A History Of God

by Karen Armstrong

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 04, 2024
A History Of God
A History Of God

What are the big ideas? 1. The Axial Age and its Impact: The book provides a unique perspective on the intellectual and cultural developments during the Axial Age (

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The Axial Age and its Impact: The book provides a unique perspective on the intellectual and cultural developments during the Axial Age (800-200 BCE), which saw significant shifts from mythological and magical worldviews to more rational and intellectual ones in various parts of the world. This period influenced the development of monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shaping human history and continuing to influence our lives today.
  2. The Role of Mysticism: The book emphasizes the importance of mysticism as a spiritual tradition that offers direct, experiential knowledge of the divine. Mystics throughout history and across different religious traditions have reported similar experiences, including feelings of unity with the divine, transcendence of the self, and ecstatic states. The origins of mysticism can be traced back to ancient Greece, and it developed more fully in monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
  3. God's Role in Monotheistic Religions: The book highlights the shared ideas and experiences about the absolute among monotheistic religions despite their superficial differences. It explores how the Jewish religion underwent a profound transformation after the Babylonian exile, creating a spirituality that made God immanent and present in everyday life. This sense of God as intimately involved with human beings helped Jews cope with their exile from Jerusalem.
  4. The Development of Kalam: The book sheds light on philosophical theology or Kalam in early Islamic thought, which attempted to understand the nature of God and the relationship between reason and faith. It discusses two main schools that emerged – the Mutazilah, who emphasized human reasoning and free will, and the Asharites, who upheld the absolute sovereignty of God and rejected the use of reason to fully comprehend divine mysteries.
  5. The Impact of Modernity on Religion: The book explores how modern rationality and secularism influenced religious beliefs in different ways across various cultures and religions. It discusses Jewish thinkers who sought to reconcile their faith with contemporary philosophical ideas, as well as the challenges posed by the Enlightenment and the emergence of atheism. The book also examines how these changes led to new interpretations and expressions of the divine that resonate with contemporary cultural values and needs.

Chapter Summaries



  • The speaker had strong religious beliefs as a child but little faith in God.
  • Belief in God and faith are distinct concepts.
  • The speaker's childhood Roman Catholicism was frightening and focused on fear rather than beauty and connection with the divine.
  • The speaker's understanding of God deepened as she read about the lives of saints, metaphysical poets, and the history of monastic life.
  • God remained distant and unreachable for the speaker despite her efforts to force her mind to encounter him through prayer and study.
  • The speaker had doubts about some Church doctrines, such as the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity.
  • The speaker eventually left the religious life and came to believe that God was an aberration rather than a reality.
  • Human beings are spiritual animals who have always worshiped gods and created their own images of the divine.
  • Religion is pragmatic and important for a particular idea of God to work, even if it is not logically or scientifically sound.
  • The history of God has been passionate and intense, with agonizing struggle and stress.
  • Monotheists have used masculine language to refer to God, but this is problematic and some modern feminists object to it.
  • Deciding whether the word 'God' has any meaning for us today is an important question.


“There is a distinction between belief in a set of propositions and a faith which enables us to put our trust in them.”

“I wrestled with myself in prayer, trying to force 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?”

“Eventually, with regret, I left the religious life, and, once freed of the burden of failure and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away. He had never really impinged upon my life, though I had done my best to enable him to do so. Now that I no longer felt so guilty and anxious about him, he became too remote to be a reality.”

“The more I learned about the history of religion, the more my earlier misgivings appeared justified. The doctrines 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 divine.”

“My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I”

“Yet my study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus”

“Humanism is itself a religion without God—not all religions, of course, are theistic.”

“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.”

“When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today.”

“each generation has to create the image of God that works for it.”

“Yet it is perhaps worth mentioning that the masculine tenor of God-talk is particularly problematic in English. In Hebrew, Arabic and French, however, grammatical gender gives theological discourse a sort of sexual counterpoint and dialectic, which provides a balance that is often lacking in English. Thus in Arabic al-Lah (the supreme name for God) is grammatically masculine, but the word for the divine and inscrutable essence of God—al-Dhat—is feminine.”

