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“The History of God” by Karen Armstrong is a comprehensive overview of the history of the development of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Armstrong shares her point of view on religious matters in the introduction, taking the reader on a journey throughout her life’s work. She emphasizes the aspect of the multiplicity of perceptions of God, and its significance throughout the ages.
It is pointed out in the introduction that modern secular culture is an unprecedented phenomenon, the consequences of which we are yet to discover. Nonetheless, humanity’s ancient preoccupation with God should be studied since it might reveal various features of human cognition and spiritual dimension. Overall, Armstrong postulates that the notion of God has formed our culture and civilization and it is crucial for us to determine what does it mean for us today (Armstrong 10).
Chapters 1 and 2
Armstrong describes the idea of God as present in human civilization since the dawn of time. However, our modern world seems not to need the spiritual dimension of life, as it is abundant in scientific aspects and driven by pragmatics. Armstrong provides examples of ancient Iran and Mesopotamia, where the connection to the divine was seen as essential to being human. Armstrong emphasizes that people were not only looking up to the divine but also strived to develop their divinity through creativity. Two biblical authors are mentioned, J and E, one of whom particularly piques the author’s interest, as he focuses not only on the divine and the prehistoric times but also on the ordinary chronology. Armstrong touches upon the subject of Yahwe and the ambiguous treatment of this notion in the Bible (15).
She emphasizes that neither Abraham nor Moses saw God the way we do today and explains that it is likely that several gods were worshiped at the time, or perhaps several perceptions of the idea of God were valid. Vengeful God of the Exodus later transforms into a protector of the oppressed and becomes a sole God after the Ten Commandments. However, a cult of paganism persisted. In the minds of the Israelites, Yahwe differed from other gods by being in a separate realm, as opposed to other gods represented by the forces of nature. Eventually, two separate versions of monotheism emerged.
The second chapter focuses on the transformation of the figure of God throughout the ages. The One God emerged as the source of justice and liberation. Moreover, Jewish culture was influenced by the Greeks, which led to conflict: wisdom was seen as a fear of Yahwe in the Middle-East but as a Greek cleverness in the Mediterranean. Armstrong emphasizes that the figure of God is not firmly determined to this day in the Jewish culture and remains privately perceived matters.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5
The third chapter addresses issues related to Jesus and matters that led to tension between Christians and Jews. The conflict focused on the divine nature of Jesus, with Paul claiming that Jesus never maintained he was a divine being. Thus, Armstrong describes the human desire to humanize religion. The author outlines the development of New Israel until the proclamation of Christianity as an official religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
The fourth chapter describes the debates centered around the notion of the Holy Trinity. A controversial matter, creation ex nihilo was widely discussed. Eventually, a doctrine was established about the uniformity of the Creator and the Redeemer. It is noteworthy that the adopted dogma was rejected by Muslims and Jews. Armstrong points out that strikingly different perceptions of the divinity of Christ developed in western and eastern cultures.
The fifth chapter addresses the idea of God in Islam and the figure of Muhammad in particular. Armstrong emphasizes an important point, i.e. that the notion of divine revelation was seen as less uniform and exclusive in Islam than by Christians and Jews, which might feel surprising to Western civilization today. The author provides citations from Koran meant to illustrate that the multiplicity of religions was considered normal in this religion. Moreover, Muhammad was never a militant eager to impose Islam on the rest of the world, as he is often illustrated nowadays in the West.
Chapter 6 and 7
The sixth chapter describes the Arab world fusing with Greek scientific and philosophical works. Thus, a new kind of Islam developed that was driven by a discipline of falsafah, inherited from the Greeks. Such a combination led to multiple discoveries in many fields of science. Admittedly, were it not for the Greeks that decided to intertwine their God with the God of the Bible, the process of merging these two cultural worlds would not have stopped at the time.
Armstrong mentions Muslim thinkers, who combined rationality with Koran, insisting that faith did not contradict science in any way. Eventually, these philosophers inspired a similar movement amongst Jews, who, however, came to different conclusions regarding the relationship between reason and faith. The ideas underwent a substantial transformation and reemerged as Kabbalah in Jewish culture. Eventually, after the development of anti-Semitism, in the 16th century, Jews worked out a new notion of God that did not involve scientific logic.
