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.

Richard Holloway (2012) Leaving Alexandra. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Richard Holloway (2016) A Little History of Religion.

I guess I should review these books individually, but it’s my blog, I have god-like powers and can do anything I want. I asked Richard Holloway to sign my book, which is his autobiographical writing, when he visited Dalmuir library. He asked me what I wanted him to write in the flyleaf, I said that book you were talking about earlier, Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just because I wanted to read it. I’m with the Society of Friends on this one, no kowtowing. No bended knee. Books are holy things. But what they mean that’s a mystery. Perhaps a blessed mystery.

A Little History of Religion has the merit of being little.  There’s not a lot of love there, references to divine love, followed by divine genocide, but the common feature of both books is a movement from faith to doubt. Richard Holloway is a prolific author. He is a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity. A theist believes in God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. And an agnostic believe in both view. I’m a bit like that, only worse, or better, depending on your point of view. Richard Holloway’s autobiography, in particular, is a beautiful book because it is true. True to who he is now and compassionate towards who he was. Wisdom often takes a lifetime. Perhaps it never comes. And some religions that believe in the merits (and demerits) of reincarnation believes it may take lifetimes. I’m in no hurry to find out the truth.

The commonalities of both Holloway’s books are a belief not in doubt but in faith. The most dangerous kind of hate is certainty. The latest example is Trumpism, a back to the wall beleaguered party that triumphs against all the odds. This is combined with revanchist call for revenge against all those against them. Mary Queen of Scots for example had John Knox and his followers singing outside her window and shouting you’re getting it hen, as soon as we’ve got it. And they were right, but it took three blows of the axe, making her suffer first. She was going to hell anyway, or heaven, if you were a good Catholic.  The Plains Indians danced their feet off, but the white man wasn’t covered in ash, although Holloway does acknowledge buffaloes did come back, not so the Indians. Of course, the Palestinians on the West Bank shouldn’t be there because God bequeathed that land to the Israelites and everybody else is an interloper, because God can’t be wrong and no international laws or treaties can make that right. The Promised Land means The Promised Land. Move pal. Or else.  Just the same as Trump can’t be wrong because he is considered so right about making America great again. Anybody that have doubts is getting it. First on the hate list, China, second, Russia, next up the rest of the world. On bended knee we must come and return to a past that never existed to pay homage.

It’s not Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao or indeed Emperor Nero that provides the template for certainty among uncertainty but Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. When the robots or whatever you want to call them figure out –very quickly – that the humans they are ostensibly serving aren’t very smart then they become gods. But even Gods have uncertainties, moments of doubt. These superintelligent robots will use all the earth and its distant stars capacities to reduce uncertainty to a point where it becomes absurd, in human terms, not that there will be any need for humans. But all religions are absurd, but they have a logic to them.

Holloway preaches a message of love. A parable he frequently uses is the parable of the blind man and the elephant. I attributed this to Rumi, but I may be wrong. Each clutches a trunk, an ear, a leg and describes what they feel and what they see. All are telling the truth of what they perceive. But when partial truth become the whole truth each sect goes to war over their vision and allows no dissent. A tusk can never be an ear, because God does not allow such things.

Note the righteousness of religion. It can never be wrong, because God cannot be wrong. A tautology that is rarely taught. Another parable Holloway is fond of is the Good Samaritan.

A man fell among thieves who left him naked and unconscious on a dangerous and deserted road. A priest came along followed by his assistant. They were good men who wanted to help, but their religion prevented it…Next along is a Samaritan, one of the races Jews were forbidden to associate with. His religion has the same prohibitions as theirs.

Both men are religious in their own one, but only one is compassionate as God is compassionate. And it’s a common refrain in Holloway’s writing, ‘the institution that claims to represent God can easily become God’s greatest enemy’. Amen to that.

Another parable Holloway favours is Matthew’s parable of workers in the vineyard all coming at different times and being paid the same rate of pay. God’s like that Holloway is saying and we don’t really understand Him (although He might be a She, but is never an It). If you don’t believe me, he says, read Job. According to scripture God gets into a bet with the devil and lots of bad things happen to Job, including losing his wife and family, all his wealth and suffering from endless and painful diseases. What makes it worse is ‘Job’s comforters’. They seem to have all the answers, but when God appears he’s not happy (God is never happy, or he doesn’t appear) and his standard stick is ‘my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends…’ I guess that means hell and everlasting damnation. But God is good to Job. He stops torturing him. And he gives him a new family and even greater wealth. Holloway is good at this bit. Basically, he’s saying what anyone with common sense would say, ‘fuck off, god, I liked my old family, even the smelly dog.’ And I’m with Holloway with this one if Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, well, there’s something a bit sick about that.

Holloway’s call for a godless morality might be beyond us, for the very good reason we might not be here much longer. I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the apocalypse of greed and gross stupidity. Oh, well, I guess, our parents have been saying the same things for years. Things ain’t the way they used to be. I’m sure I’ll look good as a dead person. Go on, with your god-like powers, use that line from The Life of Brian. ‘We’re all individuals!’

Voice from the back of the crowd, ‘I’m not.’