Book Write-Up: A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong.  A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

I just finished a library copy of this book, but I decided to buy a copy for myself.  They run for as low as a penny on Amazon!  I figured that this would be a valuable book for me to own, for it clearly explains the thoughts of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, existential, and other thinkers, while placing the significance of those thoughts within their historical contexts.  The book also explores pre-Israelite religion, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  Reading this book helped me to make sense of things that puzzled me about Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and the various strands of the cosmological argument that William Lane Craig discusses in The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz.  This book would not only be valuable to me as a scholar seeking to beef up my knowledge, but also as a future teacher, seeking to explain these things to others.

Were there times when I felt that Karen Armstrong was over-simplifying issues?  Yes, especially when she was talking about New Testament Christology.  This is understandable, though, because she is telling a story, and she may not have wanted to disrupt it by noting all the issues about which scholars debate.  Were there times when I took what she said with a grain of salt?  Yes, as when she said on page 121 that, for St. Augustine, “God…was not an objective reality but a spiritual presence in the complex depths of the self.”  I do not thoroughly dismiss what Armstrong is saying here, since she has read books about Augustine, which she cites in her excellent annotated bibliography in the back of the book.  But I have difficulty accepting that Augustine rejected the idea that God was an objective reality—-which I understand to mean someone who is out there and real.  Notwithstanding these reservations, I find that I understand more after reading this book than I did before, and I believe that others seeking to learn about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as Eastern religions and philosophy) can benefit from it, as well.

I first heard of Karen Armstrong when I was an undergraduate in college.  I was taking an Introduction to Religions class, and the professor assigned us Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad.  Karen Armstrong also came to my college to speak, and I also listened to preliminary discussions of her work among faculty.  To be honest, at the time, my impression of her work was not entirely positive.  Her biography about Muhammad did not particularly grab me: I preferred the other book that we had to read because it clearly explained the history and legends of Islam as well as its branches and the beliefs.  Armstrong’s book struck me as flowery and circuitous.  Armstrong’s speech did not resonate with me, either.  It seemed to me that she was dismissing the human ability to understand and to conceptualize God.  As a fundamentalist Christian at the time, I believed that I had the right concept or picture of God, but even putting that to the side, I wondered why anyone would want to worship and be in relationship with a God about whom nothing can be posited.  Something has to be said about what God is like for us to get anywhere, right?  I was not alone in this concern.

But there was something that Armstrong said in that speech that actually did resonate with me, at least somewhat: She said that trying to understand God rationally was like eating soup with a fork rather than a spoon.  I was aware that there were people who had all sorts of rational objections against the existence of God and Christianity.  I came across them often as a college student.  Part of me felt threatened by this, and part of me felt that their objections could be surmounted.  But I also wondered if there was a way to bypass rationality altogether and to accept religion as something valuable and nourishing, even if its reality could not be rationally or evidentially supported.

About a decade later, I was working on a presentation about Jews and Christians in Byzantine Jerusalem, and one of the sources that I was using was Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.  I did not read the book cover to cover, but I was impressed by what I did read.  I liked that she explained the nuances of the Arian controversy in an understandable narrative style.  Reading that part of her book answered some questions that I had about the Arian controversy.  I write about that in my post here.  That experience led me to believe that I would profit from reading her other books.

And I did profit from reading her History of God.  The historical parts of the book and the parts that summarized the thoughts of prominent thinkers were the book’s chief asset, in my opinion.  I am a bit ambivalent about some of her theological conclusions, however, and yet I am intrigued, perhaps more so than I was when I heard her speech as an undergraduate over a decade ago.

There are certain themes that come up throughout Armstrong’s A History of God.  One is the question of whether God can be explained or conceptualized.  Throughout history, some have thought so, but a number have not.  They believed that there was some part of the divine that was beyond human explanation, maybe even transcendent.  We see it in parts of the Hebrew Bible, where God glory or spirit stands in for God himself, and also within strands of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Some were open to saying that we can see God’s activity or energies, but they sharply distinguished those things from God himself, for God is beyond human categories, and is even indescribable.  Some, such as Aristotle, took this in the direction of saying that God was aloof and unaware of what was going on in the world.  Others, particularly mystics, believed that they could achieve ecstatic union with the indefinable God.  Armstrong herself seems to prefer seeing God as indescribable and mysterious, for she notes that serious abuses have occurred when people have humanized God and brought God down to their level.  At the same time, she appears to sympathize with those who felt a need to personalize God so that they could get through pain and suffering.  Moreover, she is against tossing reason out of the window in religious discussions, for that itself has led to abuses.  Armstrong also may shy away from viewing God as aloof, for she seemed to me to appreciate process theology, which holds that God is close to us and that we can have an impact on God.

Second, there is the issue of whether God is one object among others, or rather is being, or the ground of being.  Armstrong seems to believe that the former denigrates God.   On God being the ground of being, she refers to Jewish thinker Martin Buber’s notion that God is closer to “I” than I myself am.  Armstrong shies away from versions of the cosmological argument that depict God as one agent moving others, for that treats God as one being among other things.  At the same time, in discussing Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument, she notes that he, too, regarded God as the ground of being.  I do not entirely understand what it means for God to be the ground of being, but Armstrong does appear to prefer the idea that the cosmos emanates from God to the notion that God created the universe out of nothing; perhaps that is relevant to God being the ground of being.

Third, there is the question of whether God is an entity out there, or if we encounter God by looking inward.

Near the end of the book, Armstrong discusses atheism and existentialism.  She describes the view that religion promotes a perpetual immaturity, as people rely on God and subserviently obey his rules, as well as the attitude that religion alienates us from ourselves (i.e., by depicting us as bad, by discouraging our efforts at progress, by denigrating sexuality) and imposes on humans a tyrant in the sky.  Conservative Christians reading this may say that these atheists, existentialists, and modernists flinched from religious rules because they wanted to do their own thing, to cater to their fleshly desires rather than submitting to the authority of a higher power.  Perhaps there is some truth to that, but I am hesitant to dismiss their critique of religion without understanding it better.  I agree with these critics of religion that adherence to religion can look immature, but I also am open to mature ways to practice faith.  Plus, people find all sorts of ways to cope in life, so I don’t feel remiss in coping by relying on a higher power for strength, or accepting moral or religious boundaries.

As when I was an undergraduate, I still wonder how I can have a relationship with a God whom I cannot define.  With what exactly would I be in relationship?  I have to have some picture in my mind of what God is like, right?  Armstrong herself appears to recognize this problem, for she says near the end of the book that having a mystical relationship with the divine is a long process, and that people who have not undergone this process might not understand what such a relationship would even look like.  Good point!

There is now a part of me, though, that is open to seeing God as indefinable, as mysterious, as something other than a large version of myself in the sky.  I would like to believe that God is vastly beyond me, other people, even the universe.  I do not go as far in this as Armstrong may.  My approach is to say that God has a personality, and yet I—-with my small mind—-cannot grasp the totality (maybe even the majority) of who God is.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Book Write-Up: A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

  1. Laura says:

    I appreciate people who can read an author they disagree with on some things, but take note of the positives and things they do agree with. It is very limiting if we will only read people we totally agree with or who are clearly in “our camp.” Armstrong’s speech comment that “trying to understand God rationally was like eating soup with a fork rather than a spoon” resonates with me also. And I like your concluding thoughts in your final paragraph. Thanks for taking the time to interact with this book! I should do this more but I am too lazy.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Laura! I’d say I’m like that with about every book: agree with some parts, disagree with other parts.


  3. I really enjoyed your review James. I love your insights and how you describe your changing views and feelings about your faith and your relationship with religion.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks Laurie!


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