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God Again

January 15, 2017

I just reread Karen Armstrong‘s book A History of God.  I found it rather complicated last time I read it.  This time was no different.  I got lost in all the details.  Still, I managed to extract some general principles from the book.  It’s really a history of religions, rather than a history of God, although the two do go together.

The focus of the book is the three monotheistic religions that trace their origins back to Abraham.  These are: judiasm, christianity, and islam.  The book does mention that previous religions were polytheistic, having many gods.  The ancient israelites, when they migrated into the land of Canaan, adopted the Canaanite gods.  It was only later that they settled on a single God.  The ancient Romans were polytheistic before they converted to Christianity.  Likewise, the Arabs were polytheistic before they converted to Islam.  The book does mention other religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, but only for historical comparison with the three Abrahamic religions.

All three had a great deal in common.  All of them changed throughout history, as they adapted to changes in society.  All of them eventually divided into sects.  There was always a mystical sect.  There was always a revivalist sect that attempted to return to the roots of the religion.  There was always disagreement between the sects.

I noted two quite different conceptions of God.  Philosophers and scientists used mathematical logic and rational thinking to develop their concepts of God, along with a literal reading of the scriptures.  Some even developed proofs that God existed.  Others used quite a different approach: mystical thinking.  This was an interior and personal journey, involving meditation, dreaming, and various forms of stress and deprivation.  The result was a personal God, one that was deeply meaningful, but could not be clearly described to other people.  They employed a symbolic reading of the scriptures, so that the stories of mythology were never intended to be factually accurate, but did convey a moral message.

Logical proofs that God exists, using rational thinking, no longer works.  Even if it did, the result is always a distant God, perhaps God the creator.  Such a God cannot intervene in the lives of ordinary people, and is really of no use to most people.  Of course, God may appear irrational and illogical to us, because of our limited intellectual powers.  Logical proofs may be useless after all.

Karen Armstrong does imply that we can choose a God that is most suitable to us, and most useful to our society.  She also describes some concepts of God that may be harmful to us and our society.  We need to be careful of constructing a God that’s a perfect version of ourselves.  This God could become an idol, for example.  Perhaps what we need is just a sense of God’s spirit, although many people are not willing to do the work that leads to such a discovery.  She also cautions us against any religion that requires a literal reading of the scriptures.  Such a religion must deny the discoveries of science over thousands of years in order to maintain that literal interpretation.


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