I began reading Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God in an effort to understand more about Islam and perhaps learn why that religion has emerged in our minds in these latter days as a source of conflict and terror. I didn’t exactly find out much about the jihad business that impels some Muslims toward violence, but I did learn a great deal about all three of the world’s monotheistic faiths thus destroying the falsely comfortable ideas I had harbored up until now.
All three have much in common, and in particular, Christianity and Islam share an unsavory history. They both became state religions, and when that happened, they both became brutal, patriarchal, and repressive. Judaism never had a chance to play it big on the world stage, and that’s probably just as well, although it did fairly well in the suppression of women during its long history.
In their inceptions, the big three had these principles going for them: social conscience, truth, justice, and a view of God that transcended what we now see as simplistic fundamentalism. The Torah and the Koran were never meant to be taken literally, and instead, were designed to allow us as humans to approach the inaccessible God, to give us a metaphorical and symbolic glimpse of God’s glory. “Once the Bible begins to be interpreted literally instead of symbolically, the idea of its God becomes impossible. To imagine a deity who is literally responsible for everything that happens on earth involves impossible contradictions. The “God” of the Bible ceases to be a symbol of a transcendent reality and becomes a cruel and despotic tyrant.” (Armstrong, page 283) She shows this statement to be true with regard to Islam and the Koran as well.
Ah, but we Episcopalians have risen above such silly notions as the inerrancy of the Bible, you may well say while congratulating each other during coffee hour on our superior understanding of God’s grace and mercy. Karen has something for us to consider as well:
“All too often, conventional believers, who are not fundamentalists, share their aggressive righteousness. They use “God” to prop up their own loves and hates, which they attribute to God himself. But Jews, Christians and Muslims who punctiliously attend divine services yet denigrate people who belong to different ethnic and ideological camps deny one of the basic truths of their religion. It is equally inappropriate for people who call themselves Jews, Christians and Muslims to condone an inequitable social system. The God of historical monotheism demands mercy not sacrifice, compassion rather than decorous liturgy.” (Armstrong, page 392)
Pretty harsh to think about as we process down the main aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral, holding high the cross, breathing in the smoke of frankincense, and singing the entrance hymn on our way to the altar. But think on these things we must, using our liturgy not as an end in itself to satisfy our being in the divine presence, but as a vehicle to that indwelling presence, approaching God in an effort to eradicate complacency and self-righteousness, replacing both with justice and social responsibility. The God of Abraham, the God of Muhammad, and the God Jesus, the same God proclaims the same message:
Isaiah tells us, “For the Lord is a God of justice;”
Islam meant that Muslims had a duty to create a just, equitable society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently. It is good to share the wealth of society fairly by giving a regular proportion of one’s wealth to the poor.
Jesus talks of “the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Armstrong goes into great detail as the history of all three faiths departed from these original and basic principles to become religions heavily freighted with their own historical accretions that have, in many instances, done more harm than good. She says that the Christian Church did not survive because of the Middle Ages, but in spite of it. As heirs of Western Christianity, we live with the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition, violent events done in the name of God, horrific eras about which we can now speak calmly because we did not live through them. Zealots of every century, not content with adhering to God’s call for justice and mercy have left us a world in which that justice and that mercy remain unfulfilled.
Her book is not an easy read although her style invites and engages; the unease arises from the reader’s sorrow over the history of human cruelty carried out in the name of the God of love. If you read her book, you will gain a greater overview of your own faith, of how humans have often missed God’s call to us, but also of how the work of the Kingdom must go on and that the God of Abram, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,” gives us grace to further that work.