Karen Armstrong. A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
I just finished a library copy of this book, but I decided to buy a
copy for myself. They run for as low as a penny on Amazon! I figured
that this would be a valuable book for me to own, for it clearly
explains the thoughts of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, existential, and
other thinkers, while placing the significance of those thoughts within
their historical contexts. The book also explores pre-Israelite
religion, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Reading this book helped me to make
sense of things that puzzled me about Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and the
various strands of the cosmological argument that William Lane Craig
discusses in The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz.
This book would not only be valuable to me as a scholar seeking to beef
up my knowledge, but also as a future teacher, seeking to explain these
things to others.
Were there times when I felt that Karen Armstrong was
over-simplifying issues? Yes, especially when she was talking about New
Testament Christology. This is understandable, though, because she is
telling a story, and she may not have wanted to disrupt it by noting all
the issues about which scholars debate. Were there times when I took
what she said with a grain of salt? Yes, as when she said on page 121
that, for St. Augustine, “God…was not an objective reality but a
spiritual presence in the complex depths of the self.” I do not
thoroughly dismiss what Armstrong is saying here, since she has read
books about Augustine, which she cites in her excellent annotated
bibliography in the back of the book. But I have difficulty accepting
that Augustine rejected the idea that God was an objective
reality—-which I understand to mean someone who is out there and real. Notwithstanding these reservations, I find that I understand more after
reading this book than I did before, and I believe that others seeking
to learn about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as Eastern
religions and philosophy) can benefit from it, as well.
I first heard of Karen Armstrong when I was an undergraduate in
college. I was taking an Introduction to Religions class, and the
professor assigned us Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad. Karen
Armstrong also came to my college to speak, and I also listened to
preliminary discussions of her work among faculty. To be honest, at the
time, my impression of her work was not entirely positive. Her
biography about Muhammad did not particularly grab me: I preferred the
other book that we had to read because it clearly explained the history
and legends of Islam as well as its branches and the beliefs.
Armstrong’s book struck me as flowery and circuitous. Armstrong’s
speech did not resonate with me, either. It seemed to me that she was
dismissing the human ability to understand and to conceptualize God. As
a fundamentalist Christian at the time, I believed that I had the right
concept or picture of God, but even putting that to the side, I
wondered why anyone would want to worship and be in relationship with a
God about whom nothing can be posited. Something has to be said about
what God is like for us to get anywhere, right? I was not alone in this
But there was something that Armstrong said in that speech that
actually did resonate with me, at least somewhat: She said that trying
to understand God rationally was like eating soup with a fork rather
than a spoon. I was aware that there were people who had all sorts of
rational objections against the existence of God and Christianity. I
came across them often as a college student. Part of me felt threatened
by this, and part of me felt that their objections could be
surmounted. But I also wondered if there was a way to bypass
rationality altogether and to accept religion as something valuable and
nourishing, even if its reality could not be rationally or evidentially
About a decade later, I was working on a presentation about Jews and
Christians in Byzantine Jerusalem, and one of the sources that I was
using was Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
I did not read the book cover to cover, but I was impressed by what I
did read. I liked that she explained the nuances of the Arian
controversy in an understandable narrative style. Reading that part of
her book answered some questions that I had about the Arian
controversy. I write about that in my post here. That experience led me to believe that I would profit from reading her other books.
And I did profit from reading her History of God. The
historical parts of the book and the parts that summarized the thoughts
of prominent thinkers were the book’s chief asset, in my opinion. I am a
bit ambivalent about some of her theological conclusions, however, and
yet I am intrigued, perhaps more so than I was when I heard her speech
as an undergraduate over a decade ago.
There are certain themes that come up throughout Armstrong’s A History of God.
One is the question of whether God can be explained or conceptualized.
Throughout history, some have thought so, but a number have not. They
believed that there was some part of the divine that was beyond human
explanation, maybe even transcendent. We see it in parts of the Hebrew
Bible, where God glory or spirit stands in for God himself, and also
within strands of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Some were open to saying that we can see God’s activity or energies,
but they sharply distinguished those things from God himself, for God is
beyond human categories, and is even indescribable. Some, such as
Aristotle, took this in the direction of saying that God was aloof and
unaware of what was going on in the world. Others, particularly
mystics, believed that they could achieve ecstatic union with the
indefinable God. Armstrong herself seems to prefer seeing God as
indescribable and mysterious, for she notes that serious abuses have
occurred when people have humanized God and brought God down to their
level. At the same time, she appears to sympathize with those who felt a
need to personalize God so that they could get through pain and
suffering. Moreover, she is against tossing reason out of the window in
religious discussions, for that itself has led to abuses. Armstrong
also may shy away from viewing God as aloof, for she seemed to me to
appreciate process theology, which holds that God is close to us and
that we can have an impact on God.
Second, there is the issue of whether God is one object among others,
or rather is being, or the ground of being. Armstrong seems to believe
that the former denigrates God. On God being the ground of being, she
refers to Jewish thinker Martin Buber’s notion that God is closer to
“I” than I myself am. Armstrong shies away from versions of the
cosmological argument that depict God as one agent moving others, for
that treats God as one being among other things. At the same time, in
discussing Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument, she notes that he,
too, regarded God as the ground of being. I do not entirely understand
what it means for God to be the ground of being, but Armstrong does
appear to prefer the idea that the cosmos emanates from God to the
notion that God created the universe out of nothing; perhaps that is
relevant to God being the ground of being.
Third, there is the question of whether God is an entity out there, or if we encounter God by looking inward.
Near the end of the book, Armstrong discusses atheism and
existentialism. She describes the view that religion promotes a
perpetual immaturity, as people rely on God and subserviently obey his
rules, as well as the attitude that religion alienates us from ourselves
(i.e., by depicting us as bad, by discouraging our efforts at progress,
by denigrating sexuality) and imposes on humans a tyrant in the sky.
Conservative Christians reading this may say that these atheists,
existentialists, and modernists flinched from religious rules because
they wanted to do their own thing, to cater to their fleshly desires
rather than submitting to the authority of a higher power. Perhaps
there is some truth to that, but I am hesitant to dismiss their critique
of religion without understanding it better. I agree with these
critics of religion that adherence to religion can look
immature, but I also am open to mature ways to practice faith. Plus,
people find all sorts of ways to cope in life, so I don’t feel remiss in
coping by relying on a higher power for strength, or accepting moral or
As when I was an undergraduate, I still wonder how I can have a
relationship with a God whom I cannot define. With what exactly would I
be in relationship? I have to have some picture in my mind of
what God is like, right? Armstrong herself appears to recognize this
problem, for she says near the end of the book that having a mystical
relationship with the divine is a long process, and that people who have
not undergone this process might not understand what such a
relationship would even look like. Good point!
There is now a part of me, though, that is open to seeing God as
indefinable, as mysterious, as something other than a large version of
myself in the sky. I would like to believe that God is vastly beyond
me, other people, even the universe. I do not go as far in this as
Armstrong may. My approach is to say that God has a personality, and
yet I—-with my small mind—-cannot grasp the totality (maybe even the
majority) of who God is.