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Sunday, October 4, 2009

"A History of God," by Karen Armstrong

After returning from a speaking engagement for the Idaho Library Association (wonderful people!), I came down with what might be, but I hope isn't, H1N1. (Back from the doctor. Yeah. Probably is. Got it from my son, who got it from school, which seems to be the main vector this time of year.) It's flu-like. I've spent about 30 hours in bed, sweating, shaking, coughing, and napping. In between, I picked up a book I've been wanting to read for years, "A History of God," by Karen Armstrong. Together, the experience is kind of shamanistic. I emerge from time to time for ritual soup, then back into a swelter of holy words, delirium, and dreams.

I've read a lot of Armstrong's works now, and find them consistently insightful. But she's subtle, too. She doesn't lay out her conclusions in a "first I'll tell you what I'm going to tell you, then I'll tell you, then I'll tell you what I told you" manner.

The subtitle is "the 4,000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." And some of her core themes seem to shake out like this:

* the idea of God does change, has changed in significant ways, in accordance with the times and trials of the people professing belief.

* the changes are parallel in all three faiths. That is, all have dealt in remarkably similar ways with the "problem" of creation (how does something come from nothing), of an impersonal deity beyond human knowledge versus the personal and subjective religious experience, of suffering and evil, of reason and science. The bottom line: outside of the more recent surge of fundamentalism, most of the faiths settled into an understanding that God, and scripture, is not literal truth, but symbolic, mythic, ultimately a subjective experience.

* Islam is particularly misunderstood in the west, despite the fact that it has been until the most recent times among the most tolerant of all the faiths.

* Western Christianity -- with the tendency in both Catholic and Protestant faiths to harshly enforce explicit doctrines -- is a cautionary tale. The personal God allows us to project our individual ignorance and prejudice on the Almighty, excusing and even mandating acts of violence and cruelty. There is also in Western Christianity, often, a wild emotionalism -- revivals, being "born-again" -- that seem quite contrary to the calmer and perhaps more abiding faith that comes through spiritual discipline and contemplation.

As the religionists here described encountered new challenges -- political, social, psychological -- they looked to their religion to help them survive. Generally speaking, each of the faiths lived up to those challenges. The exception may be the Holocaust. Many Jews, and not only Jews, concluded that either there is no God, God could have done something and didn't (so is monstrous), or God is impotent.

Armstrong leaves us with an interesting question: so, do we need God? Or can we find enough connection, transcendent meaning, cause for compassion, without such a construct? Her book ends with a marvelously touching poem by Thomas Hardy, "In the Darkling Thrush." [Interestingly, Wallace Stevens wrote, "After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption."]

Where Armstrong excels is in her ability to describe, without slander. She doesn't answer any questions. But she leaves you with better ones.


haricot vert said...

I read that book a couple years ago, and walked away with my head spinning. Some of the ideas were so different than my experience, that they were words to read rather than concepts to explore.
Now that I am reading your review, I may have to re-read that book with the view of exploring the concepts and more closely following her logic.

Jamie said...

I hear you. There always is a deep logic to her exposition, but I found myself stopping after each chapter, and having to ask, OK, what did she really just tell me here? I kind of like that.