Karen Armstrong writes with a fluidity which at times resembles poetry. And why not? For she writes on a subject so, so clearly beloved by her, the part historical, part anthropological, and part theological treatment of God. Published in 1993, the work holds up, and continues to be the most popular of her dozens of contributions to the field.

One great boon to Armstrong's work is that, though it maintains the focus typical of such works on Abrahamic faiths, it does not give short shrift to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and other traditions from the East, and it respects the avenues of influence such traditions inevitably would have exercised upon the Abrahamic conceptions in a world of transient ideas. Nor does Armstrong -- herself a former Roman Catholic nun -- extol any one faith at the expense of others, giving full consideration to changing conceptions of the divine within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as occasional resurgences of pre-Abrahamic ideals pondered most notably by the Ancient Greeks. And nor does it ignore any historical period, proceeding more or less chronologically at least touching on the developments, however minimal, which have altered man's perception of his relationship with God across the many faiths and sects and cults, from the ancient worshipers of Marduk to the Deists of the Enlightenment.

The book is reverential towards its material, and yet preaches nothing, tracing earnest and honestly believed human ideas about the divine without subjecting any to mockery, and without taking a stance on the ultimate existence of such a thing. If anything, Armstrong seems to presume that there is a divine quality to our Universe, but one at which we have only ever guessed or had notions, though these conformed well enough to the experiences of the religious thinkers in any given age. She describes for example the sheer anguish experienced by certain of the Hebrew prophets in their experience of the divine, of the overwhelming sense of the presence of God compelling them to declare elements of belief. She revisits with regularity the peculiar role of mystics in every faith tradition, and the uniformity of ineffable experience recounted by such persons. There is a sort of grand overarching theme as well, a sense of a cyclical movement between an ethereal and incomprehensible vision of God and a concrete and tangible model of the same. Esoteric traditions like Sufism springing from the height of periods when mysticism reigned, and rigid conceptions as in Calvinism growing out of times when men deemed themselves most assured of knowing the mind of God. And these opposing themes are reactionary; when a society goes too far in the direction of one, it provokes a movement championing the countervailing idea.

The book well deserves its status as an award winning international best-selling standard in the field. I highly commend it to any and all who wishes to indulge a broad interest in theology.


A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Ballantine Books, 1993
460 pages
ISBN 0-345-38456-3



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