In the Beginning


  • The Axial Age (800-200 BCE) was a period of significant intellectual and cultural developments in various parts of the world, including China, India, Iran, Greece and Israel.
  • In China, Confucius (551-479 BCE) emphasized moral values, social order and education to create a harmonious society.
  • In India, the Buddha (563-483 BCE) taught that suffering (dukkha) could be ended by living a life of compassion and renunciation.
  • In Iran, Zoroastrianism emphasized morality, good thoughts, words and deeds, and the struggle between good and evil.
  • In Greece, Plato (427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) developed philosophical theories about God, reality, and the nature of human beings.
  • These developments influenced each other and later religious traditions, such as Christianity and Islam.
  • The Axial Age saw a shift from mythological and magical worldviews to more rational and intellectual ones.
  • Key figures of the Axial Age included Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Plato, and Aristotle.
  • The developments during the Axial Age helped shape human history and continue to influence our lives today.


“One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen.”

“In Babylonian myth—as later in the Bible—there was no creation out of nothing, an idea that was alien to the ancient world. Before either the gods or human beings existed, this sacred raw material had existed from all eternity. When the Babylonians tried to imagine this primordial divine stuff, they thought that it must have been similar to the swampy wasteland of Mesopotamia, where floods constantly threatened to wipe out the frail works of men. In the Enuma Elish, chaos is not a fiery, seething mass, therefore, but a sloppy mess where everything lacks boundary, definition and identity: When sweet and bitter mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes muddied the water, the gods were nameless, natureless, futureless.2 Then three gods did emerge from the primal wasteland: Apsu (identified with the sweet waters of the rivers), his wife, Tiamat (the salty sea), and Mummu, the Womb of chaos. Yet these gods were, so to speak, an early, inferior model which needed improvement. The names “Apsu” and “Tiamat” can be translated “abyss,” “void” or “bottomless gulf.” They share the shapeless inertia of the original formlessness and had not yet achieved a clear identity.”

“Similar stories are told about the other great goddesses—Inana, Ishtar and Isis—who search for the dead god and bring new life to the soil. The victory of Anat, however, must be perpetuated year after year in ritual celebration. Later—we are not sure how, since our sources are incomplete—Baal is brought back to life and restored to Anat. This apotheosis of wholeness and harmony, symbolized by the union of the sexes, was celebrated by means of ritual sex in ancient Canaan. By imitating the gods in this way, men and women would share their struggle against sterility and ensure the creativity and fertility of the world. The death of a god, the quest of the goddess and the triumphant return to the divine sphere were constant religious themes in many cultures and would recur in the very different religion of the One God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

“Human sacrifice was common in the pagan world. It was cruel but had a logic and rationale. The first child was often believed to be the offspring of a god, who had impregnated the mother in an act of droit de seigneur. In begetting the child, the god’s energy had been depleted, so to replenish this and to ensure the circulation of all the available mana, the firstborn was returned to its divine parent. The case of Isaac was quite different, however. Isaac had been a gift of God but not his natural son. There was no reason for the sacrifice, no need to replenish the divine energy. Indeed, the sacrifice would make nonsense of Abraham’s entire life, which had been based on the promise that he would be the father of a great nation. This god was already beginning to be conceived differently from most other deities in the ancient world. He did not share the human predicament; he did not require an input of energy from men and women. He was in a different league and could make whatever demands he chose.”

“Like any human idea, the notion of God can be exploited and abused. The myth of a Chosen People and a divine election has often inspired a narrow, tribal theology from the time of the Deuteronomist right up to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalism that is unhappily rife in our own day.”

“The God who may have inspired the first successful peasants’ uprising in history is a God of revolution. In all three faiths, he has inspired an ideal of social justice, even though it has to be said that Jews, Christians and Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed him into the God of the status quo.”