The Christians became rather isolated from the other monotheistic religions due to the development of the crusade movement. Moreover, after the schism of 1054, a conflict developed over the issue of the Trinity. Thus, two different Christian conceptions of God emerged, with the Western ideas tied to the universal interpretation of God and the Eastern intertwined with the mystical. Later on, the Reformation movement brought further differentiation. Thus, Islam, the Jews, and the Greek Christians developed their ideas about God through an increasingly mystical prism.
The seventh chapter outlines the idea of ‘personal God’ that emerged in Judeo-Christianity and partially in Islam. This notion concerned the protection of the rights of each individual, leading eventually to the development of humanism. Armstrong describes the mysticism in these three religions and emphasizes its paradoxical nature. The Muslims concluded that without the mystical element, rationality alone cannot serve the purpose of theology.
Chapters 8 and 9
The eighth chapter outlines the times of geographical discoveries, the laity in the West, Catholic and Protestant wars, and the Greek Orthodox religion in the East. The development of individualism and nationalism that followed paved the way for greater religious tolerance between the three monotheistic religions discussed. As Enlightenment approached, the mystical aspect of God was gradually left behind.
The ninth chapter gives a brief overview of the influence of industrialization on the development of religious notions. The ideas of Progress prompted the attempts to prove God by demonstration, or at least not to disprove his non-existence. Armstrong refers to Pascal, Descartes, and other prominent philosophers, who made a substantial contribution to both science and our understanding of God. The philosophers of the time strived to break free from the Violent God and move towards the God of Reason. Thus, Deism developed, as well as the “religion of the heart”.
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Chapters 10 and 11
Enlightenment and the search for a God of Reason led to a radical conclusion that God was dead. The 19th century saw the development of nihilism and atheism. Nietzsche and Freud, Darwin and Marx, and other prominent thinkers ensured that there was no longer any need to refer to the notion of God. Traditional doctrines were abandoned. Armstrong concludes that there exist essentially no words that would allow us to describe God. After the events in Auschwitz, religion was put to a trial. Some claim that traditional theology disappeared after the Holocaust.
In the eleventh chapter, Armstrong explores the question of the future and whether there is any place for God in the modern world. The twentieth century saw the development of liberal theology that cherished God’s presence without resorting to fundamental dogmas and doctrines. However, in the 1970s, the situation reversed and fundamentalist tendencies started spreading throughout all three monotheistic religions. Intolerance and politicized spirituality started to develop.
Armstrong concludes that even if a conventional idea of God has no place in our lives, humanity will continue to invent new symbols and foster a sense of wonder it so desperately needs. The author suggests that even though many of us admit to believing in God, widespread problems in societies all around the world provide evidence that it is not entirely true. Or rather that the idea of God has become nominal. Armstrong indicates that recent developments are a sign that humanity desperately needs its spiritual dimension that was shrunk by technological and scientific inventions and discoveries. Thus, human beings have become increasingly remote from their mystical or spiritual side of existence (Armstrong 465).
Karen Armstrong stresses certain points that are crucial for our understanding of the past, present, and future spiritual aspects of humanity. Nowadays, amongst religious tension and multiple conflicts all over the world, a vast majority of which are deeply rooted in religious issues, it is more crucial than ever to make every effort of finding common ground. Perhaps there is a possibility of addressing this problem through the prism of common religious aspects in history, as illustrated by Karen Armstrong.
Armstrong indicates that during a certain period in history, the Muslim thinkers postulated an absence of contradiction between science and faith. Moreover, earlier on, it was clear that the Judeo-Christian religion was far more strict regarding the interpretation of faith, revelation, and the overall notion of God. Based on the ideas expressed by Karen Armstrong it is possible to conclude that the origins of the notion of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were intertwined throughout the ages.
It is, therefore, reasonable to believe that due to the common past there is a chance of compromise. Such a compromise may be reached by abolishing the stereotypes concerning Islam, Muhammed, and overall perception of the Muslim religion. Armstrong indicated that Muhammed was never in favor of conquering the rest of the world by force and imposing Islam on the rest of the world. The author cites many passages of Koran that demonstrate its rather tolerant approach, misinterpreted by people in the West, and even by certain radical Muslims themselves. Through thorough research of certain historical facts and events, we can gain a profound understanding of motives and perceptions underlying the three monotheistic religions discussed, thereby offering the global community a chance of peaceful conflict resolution.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Web.