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History of God

May 3, 2015

Have you read anything by Karen Armstrong?  I just read her book A History of God.  I’d read it about five years ago, but it didn’t seem familiar this time through.  I suppose I noticed different things.

Contrary to what you might expect, the book is not about God the supernatural presence.  Instead, it’s about people’s conception of God.  Their impression does have a history, and does change with time.  It’s mainly about the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  I found that the book had way too much detail for me to assimilate.  About all I retained from reading it were generalities and commonalities along with a few curious facts.

These are all monothestic religions, but they were all preceeded by polythestic religions.  The ancient Hebrews adopted the multiple gods of the land where they resided.  As Judaism developed, they did become monotheistic, but some books of the Hebrew bible only make sense in the context of polytheism.  The ancient Romans believed in multiple gods.  As they converted to Christianity, they too became monotheistic.  The ancient Arabs also believed in multiple gods.  Once again, as they became Muslims, they accepted only one God.

People of all three religions developed two fundamentally different conceptions of God.  One Karen Armstrong calls the God of the philosophers.  People following this perspective used techiques of logic and rationality, along with a literal interpretation of the scriptures.  The result was an external God that seldom intervened in the affairs of man.  God the creator would be this sort of God.

The other she called the God of the mystics.  Followers of mysticism used techniques of dreaming, visions, and yoga-like poses, along with a symbolic interpretation of the scriptures.  They undertook an internal journey, one that required an experienced guide.  Such a journey was dangerous, perhaps leading to insanity if not carefully controlled.  The result was a personal God that resided within the individual.

I can’t recommend this book.  It’s difficult to read, with its incredible detail.  There’s even more detail if you read all the footnotes and other end material.  Still, you learn unexpected facts about each of the religions.  Maybe read it selectively as I surely did.


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