The Future of God
Born November 14, 1944, in Worcestershire, England, Karen Armstrong is the
English author of books on religion who was widely regarded as one of the leading commentators on the subject in Great Britain.
At age 17 Armstrong entered a Roman Catholic convent. Though she had “pictured the religious life as a series of philosophical conversations sandwiched between prayerful ecstasies,” she was rudely awakened. She entered the convent just as the Second Vatican Council was getting under way, long before its reforms were introduced into Roman Catholic institutions. Armstrong found herself searching for God in the midst of the severe and outdated Victorian subculture of her convent. After seven years in the convent she emerged a nonbeliever, and she recounted her journey in the autobiographical Through the Narrow Gate (1981).
Armstrong graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in literature. She then taught modern literature at the University of London before becoming the head of the English department at a girls’ school. By 1982 she had become a freelance writer and broadcaster, and her new profession gradually led her back to the subject of religion. She began describing herself as a “freelance monotheist.” In 1983 she wrote and presented a six-part television documentary series on the life and work of the Apostle Paul. Much of the background work for the series was done on-site in the Middle East, where Armstrong gained a fresh appreciation for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She then went on to produce other television series, including Varieties of Religious Experience (1984), Tongues of Fire (1985), and Genesis: A Living Conversation (1996). A teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and the Training of Rabbis and Teachers, she was also an honorary member of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists.1
Armstrong’s book, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (1993), was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.2
The Death of God
In the penultimate chapter of her book on A History of God, Karen Armstrong addresses “The Death of God?” and reaches the conclusion:
The idea of a personal God, like one of us writ large, is fraught with difficulty. If this God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop it, he is impotent and useless; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is a monster. Jews are not the only people who believe that the Holocaust put an end to conventional theology.3
Then, in the final chapter, entitled “Does God Have a Future?” Armstrong states:
The idea of a personal god seems increasingly unacceptable at the present time for all kinds of reasons: moral, intellectual, scientific and spiritual. Feminists are also repelled by a personal deity who, because of “his” gender, has been male since his tribal, pagan days. Yet to talk about “she” — other than in a dialectical way — can be just as limiting, since it confined the illimitable God to a purely human category. The old metaphysical notion of God as the Supreme Being, which has long been popular in the West, is also felt to be unsatisfactory. The God of the philosophers is the product of a now outdated rationalism, so the traditional “proofs” of his existence no longer work. The widespread acceptance of the God of the philosophers by the deists of the Enlightenment can be seen as the first step to the current atheism. Like the old Sky God, this deity is so remote from humanity and the mundane world that he easily . . . fades from our consciousness.4
In her concluding statement Armstrong tentatively suggests:
The God of the mystics might seem to present a possible alternative. The mystics have long insisted that God is not an-Other Being; they have claimed that he does not really exist and that it is better to call him Nothing. This God is in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society, with its distrust of inadequate images of the Absolute. Instead of seeing God as an objective Fact, which can be demonstrated by means of scientific proof, mystics have claimed that he is a subjective experience, mysteriously experienced in the ground of being. This God is to be approached through the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life. Mystics have used music, dancing, poetry, fiction, stories, painting, sculpture and architecture to express this Reality that goes beyond concepts. Like all art, however, mysticism requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism as a safeguard against indulgent emotionalism and projection. The God of the mystics could even satisfy the feminists, since both Sufis and Kabbalists have long tried to introduce a female element into the divine.7
After publication of her A History of God, Armstrong completed an international lectureship on “The Future of God,” with presentations in Australia, Canada and the United States.8 In this series she abandoned her reservations about a mystical future for God. She emphatically concurred with Paul Tillich, Bishop John A. T. Robinson, Bishop John Shelby Spong and many others that God is the Ground of Being — the Nothingness that lies “below.” When this God is raised to the level of human consciousness, we can recognize ourselves and each other as unique gods. Like our Hindu brethren, we can then meet each other, touch hands, and bow to our mutual divinity.9,10
Armstrong recognizes that the mysticism she advocates is not the “positive” mysticism of Eastern Christianity.11 Eastern Christian mysticism claims the divinization of humanity from “above” through
a process of emanation, whereby the divine Being is “transported outside of Himself . . . to dwell within the heart of all things . . . ” . . .
