Book Review – A History of God, Karen Armstrong

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I found this book somewhat difficult to read and absorb.  Karen Armstrong traces in detail our concept and thinking about God over 400 years.  She does it by referring to the specific writings, teachings and thinking of dozens of philosophers and theologians in the Christian, Jewish and Islam religious traditions.

Very thorough and engrossing at times, I found it very dense in places and difficult to sustain my attention and to understand.  In different chapters she goes into great length on The Trinity, The God of Islam, The God of the Philosophers, The God of the Mystics, A God of Reformers, Enlightenment and the Death of God.  Each one of these chapters could easily become a book in itself.

To try to understand the trends in our thinking about God over the ages, I had found (and have since lost) a tiny little book by author unknown.  In it he said that originally there was Grace (above the line) and Nature (below the line) i.e., wo(man) in the physical world recognized his permanent separation from God who is beyond any limit we can think of (as he told Moses simply, “I am”).  Over the ages nature has ate up grace totally so that wo(man) became the upper entity (above the line) and nature (everything else is below the line). i.e, (wo(man) is now “God” and the mythic God of the Bible we knew is dead or nothing.

We all certainly do not believe this, but for those who do have Faith, there is a distinct group (the mystics) who believe God is within each of us and our goal in life is to reach divine unity with Him in us through meditation and contemplation. i.e; heaven on earth.  There is also the more recent Universe Story where believers believe we are made of stardust (matter is created in super nova explosions or black hole implosions so that is where we ultimately come from if I understand this correctly).

Back to Karen’s book.  For some reason Islam mystic Mullah Sadra’s theology stands out for me  As does the famous Jewish coming of the false messiah Sabbatai Zevie  Similarly what she says about the heroic athiesm of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings stands out:

“The Christian God, was pitiable, absurd and a crime against life.  He had encouraged people to fear their bodies, their passions, their sexuality, and had promoted a puling morality of compassion which had made us weak.  There was no ultimate meaning or value and human beings had no business offering an indulgent alternative in “God”. It must be said that the Western God is vulnerable to this critique.  He has been used to alienate people from their humanity and from sexual passion by means of life-denying asceticism.”

The Protestant reformation and its claim of salvation through faith alone and revelation through scripture alone changed the Christian world forever.  There was no longer an obvious need to “live a good life grounded in charity” in order to be saved some had argued.  One merely had to accept the gift from God of having Faith in Him to know that one had indeed been saved.  The lives of the Saints, “the Pope and the “Church”, intercessional prayers for others and Mary Immaculate were all “wo(man) made” traditions and no longer worthy of our attention or devotion.

Is there a future for God Karen asks?  Yes.  “Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning.  The idols of fundamentalism (instant charismatic religious satisfaction) are not good substitutes for God; 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”

A monumental well researched survey of our changing concept of God, I would rate this book 3 stars out of 4 or 5.


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2 responses to “Book Review – A History of God, Karen Armstrong

  1. Mary A. Ruane



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