Karen Armstrong is in a unique position to discuss matters of interfaith history and connection. A former Roman Catholic nun, she also has a background as a teacher at a Rabbinical college, and is also an honourary member of the Association of Muslim Social Sciences. Her background interest in matters religious goes back to her childhood, which she shares in the introduction to this volume, when she first experienced religion as being about fear, and then later learned the more wonderful sides. She freely confesses her difficulties with matters of faith and belief, often made deeper and more troubling the more she studied the history of religion (one reason some denominations do not trust seminary training is that they feel it brings about a crisis of faith).
Despite her initial misgivings, she believed that humankind was a spiritual race; she thought that God was merely a construct, and she found much more. God is in many ways a construct, done by rabbis, priests, sufis, wise people of all faiths. There is a real sense in which God is new for each new person, and yet there are commonalities, particularly between and among the three great monotheistic religions born of the Abrahamic tradition. This book represents not a history of God per se, but rather a history of humanity's perceptions of God over the past 4000 years, from the earliest days of Abraham to the present in its grand and often dangerous diversity.
Armstrong takes a look at different constructions of God. The first chapter looks specifically at the world at the time of Abraham, not specifically any set of years during which the figure Abraham might have lived (we do not know this date with any degree of certainty), but rather prehistory to the Axial Age, a time of reinterpretation of prehistoric carry-forwards into a time of greater civilisation. The beginnings of many concepts of God began here; later chapters develop these more fully. The second chapter develops a 'typical' view of early Jewish doctrines of God; the third and fourth introduce Christian doctrines, including the often-problematic trinitarian doctrine; the fifth chapter looks at the Muslim perception of God as overarching unity. These chapters look at liturgical, scriptural and historical developments.
The succeeding chapters look at different ideas of God that influence all three religions (albeit in different ways) as well as non-believer images of God. Philosophy has always played a pivotal role in theology, with an uneasy relationship sometimes in support of and sometimes opposed to dominant views of God. God viewed through the rational lens of philosophy is very different from the ecstatic experience of God by the mystics - kabbalism, sufism, monasticism, solitary mystics and divines all have left writings that sound remarkably similar, and look past the surface trappings of religions to get to what is held to be a deeper unity and truth.
The period of the Reformation marked significant changes in the perception of God in the West, but it also had serious changes for the Orthodox, the Muslims and the Jews of the same period. The long-impregnable city of Constantinople was captured by the Turks, who made political strides against the Christians in the East only to be turned back by them in the West. The Muslim culture was in fact more powerful than the Christian culture of the time, and far more unified, but failed to capitalise upon this position, or foresee the shifting situation in Europe, which seemed to be fragmenting rather than moving forward. During this time also, it seemed a dark age for Jews, who were regularly expelled or subjected to inquisitions in Christendom; and Jews desired a need for more direct experience of God - mystical practices, particularly among Sephardic Jews, arose to fill a very present need.
The Enlightenment touched Judaism, Christianity and Islam in important ways also. The beginnings of secularlism are to be found in the Enlightenment, a doctrine that continues to exist in diverse ways with each of the three major religions. The immutability of law and order, the ideas of divine rights of rulers and cultures and destinies ordained (or preordained) by God gave way to ideas of change, progress, and egalitarianism in societies where each of the three religions was dominant. The changes were more pronounced in Christianity and Judaism than Islam, but changes did occur everywhere, and as new forms of government were founded (the American Revolution, the French Revolution, etc.), the role of religion ceased to have the central place in civic life that it had; this, however, sometimes only served to emphasise its importance in other directions, not always productive toward the rest of society. The extremists of all three religions can be traced back to influences from and reactions to situations and ideas formed in the Enlightenment.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are intensely problematic for organised religion in the world of all varieties. Again the idea of philosophy came into play, this time teamed with an ever-growing dominance of science and technology as 'objective' ways of perceiving and judging the world. Science had sometimes been the handmaiden of religion - for example, astronomy had flourished in Muslim cultures as being practical and useful for determining the direction to Mecca, among other uses. However, without state sanctioning power and overall intellectual support from academies, it became more possible for people to question not only the perceptions of God and practices appropriate toward God, but the very existence of God. Nietzsche was not the only one to declare God dead, but merely the most dramatic of such declarers.
In her chapter on the future, Armstrong paints a conflicted picture of what is to come. Will we have faith? Will we remember the past? Ultimately, she does not know any more than any of us, the readers. Doing a quick survey of modern theological and philosophical trends (mostly Western), the future is left wide open.