A History of God

>> Saturday, November 22, 2014

I think I first attempted reading this back in 2000 or 2001. I can't remember which, but I do remember that I checked this out of the Tacoma library, a nice hardcover that I only got perhaps 30 or 50 pages into. Then before I left Tacoma, I bought this used paperback copy at Kings Books. Apparently sometime between then and 2014 I was able to make it to page 130 before I stopped. Which brings me to this past spring, when I started reading it again (from the beginning) until I finished.

My god, I cannot believe how long it took me to finish this book. The first few chapters flew by. I was making progress and destined to finish before the beginning (or was it the middle?) of the summer. And then my crappy work place took over my mind with stress, and I was unable to make any headway on it until this fall when I changed jobs. (I don't think relaxation reading is supposed to work this way.)

Anyhow, there is so much in this book that I don't know how to summarize it. I'm glad I read Karen Armstrong's small book on Islam last year because it definitely helped while reading the couple chapters solely devoted to Islam. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about religion and religious history, and I had a harder time not falling asleep on the chapter--or chapter and a half--that was solely devoted to Islam. It was just harder to follow since I'm not well-versed in its philosophy and doctrines. (But I learned a lot! Most of which I probably won't remember though.)
[Isaac] Newton does not mention the Bible: we know God only by contemplating the world. Hitherto the doctrine of the creation had expressed a spiritual truth: it had entered both Judaism and Christianity late and had always been somewhat problematic. Now the science had moved the creation to center stage and made a literal and mechanical understanding of the doctrine crucial to the conception of God. When people deny the existence of God today they are often rejecting the God of Newton, the origin and sustainer of the universe whom scientists can no longer accommodate. (p. 304)
Now points like these are what I picked this book up for in the first place. How things came to be is why I like reading history. How things are today isn't how they were 3,000 years ago, which most fundamentalists never seem to think about. I've read quite a bit about the history of Christianity, which also tends to involve Judaism, but never as much about Islam. I don't think I could have ever imagined some of the philosophical and doctrinal overlap that Armstrong describes at various points. I had no idea of some of the (crazier) history like the Shabbetai Zevi episode in Judaism. Reading that, it's like, "Holy hell, this actually happened?!?"

But when some of the themes begin to repeat themselves in the history Armstrong is recounting, I was reminded of the Mayan baktuns where certain sections of time are thematically about this or that in addition to things being involved in a cycle where it'll repeat at a certain point in time. Reading about some of the different strains like the Sufis or mystics in general, I feel a bit disappointed since as Armstrong mentions that western Christianity lost its acquaintance with mysticism a long time ago in its emphasis on literal interpretations. I can't help but feel that something like that leaves a real void culturally since either literalists (like fundamentalists) or abstainers only remain.
The mystics have long insisted that God is not an-Other Being; they have claimed that he does not really exist and that it is better to call him Nothing. This God is in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society, with its distrust of inadequate images of the Absolute. Instead of seeing God as an objective Fact, which can be demonstrated by means of scientific proof, mystics have claimed that he is a subjective experience, mysteriously experienced in the ground of being. This God is to be approached through the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form, akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life. Mystics have used music, dancing, poetry, fiction, stories, painting, sculpture and architecture to express this Reality that goes beyond concepts. Like all art, however, mysticism requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism as a safeguard against indulgent emotionalism and projection. (p. 396)


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