“The Israelites called Yahweh “the God of our fathers,” yet it seems that he may have been quite a different deity from El, the Canaanite High God worshipped by the patriarchs. He may have been the god of other people before he became the God of Israel. In all his early appearances to Moses, Yahweh insists repeatedly and at some length that he is indeed the God of Abraham, even though he had originally been called El Shaddai. This insistence may preserve the distant echoes of a very early debate about the identity of the God of Moses. It has been suggested that Yahweh was originally a warrior god, a god of volcanoes, a god worshipped in Midian, in what is now Jordan.17 We shall never know where the Israelites discovered Yahweh, if indeed he really was a completely new deity. Again, this would be a very important question for us today, but it was not so crucial for the biblical writers. In pagan antiquity, gods were often merged and amalgamated, or the gods of one locality accepted as identical with the god of another people. All we can be sure of is that, whatever his provenance, the events of the Exodus made Yahweh the definitive God of Israel and that Moses was able to convince the Israelites that he really was one and the same as El, the God beloved by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

“When he went closer to investigate, Yahweh had called to him by name and Moses had cried: “Here I am!” (hineni!), the response of every prophet of Israel when he encountered the God who demanded total attention and loyalty: “Come no nearer” [God] said, “Take off your shoes for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the god of your father,” he said, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At that Moses covered his face, afraid to look at God.18 Despite the first of the assertions that Yahweh is indeed the God of Abraham, this is clearly a very different kind of deity from the one who had sat and shared a meal with Abraham as his friend. He inspires terror and insists upon distance. When Moses asks his name and credentials, Yahweh replies with a pun which, as we shall see, would exercise monotheists for centuries. Instead of revealing his name directly, he answers: “I Am Who I Am (Ehyeh asher ehyeh).”19 What did he mean? He certainly did not mean, as later philosophers would assert, that he was self-subsistent Being. Hebrew did not have such a metaphysical dimension at this stage, and it would be nearly 2000 years before it acquired one. God seems to have meant something rather more direct. Ehyeh asher ehyeh is a Hebrew idiom to express a deliberate vagueness. When the Bible uses a phrase like “they went where they went,” it means: “I haven’t the faintest idea where they went.” So when Moses asks who he is, God replies in effect: “Never you mind who I am!” or “Mind your own business!” There was to be no discussion of God’s nature and certainly no attempt to manipulate him as pagans sometimes did when they recited the names of their gods. Yahweh is the Unconditioned One: I shall be that which I shall be.”

“Strange as it may seem, the idea of “God,” like the other great religious insights of the period, developed in a market economy in a spirit of aggressive capitalism.”

“The rationalism of Plato and Aristotle is also important because Jews, Christians and Muslims all drew upon their ideas and tried to adapt them to their own religious experience, even though the Greek God was very different from their own.”

“Some Buddhists might object to this comparison because they find the concept of “God” too limiting to express their conception of ultimate reality. This is largely because theists use the word “God” in a limited way to refer to a being who is not very different from us. Like the sages of the Upanishads, the Buddha insisted that nirvana could not be defined or discussed as though it were any other human reality. Attaining nirvana is not like “going to heaven” as Christians often understand it. The Buddha always refused to answer questions about nirvana or other ultimate matters because they were “improper” or “inappropriate.” We could not define nirvana because our words and concepts are tied to the world of sense and flux. Experience was the only reliable “proof.” His disciples would know that nirvana existed simply because their practice of the good life would enable them to glimpse it. There is, monks, an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, uncompounded. If, monks, there were not there this unborn, unbecome, unmade, uncompounded, there would not here be an escape from the born, the become, the made, the compounded. But because there is an unborn, an unbecome, an unmade, an uncompounded, therefore, there is an escape from the born, the become, the made, the compounded.33”

“The Buddha was trying to show that language was not equipped to deal with a reality that lay beyond concepts and reason. Again, he did not deny reason but insisted on the importance of clear and accurate thinking and use of language. Ultimately, however, he held that a person’s theology or beliefs, like the ritual he took part in, were unimportant. They could be interesting but not a matter of final significance. The only thing that counted was the good life; if it were attempted, Buddhists would find that the Dharma was true, even if they could not express this truth in logical terms.”

