A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest for Judaism, Christianity and Islam

A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest for Judaism, Christianity and Islam

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by Karen Armstrong
     
 

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"An admirable and impressive work of synthesis that will give insight and satisfaction to thousands of lay readers."
THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD
In this stunningly intelligent book, Karen Armstrong, one of Britain's foremost commentators on religious affairs, traces the history of how men and women have perceived and experienced God, from the

Overview

"An admirable and impressive work of synthesis that will give insight and satisfaction to thousands of lay readers."
THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD
In this stunningly intelligent book, Karen Armstrong, one of Britain's foremost commentators on religious affairs, traces the history of how men and women have perceived and experienced God, from the time of Abraham to the present. From classical philsophy and medieval mysticism to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern age of skepticism, Karen Armstrong performs the near miracle of distilling the intellectual history of monotheism into one superbly readable volume, destined to take its place as a classic.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This searching, profound comparative history of the three major monotheistic faiths fearlessly illuminates the sociopolitical ground in which religious ideas take root, blossom and mutate. Armstrong, a British broadcaster, commentator on religious affairs and former Roman Catholic nun, argues that Judaism, Christianity and Islam each developed the idea of a personal God, which has helped believers to mature as full human beings. Yet Armstrong also acknowledges that the idea of a personal God can be dangerous, encouraging us to judge, condemn and marginalize others. Recognizing this, each of the three monotheisms, in their different ways, developed a mystical tradition grounded in a realization that our human idea of God is merely a symbol of an ineffable reality. To Armstrong, modern, aggressively righteous fundamentalists of all three faiths represent ``a retreat from God.'' She views as inevitable a move away from the idea of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves, and welcomes the grouping of believers toward a notion of God that ``works for us in the empirical age.'' 25,000 first printing; BOMC alternate. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Armstrong ( Muhammad , LJ 4/15/92; The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World , LJ 2/15/91) presents a well-written overview of the changing idea of God as understood by the three great religions of the West. Besides providing a great deal of religious history, she discusses the various philosophers, mystics, and reformers associated with these religions. The author suggests that ``God'' is primarily a ``focus of meaning'' created by humanity. If He survives at all, it will be in a much-altered form. Public librarians should be aware that conservative readers may be offended by this book, and even religious scholars may find Armstrong's rather one-sided ``death of God'' optimism about humanity a bit passe. Otherwise, this is an excellent and informative book. Recommended for academic and public libraries.-- C. Robert Nixon, MLS, Lafayette, Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
Superb kaleidoscopic history of religion, from an English nun- turned-scholar. Armstrong (Holy War, 1991, etc.) was a nun in the early 1960's but left her convent in 1969 as part of the great wave that defected from religious life at that time. Although her faith grew progressively weaker, her fascination with religion didn't abate, and, even as a nonbeliever, she continues to pursue theological studies. Here, her basic message is that "religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound." In an extraordinary survey, Armstrong traces the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from their inception to the present day, and shows how they were created and shaped by their historical surroundings—which, in turn, they helped form and alter. Although this approach is standard among religious scholars, Armstrong uses it to particular advantage in underscoring the historical correspondences among the three faiths—for example, examining the messianic fervor that surrounded the career of the Sabbatai Zevi (the 12th-century rabbi who built up an enormous apocalyptic cult among diaspora Jews prior to his imprisonment and conversion to Islam) in light of the early Christian response to the crucifixion of Jesus or of Jeremiah's prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem. It's particularly in the mystical traditions, according to Armstrong, that the different faiths corroborate each other—in large part, she says, because the mystical apprehension of the divine is more abstract and therefore less dependent upon the traditional symbols by which most religions distinguishthemselves. There are major gaps in Armstrong's history—she pays little attention to the Christian churches of the 20th century—but she manages against the odds to provide an account that's thorough, intelligent, and highly readable. Magisterial and brilliant.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780345384560
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/28/1994
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
91,329
Product dimensions:
5.68(w) x 10.90(h) x 1.11(d)

