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.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

More brilliance from Scott Adams: “You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job”

I’m re-reading his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big [Kindle]. Along with Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You [Kindle], they present a fantastic one-two punch against the overhyped and underskilled enemy that is passion.

This great gem, about the value of grit and the mirage of passion:

You often hear advice from successful people that you should “follow your passion.” That sounds perfectly reasonable the first time you hear it. Passion will presumably give you high energy, high resistance to rejection, and high determination. Passionate people are more persuasive, too. Those are all good things, right? Here’s the counterargument: When I was a commercial loan officer for a large bank in San Francisco, my boss taught us that you should never make a loan to someone who is following his passion. For example, you don’t want to give money to a sports enthusiast who is starting a sports store to pursue his passion for all things sporty. That guy is a bad bet, passion and all. He’s in business for the wrong reason. My boss, who had been a commercial lender for over thirty years, said the best loan customer is one who has no passion whatsoever, just a desire to work hard at something that looks good on a spreadsheet. Maybe the loan customer wants to start a dry-cleaning store or invest in a fast-food franchise—boring stuff. That’s the person you bet on. You want the grinder, not the guy who loves his job.

If you’re interested in Scott (he created Dilbert), here are some of my past posts about him:

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Law 28: Enter Action With Boldness

If you are unsure of a course of action, do not attempt it. Your doubts and hesitations will infect your execution. Timidity is dangerous: Better to enter with boldness. Any mistakes you commit through audacity are easily corrected with more audacity. Everyone admires the bold; no one honors the timid. – Robert Greene

I am reading Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power [Kindle] for the second time. A selection of his 48 rules are in my personal bible. I’m a strong believer in re-reading and reviewing your favorite content. You always learn something new. Not unlike the way your experience evolves as you appreciate a favorite song or movie.

This time Law 28 really spoke to me. The power of audacity and boldness. Whatever your politics, Trump has it in spades. Softbank founder Masayoshi Son. Of course Elon Musk.

Here’s an excerpt from Law 28: Enter Action With Boldness:

Most of us are timid. We want to avoid tension and conflict and we want to be liked by all. We may contemplate a bold action but we rarely bring it to life. We are terrified of the consequences, of what others might think of us, of the hostility we will stir up if we dare go beyond our usual place.

Although we may disguise our timidity as a concern for others, a desire not to hurt or offend them, in fact it is the opposite – we are really self-absorbed, worried about ourselves and how others perceive us. Boldness, on the other hand, is outer-directed, and often makes people feel more at ease, since it is less self-conscious and less repressed.


Few are born bold. Even Napoleon had to cultivate the habit on the battlefield, where he knew it was a matter of life and death. In social settings he was awkward and timid, but he overcame this and practiced boldness in every part of his life because he saw its tremendous power, how it could literally enlarge a man (even one who, like Napoleon, was in fact conspicuously small). We also see this change in Ivan the Terrible: A harmless boy suddenly transforms himself into a powerful young man who commands authority, simply by pointing a finger and taking bold action.

You must practice and develop your boldness. You will often find uses for it. The best place to begin is often the delicate world of negotiation, particularly those discussions in which you are asked to set your own price. How often we put ourselves down by asking for too little. When Christopher Columbus proposed that the Spanish court finance his voyage to the Americas, he also made the insanely bold demand that he be called “Grand Admiral of the Ocean.” The court agreed. The price he set was the price he received – he demanded to be treated with respect, and so he was. Henry Kissinger too knew that in negotiation, bold demands work better than starting off with piecemeal concessions and trying to meet the other person halfway. Set your value high, and then, as Count Lustig did, set it higher.

Understand: If boldness is not natural, neither is timidity. It is an acquired habit, picked up out of a desire to avoid conflict. If timidity has taken hold of you, then, root it out. Your fears of the consequences of a bold action are way out of proportion to reality, and in fact the consequences of timidity are worse. Your value is lowered and you create a self-fulfilling cycle of doubt and disaster.

Remember: The problems created by an audacious move can be disguised, even remedied, by more and greater audacity.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

“The keys to life are running and reading”

will-smith-running“The keys to life are running and reading. Why running? When your running there’s a little person that talks to you and that little person says, oh I’m tired, my lungs are about to pop off, I’m so hurt, I’m so tired, there’s no way i could possibly continue, and you want to quit, right? That person, if you learn how to defeat that person, when you’re running, you will learn how to not quit when times get hard in your life. […] The reason that reading is so important, there have mean millions and billions and billions and gazillions of people that have lived before all of us, there’s no new problem you can have, with your parents, with school, with a bully, with anything. There’s no problem you can have that someone hasn’t already solved and wrote about it in a book.” – Will Smith

If you’d like to kill two birds with one stone, read the book Spark, about the power of – and science behind – running.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Are we in a time of growing anomie?

Anomie is the condition of a society in which there are no clear rules, norms, or standards of value. In an anomic society, people can do as they please; but without any clear standards or respected social institutions to enforce those standards, it is harder for people to find things they want to do. Anomie breeds feelings of rootlessness and anxiety and leads to an increase in amoral and antisocial behavior. Modern sociological research strongly supports Durkheim: One of the best predictors of the health of an American neighborhood is the degree to which adults respond to the misdeeds of other people’s children. When community standards are enforced, there is constraint and cooperation. When everyone minds his own business and looks the other way, there is freedom and anomie.

We sure as hell don’t discipline other peoples’ children. Instead we vent and whine and shame bad parents on Twitter. Perhaps the social medias are today’s standards and institutions, stepping forward as governments and religions slide back. Both of these trends worry me, and I’m trying to understand why.

The quote is from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis [Kindle]. I’m re-reading this book for the third time, and I’m learning more than the first two times combined. In the past I was happy by default, and now happiness takes effort. So I understand and appreciate his findings and suggestions in a new light. Similar to how you empathize with and are grateful for your parents as you start to adult.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.