One God


  • The Jewish religion underwent a profound transformation after the Babylonian exile
  • The Rabbis created a spirituality that made God immanent, present in the everyday world of men and women
  • This sense of God as intimately involved with human beings helped Jews to cope with their exile from Jerusalem
  • The Rabbis taught that every individual experiences God differently, according to his or her own unique personality
  • They emphasized the importance of community: Jews should strive for harmony within their ranks and among themselves and God
  • Women were relegated to a separate sphere in Jewish life and were not permitted to become Rabbis, study Torah or pray in the synagogue
  • The Rabbis taught that God was not to be found in suffering or asceticism but in joyful living
  • They encouraged their people to care for themselves and for their bodies, since they are made in the image of God.


“This continues to be the case: the religion of compassion is followed only by a minority; most religious people are content with decorous worship in synagogue, church, temple and mosque.”

“Instead of making God a symbol to challenge our prejudice and force us to contemplate our own shortcomings, it can be used to endorse our egotistic hatred and make it absolute. It makes God behave exactly like us, as though he were simply another human being. Such a God is likely to be more attractive and popular than the God of Amos and Isaiah, who demands ruthless self-criticism.”

“The only way to show a true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.”

“In the New Testament, the Pharisees are depicted as whited sepulchres and blatant hypocrites. This is due to the distortions of first-century polemic. The Pharisees were passionately spiritual Jews. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests. God could be present in the humblest home as well as in the Temple. Consequently, they lived like the official priestly caste, observing the special laws of purity that applied only to the Temple in their own homes. They insisted on eating their meals in a state of ritual purity because they believed that the table of every single Jew was like God’s altar in the Temple. They cultivated a sense of God’s presence in the smallest detail of daily life. Jews could now approach him directly without the mediation of a priestly caste and an elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness to their neighbor; charity was the most important mitzvah in the Torah; when two or three Jews studied the Torah together, God was in their midst. During”

“As one Rabbi put it, “God does not come to man oppressively but commensurately with a man’s power of receiving him.”82 This very important rabbinic insight meant that God could not be described in a formula as though he were the same for everybody: he was an essentially subjective experience. Each individual would experience the reality of “God” in a different way to answer the needs of his or her own particular temperament.”

“By increasing the amount of Torah (obligatory religious laws) in the world, they were extending His presence in the world and making it more effective.”

A Light to the Gentiles


  • Monotheistic religions share common ideas and experiences about the absolute, despite superficial differences.
  • Plotinus's Neoplatonic philosophy influenced later Christian thinking about God.
  • Montanism was a fierce apocalyptic creed that demanded celibacy, martyrdom, and rejection of the world.
  • Christianity made significant strides in the Eastern Roman empire and became a major religion by the third century.
  • The Church established an efficient organization, attracting converts for material advancement and eventually becoming a force for stability.
  • Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, leading to its eventual status as the state religion of the empire.
  • The doctrine of God became a major point of contention within Christianity, leading to schisms and heresies.


“St. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, who created the religion that we now know as Christianity, believed that Jesus had replaced the Torah as God’s principal revelation of himself to the world.”

“In the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew scriptures known as the targums, which were being composed at this time, the term Memra (word) is used to describe God’s activity in the world. It performs the same function as other technical terms like “glory,” “Holy Spirit” and “Shekinah” which emphasized the distinction between God’s presence in the world and the incomprehensible reality of God itself. Like the divine Wisdom, the “Word” symbolized God’s original plan for creation. When Paul and John spoke about Jesus as though he had some kind of preexistent life, they were not suggesting that he was a second divine “person” in the later Trinitarian sense. They were indicating that Jesus had transcended temporal and individual modes of existence. Because the “power” and “wisdom” that he represented were activities that derived from God, he had in some way expressed “what was there from the beginning.”25”

“It seems that when human beings contemplate the absolute, they have very similar ideas and experiences. The sense of presence, ecstasy and dread in the presence of a reality—called nirvana, the One, Brahman or God—seems to be a state of mind and a perception that are natural and endlessly sought by human beings.”

