By Alex P. Vidal
This article may be biased against the atheists since the primary question here is, WHY does God exist?
How have the three dominant monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–shaped and altered the conception of God?
How have these religions influenced each other? In a stunningly intelligent book, Karen Armstrong, one of Britain’s foremost commentators on religious affairs, traces the history of how men and women have perceived and experienced God, from the time of Abraham to the present.
The epic story begins with the Jews’ gradual transformation of pagan idol worship in Babylon into true monotheism–a concept previously unknown in the world. Christianity and Islam both rose on the foundation of this revolutionary era, but these religions refashioned “the One God” to suit the social and political needs of their followers.
From classical philosophy and medieval mysticism to the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the modern age of skepticism, Karen Armstrong performs the near miracle of distilling the intellectual history of monotheism into one superbly readable volume, destined to take its place as classic.
Armstrong admits that as a child, she “had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God.” She believes that there is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.
“I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory,” writes Armstrong.
“I cannot say, however, that my belief in these religios opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here in earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed.”
When she was eight years old, Armstrong had to memorize this catechism answer to the question, “What is God?”: “God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.”
“Not surprisingly, it meant little to me, and I am bound to say that it still leaves me cold. It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition. Since writing this book, however, I have come to believe that it is also incorrect,” she points out.
“As I grew up, I realized that there was more to religion than fear. I read the lives of the saints, the metaphysical poets, T.S. Eliot and some of the simpler writings of the mystics. I began to be moved by the beauty of the liturgy and, though God remained distant, I felt that it was possible to break through to him and that the vision would transfigure the whole of created reality.
“To do this I entered the religious order and, as a novice and a young nun, I learned a good deal more about the faith. I applied myself to apologetics, scripture, theology and church history. I delved into the history of the monastic life and embarked on a minute discussion of the Rule of my own order, which we had to learn by heart.
“Strangely enough, God figured very little in any of this. Attention seemed focused on secondary details and the more peripheral aspects of religion. I wrestled with myself in prayer, trying to focus my mind to encounter God, but he remained a stern taskmaster who observed my every infringement of the Rule, or tantalizingly absent.
“The more I read about the raptures of the saints, the more of a failure I felt. I was unhappily aware that what little religious experience I had, had somehow been manufactured by myself as I worked upon my own feelings and imagination. Sometimes a sense of devotion was an aesthetic response to the beauty of the Gregorian chant and the liturgy. But nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself. I never glimpsed the God described by the prophets and mystics.
“Jesus Christ, about whom we talked far more than about ‘God,’ seemed a purely historical figure, inextricably embedded in late antiquity. I also began to have grave doubts about some of the doctrines of the Church. How could anybody possibly know for certain that the man Jesus had been God incarnate and what did such a belief mean?
“Did the New Testament really teach the elaborate–and highly self-contradictory–doctrine of the Trinity or was this, like so many other articles of the faith, a fabrication by theologians centuries after the death of Christ in Jerusalem?
Armstrong admits that the more she learned about the history of religion, the more her misgivings appeared justified. “The doctrine that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man-made, constructed over a long period. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God, and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be diivine. As an epileptic, I had flashes of vision that I knew to be a mere neurological defect: had the vision and raptures of the saints also been a mere mental quirk? God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown,” she explains.
Despite her years as a nun, Armstrong does not believe that “my experience of God is unusual. My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas. I had come to a more mature understanding of the complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in kindergarten.”
She adds: “Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed. People without my peculiarly religious background may also find that their notion of God was formed in infancy. Since those days, we have put away childish things and have discarded the God of our first years.”
Her study of the history of religion has revealed that “human beings are spiritual animals.” Armstrong believes that “there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.” Men and women, she says, “started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art.”
Armstrong believes that all talk about God “staggers under impossible difficulties. Yet monotheists have all been very positive about language at the same time as they have denied its capacity to express the transcendent reality.”
The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is a God who–in some sense–speaks. His World is crucial in all three faiths. The World of God has shaped the history of our culture. We have to decided whether the word “God” has any meaning for us today, she concludes.