Karen Armstrong (1993, 1999) A History of God.

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All writing is an act of faith. I come from a long line of dead people and bar-room prophets, all saying the same things. We’re going to hell in a handcart. We’ve had the fall of the Berlin Wall and Francis Fukuyama proposing The End of History. Karen Armstrong posits The Death of God. The time frame is opaque. But in places like Britain it seems more clear-cut, less than fourteen percent of people attend regular worship (Anglican or otherwise) and that number is in free-fall. But in the dis-United States, Armstrong suggests ninety-nine percent still believe in God.

I want you to engage in a thought experiment in which Jerry Falwell (junior) urges a coalition of Christian evangelists and their members to get behind a known racist, misogynist, sex pest, thief and bully-boy of children and the poor who worships money. They get together to praise God and to get him elected as the most powerful man on the planet. Money, is named and shamed, in the Christian bible as a false idol as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians shows. If such a person did exist, even on this side of the Atlantic, his close friends and advisors would also worship money. No such idolaters exist, I just made them up and if they did I’d give those moron’s morons hoofs and long pointy tails and funny hair. I’d quote John Milton’s Paradise Lost and suggest no good acts can exist without the fall of man and being tested.  But I’m sure if such monsters did exist they’d be full of Jesus Christ’s love and compassion for others by the end of all things. I’ve not got that long. Not many folk have.

I’ll not take you to the end of time, but to the end of a book few will bother to read and our understanding can only be partial.

Human beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. 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.

There were some stories I was familiar with. Some not.  I believe the Prophet Muhammad was a prophet in the same way that Jesus, Abraham and Moses were. I like Muhammad’s idea the surrender is a prerequisite for prayer. Humility is the beginning of self-knowledge. In the Roman Catholic faith into which I was born this is expressed in the Canticle of Mary, The Magnificat,

  My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;

Ineffable God is captured in the poetry not of the head, but the heart. Where there is no poetry, there is no God. All the rest are just empty words.

Isaac Luria’s Hebrew God empties himself in order to make space for creation. Writing is a bit like that. Divine sparks flickering into life. Our perception of God is always flawed and we constantly re-make him in our image. Them and Us. I always side with the Them. I’m in the autumn of life and am grateful to have had a life. I don’t know if there’s a god and I don’t care that much. When we die I imagine all our neurons firing off in one last ecstasy of hurrah. I won’t be waiting for my resurrection.  For many that would make me an atheist or agnostic. Fundamentalists strip the branches of life bare to whip themselves.  God is beyond all that. A History of God is a timely reminder, time is precious. Pay attention. Time is now. Don’t waste it, whatever your faith or doubt. Amen to us all.

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Lorna Byrne (2010) Angels in My Hair.

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I think I’ve read this good book before. I get that sometimes. Words wash over me and through me and I’m not really reading, although I am. For the record, I read ‘The International Bestseller’ a few weeks ago, again, or not again (as this might have been the first time). Just to remind myself, where I look at words every day, Lorna Byrne sees angels. (I don’t know if Angels is a proper noun, or is it a bit like cows or sheep? No capital letter?) Here’s the rub, I believe she does see angels.

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in Angels and I’m not American. Probably ninety-six percent of them voted for the moron’s moron. Around seven percent of the UK population attend Christian worship. We are an agnostic nation, verging on the atheist and that’s just the way I like it. I can witter on about cognitive dissonance, or Schrodinger’s cat, but the truth is I’m with Eva Lowenthal in that I find it quite easy to believe that ‘evil does exist’. Lowenthal was secretary to the Reich Nazi Propaganda Minster, Joseph Goebbels from 1933 to 1945 and she observed first-hand how under the right conditions evil flourishes. I read about how Alabama is trying to shut all abortion clinics and outlaw abortions, even in the case of incest or rape and that to me is an evil perpetuated on poor, mainly, black women. I hear about a five-year-old girl trafficked and taken into care in Glasgow, with no nails, kept in a box and raped. And I want to kill. To hurt. To maim. I’ve no problem believing in the reality of evil. Or even the devil. I’ve got a problem with religion and a problem with God.

Probably, the best definition of religion is the Dali Lama’s, my religion is kindness.

That makes me smile.

Karen Armstrong in her introduction to A History of God, summarises how I feel.

As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief as a set of propositions, and faith which enables us to put our trust in them. I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory. I cannot say, however, that my believe in these religious opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here on earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed.

Richard Holloway, like Karen Armstrong, was a cleric and walked away but gives us an insider view of the box-ticking religion. They could no longer trust God and no longer believed in God. Holloway’s favourite novel Andre Schwartz Bartz, The Last of the Just, has a hero Ernie Levy on a train destined for Auschwitz telling consolatory lies to children about the kingdom of God. That sounds like a good fit. A good way of describing religion.

Lorna Byrne, like the fictional hero, describes our world in the opening chapter: ‘Through Different Eyes’.

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was retarded.

As a baby, my mother noticed I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I say wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colours of the rainbow; they were so much bigger than I was, but smaller than her, about the size of a three year old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I remember being fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights…angels.

I’m not one of those people that can remember being a kid. I certainly don’t remember being in my pram. I can remember being scared of trains coming into Dalmuir station, that somehow the wheels would suck me under. Sorry, no angels, apart from my mum.

Moses and the burning bush. Jesus in the desert. Buddha under the tree. Muhammed in the cave. All saw and heard things beyond themselves. Holloway describes this as a kind of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things. What made them real was their ability to convince others that what they experienced was true.

Here’s the testing, here’s the knowledge gained, here is salvation. God does not take kindly to being questioned if we follow the precepts of the Book of Job… Where were you when I created the universe?

Well, according to Lorna Byrne, she was in heaven and she has been tested by Satan himself, she has met with the Virgin Mary and Archangels Michael and Gabriel, been tutored by the Prophet Elijah, she has met the Son of God and I’m sure there’ll be a place in heaven for her.

I’m not too sure about myself and the rest of humanity. We read our own belief into others. I recognise the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the possibility of runaway global warming and nuclear winter. I know that’s an oxymoron. Evil does exist. That I know, I’m not so good at the good stuff. Lowenthal, aged 103, said something quite profound. ‘There is no justice’. She could just as easily be working for the antichrist Trump, bookended by the fundamental Christian Right and Vice President Mike Pence. There, I’ve done it now. A victim of my own verbosity. As soon as you mention antichrist and  Hitler you lose the argument. But here’s the rub again. Hitler could not wipe out humanity. Trump has the devil’s own pride. You don’t have to be able to see angels to notice it.

We can call on The Angel of Belief. The Angel of Strength. The Angel of Courage. The Angel of Miracles. The Angel of Patience. God knows we need a Guardian Angel and all the help we can get to avoid Armageddon. I believe that. The message of religion is quite a simple one. What matters isn’t yesterday, or tomorrow, but now. What matters is this moment. Hope in the now.  May my religion be kindness too.