Karen Armstrong: A History of God

I just finished Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s a major achievement and totally compelling from start to finish. Since it’s a former bestseller, this may not be news to you. Quoting sparingly:

The Jews have often been criticized for their belief that they are the Chosen People, but their critics have often been guilty of the same kind of denial that fueled the diatribes against idolatry in biblical times. All three of the monotheistic faiths have developed similar theologies of election at different times in their history, sometimes with even more devastating results than those imagined in the Book of Joshua. Western Christians have been particularly prone to the flattering belief that they are God’s elect. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Crusaders justified their holy wars against Jews and Muslims by calling themselves the new Chosen People, who had taken up the vocation that the Jews had lost. Calvinist theologies of election have been largely instrumental in encouraging Americans to believe that they are God’s own nation. As in Josiah’s Kingdom of Judah, such a belief is likely to flourish at a time of political insecurity when people are haunted by the fear of their destruction. It is for this reason, perhaps, that it has gained a new lease of life in the various forms of fundamentalism that are rife among Jews, Christians and Muslims at this writing. A personal God like Yahweh can be manipulated to shore up the beleaguered self in this way, as an impersonal deity like Brahman can not.

Later, completing a fascinating chapter on the Trinity:

Yet by making Jesus the only avatar, we have seen that Christians would adopt an exclusive notion of religious truth: Jesus was the first and last Word of God to the human race, rendering future revelation unnecessary. Consequently, like Jews, they were scandalized when a prophet arose in Arabia during the seventh century who claimed to have received a direct revelation from their God and to have brought a new scripture to his people. Yet the new version of monotheism, which eventually became known as “Islam,” spread with astonishing rapidity throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Many of its enthusiastic converts in these lands (where Hellenism was not on home ground) turned with relief from Greek Trinitarianism, which expressed the mystery of God in an idiom that was alien to them, and adopted a more Semitic notion of the divine reality.

Later in the book:

When the Christian Waraqa ibn Nawfal had acknowledged Muhammad as a true prophet, neither he nor Muhammad expected him to convert to Islam. Muhammad never asked Jews or Christians to convert to his religion of al-Lah unless they particularly wished to do so, because they had received authentic revelations of their own. The Koran did not see revelation as canceling out the messages and insights of previous prophets, but instead it stressed the continuity of the religious experience of mankind.

Closer to the end, Armstrong introduces The Brothers Karamazov:

Ivan, described as an atheist by the other characters (who attributed to him the now famous maxim: “If God does not exist, all is permitted”), says unequivocally that he does believe in God. Yet he does not find this God acceptable, since he fails to provide ultimate meaning for the tragedy of life. Ivan is not troubled by evolutionary theory but by the suffering of humanity in history: the death of a single child is too high a price to pay for the religious perspective that all will be well. We shall see later in this chapter that Jews would come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, it is the saintly Alyosha who admits that he does not believe in God – an admission that seems to burst from him unawares, escaping from some uncharted reach of his unconscious. Ambivalence and an obscure sense of dereliction have continued to haunt the literature of the twentieth century, with its imagery of wasteland and of humanity waiting for a Godot who never comes.

Armstrong’s book is the kind that you read and then can’t imagine not having read.