Book Review: A History of God
Posted November 5, 2011on:
A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, 1993, 461 pp.
Karen Armstrong’s scholarly intellect and breadth of knowledge is always spectacular, and this book is a masterful example of it. Beginning with the dawn of the idea of monotheim, Armstrong traces the development of God throughout Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their multiple streams of thought. It is an intellectual history that crosses cultures and continents over the course of millenia. It is amazing to witness the way Armstrong can weave together vast and disparate threads into a cohesive whole. Rather than a history of religion, this is a history of ideas—the evolution of a particular idea of God.
While the chapters tracing out the development of God in the Hebrew Bible, Temple Judaism and early Christianity were familiar information, Armstrong’s focus on the history of the idea of monotheism offered a different perspective and different insights. Most insightful, however, was the information on the development of traditions that were less familiar to me–especially Islam, Eastern Christianity and post-diaspora Judaism. Armstrong’s chapter on medieval Islamic philosophy (falsafah) opened a whole new world to me, about the depth and breadth of Islamic traditions far removed from the contemporary divide between “modern/Western” and “traditional/fundamentalist.” These categories reflect a Western European colonialism that is only 200 years old, and give a false story about the true development of Islamic thought.
I especially appreciated learning more about the non-Western traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity. Every monotheistic tradition of philosophy eventually reaches a place of profound mysticism, even declaring that God is Nothing. In Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, that mystical understanding has become normative—even dogmatic. It is an affront to God to believe that God’s essence can ever be understood, described or named. Western Christianity stands alone in its obsession with rational theology, its attempts to define and explain God. For Judaism, Islam and Eastern Christianity, this is anathema, because God is found in mystery and nothingness. As someone who experiences God in this mystical way, it was comforting to know that our Western (particularly rationalist, American) version of God is in fact a minority opinion.
This book is not a light or easy read. The scope and depth of ideas it contains make it quite complex to follow, but the writing is accessible and open. Armstrong’s scholarly synthesis impresses throughout, and I finish the book feeling a lot smarter about the place and position of my little corner of monotheistic religion in the wider scope of the history of ideas.