"A History of God" by Karen Armstrong (1975)

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

A few years ago, I saw a YouTube video that gave a different history of the God of the Bible than I had picked up in Lutheran Confirmation. According to this video, Yahweh, El Shaddai, and Elohim were different gods in an old polytheistic pantheon who were merged together over many different generations during the course of the Old Testament into the monothestic God worshiped today.

Of course, this is a very provocative claim, and I wanted to go the video’s source, Karen Armstrong‘s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The first few chapters of Armstrong’s book expand on the story given in Evid3nc3’s video, providing a lot more depth and detail. I find it to be a very plausible story, but unfortunately, Armstrong presents this revision as though it were clearly true just by reading the Old Testament, not as the conclusion of a persuasive argument based on accumulated evidence. While I don’t doubt that there are many Biblical historians and archaeologists who have been convinced by literary analysis and evidence of the truth of this story, I didn’t get what I wanted from these chapters – coherent demonstration of the external evidence that supports this interpretation (the endnotes from this chapter direct the reader mostly to Bible verses, not external sources).

So, I was informed but disappointed by these chapters because I was hoping that Armstrong was writing a different book than she intended.

After the early chapters, Armstrong traces the history of the concepts of God in Jewish culture, and then in Christian and Muslim cultures. For me, the Christian sections were most interesting, because they have the most resonance with how I was raised. As a Lutheran in the late 20th Century, I was presented with a specific view of who God was and how humanity should interact with him. Armstrong’s review of the history of Christian thought shows just how limited my perspective was.

As just one major example, the early Greek Orthodox Church had a much more mystical approach to the Creator that denied the very possibility of demonstrating the truth or reality of the divine. As I read those sections, I couldn’t help but wonder how different my personal spiritual path might have been if my inherent desire for intellectual coherence had not been reinforced with a religious approach that insisted that the theology had to and did make logical sense. My separation from Christianity came in part because the claims stopped making sense to me, and I was raised in a Western framework that expected it to make sense. Perhaps I would still consider myself a Christian today if I had been raised with the mystic’s lack of expectation that it all would make logical sense.

That counterfactual speculation aside, I have not become someone who embraces mysticism, so the weakest chapter of Armstrong’s book for me was “The God of the Mystics,” which spent a lot of time on approaches to the divine that simply bored me. I had trouble keeping the various strains of 12th century Muslim thought straight in my head, so I simply couldn’t follow it. The previous chapter was “The God of Islam,” which kept my interest with more detail about the religion that Muhammad and how he created it, but that wasn’t enough foundation for me to keep hold of the thread of Islamic mysticism (the chapter also covered Christian and Jewish mysticism, but that wasn’t much better for me).

Regarding mysticism, this quote from the last chapter rings very true for me:

The mystical agnosticism could help us to acquire a restraint that stops us rushing into these complex matters with dogmatic assurance. But if these notions are not felt upon the pulse and personally appropriated, they are likely to seem meaningless abstractions. Secondhand mysticism could prove to be as unsatisfactory as reading the explanation of a poem by a literary critic instead of the original.

The final few chapters presented more recent history, showing how the theology changed in all three great monotheistic religions. I was more familiar with much of this material, but still Armstrong managed to surprise me, as with the story of Sabbatai Zevi‘s followers, the Sabbateans, a strange Jewish offshoot that demonstrated the weakness of the apologetic claim that people won’t believe in something that has been disproven (mainly seen today in “martyrs of early Christianity prove that the Gospels we have today are accurate, because no one would die for something they didn’t know for sure was true”). Armstrong also reached into the area that most interests me now, principled disbelief, though Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt – A History is a much more thorough review of that history.

Overall, I found lots of interest in many parts of “A History of God,” specifically in the parts that suggest (though not prove to my satisfaction) the weakness of the foundation of the religion I left, and in the parts that demonstrate how many more ways to approach God are possible than we tend to see in our current Fundamentalism-influenced culture. Even if some of those ways, as Armstrong suggests, “seem meaningless abstractions.”

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.