A History of God

I finally finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God last weekend. This book is the history and development of the three great monotheistic religions of the West, the story of how a tribal god of the desert became the One True God. It is a powerful book that should be read by everyone who lives in a country where Judaism, Christianity, or Islam is a dominant or secondary religion. Which is to say, everyone should read it.

While I found the facts presented in the book to be interesting, overall I was struck with two major impressions.

The first is that I should have been taught this many years ago. There is little if any original research in A History of God – while some notable discoveries have been made in the last 10-20 years (most notably the translation of the Gnostic gospels), most of what Armstrong presents has been known for decades if not centuries. So why isn’t it being taught in Sunday Schools?

There are two answers – one I consider valid and one I don’t. The valid reason is that most people don’t go to Sunday School and church to learn about the history of religion. They go to feed their souls, to participate in their blessed communities, and to learn how to more fully embody their faith. The other reason is that preachers and teachers are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they present anything that challenges the literal truth of their religious myths. A History of God does a wonderful job of explaining why religions turn to literal beliefs, how it’s happened, and why it represents an immature faith in any religion.

The second major impression I got from this book is that theology and mysticism are inherently incompatible. Either you study and speculate about the nature of God / Goddess / Ultimate Reality, or you experience God / Goddess / Ultimate Reality first-hand. But you can’t do both – or at least, you can’t do both very well. The two activities require two very different approaches and skill sets. Theology is a left-brain activity, mysticism is a right-brain activity. Theology uses logic, mysticism uses intuition.

But history shows that theology leads to doctrines and dogmas – it leads to separation and division, frequently over the most absurd, unprovable details. Mystics, though, have experiences that are remarkably similar across religions and cultures – mysticism leads toward universalism. Armstrong says “Unlike dogmatic religion, which lends itself to sectarian disputes, mysticism often claims that there are as many roads to God as people.”

One of the reasons why I started this blog was to develop and articulate a modern Pagan theology. I think I need to re-evaluate that goal. Armstrong quotes Louis Massignon, a French scholar of Islam, who said:

“The mystic call is as a rule the result of an inner rebellion of the conscience against social injustices, not only those of others but primarily and particularly against one’s own faults with a desire intensified by inner purification to find God at any price.”

To find the Goddess at any price. The question – for me, and for all who take their religion seriously – is whether we are willing to pay that price.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06358488849919226609 LivvySidhe

    Awesome, awesome post. I think I need to read this book. This gives me a lot to think about, and lines up with my personal resistance to defining/codifying the Divine, my obsession with the metaphors themselves as transformative, rather than defining what they represent as an absolute, which feels to me like stagnation and a rejection of nuance/awe/growth/humility. For me the journey and the mystery is more sacred and indescribable than any abstracted absolute. That Massignon quote just slays me, I think it might have to be my Facebook status. =)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 JohnFranc

    Armstrong does a good job of contrasting "The God of the Philosophers", "The God of the Mystics", and "A God for Reformers" (the titles of three chapters in the book). I think most people have no idea how much of what they think is Christianity is really just repackaged Greek philosophy. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with philosophy, but the results it brings are ultimately inadequate.

    As you well know, I like to define and codify everything – I want to KNOW. But my experiences – both intellectual and spiritual – clearly show that it is impossible to know the Divine. Am I capable of changing direction, of working just as hard to "find God at any price" through mystery and metaphor instead of through logic and philosophy?

    I don't know. But I know I have to try.


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