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a history of the concept of God

book cover

Is the Universe wholly apart from God, or is Creation in some sense, a part of God? Is God solely One in nature, or is there a Threeness, or a Manyness, or an Infinitude to God? Is God knowable or beyond knowledge? Is God personal or impersonal? Does God have feelings? Billions of people have had an opinion on these matters, and that's the subject of this groundbreaking book. Those who depend upon the unshakeableness of their beliefs may find this book upsetting or worse, but to those who consider and question their faith, Karen Armstrong's A History of God will be challenging and illuminating, and perhaps, as I found it, even thrilling.

The title goes for brevity over accuracy. Perhaps it could have been titled “A History of the Idea of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” but that would have lacked panáche, to say the least. Armstrong concentrates on the changes in the concept of God, particularly the unique aspects of monotheistic theology, for instance, God as separate from Creation, God having a “personal” nature, and so forth.

religious cultures in conflict

Armstrong makes theological history simply fascinating. Beginning with the evidence for near-universal worship of a Sky God in prehistory, Armstrong traces the shift from the Sky God to the Earth Mother to polytheism, and then focuses on the revolutionary development of Abraham's faith in one God which would clash with Canaanite, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian paganism for the next 1500 years. Many Christians interested in objective Biblical scholarship are familiar with the “Documentary Hypothesis” of the Pentateuch stemming from sources J, E, P, and D. Yet never have I seen an attempt to reconstruct the history and interplay of these perspectives throughout ancient Israel and the surrounding regions, and not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined it would be so illuminating...

For instance, Armstrong shows the revolutionary effect of the prophets in Judaism, beginning with Isaiah, at the time when the J and E material was still being written. She shows that prophetic Judaism was an “Axial religion,” a development of the Axial age when cities became the centers of culture in Asia and the Mediterranean. Other Axial religious developments included the teachings of Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, the Upanishadic sages, the Buddha, Lao-tse, and Confucius. These all taught a universal ethic, insisting that God or the Absolute needed no temple, transcended all, was accessible to or within everyone, and that compassion was the highest virtue.

The prophets' teaching that “God desires mercy, and not sacrifice,” was in sharp contrast to the priestly, Temple-based establishment, which insisted the Temple was the ultimate dwelling on God on Earth, having chosen the Israel out of all the nations. (This was the beginning of a clash which would endure until John the Baptist and the ministry of Jesus.)

But this is just the beginning. Instead of specializing on a single religion or period in time, Armstrong boldly takes up all the threads of theology throughout the four millennia of the monotheistic religions. With them, she weaves a tapestry of our collective religious experience which can help us understand our faith and ourselves better. Subsequent chapters focus on the life of Christ, early Christian theologies, understandings (and misunderstandings) of Trinity, the influence of Greek philosophy upon Christianity and Islam, mysticism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Fundamentalism.

three Persons or three personae?

A special treat is her insight on Trinitarian thought. It was a surprise to learn that the term “persons” in “One God in three Persons” came from the Latin word personae, referring to the masks of characters in a drama. Personae was the Latin translation of the Greek word hypostases, "expressions."  The different words used in Greek and Latin to describe the Trinity reflected (and influenced) very different understandings of God's nature. For the Eastern bishops, the Trinity described how One God, whose essence (ousia) is mysterious, ineffable, utterly beyond and above being known or described in any way, imparts his energies (energeia) to Creation through the expressions (hypostases) of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the Eastern view of the Trinity reconciled knowledge of God as both personal and beyond personal, knowing and loving in his expressions, and yet beyond any human conception at all in essence. Have you ever heard it like that before?

world-wide paradigm shifts

Brilliant also is her ability to relate the historic phenomena of mysticism, reformation, rationalism, and fundamentalism beyond just the Christian perspective, into a world-wide perspective simultaneously developing in all “the religions of God.” Her revelation that the Reformation was not just a Protestant reformation, but a universal one is a brilliant example. As the printing press spread, the authority of the written word took on unprecedented dimensions. Galileo, she points out, was condemned by the Catholic Church not because his heliocentric universe conflicted with any doctrine or dogma, but because it contradicted an extremely literal reading of the Bible.

Especially helpful is her knowledge about Islamic history with revealing treatments on philosophical and mystical eras in Islam, before the relatively recent phenomenon of Islamic Fundamentalism. It was fascinating to learn that some Sufi schools were so devoted to Jesus that they adapted the Shahada to “there is no God but God, and Jesus is His Prophet."

Despite five well-earned frims, A History of God has minor but significant flaws: Awkward sentences abound, and her lack of direct experience with conservative American Protestantism makes her disdain for it seem less than objective. Furthermore, errors like “Maurice Cerullo” (i.e. Morris Cerullo) make it feel insufficiently edited, particularly in the age of the Internet. However, none of these are fatal flaws by any means; Armstrong has created a landmark work, undoubtedly unique in its combination of depth and scope. What can I say, but read it!