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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

A History of God: The 4,000 - Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993).

By Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong (1944) born in England during WWII and grew up Irish Catholic, becoming a nun at a young age. She soon discovered mystical poetry, then theology and history as academic subjects and in time became one of the foremost religious writers, commentators and historians in Great Brittan. This is a simply amazing book. Armstrong begins at the beginning of monotheistic religion and from there traces the major historical and theological events of all three such major world religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The book does not substantially include the history of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or Paganism of all sorts. However most of these religions are referenced as contexts and comparisons at times in the text. The focus here are on the three major and closely related forms of monotheism and they are presented in the historical order in which each of these three great sources of human insight emerged with Judaism first (around 1000 BCE), followed by Christianity (30-100 CE), and finally Islam (around 600-700 CE).

Unless you are a scholar of religion, much of the information Armstrong presents may be very new and thus sometimes hard to understand or keep clear on. However, Armstrong writes beautifully and her research is well documented so the reader can both enjoy re-reading for comprehension or following up her sources on any area of interest.

Armstrong's work is as a historical/scholarly writer. Thus, this book follows a historical-critical method of religious inquiry rather than any devotional tradition. Though I have been reading and studying religion for 40 years, in an amateur manner, but still, I have read a lot and had many discussions with people from diverse backgrounds, including religious scholars. I only knew bits and pieces of the story that Armstrong is able to tell. After reading this work I was left to ponder the remarkable journey of religion as a source for meaning and practical guidance for humankind. I am left with a feeling, shared by the author that humankind needs meaning and is thus naturally religious, which is a perspective I know better from a psychological view in helping people manage the challenges in their lives. Finally, from a historical view, Armstrong shows how religious developments accompany social developments and vice versa and how these forces evolve together and sometimes unfortunately use each other, over time and circumstances. In a careful reading, I believe a case may be made that the history of religion helps to explain many of our social achievements and social woes, including the modern middle east and even to a degree, contemporary, as in 2020 politics. So while it is a book nearing 30 years old, the historical significance of the work stands the test of these three decades and shows how a deep reading of history may work as a meaningful through never complete guide to the future. This is another book or area of knowledge I consider foundational to education and citizenship in the world today.

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