Friday, April 10, 2009

A History of Humanity

13. A History of God by Karen Armstrong

I feel so successful, having just finished this tome. It's taken me far longer than anything else I've read this year so far, and it may have permanently set me back on my goal, but I am proud to have contemplated my way through it.

Armstrong starts off with a personal note, but for the most part, her book is impressively objective. She begins with the murky origins of monotheism and follows the developing paths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Her history is comprehensive, albeit necessarily condensed. Especially in the beginning, she uses Hindu and Buddhist ideas to illustrate concepts, but narrows her focus once she is past the wider breadth of ancient history. Her book takes shape as a dialogue between successive philosophers of all three faiths.

The thread from the chapters "The God of the Philosophers" and "The God of the Mystics" forms the central argument of the book. Theologians have believed in one or the other, and in many cases, a mixture, of these twin Gods. The God of the Philosophers has its roots in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, a God who is Other, who is not concerned with humanity and is separate from that which has emanated from It. The God of the Mystics appears in Sufism and Kabbalism, as well as Buddhism. This God is a subjective experience, found within one's self,and in the eyes of Hasids and Quakers alike, in divine sparks that make up everything in the world. When these divine sparks are united, everything will be One, that is to say God, that is to say Nothingness, or nirvana, will be achieved. The God of the Mystics is Nothing, they say, because he cannot be described in any human terms.

There is a third, shadow God that lurks in these pages as well. He is a literal, pagan, personal God. Everything Armstrong negatively associates with God, she dumps into this one idea, that she thinks is eating up fundamentalists and nonbelievers alike. The God who is interpreted literally, the God we see in the Bible, who orders the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, who punishes with banishment from the Holy Land, is the one Armstrong attempts to slay.

Her final chapter, "Is There a Future for God?" describes her support of a new, mystical approach to God that would jive with the modern atheism. She believes that the fundamentalist God is in fact not the "real" God of the three monotheistic religions. She is correct, in a way. There are peaceful, positive movements within Christiantity, Islam, and Judaism. But even Armstrong admits that only a minority observe this religion. She has demonstrated throughout her history many of the proponents of this minority, all great and well-known men, like Jesus and Mohammad themselves, Isaac Luria, Moses Maimonides, Moses Mendelssohn, the Baal Shem Tov, even Shabbetai Levi. I remembered those since I've heard of them before, she also mentioned many Sufi mystics and other Muslim and Christian philosophers, as they come to my mind; Kant, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Hegel, Ibn al-Arabi....

But my point is that Armstrong's history, while fascinating and instructive, is not a history of the religion of the majority, of the laypeople. Their God has historically been both personal and literal. And Armstrong, and I, reject that God. Where does that leave them?

The mystical God, who is Not, who is within each of us, and not a separate entity, is certainly an ancient idea. But will the majority of people ever be able to accept it?

If Armstrong's thesis is to be believed, eventually yes. They will be forced by the revelations of science (which she explains is more of a problem for Christians, who tend to be more literal in their interpretations of the Bible), to lose faith in what she terms The Old Man in the Sky. She shows us that ideas of God change with the fate of the believers. She ends with an injunction to review the history of God for yourself, and Armstrong's book is a great place to start.

No comments: