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.
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.