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A History of God from Abraham to the Present: The 4000-Year Quest for God.

In this ambitious history Karen Armstrong's own position is ambivalent. Having claimed her own religious experience to have been formed by the way in which she worked on her own feelings and imagination, paragraphs later complains that no-one told her God was the product of the creative imagination. Who is she blaming? No matter, as she traces Jewish, Christian and Muslim perceptions of God through the formation of religious groupings and ideologies, bringing our attention to developments which are sometimes similar in all three religions (in 610 Muhammad ibn Abdullah has an Isaiah type experience on Mount Hira), her task is more philosophical than personal. It is no small matter to combine the history of peoples with the ideas which characterise them, but Armstrong skilfully weaves them together, keeping, from her bird's eye perspective, a distinction between two anyway inseparable processes. Philosophically she seems to be struggling with our alienation from God which for me makes her project worthwhile. Constantly she draws our attention to the way that, throughout history, we alternately perceive ourselves as close to God, and then as separate. And she shows how a part of this shift in position is due to the struggle between reason and revelation.

She never really explains whether she thinks it was our collective |projected' need which created this continual shift in position. But when Abraham prepared food for this Yahweh, or when Jacob dreamt of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, it had been preceded by a holistic vision where gods were not separate from humanity. The image of a God who appeared on Mount Sinai when the Israelites had to keep their distance, or the God who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son or told Moses not to come near the burning bush, provides a great contrast. For now in a short space of time the gap between divinity and humanity has drastically widened, the relationship to God altered. He is now separate. Other. Armstrong claims this is a despotic, tribal deity inspiring a narrow tribal theology, but without considering that on another level this might symbolise a theological need for change.

For, as she has so rightly seen, the perception of God as separate was exacerbated by the Greeks' interest in logic and reason. Although Plato's static God (based on the premise that truth was pure, remote, discoverable through reason, our exiled souls being trapped in matter), along with Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, conflicts with the active God of Revelations, does this not represent a truth about our basic psychological make-up, the contraries within our psyche representing a necessary transition towards a whole? In this vast historical survey, Armstrong leads us rather to a view of how the underlying theme of the split between reason and revelation, or intellect and love, is outwardly manifest in history. For instance, the breaking off of relations in 1054 between the Eastern and Western churches because Western Christians wanted a rational explanation of the Trinity, whereas the Cappodocians saw God's incomprehensibility, His unrevealed essence, to be the whole point. The appearance of Abelard in 1141 before the powerful Abbot Bernard, symbolised a moment in history when love and intellect were split, the Abbot declaring love to be incompatible with the exercise of reason. In all three deist religions, the author shows the constant dichotomies and disagreements arising concerning the place of reason or science.

Strangely (because the path man's search takes for God must be full of twists and turns, but Karen Armstrong makes this path confidently rational) she seems to imply that if there is a place left for God in the future, despite the current rise in fundamentalism and retreat from God, it lies with the inner God of the Mystics, as opposed to the God of the Philosophers who sought God through purely rational means. But I feel saddened by The History of God's return to the old dualism. In opting only for the God of the Mystics, Armstrong is being one-sided, suppressing intellect, the joyful reason for our embodiment, and with it the possibility of ending the conflict which can only be achieved by reconciling reason with love. However, it is illuminating because we are made aware of the past, present and continuing difference between forms of reason and revelation in people's perception of God, leaving us with a sense of how the complexities of history may have shaped the way we experience God, as either irrelevant, near or remote.
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Author:Traylen, Maryanne
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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