Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is what it says it is--a detailed historical survey of the various shades of belief in three of the world’s major monotheistic religions.
Armstrong discusses at least four ways of coming at God--theophany, philosophy, science, and mysticism. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had shades of all four.
Theophany is God’s decision to intrude into the world in ways like the burning bush.
All three religions have a God who makes Godself visible in signs, actions, a savior (in the case of Christianity), the scriptures, or in other ways.
For me, Armstrong’s book was heavy reading, especially when it came to Islam with which I am unfamiliar.
She spends a long time on the Mystics in all three faiths.
So what interested me? I was struck by how quickly religious thought drifts from what the founder teaches. To give one example, Armstrong writes about Basil, Bishop of Caesarea’s comments on the Trinity. Basil lived ca. 329-79.
Armstrong writes, “Basil also warned us against imagining that we could work out the way in which the Trinity operated, so to speak: it was no good, for example, attempting to puzzle out how the three hypostases of the Godhead were at one and the same time identical and distinct. This lay beyond words, concepts and human powers of analysis.”
So within just a few hundred years Christianity had gone from teachings like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jesus’ parables to esoteric discussions about the nature of the Trinity.
As I see it, starting with Paul, Christianity moved away from the teachings of Jesus to speculation about Jesus. And similar moves away from what the founders taught occurred in the other two religions.
Armstrong taught me a lot. She helped me understand why I like the Old Testament prophets so much. They relate to God in a concrete way, seeing God speaking to them and believing they can see God acting in the world. To me, that makes more sense than seeing Christianity (or any of the three religions) from a Platonic point of view.
A History of God discusses whether God exists, and, if so, all the many ways we try to perceive God. It left me thinking what I thought before. If I choose to believe in God, all I can do is trust in God’s goodness, and leave the rest to God. As a follower of Jesus, to the small extent that I can know what Jesus teaches, he guides me as to how to live today.
One warning. This book is heavy reading.
Hopefully, for me A History of God was a stop along the way to learning more, especially about Islam.