A History of Colossal Inversion

After I finished Reza Aslan’s God: A Human History, I read several reviews. That’s typical: I read a book, form my own opinion of it, then see what the reviewers say. Sometimes they point out something I missed. In the case of God: A Human History, one critic snarked that Karen Armstrong’s A History of God (1993) is the superior take on the subject.

Thank you, critic whose name I forgot!

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who renounced her vows because years in the convent brought her no closer to god. She pursued god independently, reading (it seems) every religious book ever written, starting with the Old Testament. A History of God is a result of that exhaustive research. If Aslan’s breezy text is ideal for an undergraduate survey course in western religion, Armstrong’s is the graduate-level equivalent, a deep read full of unfamiliar terms (to me, anyway — or am I the only one who didn’t know what theophany means?). If you’re fascinated by religion, the payoff is worth many times the expenditure of mental energy.

Armstrong believes religiosity is inborn: “Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to . . . . it seems to have been something that we have always done.” In explaining the evolution of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam over the millennia, she heavily implies, with Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun. Each religion has the same elements. They’re just mixed differently, and the recipe is adjusted as the times and local tastes demand.

Take god, for instance. At one end of the spectrum god is perfect, good, eternal, all-knowing, and all-powerful, a force or entity so far beyond human grasp that any attempt to describe it — even name it — is futile and misleading. At the other end god is our super-friend, just like one of us but with supernatural clout. He actively engages with us, lifts us up when we’re down, and rewards our faith. We frequently alternate between the two: when something horrible happens, we shrug that ours is not to reason why (the force beyond human ken), then pray for better days (the super-friend who’s always there for us).

There’s also a range of ways to perceive god’s intentions. At one end of that spectrum is reason. Aristotle saw existence as a hierarchy. At the top was the Unmoved Mover, that incomprehensible, entirely spiritual god. Each level down became more material, with humankind in the middle: capable of spirituality but mired in the physical world. By reasoning well, humans moved closer to the divine. The other end of the spectrum is mysticism, insight attained through imagination (often in the form of visions). Those we dub prophets are almost always mystics, and authentic prophets are usually reluctant to share their revelations. Moses, for example, was so averse to speaking that god authorized Aaron to speak in Moses’ stead, yet Moses’ interpretation of god completely transformed Judaism.

Even the inherent contradictions of religion are the same, the most common being that if god is omnipotent and loves us, why does he permit evil? The Garden of Eden story doesn’t explain it, Armstrong argues, using John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (Book III) to illustrate. If god is omniscient, he had to know in advance that Adam and Eve would fall; he set them up to fail, meaning he, not Satan, is responsible for humankind’s pain and suffering. Milton has god protest that he gave Adam and Eve the strength to resist Satan’s temptations, so too bad for them and their blameless progeny. “God comes across as callous, self-righteous and entirely lacking in the compassion that his religion was supposed to inspire,” Armstrong laments.

Her editorial hand isn’t usually that heavy. In general she treats most religious ideas sympathetically. But it’s clear she’s come to see god more as ineffable force than best friend, and that she considers god best understood through a tempered balance of intellect and intuition. Me? I’ve concluded from reading her and Aslan that the Biblical conceit about us being made in god’s image is a colossal inversion. We make god in our image.

Karen Armstrong, 2016 (photo: Vogler). “The God of historical monotheism demands mercy not sacrifice, compassion rather than decorous liturgy.”

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.