Saturday, April 15, 2006

A History of God - Karen Armstrong

“A History of God” by Karen Armstrong

Book Review

by Richard E. Noble

Karen Armstrong was, at one time, a Roman Catholic nun. She left the nunnery behind in 1969 but not her search for God. This is a good book.
Her book deals primarily with God in the Judeo-Christian theologies; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She gives a good criticism and analysis from atheism to mysticism. She goes through each of the religions and the evolution of their thought. I suppose that the word “evolution” would not be proper because there is no actual progression of thought culminating in a final conclusion. It is a comparative analysis, exploring all the tangential pathways engaged in by all three of the theologies. The point is made that all three theologies have shared all of the various pathways in seeking a God. Each group has had its radicals, its rationales, its fundamentalists and it mystics.
I would not classify Karen as an atheist or even an agnostic. I would place her into the category of the want-to-believer. Her problem, as a want-to-believer, in dealing with conventional religious thought with regards to the concept of God, is that, unfortunately, she is too smart. She defeats all of the conventional and conservative logic with regards to God, but yet is still left with the desire to have a God to believe in. I suppose that this would be considered the Kantian point of view.
Mankind needs to have some kind of a belief in some sort of God. Why? Because the pit and depression that comes with an empty eternity is not conducive to the hopeful human spirit. There is this notion that this “feeling” stems so far back into the psychology of man that it is not only necessary but instinctive.
I don’t know why oblivion would be or must be considered a “hopeless, depressing, pit” - certainly an eternity of hell is even more depressing. If you don’t exist, you wouldn’t even know that you were hopeless or in a pit. You couldn’t despair either. And just because an idea goes back into time with a seeming endlessness, that doesn’t mean that it is instinctive. It could just be traditional ignorance. Like; the world is flat; the earth is the center of the universe; fire is the addition of something called phlogiston; and, all woman look the same upside-down
On the practical side, at least at this point in man’s evolution, no atheistic notions have been capable of transforming established thought on the matter of God. God has been transformed over the centuries but only by means of reform. The old God must be replaced by a new God who is transformed to conform to the times. So you don’t want to tell people that God is dead or that He is impossible, you want to explain to them how God has been misinterpreted by the current established order; or how a belief about God that was once held in the past is more accurate than any going around at the present. In other words, if you want change, you must invent a new God or re-establish an old one. But the logic and arguments against the God notion have become so substantial and sophisticated that the above proposition becomes more and more difficult - whether the gods are old or new.
Karen is clearly leaning toward a mystical God.
Karen establishes that the whole God-thing started with the notion that there must be a Creator or a First Cause to all things. This notion got muddled, and in all of the three theologies there came about a desire to prove the existence of this Creator, rationally. This caused a good deal of debating and argument - for centuries.
Karen agrees that all of the arguments proving the existence of God failed or were eventually defeated. What resulted was a new group of Godless atheists who contended that God couldn’t be proven or verified rationally and was therefore an impossibility; and another group who agreed with the atheists that God could not be proven a reality but that He was valid nevertheless. The fact that you could not prove the existence of God simply made God all the more “mysterious” - thus evolved a group called Mystics. Most believers are at heart Mystics - no amount of logic or reason can convince a believer that God does not exist.
God was initially the creator of all things. Unfortunately, someone had to ask: If God is the creator of all things, from what did He create all these things that are?
He created all the things that are, from all the formless stuff that was floating around Him, said some. Then, of course, somebody else said; There was stuff floating around God? - stuff that existed eternally, and simultaneously with God, for ever and ever? Then there must be two Gods - the eternal God that is just Stuff and the other God that is ... what? What is God made/composed of anyway?
This problem led some to conclude that God and the Stuff that was floating around the Universe were actually One. So, God was the Stuff of the Universe. If God was the Stuff of the Universe then it must be that God created the Universe from Himself If God created all the things that are, from Himself - then everything in the Universe must be divine. Then - we are all God.
There were many who accepted this notion that everything was a part of God, but there were others who didn’t like the idea. So, they said that God did not create the Universe from Himself. He didn’t create it from any stuff that was floating around, either. He actually created the Universe out of nothing. But how can something come from nothing? Ex-nihilo.
It was magic. It was a miracle.
Okay, if God created the Universe from nothing, what is God? Is He something or is He nothing?
God is nothing, too. Where does He live? He lives nowhere. Is He tall or is He short? He is both tall and short. Is He male or female? He is male, female, animal and mineral. He is all things and He is no thing. He is at the same time nothing and something. He is one and He is many. He is single and individual, yet, at the same time multiple and diverse. He lives beyond the boundaries of the universe. He transcends both space and time. He is faster than a speeding bullet and can leap tall building in a single bound. He’s … he’s ... whatever you would like Him to be.
If you have no trouble following this type of thinking, then, you are a mystic. Mysticism seems to be the last refuge for the struggling want-to-believer from the pits of despair and atheism.
Karen also points out that there has been an unfortunate return to Fundamentalism. In the West and in the United States it is fundamentalist Christians, in the mid-East it is fundamentalist Muslims; in Israel it is fundamentalist Jews.
