.

Daily Habits Checklist (April 17 – May 14): Netflix & work chill

A good 4 weeks. The three blank days you see in the middle are the result of a 4-day vacation to Cebu. I have the workaholic tendency to loathe beach vacations after about the 2nd day, but to my surprise I didn’t want this one to end.

The “evening to do’s” habit (a grab bag of little activities to prep for tomorrow such as packing my work bag) has morphed into the “evening work sesh” habit (where I load a Netflix movie of the fast food variety on the living room TV after dinner, and do an hour or two of busy work while watching it). This has been a nice modification. Having a fun movie playing in the background helps me to squeeze an extra bit of productivity juice from the day’s orange…or something.

A quick review of each habit…

Waking early: in addition to exercise, one of the biggest levers for my day. Waking up at 7am is not just one hour better than waking at 8am. It’s at least 90 minutes better

Pushups: the idea is that each year you increase your goal not decrease it. My hope is that at 80 years old I can manage 80 pushups…even if I have to do 5 at a time from morning til dusk lol

Write: because good writing is good thinking and it’s one of my favorite things to do

Meditate: remains hard but worth it

Exercise: along with waking early, one of the best ROIs on time and a force multiplier for just about everything

Publish: can’t keep your work to yourself if you want to improve and connect and grow. Need to improve here

Stretch back & neck: because I’ve had recurring stiffness problems which have by and large gone away since I started to do these exercises

What do you suppose will satisfy the soul, except to walk free and own no superior? – Walt Whitman

Why do I track and share this stuff? Click here. Thanks for reading!

Warren Buffett on the institutional imperative: “Any business craving of the leader…will be quickly supported”

Cribbed this from a Hacker News comment and wanted to preserve it here. A powerful idea when we can remember it.


Warren Buffett’s 1989 letter to shareholders

My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call ‘the institutional imperative.’ […] I thought that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

[…] After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.


As Clay Shirky puts it, “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”.

29 things I re-learned in 33 years

When I turned 29 I wrote this essay, a list of 29 lessons that were meaningful to me.

Now 4 years have passed and I’m 33, the age that Murakami calls “a kind of crossroads in life”. Because I don’t have the desire to write an entirely new essay of “33 things I learned in 33 years”, I settled instead for a review of the original essay.

Of the 29 items, here are the ones that still resonate:

1. You understand your parents better as you get older – still working on this one. It hasn’t gotten much easier…

2. Relationships are like cars – rings increasingly true. Relationships require continual care and maintenance. The more you put in, the more you get out, but you can’t use the expectation of “getting out” as your primary motivation for “putting in”

5. Never stop learning – the following may feel counterintuitive, but it’s even MORE important as we get older to stretch our intellectual and experiential boundaries. Take up surfing at 60, learn a new language at 47, start writing software at 35…

6. Make 5-year commitments – the exact number of years isn’t important, the long-term commitment is. Determine a priority, commit to it, and build a daily habit to support it. So for example if you want to become a good cook, it’s good to think about where you’d like to be as a chef in 5 years. And then find a reason and routine to cook every day

7. It’s never too late – “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today”

8. Conquer fear and you’ll be unstoppable – Scott Adams: “When you see a successful person who lacks a college education, you’re usually looking at someone with an unusual lack of fear.”

11. Re-think, re-do, and re-learn what’s important. And again. And again. And again – this gets back to my concept of a Personal Bible and memorizing wisdom (usually in the form of quotes) by using Anki cards. Those two practices have given me much, although they have also doled out equal amounts of frustration and annoyance. Consuming new content is perhaps 90% of my content consumption bandwidth. Ideally it would be closer to 60%, or maybe even 50%

12. In startups and relationships, pick the right market – there is a delicious juxtaposition between my many years spent in the stagnant world of book publishing and now investing in the explosive and world changing world of bitcoin and blockchain. Andy Rachleff’s observation still rings true, “When a lousy team meets a great market…”

14. Buy less stuff – yes please. The environment is always underestimated. When I’m in Shanghai, I want to buy things. In Taipei, less so. On a beach anywhere, even less so. Except maybe sunscreen

15. Break the rules – Nietzsche: “society tames the wolf into a dog and man is the most domesticated animal of all”

19. Own a word – this might be the most powerful thing you can do in marketing. Coin a word or phrase and you’ve laid the foundation for a lasting brand. From memes like Pepe the frog to slogans like Nike’s Just do it to concepts like Tim’s 4-hour anything

20. Don’t make exceptions – Clay Christensen: “It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time”

23. We know nothing – the more we learn about anything, the less we know about everything

28. What do you think about in the shower? – this question is useful but not perfect, because during shower time, limited as it is, your mind will sometimes preference the urgent over the important

29. Write often and much – My goal is to write meaningfully for 2 hours every day. Most days I can reach that target, but only just. Momentum is important: if I hit the goal yesterday, than it’s easier today, and still easier tomorrow. But the opposite is equally true.

Jeff Bezos on Amazon’s culture and strategy: “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied”

This is from his 2015 Amazon letter to shareholders [source]. So much good stuff on what makes Amazon such a sustaining high performing culture, how to align vastly different business units and products, what challenges he’s faced – and the lessons he’s learned from them – as the company has grown and grown and grown.

On alignment and shared values

[AWS and Amazon retail] share a distinctive organizational culture that cares deeply about and acts with conviction on a small number of principles. I’m talking about customer obsession rather than competitor obsession, eagerness to invent and pioneer, willingness to fail, the patience to think long-term, and the taking of professional pride in operational excellence.

There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.

On managing big company process and complexity

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2. A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

On decision making

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.