God as Meme


While I’ve already started two or three other books simultaneously (I’ve really got to quit that), Karen Armstrong’s A History of God is the first to really catch my attention this holiday break. Armstrong is a journalist and former Catholic nun. The latter didn’t work out too well for her. Lately she’s been writing numerous books on world religions, and A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a New York Times bestseller. I decided it was worth buying when I read an admiringly introduced quote of hers in both a book by Sam Harris and by a Christian (although I don’t recall what book or blog that was in now). Also, I just read a nice piece over at Ethical Spectacle, with an interesting Personal History of God.

So how does Armstrong introduce her grand, far-reaching survey of religious history?

This book will not be a history of ineffable reality of God itself, which is beyond time and change, but a history of the way men and women have perceived him from Abraham to the present day. The human idea of God has a history, since it has always mean something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived to become one of the great human ideas.

This flexibility, that allows the concept of God to adapt to and permeate so many aspects of human existence, makes it a very successful meme. I’ve mentioned to friends recently that Christianity and its scripture are both highly flexible. One can read the Bible and come up with a relatively consistent, primitive fundamentalist religion that supports your tribal urges, with strong support from the text. One can also read the Bible and develop a relatively consistent, progressive, communitarian, love-impelled version of faith that also has strong support in the text.

The difference between these forms of religion is somewhere between their Biblical exegesis and worldview. Of course, someone in a strictly conservative interpretation would look at the liberal and say, “no, you can’t (or shouldn’t) get that from the Bible” while the liberal would say likewise. The religions they live are much more about how individuals and communities choose to form their lives, which they follow with support from holy texts.

If there were a God, it would be much greater than what could be described in a text. Armstrong notes, “One medieval mystic went so far as to say that this ultimate Reality—mistakenly called “God”—was not even mentioned in the Bible.”

Also, just from reading the first chapter itself, I know that Armstrong leaves a lot of room for wondering if the ineffable reality of God itself can be separated from that human perception. My friend Jimmy mentiond to me that while in school (studying Bible) he had a formative experience with a certain Old Testament scholar. Jimmy turned in a paper titled “How God Speaks” and the professor returned it with the title crossed out and a note added saying, “Or is it how we listen?” A formative experience indeed.

Finally, Armstrong notes that freethinkers-atheists, agnostics, whatevers- have been strongly shaped by what they don’t believe. (Obviously.)

Yet if we look at our three religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of “God”: each generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement “I do not believe in God” has meant something slightly different at each period of history. The people who have been dubbed “atheists” over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. Is the “God” who is rejected by atheists today, the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics or the God of the eighteenth-century deists?

These are all questions I hope she’ll address in due time. After all, after chapters titled In the Beginning, One God, A Light to the Gentiles, Trinity: The Christian God, and Unity: The God of Islam, we get (among others) The God of the Philosophers, of the Mystics, of the Reformers, Enlightenment, The Death of God?, and Does God Have a Future? I have a feeling this book will give me much to blog about.

Question for feedback: Does God exist outside your conception of Him/Her/It? If so, how do you know? Does it matter?

One Response to God as Meme

  1. I am not sure fundamentalism and theology are necessarily in opposition. During the Middle Ages, and again during the Counter-Reformation, a number of important theologians used St Paul’s doctrine to support a very active (read: fundamentalist by today’s standards) role by the Catholic Church in dealing with its enemies. I would argue that certain positions by the Vatican (on issues such as gender, sexuality, and birth control) still border on fundamentalism, and you certainly cannot accuse the Catholic Church of being theologically weak.

    Naturally, we would have to agree first on what we mean by fundamentalism. In the public discourse, it generally refers to the ideology of people who are strapping bombs to their chests and blowing themselves up in a bus or cafe in the name of religion/politics (more the latter, but it helps if you go straight to heaven after being reduced to a few million fragments), rather than sitting down calmly and discussing their frustrations with a psychotherapist.

    Yes, you spotted the irony. Personally, I think fundamentalism is simply a human trait – call it extremism, radicalism, single-mindedness, OCD – which appears constantly in history as a response by people to their perceived problems and/or external threats. As such, it resurfaces over and over in the most diverse settings. Religion, like all expressions of thought, is subject to the whims of humanity’s nature, although its exclusionary and teleological approach to explaining the meaning of life – especially in the case of the 3 monotheistic religions – naturally arouses some of the most extreme forms of fundamentalism.

    Anyway, I am off to Tuscany. No Internet connection and 2 essays to write by the 6th, when I am back in London. I’ll be mulling over your thoughts, especially in relation to your recent post on the death of God. It reminded me of some writings by Hannah Arendt, in particular her notion of the banality of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Amazing, if you haven’t read it already…

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