Trinity: The Christian God


  • Early Christian thinkers such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Denys the Areopagite drew on Neoplatonism to develop a Christian mysticism that emphasized the ineffability and transcendence of God.
  • Origen saw God as the source of all things, beyond being and beyond thought. He believed that humanity could attain gnosis or knowledge of God through contemplation and study of scripture.
  • Gregory of Nyssa developed a Trinitarian theology based on the idea of divine persons who share one substance or essence. He saw the divine as immanent in creation, and emphasized the importance of love and self-emptying (kenosis) in the spiritual life.
  • Denys the Areopagite presented God as beyond all categories and concepts, beyond being and non-being. He advocated a paradoxical and negatively theological approach to understanding the divine, emphasizing silence and transcendence.
  • Maximus the Confessor in Byzantium developed a view of the incarnation that saw humanity as potentially divine and Christ as the first deified human being, rather than as a savior making reparation for sin.
  • The Western view of the incarnation, as expressed by Anselm of Canterbury, saw God as requiring satisfaction for sin through the sacrifice of his Son. This led to a legalistic and external view of God that emphasized justice and atonement.
  • The doctrine of the Trinity has been misunderstood in the West as three divine figures or as identifying 'God' with the Father, making Jesus a divine friend rather than fully God. However, the Trinity represents the idea that God is beyond personality and that the divine and human are inseparable.
  • The development of Christian mysticism and Trinitarian theology was influenced by Neoplatonism, but also reflected the distinctive concerns and contexts of Jewish and Greek thought. These developments contributed to a rich and complex spiritual tradition that continues to influence religious thought and practice today.


“Within the soul there are three properties, therefore: memory, understanding and will, corresponding to knowledge, self-knowledge and love. Like the three divine persons, these mental activities are essentially one because they do not constitute three separate minds, but each fills the whole mind and pervades the other two: “I remember that I possess memory and understanding and will; I understand that I understand, will and remember. I will my own willing and remembering and understanding.”38 Like the Divine Trinity described by the Cappadocians, all three properties, therefore, “constitute one life, one mind, one essence.”

“We open ourselves to the divine activity which will transform us by a threefold discipline, which Augustine calls the trinity of faith: retineo (holding the truths of the Incarnation in our minds), contemplatio (contemplating them) and dilectio (delighting in them). Gradually, by cultivating a continual sense of God’s presence within our minds in this way, the Trinity will be disclosed”

Unity: The God of Islam


  • The Islamic golden age saw the development of philosophical theology, or Kalam, in an attempt to understand the nature of God and the relationship between reason and faith.
  • Two main schools emerged: the Mutazilah, who emphasized human reasoning and free will, and the Asharites, who upheld the absolute sovereignty of God and rejected the use of reason to fully comprehend divine mysteries.
  • The early Islamic period saw a debate between literalists, who believed in a physical description of God, and rationalists, who interpreted religious texts allegorically.
  • Al-Ashari sought a compromise by affirming that the Arabic words and letters of the Quran were created but the divine message contained within them was uncreated and eternal.
  • Kalam attempted to establish a metaphysical framework for discussing God's sovereignty, with figures like al-Baqillani emphasizing God's absolute dependence on His will and the discontinuous nature of atoms and time.
  • Despite its potential to connect religious experience with rational thought, Kalam never became as influential as Christian theology due to skepticism from the Muslim population.


“Respect only has meaning as respect for those with whom I do not agree.”

“The problem of predestination and free will, which has also exercised Christians, indicates a central difficulty in the idea of a personal God. An impersonal God, such as Brahman, can more easily be said to exist beyond “good” and “evil,” which are regarded as masks of the inscrutable divinity. But a God who is in some mysterious way a person and who takes an active part in human history lays himself open to criticism. It is all too easy to make this “God” a larger-than-life tyrant or judge and make “him” fulfill our expectations. We can turn “God” into a Republican or a socialist, a racist or a revolutionary according to our personal views. The danger of this has led some to see a personal God as an unreligious idea, because it simply embeds us in our own prejudice and makes our human ideas absolute.”

