Sunday, July 01, 2007

A History of God

Today, after reading it on and off for several weeks, I finally finished A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong started her adult life by becoming a Roman Catholic nun, but left after seven years, earned a degree at Oxford, taught modern literature, and became a well-known commentator on religious affairs. "A History of God" traces the various conceptions of God in the Abrahamic religions from the precursors of Judaism to the present day.

To summarize the book very briefly, the initial chapters describe the polytheistic belief systems out of which Jewish monotheism emerged roughly in the middle of the first millenium BCE, especially during the period of captivity in Babylon, though of course the process was a gradual one and it would be impossible to point at a particular time when it occurred. Armstrong does not devote much attention in the text to describing how this picture of the development of Judaism came to be, a picture substantially at odds with what I was taught in the church, though I have since gathered a similar picture to Armstrong's from other sources. Readers only familiar with what is taught in conservative churches would likely find this picture and its lack of justification (in the text of the book) unsettling, but I think that in broad outline it accurately reflects modern scholarship.

In any case, Armstrong moves on quickly to the emergence and early development of Christianity, and then the disputes over the doctrine of the Trinity. This includes not only the disagreements in the Latin branch of the church that came to a head in the fourth century and led to the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed which affirmed that Jesus was "of the same substance" as God (against the views of Arius), but also the diverging views of the Greek branch of Christianity that adopted a radically different conception of God, a view that emphasized an ineffable, unknowable view that was grounded more in experience than doctrine.

After a chapter describing the origin and early history of Islam, Armstrong shifts from describing the major religions mostly (but not entirely) in isolation to describing parallel developments in the conception of God within those religions. The first of these she describes as "The God of the Philosophers", wherein God is conceived in abstract terms and is distant, almost entirely separated from and unaffected by reality as we experience it. In contrast, "The God of the Mystics" represented almost a polar opposite view, where God existed only subjectively in human experience, mostly inaccessible to reason. In both cases, it was often Islamic thinkers that led the way, perhaps because Islamic societies were enjoying a great deal of economical and political success and stability.

Later, the Reformation prompted a "return" to earlier, simpler beliefs among Christians, even as the beginnings of a technological revolution in the West were changing the structure of society. Similar changes occurred in Islam, though in that case the causes were related more to the Mongol invasions as well as conflict with Western Christians. Jews saw at this time renewed persecution by Christians, being expelled from cities across Europe, and this led to revisions in their beliefs as well.

The last few chapters of the book describe the effects of the Enlightenment and exploding scientific understanding that, for the first time, led to serious consideration of the possibility that God may not exist. While some thinkers were happy to leave the idea of God behind entirely, others developed fresh conceptions of God that (somewhat like the mystics) rejected a literal, objective, separate existence. Still others clung ever more tightly to the idea of a supernatural person, regardless of the philosophical and evidential problems associated with the idea, culminating in the modern fundamentalist Christian movement.

Armstrong herself seems particularly sympathetic to the mystical, experiential conceptions of God, berating (very gently) the philosophically naive conceptions that typify both modern believers and those who reject God entirely based on those same naive conceptions. And I must say, I was previously unaware of the full diversity of beliefs that have been held under the names of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was frequently surprised by the early recognition of various difficulties by early theologians and the sophistication of their solutions. Early Islam in particular was very successful not only in bringing improvements to the developing Arab culture and in co-existing peacefully with Jewish and Christian believers, but also in examining and refining their views of God. And yet...

As I wrote the previous paragraph, I used the word "sophistication" and noted to myself its shared origins (I assume) with "sophistry". Throughout the bulk of the development of the religious traditions that Armstrong is describing, the existence of God was basically just assumed, and all of the effort was expended to describe God, or to say why God could not be described. Various people attempted to solve the problem in radically different ways (viz. the difference between the philosophical and mystical conceptions), and occasionally individuals would vacillate between them as they came to understand the deficiencies of each view. The philosophical God existed, but could not be described and could not interact with a world that was so far below its (not "his") perfect, timeless simplicity. The mystical God, on the other hand, existed only in our minds. The personal, immanent God (and especially the doctrines of Incarnation and the Trinity in Christianity) more familiar to us today ran afoul of apparent philosophical and logical difficulties. Solutions to one problem introduced others.

Further, Armstrong describes how these various developments were affected by their historical context. The development of monotheism in Judaism occurred as the Jewish nations were overcome by first the Assyrians and then Babylonians. Christianity developed during a time of apocalyptic expectations of Jews under Roman rule. Islam developed out of the social ills that were plaguing the Arab transition from nomadic life to their success as merchant traders. As I mentioned before, important developments were related to technological and cultural changes, invasions, persecution, colonization and other non-religious factors.

As I see it, the early conception of a supernatural, personal God was correctly recognized to be untenable by those that gravitated to the philosophical and mystical understandings. It would be difficult for me to say that the God of the mystics does not exist because their conception of God, one which has no objective existence, is so foreign to my own conception. Still, belief in this purely internal, subjective entity grew out of experiences aimed at understanding a God that originally was thought to exist objectively. Without that foundation to start from, this move to mysticism seems misguided. Still, I acknowledge that a mystic might mean something so radically different by "God" that we could not easily have a meaningful conversation on the subject.

