A History of God by Karen Armstrong
The Sinai Peninsula is one of the most startlingly beautiful places on earth: a land of fantastically shaped gold-brown mountains, utterly treeless, rising up from the Red Sea – in reality, not red at all but the most turquoise water you could ever imagine.
A few years ago, I happened to be snorkeling in this seductive sea, in the Gulf of Aqaba, and as I came to the surface and gazed at the beach through my mask, it struck me that this place where I was happily on vacation was the epicenter of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even now you can feel it, something mystical in the land. Get rid of the Club Med windsurfers, and the international youth set sprawled near their backpacks on the sand — and of course people like Gail and me who had come to Egypt to teach English — and you can imagine wild-eyed prophets wandering the Sinai wilderness, filled with sun-drenched visions of God.
For the past few months, on and off, I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” the New York Times bestseller that was published first in Great Britain in 1993 by William Heinemann Ltd, and later in the U.S. by Alfred A Knopf in hardcover, with a trade paperback a year later from Ballantine Books. It’s a dense book, full of intriguing information, following the footsteps of pagan idol worship in Babylon as it gradually evolved into Judaism, complete with an initially fierce tribal God to strike down one’s enemies (if one observed the proper rites); and how Christianity, and then later Islam, branched off from this monotheistic tree.
Karen Armstrong is an Oxford University educated Roman Catholic nun who left her order in 1969 to write widely (and intelligently) on religious matters — books on Islam, Muhammad, Buddha, and her best-known work, “The Gospel According to Woman.” In today’s world, when many are trying to make sense of a world full of religious hatred, “A History of God” should be required reading for all. Karen Armstrong shows very clearly what I sensed gazing at the Sinai Peninsula from my diving mask: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are first cousins, closely related, and if there are problems between us, it is family strife rather than the enmity of strangers. All three religions, of course, share what Christians call the “Old Testament” as their starting point.
Religious “truths” are not a static reality but evolve from generation to generation and vary from place to place. Christianity, for instance, embraces such a wide spectrum of thought in the United States today — from Pat Robertson on the Right to women clerics presiding over gay marriages on the Left — that is difficult even to think of it as a single religion. Armstrong’s book is finally not about God at all, but rather about mankind, the history of how human beings have imagined God, probing the universe for meaning.
Armstrong presents her material objectively — and a vast scope of material it is, covering 4,000 years of thought! But she isn’t afraid to express her own opinions as well: that religious stories are metaphors, parables that the best minds of the past never intended for us to take literally. That “God” is not a personal figure, no dictator in the sky — neither a He nor a She — and that to “personalize” the notion of God is to wrongly and dangerously project our own tribal prejudices and human limitations onto a non-human divinity.
I found “A History of God” the sort of book I preferred to read only a few pages at a time, absorbing the intricately varied philosophies of our human attempts to become wise, ethical creatures. Karen Armstrong is a terrific writer, making a difficult subject accessible to the average reader. As for the wisdom, ethics, and divinity of which she writes — one senses that the human species still has a long way to go.