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History of God 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My opinion of this book changed enormously during the course of reading it. This is not a particularly interesting subject to me, but I realize that it is an important one and Armstrong was recommended to me as a particularly good authority. I don't know enough about the literature of the field to say if this is generally worth reading for all its flaws, or if other books do the same job better. For the first half of the book Armstrong recounts the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a reasonably dispassionate and sympathetic manner; this is what I wanted. Viewing religion as a human historical event is, of course offensive to some, and I¿m sure that one hundred scholars would have one thousand objections to her facts and interpretations, but I would take that as unavoidable no matter how excellent the book. Armstrong has obviously done an enormous amount of research and she comes across as both learned and lucid. While it is not an easy read, I never felt puzzled by the concepts. I feel that I have learned a lot and reading this book has been worthwhile for me, despite my upcoming criticisms. I am also willing to cut her a little slack on the subject of Western Christianity; writing in English, she can assume that most of her readers are either familiar with the topic or at least have access to other sources. She seemed to be focusing upon the formal theology of the religions, and not the day to day aspects as experienced by the typical believer; when this struck me I reminded myself that this is not a cyclopedia of religion and she cannot cover everything. She then began to become a little partisan, dispraising Western Christianity and idealizing Islam, which I attributed to a laudable desire to enhance the Western view of Islam, although the attack portion of her program probably backfired with some readers. But as I read on, the work becomes more and more judgmental, personal and advocative. Armstrong¿s hatred of Western Christianity as the least mystical and most fundamentalist creed is revealed in ever stronger terms as she goes along. According to Armstrong¿s theses, Islam and Eastern Christianity should have produced societies that were more tolerant, eqalitarian, and generally possessed of fewer social ills than Western Christianity owing to what she considers to be their more advanced and healthier beliefs. I cannot say that all this has ever struck me as being so unfailingly true as to be self-evident, and she does not even attempt to prove it. Her coverage of the last couple of centuries seems somewhat spotty. Armstrong discusses the effect of European colonization of the Islamic heartland on Muslims, but says nothing of the effect of decades of Communism on any religion. Her section on the Jewish theological response to the Holocaust is somewhat sketchy, and there is little or nothing on the modern divisions of Judaism. Sikhism is briefly noted, but Bahai, oddly enough given her professed admiration for religious fusion, is never mentioned, nor is Mormonism. Meanwhile, and hardest to explain in terms of size limitations or focus, Eastern Christianity virtually vanishes from the book after the fall of the Byzantine empire. Armstrong sounds remarkably foolish to me for the last fifteen or so pages of the book; perhaps her apparent belligerence is to convince herself. Armstrong proclaims that the failings of Western Christianity make it too brittle to absorb change and have lead to the so-called ¿Death of God¿ and for the health of our society *we* need to create a vibrant new mystical faith to assuage the despair of humanity. I have visions of a pageant of piety for the benefit of the *less advanced* or perhaps Prozac communion wafers. This is where is becomes necessary to consider the typical lay person. Perhaps it¿s just my ignorance, but I thought that in dealing with the question of evil, the local clergy of mo
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a religious Christian, I wish to thank Karen Armstrong for this wonderful book that taught me about the depth and richness of my religion and its history, as well as of other religions that believe in God. This is not an easy book, of course, but then who ever said that theology is easy? Flipping through the first few pages I was at first appalled at what seemed like blasphemy: ¿people invented a god¿? As I progressed in the reading, however, I understood a lot more about what the author means. While we do know stories about God from the collections in the Bible and other Holy texts, those stories are revealed and we therefore cannot collect more by our own scholarly means. This is therefore not a history OF God itself, since the God Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in is beyond time, beyond history. ¿History¿ itself is a human concept, and therefore the only history we humans can write about is HUMAN history. What Armstrong has delivered to us here is a very thorough and dispassionate history of the human CONCEPT of God. Viewed in that light, the book is actually a very reasonable introduction to the three Western religions. The ideas in the book furthermore are no different from the material taught in theology seminaries ¿ it¿s just that we lay people are not taught or conditioned to think critically about these issues, and so we tend to hold our prior understanding as dogma, rather continuing on the quest for a true meaning of religion. The book thoroughly describes the evolution of the concept of God, and how every generation of humanity brought a refinement to the idea. Thus we see how early Judaism divorced itself from the multiplicity of pagan gods while retaining some of the pagan legends; how the Judaic God later evolved to that of the Pharisees and Rabbi Hillel, then the Cabbalists, then the reformers; how Christianity at the same time evolved in a path separate from Judaism; and later fragmented into many branches. One even learns about the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism to the Judeo-Christian traditions. This evolution is traced all the way to the present day, where the concept of God has been transformed but nevertheless remains. In parallel, Armstrong also explores Islam with its various branches: Sunni, Shi¿a, Sufi, Ismaili, Alawite, Druze, etc. Since most people in the West are unfamiliar with Islam, Armstrong devotes somewhat more pages to it. This has led many critics to unfairly criticize her as being biased towards Islam. I however found her description and analysis of Islam to be as unbiased an accurate as the rest of the book, and quite as informative. You may be surprised, but after reading this book in full, my Christian faith has not been shaken a bit. Rather, based on the solid understanding I had gained, my faith only grew deeper and deeper. The book furthermore has pointed out to me many interesting references and ideas to explore about my religion and others discussed. I became particularly intrigued in mysticism and how close the mystic branches of all three religions are to each other. The index reads like an encyclopedia of everything you might want to know about religion. This is of course a major strength of the book. It is so comprehensive that the reader comes out with a very deep understanding of the subject matter. I myself read it slowly and took notes along the way, but found this exercise extremely rewarding. All in all, this is an excellent and highly recommended addition to your library. It is a book you¿ll want to keep and consult over and over.