The God of Islam


  • Thomas Aquinas attempted to integrate Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology in his Summa Theologiae, which became a seminal work for Western Christianity.
  • He defined God as "He Who Is" (Qui est), emphasizing that God is not simply another being but rather the ground or condition for all existence.
  • Aquinas presented five arguments for God's existence: 1) Aristotle's argument for a Prime Mover; 2) an argument against an infinite series of causes, implying a beginning; 3) Ibn Rushd's argument for a Necessary Being; 4) the argument that the hierarchy of excellence in this world implies a Perfection that is the best of all; and 5) the argument from design.
  • Aquinas's intention was to distinguish God as an ineffable reality, not an ordinary being, but some readers have interpreted these arguments as if God were simply the highest being among others.
  • Bonaventure also sought to connect philosophy with religious experience and saw Francis of Assisi as a manifestation of the divine. He believed that natural reason could prove the existence of the Trinity.
  • Both Aquinas and Bonaventure emphasized the importance of introspection in reaching a deeper understanding of God.
  • The Western approach to God during this period was influenced by the revival of Aristotelian philosophy, but it remained distinct from the Islamic and Jewish traditions which prioritized mysticism over rationalism.


“The Sufis, the Sunni mystics with whom the Ismailis felt great affinity, had an axiom: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”

The God of the Mystics


  • Mysticism is a spiritual tradition that emphasizes direct, experiential knowledge of the divine, often through practices such as meditation or contemplation.
  • Mystics throughout history and across different religious traditions have reported similar experiences, including feelings of unity with the divine, transcendence of the self, and ecstatic states.
  • The origins of mysticism can be traced back to ancient Greece, where philosophers like Plato and Aristotle explored the nature of reality and the role of the divine in human life.
  • Mystical traditions developed more fully in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with figures such as Moses de Leon, Meister Eckhart, and Rumi making significant contributions.
  • In both Jewish and Christian mysticism, there was a focus on the use of divine names and letters as a means of accessing hidden knowledge and connecting with the divine.
  • Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, emphasized the importance of love and ecstasy in the spiritual journey, and developed practices such as dhikr (remembrance of God) and fana' (annihilation of the self).
  • Mystical traditions were sometimes challenged by more rationalistic or legalistic religious authorities, but continued to be an important force in the spiritual lives of many people.
  • The victory of Palamas over Barlaam in the Eastern Orthodox Church represented a wider triumph for mysticism in all three monotheistic religions.


“The personal God reflects an important religious insight: that no supreme value can be less than human.”

“Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even to desire a tragedy, he can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. The very fact that, as a person, God has a gender is also limiting: it means that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense of the female and can lead to a neurotic and inadequate imbalance in human sexual mores. A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, “he” can encourage us to remain complacently within them; “he” can make us as cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial as “he” seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize all advanced religion, “he” can encourage us to judge, condemn and marginalize. It seems, therefore, that the idea of a personal God can only be a stage in our religious development. The world religions all seem to have recognized this danger and have sought to transcend the personal conception of supreme reality.”

“There is a linguistic connection between the three words “myth,” “mysticism” and “mystery.” All are derived from the Greek verb musteion: to close the eyes or the mouth. All three words, therefore, are rooted in an experience of darkness and silence.”

“A journey to the depths of the mind involves great personal risks because we may not be able to endure what we find there. That is why all religions have insisted that the mystical journey can only be undertaken under the guidance of an expert, who can monitor the experience, guide the novice past the perilous places and make sure that he is not exceeding his strength, like poor Ben Azzai, who died, and Ben Zoma, who went mad. All mystics stress the need for intelligence and mental stability.”

“Social justice remained crucial to their piety, as Louis Massignon, the late French scholar, has explained: The mystic call is as a rule the result of an inner rebellion of the conscience against social injustices, not only those of others but primarily and particularly against one’s own faults with a desire intensified by inner purification to find God at any price.”

