- A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- Year: 1994
- Pages: 496
Among religious historians, Karen Armstrong is a titan. Certainly, she’s prolific: since 1982, she’s published 22 books, as well as articles in other media as well. She gets a nod, however curt, from Christopher Hitchens in his recent polemic, as an important—if sympathetic—figure in the world of religious scholarship. Her books deal mostly with the major monotheisms, some more specifically than others, but A History of God is considered one of her more famous books, perhaps in part because it’s a broad stroke that looks at the three major Abrahamic faiths simulataneously.
Buddhism and Hinduism may comprise a fair chunk of the global religiosity because of China and India, but Christianity, Judaism, and Islam represent a whopping 54% of the world’s population1. These three Abrahamic religions—their founding and their history—are Armstrong’s focus here. It’s not an argument for any particular theology at all, so it should be an uncontroversial book, unless you’ve got your rose-colored glasses on, and you think that, for instance, Martin Luther wasn’t a rather bloodthirsty anti-Semite.
To a great degree, A History of God is a recitation of facts and little else. Important historical figures, important religious texts, major religious wars: these things are all in abundance; in fact, there are some chapters where names and titles fly so fast and furious that I have to reread parts just to keep them straight. If there was a “point” to the book—that is, some kind of conclusion that can be wrangled out of it—it is that, according to Armstrong, the history of these monotheisms isn’t nearly as consistent or as neat as we’d like to think. It was quite a while after the “official” founding of the Christian church, for instance, before there was even a general consensus about the nature of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even more surprising is the number of hats that Islam has worn, always seeming to flip back and forth between periods of amazing progressivism and confounding conservatism.
Perhaps the most difficult question to answer is the very nature of God, an issue that all of these religions have wrestled with. Is God an ineffable Mystery? The eastern Christians seem to think so, and that is part of the joy of their faith. Or, is God more anthropomorphic, a being with concerns like us and emotions like us, who sits and watches and interacts with the universe? Armstrong contends that, especially in modern times, people attempt to have it both ways, which leads to some confusion about what it is we actually believe about God.
This all rather neatly segues into the last section of the book, which is a discussion of God in the modern world. The complexity of life and the difficulty in reconciling it with a coherent religious faith, is likely a major cause of the recent shift to fundamentalism in the three Abrahamic faiths. When in doubt, simplify.
As much as Armstrong seemed like a bit of a rockstar among the religious historian set, I admit that I was a little disappointed at how dry the reading got at times. In some parts, the book was joy to read; in others, it was little more than a laundry list of Semitic names and a sentence about how his or her (usually his) beliefs happened to be different than the norm. Each religion has enough of a long and storied history by itself, but trying to cover all the minute doctrinal fluctuations in all three of them was perhaps too much to cram into a single book. As a primer, it should have had a better sense of what needed saying, and what needed excision.
Regardless, I would recommend this book, or any book by Armstrong, who continues to have a strong publishing presence.
- Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents; last modified 9 August 2007[↩]