on 14 April 2007
Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" is a tremendous resource for those interested in the history of religions in general, and in monotheism in particular. She looks not only in the different religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular), but also in the way that man's perception of God changed within each religion over time. Starting with the early history of man and religion, she proceeds right through to religion as of the early 1990's. The book was first published in 1993, so you will not find any references to September 11th or any of the polarizing events that have happened as a result. Instead you will find a much more even look, which is useful in and of itself.
While this book is a tremendous reference, unfortunately it does have a significant weakness as a reference, and that is that the text itself is not all that organized. Her choices for the eleven chapters are fine, but you will find no sections or subsections within the chapters. Instead each chapter is just a long recitation with no breaks, and this can make referring back to a section rather difficult. The book does have a decent index which helps. Also, there is a very good bibliography which also helps with additional research on a topic.
The writing is a little uneven. Some sections are very well done, and others are a bit more difficult to follow, however the writing is never poor. In particular, her discussion of the early history of each of the major monotheistic religions is very well done, and it gives the reader a good understanding of what those religions were like before they started adapting to other forces in the world. The polytheistic origins of Judaism, the lack of divinity in Christ, and the equality of women to men in Islam are just a few of the topics which would undoubtedly shake up those with fundamentalist beliefs.
The only other slight negative I can think of is with regards to some inconsistency in the area of religion today. In her introduction, as well as in the last chapter, she refers to polls which indicate that 99 percent of the people in the U.S. believe in God. She never provides a reference to these polls. The problem is that in that same last chapter `Does God Have a Future?' she discusses the movement of people away from belief in God. These two concepts seem to be at odds with one another, and she never addresses this contradiction. While there may be polls which show such a small number of atheists, the polls that I have seen show that atheists/agnostics make up 8.4% of the population in 1990 and are up to 15.0% of the population in 2000. This data seems to support the rest of her discussion in the chapter better than the polls she mentions.
I would definitely recommend this book to pretty much everybody. It is a window into our past and a tremendous reference for those interested in world history as well as those who are studying religion.
on 1 February 2001
Most religious books are just that. Religious. Karen Armstrong here produces something quite different. A "History of God" gives the non-specialist reader an objective, scholarly work which still maintains a sense of the spiritual. The book takes a very candid look at the development of the Christian faith and deals in some detail with the other principal world religions as well. For those who have ever wondered how on earth the terrifying God of the Old Testament and the "New Labour" God of the sermon on the mount can possibly be related and contained in one holy book, let alone reconciled in one faith - this is the book for you. Particularly valuable is the treatment of the experience and historical context of the Biblical prophets and the relationships between Christianity, Islam and Judaeism. The building blocks for anyone to make decisions about tolerance, faith and different cultural traditions are here and all based on extraordinary knowledge and research. First class.
on 7 October 2003
There's so many books about religion that do nothing more than try to convert you to the religion the author believes in. However, having read the literary reviews of this book I couldn't wait to read it. I was not disappointed.
To tell you a little about the author, Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a nun in a Roman Catholic order before becoming a freelance writer, broadcaster and author. Armstrong describes at the very start her own religious background and clearly defines the distinction between faith and belief. The book then proceeds to provide (as the book's name suggests) a chronological history of God.
Specifically the book describes the history of the three faiths which believe in one God (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and describes the historic interaction between them in great detail. I personally found the origins of Judaism described here fascinating, the way in which different stages of the Old Testament actually refer to different interpretations of God. The origins of Christianity were interesting although did not necessarily introduce vast new material. This is unlike the narrative of Islam's history, which at a time in the world where there's so much friction between these three religions, showed the commonality between them.
The book then continues to detail how these faiths developed over the next 2,000 years around the world and with the last chapter titled "Had God a Future?" the book does not seek to avoid some controversial thinking.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a history of religion - I did not find the book to be biased towards a religion, but rather a highly educated literary masterpiece. There is a huge amount of material in this book, and yet it's very readable, not at all dry. I can't wait to read more of Armstrong's books.
on 2 September 2005
After finishing Karen Armstrong's enjoyable, direct and sincere book I was interested to see its reviews. Unfortunately I discovered yet another case of shallow obduracy. The individual who gave this one star probably hasn't even read it as the comment given was an example of woeful inadequacy. For those of us who would like the history without a pile of hang ups from either side of the debate I recommend this book.
Armstrong's account gave important and much needed information on Islam. She gives us a gallery of very intelligent thinkers who kept abreast of the great works of Philosophy and discoveries of Science. That many of these Muslim thinkers had used Mathematics and Science to aid their religious contemplation while always emphasising the imperative of religion bolstering morality is an important palliative to the very pernicious fundamentalism that seems to saturate our conciousness of Islam. Another interesting incite of this book was that the literalist tendency was until recently a western phenomenon, a fact rarely considered in our insistence that we know the past better than the facts of History. Armstrong's book is a monument to how an important question is frequently over simplified.
Important subjects such as Mysticism and the Enlightenment are given erudite chapters. The former being a Western kin to Buddhism. Emphasis is rightly given to how pervasive Mythology is, an example at hand being the belief in human progress or that evolution is progressive (something that drives my Philosophy of Science tutor nuts).
This a very important book and ideally would have a greater readership. As a Philosophy student with an interest in religion I found it as rewarding as the rest of my family who possess no specialist knowledge. I also recommend such required reading as;
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy.
