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Review of Karen Armstrong's "History of God"
The History of God" by Karen Armstrong reads more like a quest for God amongst the annals of Man's history. It relates the transition of the nature of God as perceived by His human subjects, catering to the ideological differences amongst followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. By highlighting the influences that led Armstrong to embark on this quest for illumination as well as providing a summary of the book, this paper endeavours to explore the central theme that the definition of God is subject to conventionality. It is continuously being modified, abandoned, revived and reiterated in accordance with Man's realistic and pragmatic challenges as opposed to philosophical reverie.
Before providing an analysis of the book's core theme, it is necessary to study the influences that drove Armstrong to write this book. Armstrong's interest in religion was cultivated at an early age, manifesting in her entering the religious order at the age of 17. For 7 years, Armstrong lived the life of a Roman Catholic nun (Powell, 1998, 1). Her monastic life afforded her exposure to the 3 Abrahamic religions. She obtained a BA in literature at Oxford University. However, she experienced great difficulty in conforming to the restrictive realities of her convent life and decided to leave the convent on amicable terms. She wrote a bestseller on her life as a nun in 1981 called Through the Narrow Gate. She followed this up with Beginning the World (Ali, 1993, 38).
Then in 1984, Channel 4 of London asked Armstrong to make a 6-part documentary on the life and works of St. Paul. This project compelled Armstrong to make numerous trips to Jerusalem to film on location. Armstrong's travels to Jerusalem proved insightful. Prior to her trips to Jerusalem, her opinions on religion were predominantly guided by the teachings of the Church, generalisations and presumptions made by Western scholars, and the media. These 3 stimuli portrayed Christianity and Judaism in a flattering light, yet inferred a negative connotation to anything pertaining to Arab or Islamic doctrine. She commented,
It was in Jerusalem that I heard my Israeli hosts refer to Arabs and the Islamic faith in most despicable terms... It was shocking to hear Israelis not only defend, but literally justify the massacres and daily killings of defenceless young Palestinians... It came glaringly to me that the Israel which had been portrayed all these years as the young David surrounded by the Arab Goliath was in fact an insensitive soldier firing a machine gun at a Palestinian child wielding a sling and pebbles... My visits into Muslim neighbourhoods brought home the truth that there was another and different side to the story. It was something that was deliberately omitted in Europe, and perhaps in America as well. The exaggerations and distortions that had smeared the pages of history needed to be corrected, and Islam and the Middle East had to be presented in the right light (Ali, 1993, 38).
This new awareness for Islam spurred Armstrong to write Holy War - The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World. This was followed by her biography on Muhammad. It was through her investigations in this perspective that she arrived at the central theme of History of God.
During a study of the Crusades and the current conflict in the Middle East, I was led to the life of Muhammad and to the Qurtan... In all great religions, seers and prophets have conceived strikingly similar visions of a transcendent and ultimate reality... The monotheistic faiths, however, call this trancendence 'God.' I believe that Muhammad had such an experience and made a distinctive and valuable contribution to the spiritual experience of humanity (Ali, 1993, 38).
Armstrong's interest in 'setting the record straight' drove her to become one of the most eminent authorities on religion. She currently teaches at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers. The Association of Muslim Social Sciences is proud to call her an honorary member (Powell, 1998, 1).
Armstrong's life experiences did much to contribute to her writing History of God. She attempts to provide an explanation behind the evolution of monotheistic religions throughout its four millennia of existence (Zuck, 2002, 1). She explores the ways in which God has been re-examined and reclassified by each epoch (http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/histgod.html,1). The book investigates how the Jews progressed from the worshipping of pagan idols to 'One God' beliefs, as well as how Islam and Christianity were born from this religious ideology. The book also delves into the disparity between numerous religious leaders throughout the centuries concerning the nature of God (http://www.2think.org.hll/god.shtml,1).
Starting with substantiation for Man's adoration for a Sky God, Armstrong follows the transfer of faith from Sky God to Earth Mother to 'Many Gods' (Zuck, 2002, 1). Armstrong makes reference to the old fertility goddess
She was called Inana in ancient Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt and Aphrodite in Greece, and remarkably similar stories were devised in all these cultures to express her role in the spiritual lives of the people (Armstrong, 1994, 5).
Armstrong then concentrates on the groundbreaking progression of Abraham's faith in One God, which would conflict with Canaanites, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians for the next 1,500 years due to their paganism. Succeeding chapters highlight Jesus' life, preliminary Christian theologies, comprehensions (and misinterpretations) of Trinity, the impact of Greek philosophy upon Christianity and Islam, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, mysticism, and Fundamentalism (Zuck, 2002, 1). Armstrong can relate the historic influence of mysticism, rationalism, reformation and fundamentalism, not just limited to the Christian perspective, but through a global perspective concurrently manifesting in all 'the religions of God.' (Zuck, 2002, 1-2).
Some of the book's insights deal with the concept of 'the Trinity.' Armstrong discloses that the word 'persons' in 'One God in three Persons' originated from the Latin term personae, associating it with the many disguises of characters in a theatrical piece. In Greek, the term Personae is hypostases, 'expressions.' The varied terms employed in Greek and Latin to depict the concept of the Trinity replicated (and guided) very diverse perceptions of who and what God is. For the Eastern bishops, the Trinity illustrated how One God, whose essence is enigmatic, indescribable, yet who passes on his energies to Creation through the expressions or language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, the eastern perspective of the Trinity supported the image of God as more than just personal - being loved in his/her expressions and still being unable to give an accurate description in Man's words (Zuck, 2002, 1).
The central theme of History of God is that throughout history, Man has continually redefined God to suit his/her needs. The definition of God has always been scrutinised, criticised, altered, rejected, renewed, customized and personalized. Man's perception of God and even the numerous splits and divisions within the major world religions have been determined by practical considerations as opposed to purely lofty, theoretical ruminations. Armstrong cites numerous examples extrapolated from religious texts to support her theory. When she refers to the God of Jacob of the Bible,
He struck a bargain: in return for El's special protection, Jacob would make him his elohim, the only god who counted. Israelite belief in God was deeply pragmatic. Abraham and Jacob both put their faith in El because he worked for them: they did not sit down and prove that he existed; El was not a philosophical abstraction. In the ancient world, manna was a self-evident fact of life, and a god proved his worth if he could transmit this effectively. This pragmatism would always be a factor in the history of God. People would continue to adopt a particular conception of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound (Armstrong, 1994, 17)
Armstrong further illustrates her point.
God can also be used as an unworthy panacea, as an alternative to mundane life and as the object of indulgent fantasy. The idea of God has frequently been used as the opium of the people... Yet originally, 'God' was used to help people concentrate on this world and to face up to the unpleasant reality. Even the pagan cult of Yahweh, for all it manifest faults, stressed his involvement in current events in profane time, as opposed to the sacred time of rite and myth. The prophets of Israel forced their people to confront their own social culpability and impending political catastrophe in the name of God who revealed himself in these historical occurrences (Armstrong, 1994, 393).
While Armstrong does provide a compelling argument to how followers came to believe in one god, it simplifies the process excessively.
It is hard to believe that a religion's survival (that is, in the face of successive generations, constantly-changing culture, increasing population of its detractors, etc.) is based on sporadic tests Man poses to God from time to time throughout history in order to validate Man's…[continue]
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