A fundamentalist usually has some basic “truth” that he clings to. It might be a book or a notion. He believes wholly in this notion and feels that all others should believe it as well. Karen feels that Fundamentalism is a backward step in mankind’s progress toward an understandable or, at least, acceptable God.
Karen thinks that it is time that the world created a new God. She suggests a mystical God of some kind. Unfortunately, a mystical God is an UN-reasonable God. The trouble with UN-reasonable Gods is just that. A God that is not subject to reason can certainly evolve into something just as tyrannical as the “One True” God of the fundamentalists. Gods that come from “nothing” and find their being in “non-existence” are simply and purely double-talk.
The problem here has to do with the philosophical definition of nothing.
Religious thinkers, along with many philosophers, keep attempting to make nothing into something. I have even read some who claim that nothing is simply the absence of something and that something is simply the absence of nothing.
Nothing is not the absence of something; nothing is the absence of all things. Something is not the absence of nothing; something is the absence of all things but one - that one thing that it is.
This “Nothingness” business is confusing. It is attempting to make nothing into a quantity like zero in mathematics. A thing or amount that can be added and subtracted. Nothing is a concept not a precept. It describes the imagined state or condition of non-being - that state of no innate potential to be actualized and no innate tendencies to actualize itself. Nothing is what isn’t and consequently what can never be in and of itself - what can not become. Ontologically, it has no being and no potential for being. To say that something can come from nothing is simply a contradiction in terms.
Something is also a concept but it is used to describe things that exist - things that are perceived - something is a universal description of things that are things that have being in themselves - being in-itself; being that transcends phenomenon and appearance and is, in and of itself. It is a thing; it is something. Ontologically speaking something describes things that are - a thing that is - has being in-itself- not in the imagination but in reality.
Parmenides had it correct - That which is, is and that which is not, is not and can never be.
So when the mystic says that God is Nothing, he is saying that God does not exist and He can not come into existence. With this I would agree, but when the mystic goes on to state that it is from this state of Nothingness that all things have come into existence, he is simply babbling non-sensical gibberish.
Karen, in my opinion, falls into this trap of thinking Nothing to actually be something with the potential for existence - by the very definition of the word nothing, this is not possible.
I certainly agree with Karen the world needs a new God, but I have no suggestions. I liked it a lot better when people kept there Gods to themselves. It was a much better world when believers were less demonstrative and less sure. Many of today’s believers and want-to-believers border on the repulsive and the obnoxious. I consider them all to be psychotic, possible schizophrenic, and without doubt - dangerous.
“A History of God” by Karen Armstrong is, to say the least, educated, informative and well-researched. I’ve been reading about the gods and Gods now for over fifty years. Karen’s survey gave me more information than I personally felt necessary. But, I like that. I feel I got my money’s worth.
On the down side, she can get a bit confusing. She skims on many traditional explanations, presuming that you, the reader, are already familiar with such notions or that they are not that important; but then goes on extensively in areas of lesser importance - or where “more” is hardly necessary.
Karen spends a good deal of time on mystical notions, for example. It is plain that she finds some sort of ‘hope” in that brand of foolishness. She also spends very little time on the idea that nothingness is impossible. She is more into the confusing school of Martin Heidegger who it seems tries to prove that nothing is really something.
If one can somehow contemplate the notion that God could have emerged from nothing into something; or that nothing preceded something, or that something and nothing are two interchangeable quantities; or that God who is Himself nothing, could have created the universe from a nothing that was separate and distinct from His own brand of Nothingness - then I suppose that Mysticism becomes some sort of possibility. Actually, if nothingness can truly be found to be something-ness then, of course, anything becomes a possibility.
I think this is getting us into Wittgenstein here. If nothing can be something then we are obviously lost in semantics and have stopped dealing with reason, logic, or science.
The mystic is, in my opinion, a person who begins his inquiry into God’s possible existence, with the assumption or positive notion that God is a reality. Now, all that he has to do is defeat any arguments to the contrary. This course has left him in a never-never land where nothing and something both have a reality; where the universe and all that is - really isn’t; where rational thinking is a trick; where scientific inquiry is a deception; where everything that is, is only part of the story; where the unreasonable becomes the reasonable; where there are places beyond all places and things beyond all things; where God can exist beyond existence - beyond time and space (St. Augustine).
It is one thing to say that proving the existence of God is impossible and therefore one must rely on faith to accept such a proposition, but to build on this “faith” in an Unconfirmed Suspicion, a set of rules, laws, commandments, principles - even books supposedly written or dictated by this Unconfirmed Suspicion should be a little much, to say the least, for any sane human being.
I enjoyed Karen’s book, nevertheless. Karen’s notion that the impossible could become more acceptable if it is blanketed in the mystically paradoxical is not an answer that I can accept, but it is more than possible that mankind, in general, could find it temporarily sustainable. I feel that this would only bring the human race out of the frying pan and into the fire. Fundamentalism is certainly a step backward, but mysticism is no step forward.
I personally feel that in her quest for God she has one final step to take, but is afraid to take it for the fear of that “pit of despair and hopelessness” that she mentioned in her book. Kierkegard had a similar problem. He chose to “leap into the absurd”.

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