“A symbol can be defined as an object or a notion that we can perceive with our senses or grasp with our minds but in which we see something other than itself. Reason alone will not enable us to perceive the special, the universal or the eternal in a particular, temporal object. That is the task of the creative imagination, to which mystics, like artists, attribute their insights.”

“The God of the mystics yearned to be known by his creatures. The Ismailis believed that the noun ilah (god) sprang from the Arabic root WLH: to be sad, to sigh for.46 As the Sacred Hadith had made God say: “I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. Then I created creatures in order to be known by them.”

“Ibn al-Arabi imagined the solitary God sighing with longing, but this sigh (nafas rahmani) was not an expression of maudlin self-pity. It had an active, creative force which brought the whole of our cosmos into existence; it also exhaled human beings, who became logoi, words that express God to himself. It follows that each human being is a unique epiphany of the Hidden God, manifesting him in a particular and unrepeatable manner.”

“Instead of such idolatry, Ibn al-Arabi gave this advice: Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for, he says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of al-Lah” (Koran 2:109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

“What seems wrong to you is right for him What is poison to one is honey to someone else.

Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship, These mean nothing to Me. I am apart from all that. Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better or worse than one another.

Hindus do Hindu things. The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do. It's all praise, and it's all right.

It's not I that's glorified in acts of worship. It's the worshippers! I don't hear the words they say. I look inside at the humility. That broken-open lowliness is the Reality, not the language! Forget phraseology. I want burning, burning. Be Friends with your burning. Burn up your thinking and your forms of expression!”

A God for Reformers


  • The idea of God underwent significant transformations during the Middle Ages, with various religious and philosophical traditions contributing to its development.
  • Early Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Anselm emphasized the rationality and unity of God, setting the stage for later philosophical and theological discussions.
  • The Islamic Golden Age saw a flourishing of philosophical and scientific thought that influenced European thinkers through translations of Arabic texts.
  • Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich emphasized the experiential aspect of God, offering alternative perspectives to the rationalist tendencies in Western theology.
  • The Reformation led to a renewed interest in Aristotelian philosophy, with some Protestant and Catholic thinkers arguing that God's existence could be demonstrated rationally.
  • Post-Reformation theologians like Leonard Lessius focused on demonstrating God's existence through natural reason, philosophy, comparative religion, and common sense, leading to a God who seemed objective like other facts in life rather than imaginative disciplines of prayer and contemplation.
  • The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the emergence of 'atheists,' challenging religious mythologies with scientific discoveries, ultimately making it impossible for many people to believe in God at all.


“FIFTEENTH AND SIXTEENTH centuries were decisive for all the people of God. It was a particularly crucial period for the Christian West, which had not only succeeded in catching up with the other cultures of the Oikumene but was about to overtake them.”



  • The seventeenth century saw a flowering of religious and philosophical thought in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
  • In the West, Protestantism challenged the Catholic Church's authority and led to a reevaluation of traditional beliefs about God.
  • In Islam, Sufi mysticism continued to flourish but was challenged by reformers who sought to return to the fundamentals of the faith.
  • The Enlightenment in Europe saw a renewed interest in reason and rationalism, leading some philosophers to question the existence of God.
  • Jean Meslier, a French priest, left behind a memoir expressing his atheistic beliefs, which were later published by Voltaire as evidence of deism.
  • David Hume and Denis Diderot challenged the argument from design for God's existence, arguing that nature follows its own laws and does not require a creator.
  • Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, wrote The System of Nature, which argued for atheistic materialism and dismissed the idea of God as a human construct.
  • Laplace expelled God from physics by explaining natural phenomena through scientific laws without invoking divine intervention.


“Pascal's scientific achievements, therefore, did not give him much confidence in the human condition. When he contemplated the immensity of the universe, he was scared stiff: 'When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quiet lost with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.”

The Death of God?


