I really liked this book a lot. My knowledge of religious history has been sorely neglected, so this was very beneficial. Mind you, it only deals with the three major monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and is only 400 pages long, so it isn't meant to be comprehensive.
My one complaint is that, as it is a Popular (i.e., non-academic) book, she rarely gives sources for her conjectures. People who have studied the field undoubtedly know whether something she says is controversial (early Judaism was essentially pantheist, she claims--the earliest Jews merely worships Yahweh as the most powerful of the gods) or totally accepted (she claims that there were two distinct authors of Genesis, one from Judah and one from Israel). She simply puts these claims forth, whereas I'm used to reading scientific papers, in which even the most well-accepted claim deserves at least a footnote detailing who made it and when.
This is especially important because she has a real bias--she argues in the book that monotheism is fundamentally a social justice movement that is deeply concerned about equality. As a feminist, I love her interpretations, but I do wonder how accepted they are by religious scholars at large.
The history of god is far to large to discuss in detail here, so I'll explain the coolest thing that I got out of it, and then I'll just put in some of my favorite quotes (the book is full of my bookmarks where I especially liked some bit or other).
The coolest thing that I got from the book is that my atheism differs only in degree from a great many of the great Christian, Muslim and Jewish theists. We all agree that the idea of what Spong calls an "interventionist god" is total bunk.
The 13th century Kabbalists, for example, described a godhead higher than YHWH, which they called "En Sof". She also refers to a Muslim tradition of discussing god only through negation—saying "God is not wise", and then adding "God is also not unwise" to drive home the point that God is so far beyond humanity that it is pointless the discuss it using human concepts or human language. This godhead was completely outside the realm of human comprehension, and is "incapable of becoming the subject of a revelation to humanity".
She claims that this is a common theme in Christianity, too, (I think that one of the examples she gives is a sixth-century Greek writing under the name "Denys the Areopagite"). Every three or four hundred years it has a resurgence, but it has always been a well-respected belief of all three religions. The one exception is Western Christianity—Muslims, Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians do not have the same central demand for literalism in theology that Western (Latin as opposed to Greek) Christians often insist upon..
So far, this is right in line with my own theological beliefs. I don’t deny that there might well be a god, provided only that this god is so remote and ineffectual that its existence has no bearing on our lives whatsoever (Technically I think this makes me a "Negative Atheist"). At the end of the day, however, they define themselves as Theists, and believe that the most important thing that they can do is to worship and praise God. I define myself as a Humanist, and believe that God is a fatal distraction from Humanity. Humanity should be worshipped and praised and, even more importantly, helped. Worshipping the En Sof while so many people need so much help is a waste of time. At any rate, I’ve known that there was a certain amount of atheism in Buddhism, but it was surprising to learn that so many of monotheists had come to the same conclusion.
Speaking of monotheism, Armstrong argues on page 287 that such a point of view was not merely uncommon in the West, it was actually impossible until the late 1700’s, at least:
"Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy of the science of his time… As [Lucien] Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as "absolute," "relative," "causality," "concept," and "intuition" were not yet in use [in the sixteenth century]."
Here are some other bits and pieces of the book that I really liked:
The Buddha refuses to answer questions about life after death (probably saying "Mu!") because "It was like asking which direction a flame went when it ‘went out’." (p.34).
On page 152, she quotes the Koran:
And do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner - unless it be such of them as are bent on evildoing - and say: We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: or our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that We [all] surrender ourselves.Koran, 29:46
On page 245 she discusses the Kabalist sephiroth, about which I must do more research ASAP. For future reference, here they are in order:
Kether Elyon—supreme Nothingness, beyond comprehension
Hesed—Love / Mercy
Din—Power (stern judgment)
Rakhamim, or Tifereth—Compassion / Beauty
Malkuth, or Shekinah—Kingdom, the material world.
On page 342, she has an awesome quote from Diderot to Voltaire:
"It is… very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but to believe or not to believe in God is not important at all."
Page 376 (as part of the chapter "The Death of God") discusses post-Shoah Judaism:
- "Yet it is also true that even in Auschwitz some Jews continued to study the Talmud and observe the traditional festivals, not because they hoped that God would rescue them but because it made sense. There is a story that one day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put God on trial. They charged him with cruelty and betrayal… They could find no excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found him guilty and, presumably, worthy of death. The Rabbi announced the verdict. Then he looked up and said that the trial was over: it was time for evening prayer."
I also liked her critique of the religious right, on page 391, in which she calls such intolerant views "profanity":
"[T]his type of religiosity is actually a retreat from God. To make such human, historical phenomena as Christian "Family Values", "Islam", or "the Holy Land" the focus of religious devotion is a new form of idolatry… Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of the monotheists has promoted the idea of compassion."
Finally, she quotes Thomas Hardy’s poem "The Darkling Thrush", which I really really like:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.