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tired with every Religion claiming to be the only way to salvation? Cannot reconcile proclaimed theological claims of dedication to peace for all mankind? Cannot fathom why so much blood has been shed by one Religion or the other in the name of God? Then engage the pages of this book and Armsttrong's thoroughly accesible presentation of complex and abstract religious myths. In the end, I am convinced of three things: first, that we are essentially Spiritual beings who will forever remain in search of the purpose of life, in search of God if you will. Second, instead of a fanatical adhereance to one faith or the other, we may well be able to expedite our search by studying the wisdom of all great Religions. And finally, seeking God is a very personal thing. Some may not need a Rabbi, a Minister, an Imam or Spirityual guide. Others may need such guidance. It does not matter. We must each seek God in a way that is suitable to our temperament. This is the radically liberating message of this book. Frankly, Armstrong is the only spiritual guide in my experience, who has pierced my heart and soul.
Shiva More than 1 year ago
This book appears to be written primarily from a christian perspective about other non-christian and some fringe christian religious movements. The author gives a brief overview of each religion and then goes on to explain why these religions are inacurrate or false, and how christianity is the truth and thus superior to all other religions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not qualified to comment on the scholarship involved in the sections on Christianity and Islam. However the writing on Judaism seems to me to somehow ' get it wrong ' seems as if its done without any real understanding from inside. My real objection however to the book has to do with the strong sense that what Armstrong seems to be trying to do is replace the God of Abraham,Isaac and Jacob with ' Armstrong' I had the feeling that this is a book of a person who has lost faith in a personal God and so writes about God as if it were an impersonal subject.I may be wrong, and if so I am doing a real injustice to the author .I wonder what other readers think.
mtTR More than 1 year ago
The major point of the book is the structure of the Old Testament written by Moses. The Author takes the position that the division is the results of auditors or those that make side notes on the page to the point eventually it became part of the scripture. The division of the question E source, J Source, P source is not the real issue. If you will divide the books written by Moses originally into separate manual you will come up with a conclusion that will surprise even you. Moses first of all was raised as a Pharaoh in Egypt NOT a Jew. He was some 40 years old before he noted he was a Jew not Egyptian. Real point is his training was to manage a Nation, run an Army and administer civil affairs. No Jew had that training except him After his act of killing an Egyptian for harming a Jew at 40 the true came out and he was kicked out of the Nation, not killed because he was raised by one of the daughter of the King. His return and taking of the leadership as commanded by God. They left Egypt, traveled to the Mt. Sinai wrote down the laws of God. The rebellion of Israel at the gate into the promised land resulted in 40 years in the wilderness in which it is obvious he wrote what God expected. Based on his background the books of Moses bread down into 3 books. One is addressed to the People, the next is addressed to the Government, the last and most extensive was addressed to the Priset. THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT A MAN TRAINED AS HE WAS WOULD DO! It is obvious the book were combined over the years tos form 5 books related to scrolls and the amount of material you can place any one. The book does a good job o tracing the names of God and how they effected the world prior to the Old Testament being written and how they impacted others after Israel became a State of God as they have returned to in our age. This is the critical part that each most review. It is also obvious that all writing is based on this same principle even the Jewish Bible and how it is arranged. Good book well documented and very accurate except where I dispute with its structure as proposed by the author, Karen Armstrong.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is the greatest book i've ever read. I learned about history of religion and the way other people view God. I've spent a lot of time studying religion so I already knew some of the things in this book. Karen Armstrong was able to keep the book interesting by not staying on one topic too long and making the book boring but she also was able to not leave out important information. I recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in reading about religion and history. It will make you think about how you view God and give you a greater understanding.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would tell prospective readers with a religious bent to only read this if you approach the subject with an open mind. If you are entrenched in the religion you were raised in, I ask you why you want to read it in the first place. And as with any book, you should be ready to devote some time in additional research and contemplation. Some who posted comments found issue with her data, yet fail to point to any specific data, or propose where one would go to gain the "correct" information. One who has a belief system will be enriched only if they are ready to put the bases of their beliefs to task. Hers is not a book preaching atheism; rather, it supplies data and gives context to those natural phenomon called religions?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book helped me to understand where monotheism came from. At times it is a lot to chew through but overall a great learning experience.
Seghetto More than 1 year ago
This book is fundamentally about the evolution of the idea of "God". Religious or not, catholic, Islamic, Buddhist, no matter what your background you will learn about religion from this book. It traces the idea of God from its roots right up until modern times. Much of what was the past of the semitic religions was pagan. This is something I completely neglected to think about when I was being raised within Christianity.
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