  • In the nineteenth century, Jewish thinkers sought to reconcile their faith with modern rationality and secularism by reinterpreting traditional concepts in light of contemporary philosophical ideas.
  • Hermann Cohen saw Judaism as a monotheistic religion that emphasized ethics and the inherent dignity of human beings. He argued that God was not an external being but rather the ethical ideal embodied in the Torah and the Jewish people.
  • Avraham Schlonsky, a pioneer in Palestine, described his experience of working the land as a form of prayer to God.
  • Abraham Isaac Kook, a Chief Rabbi in Palestine, saw Zionism as a phase that would eventually be replaced by true faith in God. He believed that God was at work in the world, even though people did not realize it.
  • The Holocaust challenged conventional ideas of God and led many Jews to abandon traditional beliefs altogether or to retain them despite great difficulty.


“Wordsworth had discerned a 'spirit' which was at one and the same time immanent in and distinct from natural phenomena: 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought And rolls through all things.”

“One day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put God on trial. They charged him with betrayal and cruelty. Like Job, they found no consolation in the usual answers to the problems of evil and suffering in the midst of this current obscenity. They could find no excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found him guilty and, presumably, worthy of death. The Rabbi pronounced the verdict. Then he looked up and said that the trial was over, it was time for the evening prayer.”

Has God a Future?


  • The concept of God has evolved significantly throughout history across different cultures and religions.
  • Monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have shared similar ideas about God despite their distinct theological differences.
  • The experience of God has been shaped by various historical, cultural, and philosophical influences, leading to diverse interpretations and expressions.
  • Alienation from the world and a sense of personal responsibility have emerged in all three monotheistic faiths, creating opportunities for both spiritual growth and potential danger.
  • The experience of God has been influenced by rationalism and science, leading to new understandings and interpretations of the divine.
  • Mysticism offers a unique approach to understanding God as a subjective experience that transcends objective reality but requires specialized training and discipline.
  • Creating a faith in 'God' or something else is essential for human beings to cultivate a sense of wonder, meaning, and spirituality in their lives.
  • The decline of traditional religious interpretations of God may lead to the creation of new symbols and expressions of the divine that resonate with contemporary cultural values and needs.


“When John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published Honest to God in 1963, stating that he could no longer subscribe to the old personal God “out there,” there was uproar in Britain. A similar furor has greeted various remarks by David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, even though these ideas are commonplace in academic circles. Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, has also been dubbed “the atheist priest”: he finds the traditional realistic God of theism unacceptable and proposes a form of Christian Buddhism, which puts religious experience before theology. Like Robinson, Cupitt has arrived intellectually at an insight that mystics in all three faiths have reached by a more intuitive route. Yet the idea that God does not really exist and that there is Nothing out there is far from new.”

“There is a growing intolerance of inadequate images of the Absolute. This is a healthy iconoclasm, since the idea of God has been used in the past to disastrous effect. One of the most characteristic new developments since the 1970s has been the rise of a type of religiosity that we usually call “fundamentalism” in most of the major world religions, including the three religions of God. A highly political spirituality, it is literal and intolerant in its vision. In the United States, which has always been prone to extremist and apocalyptic enthusiasm, Christian fundamentalism has attached itself to the New Right. Fundamentalists campaign for the abolition of legal abortion and for a hard line on moral and social decency. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority achieved astonishing political power during the Reagan years. Other evangelists such as Maurice Cerullo, taking Jesus’ remarks literally, believe that miracles are an essential hallmark of true faith. God will give the believer anything that he asks for in prayer. In Britain, fundamentalists such as Colin Urquhart have made the same claim. Christian fundamentalists seem to have little regard for the loving compassion of Christ. They are swift to condemn the people they see as the “enemies of God.” Most would consider Jews and Muslims destined for hellfire, and Urquhart has argued that all oriental religions are inspired by the devil.”

“Muslim fundamentalists have toppled governments and either assassinated or threatened the enemies of Islam with the death penalty. Similarly, Jewish fundamentalists have settled in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with the avowed intention of driving out the Arab inhabitants, using force if necessary. Thus they believe that they are paving a way for the advent of the Messiah, which is at hand. In all its forms, fundamentalism is a fiercely reductive faith. Thus Rabbi Meir Kahane, the most extreme member of Israel’s Far Right until his assassination in New York in 1990: There”

“The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith for the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.”


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