The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s highly regarded and erudite book fails on one point. She promulgates the view, traceable to the Enlightenment, that God’s existence can not be proved. Notwithstanding her background as a Roman Catholic nun, she dissents from the following teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and St. Paul:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse… (The Epistle to the Romans, verse 20 to 21)

The inexcusable folks were pagans, but their successors are those who think all that exists is the natural world. The book’s jacket says the underlying theme of the book is the following:

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. (p. xx)

The History of God is not the best place to go for an objective view of God, but you can find it there if you know it ahead of time. Professor Armstrong recalls memorizing, at the age of 8, the following answer to the catechismal question, “What is God?”:

God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.

This is the best definition of God there is in the entire book. The author’s comment on this is very surprising:

Not surprisingly, it meant little to me, and I am bound to say that it still leaves me cold. It has always seemed a singularly arid, pompous and arrogant definition. Since wiritng this book, however, I have come to believe that it is also incrorrect. (p. xvii)

The catechism says, quite correctly, that God is an infinite being, that is, not a finite being. We are finite beings. Not only do we have limited knowledge and power, but we are different from other people. Another way of expressing it is “God is the totally Other.”

Concerning the question of whether or not God exists, Ms. Armstrong discusses contingent beings, necessary beings, uncaused beings, the unmoved mover, first causes, and so forth. Some time is spent on Abu Ali ibn Sina’s proof. Avicenna, as he was called in Europe, proved there must exist a being that is not a composition of other beings, inother words, “God is One.” She also mentions Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of a finite being as having both an essence and an existence.

Concerning the cosmological proof of God’s existence, Ms. Arstrong says:

The argument that we are “contingent” or “defective” beings proves nothing, since there could always be an explanation that is ultimate but not supernatural.

The proof of God is not an explanation for the existence of man and the universe. The proof of God is a rational and logical deduction from the fact that finite beings exists. The proof doesn’t explain anything. On the contrary, it raises the question: Why did God create finite beings?

Moses Maimonides’s answer is “God willed finite beings to exist.” The answer I got in my metaphysics class in college in 1963 was “The only thing that could motivate God to do anything is self-love. Finite beings exist because God loved Himself as giving.” Neither answer is satisfactory and the question remains a mystery.

In the above quote, Professor Armstong is saying we should try to find an explanation for man. The rational pursuit, however, is not to explain man but to answer the question: What is man? The answer that man is a rational animal is no answer at all because rationality involves our freedom and our knowledge. But, what is free will? What is knowledge? That man is that which evolved from lower forms of life is equally empty of content.

According to Thomas Aquinas, man is a composition of two incomplete beings: a material incomplete being and an immaterial incomplete being that are metaphysically combined to form one being. The way Karl Rahner, a prominent Catholic theologian, put it is that man is an indefinability that becomes conscious of its own existence. Before writing a history of God, Professor Armstrong should have written a history of man.