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Prophane. Eliade also wrote a very accessable and detailed history in three volumes of religious ideas from the Stone Age to the Age of Reforms.
Broaden your mind and try to avoid falling prey to the votaries of single vision and ignorance. Nothing was ever achieved by being dogmatic except the creation of more conflict and Dogma.
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.
on 17 June 2005
This is an absolute must-read for anyone who intends to hold any opinions on religion or God, and has plenty for narrow-minded religious and atheistic people to think about. The broad point you pick up from this book is that religion and God are far more complicated as beliefs as we commonly think. Karen Armstrong points out our view of God or religion today is over-simplified, by tracing through time the development of the idea of God prior to monotheistic religion, and then through the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
What is also good about her writing is that she does not try to win you over to one view or another. She is also non-judgmental, and just tells us the facts as they lie, leaving the reader to make their own opinions. This is not to say she does not air some controversial views at the end, but what she does do throughout the book, when giving us the facts, is go out of her way to understand the cultures, peoples and beliefs she is writing about.
This is a definite step forward in the dialouge about belief and religion. Much discussion out there is biased or uninformed, but Karen Armstrong realises that to discuss is seriously, you have to understand it intimately.
on 13 November 2012
Lots of interesting information about debates within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but a rather partial account that focuses on the intellectual content of these debates rather than their social, political and institutional context. So lots about the debate within Orthodox Christianity about whether God has one substance, or whether he is three or one person, but nothing about the process whereby Christianity became the state religion and how that related to the need for a single position on doctrinal matters. Similarly with Judaism - you'd think Hasidism emerged just as a reaction to intellectual currents within rabbinic debates; the massacres of the 1640s, and even the name of Chmielnicki, don't even figure.
Perhaps more important for this atheist reader, there is a sleight of hand which is barely acknowledged. The God worshipped by Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a personal God, and the idea for him emerged from a tribal deity that was very much associated with some human and some super-human characteristics. The God of the philosophers - some distant first cause without any personal or human characteristics - is a very different entity (or as she would have it, not actually an entity at all, but something more profound). It might make sense to build a set of social institutions around placating and 'worshipping' the personal God, but the second one can only be contemplated. Worshipping it makes no sense. And yet religious clever-clogs, and people who make a living out of religion, somehow manage to conflate the two. It would be unfair to say she doesn't write about this, but I didn't see it satisfactorily addressed.
That said, there were some really good parts in the book. This is the first time I've ever understood why it was so important for the Greeks to have those rows about the essential nature of the trinity - it was an argument about the limits of human understanding and cognition, which is important for us now in relation to cosmology and physics, but the Greeks didn't have the instruments, so they made it a discussion about God. And she also touches on the way that the Romantics replaced a sense of the divine with a sense of the aesthetic, particularly in relation to nature. As one who only has what other people call spiritual feelings in relation to this sort of thing, it's nice to know it has a lineage, and it actually made me want to go and read Keats and Wordsworth.
So all in all, time well spent, despite a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction about the book.
on 19 March 2008
I have read several of Karen Armstrong's books and I have always been stunned by the sheer quantity of research and her no holds barred presentation of the facts. If things get complicated then she presents them as such, she is a master of explaining the entire situation.
A history of god is simply an essential read for anyone who thinks they know anything about any of the monotheistic religions from the casual reader, to the Pope, to the Taliban; they should all sit down and really do their best to understand what is being said here. This is a mountain of a book so vital in explaining and stripping away the millennia of misunderstanding as to be almost as important as the holy books it is discussing.
My only grumble is her relentlessly bone dry way of writing. I have seen her in interviews and her style is sparkling and engaging her written style however isn't and at times it would be nice if she did pause for breath and even use some of her lightness of speech in her extremely dense text. It seems to be a deliberate choice a bit like Newton writing the Principia in Latin to stop the riff raff from understanding it. That's why it doesn't get the full 5 stars for me.
However style to one side this book could do a lot of good for the world if more of the people it is written for actually sat down and read it.
If you liked this there's more historical debate and fun at @HistoryGems on Facebook and Twitter
on 4 September 2007
This is a brilliant book tracing the history of monotheism from Abraham (2000 BCE), through Moses (1200 BCE), the Israelite prophets, Jesus and the Prophet Muhammed (C7th CE), and the diverse conceptions these figures had of the Ultimate Divine Reality - Yahweh, Allah or God. But she doesn't stop there - further chapters on the 'God of the Philosophers' outline how scholars attempted to reconcile faith (revelation) with Greek rationalism, 'The God of the Mystics' how the experience of God was internalised by people of all 3 Abrahamic faiths, and then 'The Death of God?' takes the conception of the Divine right through to modern day. A truly encyclopaedic work, well-written and highly authoritative - as well as sympathetic to non-Western conceptions of religion - this book is a must-read for all who seek a deeper understanding of one of the great ideas of human history.
on 2 November 2004
Dr. Karen Armstrong's book is breathtakingly detailed and wonderfully researched. If you want to discover where the origins of Judeo-Christian and Islamic religions lie - then get this book. Dr. Armstrong is a former Catholic nun, who left her order some time ago and this book should appeal to both atheists and theists - at the end of the day, one gains a staggering amount of knowledge. Highly recommended reading.