Because of its breadth and detail, this is among the more difficult books I’ve tackled. In brief, Armstrong reviews the theological histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three related monotheistic traditions. She expounds on the complex and often surprising evolution of each, from their origins through the 20th century. It is an expansive treatment, but well worth the six months it’s taken to get through it.
I want to enumerate here the principal insights I gained. This is not a review or critique of the book, but a melange of Armstrong’s historical narrative, my own opinions, and personal reflection. In other words, it should not be attributed en toto to Armstrong.
1. As individuals constrained by short lifespans, we fail to appreciate how our respective religious practices have changed over time. In all three traditions, teachings often presented as absolute have been plastic and malleable. They have all been revised and reinterpreted continuously. Since their inceptions, the respective clergies and other intelligentsia in all generations have argued about right belief and practice. In so doing, they have taken each far from its origin, to the point that rigid and dogmatic interpretation of any is absurd. In fact, Armstrong points out that, over the centuries, people have constantly reinvented the idea of God to keep it relevant to their times and their lives. In this vein, she traces the rise of modern atheism to the lessening relevance of God in a science-driven age.
2. Implicit within this book is a comment on a remarkable aspect of the human psyche: Theologians and “theologian philosophers” have repeatedly propounded and defended (even to violence and death) incredibly complex, explicit theologies woven from nothing more than vivid imaginations. The amount of energy and certainty and commitment individuals can throw into such exercise is, indeed, remarkable. I imagine psychologists have a way of characterizing this. For my part, I think it must derive from our need to create personal meaning and purpose. (See this post, and the two previous.)
3. As a group, the mystics across traditions seem to have gotten it right: What unites us is the mystery of existence and our universal desire to supersede that mystery and commune with the Divine. The way there is within the individual, inward toward some “divine spark” that animates each of us. It is not via external institutions or imaginatively constructed and imposed dogmas. Unfortunately, the inward route imposes personal responsibility and commitment. As a whole, we seem all too willing to forfeit our independence to any number of individuals and institutions claiming to have already done the work for us.
4. Atheism is not the only other option, as the more militant atheists would have you believe: there are alternatives (OK, besides Buddhism) to the theist-nontheist argument. The mystical concept of an “ineffable” or an “absolute” argues just the opposite. I think we use the idea of a “being” in order to conceptualize something we are inherently incapable of conceptualizing. But in this context, the idea of a “being” or a deity is best thought of as a symbol. Where all three traditions have gone off the rails has been in adopting the symbol as the end in itself: They have lost sight of the mystery their own concept of a deity symbolizes. It seems to me that true communion with the ineffable not only does not entail any such deity, it cannot do so.