Similarly, the philosophical view effectively removes God from examination. Proponents of this view were reduced to describing everything that God is not, eventually settling on describing God as Nothing (a view fairly similar to some forms of Buddhism). Practically, while an intellectually stimulating exercise, this form of God-belief seems otherwise somewhat sterile, and the reasons to believe in such a God reduce to philosophical arguments like the necessity of a First Cause.

These kinds of beliefs were formed mostly during periods of relative economic, social and political stability. They were challenged by periods of unrest, when people wanted a God who could act in the real world. Sometimes, especially for the mystical variants, they were re-adopted when it seemed apparent that God was not acting in the real world. (Jewish Kabbalah mysticism is one example whose growth was stimulated by the tribulations of Jews in Christian Europe.)

The changing conception of God, then, has reflected the context and the needs of believers. To my mind, this reflects poorly on the reasons to believe in God, but Armstrong looks at the problem from a different angle. The summary from the inside jacket sums it up nicely:

Armstrong suggests that any particular idea of God must &mdash if it is to survive &mdash work for the people who develop it, and that ideas of God change when they cease to be effective. She argues that the concept of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves was suited to mankind at a certain stage but no longer works for an increasing number of people. Understanding the ever-changing ideas of God in the past and their relevance and usefulness in their time, she says, is a way to begin the search for a new concept for the twenty-first century. her book shows that such a development is virtually inevitable, in spite of the despair of our increasingly "Godless" world, because it is a natural aspect of our humanity to seek a symbol for the ineffable reality that is universally perceived.

While I do not agree that any present despair is due to being godless per se, I do agree that belief in God will likely persist and change for some time. In any case, Armstrong has produced a valuable and thought-provoking account of the history of belief in God, and I recommend reading it.


John said...

Alan, I just wanted to say I discovered your blog the other day, and I have enjoyed reading your posts, especially the ones about religion. I really liked your analysis of Matthew's gospel. I've been reading a lot of historical Jesus scholarship lately, and it's been fascinating. It's quite an eye-opener for a lifelong Catholic like me. When you truly open your eyes and take a fresh look, it's obvious that there were so many purely human agendas at work in the gospels. I'm at a stage now where I can see there's really no objective evidence for many Christian doctrines, but I'm left wondering if God isn't somehow working through these flawed documents anyway. What do you think about this?

Alan Lund said...

John, thanks for stopping by, and I am glad that you have found something thought-provoking here.

Yes, it is conceivable that a god could choose to work through flawed documents and through flawed people. Many things are conceivable. But we should have good reasons to believe things, and simply being conceivable is insufficient. Yet, it seems to me that much of Christian apologetics is stuck on trying to show how various claims could be true (i.e., are conceivable), leaving unanswered the question of why we should actually believe them. This strikes me not as an attempt to discover truth, but to defend belief.

And, for me and for many others, that is the transition that proves critical: to stop investing your identity in a set of beliefs that must be defended, and commit instead to searching for the truth, whatever that might be (and as hard as that might be).

Thomas Jefferson wrote this in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr:

Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.

Still, I will address your particular question more specifically. Is it, in fact, conceivable that God would choose to work through flawed documents? If God does exist, and especially if the consequences for our beliefs and our choices are in fact eternal in scope and possibly horrific in character, what does it say about God that we are left with such poor evidence? Even if you buy the rationalization that it is we who condemn ourselves to hell (and not God who sends us there), would he still not be morally culpable for not doing everything possible to allow us to form our beliefs and choose our actions based on the best information about their consequences? What prevents him from doing any better than ancient, flawed documents that are, as you say, evidently the result of so many purely human agendas?

It seems to me that there are a set of statements about God's character, his capabilities, and the nature of eternity that are inconsistent. That is not sufficient to tell us which of those statements are incorrect, only that they cannot all be true. But that is exactly the problem with mere conceivability: without being grounded in actuality at some point, there is little progress to be made. Mix in the ambiguity of language, and things become harder still.

I am glad to hear that you are taking a fresh look at your beliefs. And I would echo Jefferson (but not nearly so eloquently): seek the truth with humility and integrity, and take what comes. You can do no better.

John said...

Thanks for your comments, Alan. I'm currently reading "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man", by Robt. Price, and it's got a lot of very good analysis of the gospels. I don't agree with all of it, but even if he's half right there's an awful lot of what looks like outright fabrication in these so-called inspired documents. One thing that the Catholic church does to get around this, I think, is to give equal weight to Tradition, which is this vague term that is supposed to mean, I guess, oral tradition going back to the time of the apostles. I've heard Catholic apologists talk about "the tradition of Mary's Immaculate Conception", for example. The problem with this is that "Tradition" is not provable, of course, because nobody can verify that the oral transmission of traditions is exact or faithful. I grew up with the idea that pre-literate societies had bards and others who could memorize thousands of lines of chants, poems, creeds, etc., and repeat them verbatim, and so we should have faith in the oral tradition. Now that I'm looking at this again, I see that there's no guarantee that oral transmission will be exact. There have been studies of oral cultures that have shown that poets, etc., often change the story, so to speak, with each telling. So, "Tradition" is not a rock on which to build your faith. To sum up, the problem is that there are so many things where Christianity seems to be saying, "Just trust me on this. Our religion is true, and all the miraculous events really happened, whereas every other religion is nothing but myth and legend. Just trust me on this."