[Such d]ivinization comes through contemplative prayer, and especially through the method of Hesychasm (from hesychia, “stillness”), which was adopted widely by the Eastern monks. The method consisted in the concentration of the mind on the divine Presence, induced by the repetition of the “Jesus-prayer” (later formalized as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”). This culminated in the ecstatic vision of the divine Light and was held to divinize the soul through the divine energy implicit in the name of Jesus.12
This “Christ mysticism,” with its emphasis on hesychia or “stillness” as the means of union with God, was avidly promoted by St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and his fellow monastics during the later Byzantine period.13,14
Rejecting this “positive” mysticism from “above,” Armstrong advocates a “negative” mysticism in which the Ultimate Nothingness “below” rises into the submissive self in order to divinize an individual person.15,16 One of the modern scholars of Eastern Orthodoxy, Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, has shown that such “negative” mysticism is in fact committed to nonexistence and, therefore, to the violent destruction of everything that exists:
Nihilism . . . [is] the belief that . . . “God is dead, therefore man becomes God and everything is possible.”17
. . . [T]he worship of Nothingness . . . lies at the center of the Nihilist “theology.” The Nihilism of Destruction is not an exaggeration; it is rather a fulfillment of the deepest aim of all Nihilism. In it Nihilism has assumed its most terrible, but its truest form; in it the face of Nothingness discards its masks and stands revealed in all its nakedness.18
. . . [P]ure Nihilism . . . is a rage against creation and against civilization that will not be appeased until it has reduced them to absolute nothingness.19
. . . [T]he hideous Nihilism of our century . . . attacks, not just the body and soul, but the very idea and the nature of man. No, all this has passed; the crisis is over; man is dead. . . . [And we are now ready to celebrate] the birth of a new species, the creature of the lower depths, subhumanity.20
Thus, in her valiant attempt to go beyond the death of God, Karen Armstrong has (perhaps unwittingly) proposed a “negative” mysticism that ultimately seeks the death of mankind and of the entire created order.
The Historical God
As mankind today teeters on the brink of a nihilistic abyss, it is time to seriously reconsider the true future of God and of humanity. In doing so, we acknowledge the eternal preexistence and initial self-existence of the ineffable God. We say “initial” self-existence, because to cling to the principle of autonomous self-existence (as opposed to relational coexistence) in the presence of an “other” is the root of all evil and violence (cf. Philippians 2:5-8). Uncreated self-existence and created coexistence are inherently inimical. Thus, in light of Creation (and ultimately of the creative Christ event), it becomes evident that from the “beginning” God intended to relinquish his own solitary self-existence. The One who was alone conceived of creating “otherness” and bringing this “otherness” of the created order to full expression.
Here it is appropriate to observe that, to many informed scientists, the concept of a universe that just “happened” is not only untenable but impossible. There are cogent reasons for this scientific conclusion:
1. For more than 60 years scientists have recognized that the universe does not contain any inherent explanation of itself. There is no Knower in the “known.” Therefore, the universe ultimately demands a prior and an external Knower.
2. Cosmologists have long recognized that the universe is uniquely and bafflingly designed to accommodate human life.
3. Quantum physicists have long known that the observed reality of the universe demands an Observer.
These reasons constitute what scientists have called the “anthropic principle.”21 Without a “Knower,” a “Designer” and an “Observer,” the universe could not exist.
The history of our world indicates that, once God brought mankind into existence, he acted to uniquely disclose himself to this nascent humanity and to endow mankind with god-consciousness.22 At the same time, God allowed the created order freedom to presume its own god-like self-existence, with the consequent outworking of its predatory and survivalist aspects in the presence of an “other.” Involving a needful but painful process, there was a crucial purpose to this freedom. From the outset mankind could begin to discern and experience the evil consequences of self-existence and, thus, could also begin to reject its fatal influence.
In order to protect mankind from the full consequences of its presumed self-existence and to inaugurate his ongoing relationship with humanity, God initiated a covenant in prehistoric times with “Adam” and “Noah” and, in historic times, with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. God assumed a parental role, with mankind as his infant daughters and sons.23 This initial “command” relationship was inaugurated because primeval man (male and female) had a consciousness that could only respond to command — like an infant today responds to its parents (cf. Galatians 4:1-7).
Then, in the fullness of time, God further acted to establish a parity covenant with humanity (cf. John 15:15; Galatians 4:21-31). At first glance it might seem that such an egalitarian relationship required God to either (1) elevate mankind to divinity or (2) himself condescend to become human. However, since God’s divinity was necessarily associated with his own prior self-existence apart from the presence or participation of relational “otherness,” the first option was not possible. Nor should we close our eyes to the impossibility that created humanity could become uncreated divinity — since “becoming” is itself creative. Thus, in infinite love and compassion, the One-and-Only God freely made the painful decision to “become” truly human (cf. John 1:1-3; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 5:1-10). In so doing, he determined to forever terminate the principle of self-existence — for himself and, proleptically (in anticipation), for all mankind.
In his life on earth, God as Jesus Christ disclosed self-existence to be the satanic or adversarial principle that he determined to conquer and to carry into the abyss of nothingness (cf. Matthew 4:1-11; 16:21-23).24 The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus had nothing to do with the primitive concept of a substitutionary blood-atonement for mankind’s original and subsequent sins (cf. Matthew 5:38-42). But it had everything to do with God’s own explicit abandonment of the principle of self-existent divinity (cf. Philippians 2:5-8).
In his resurrection as Jesus Christ, God — who chose to irrevocably manifest himself as human — became the Adamic Father of all mankind. He became the relational Friend and Spirit-Creator of a transcendent humanity in his own resurrected image. Christ’s gospel proclaims that our future is not grounded in some subjective, self-existent divinity within. Rather, it is assured by the objective, coexistent presence of the Human One who is without, yet who is eternally beside us, for us and with us (cf. Romans 8:38, 39).
Thus, the fundamental issue before us is not our divinization, with its supposedly inherent omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience. The issue is that of divinity’s disposing of the satanic principle of a self-existence that inherently excludes everything and everyone else. By allowing mankind to begin the human journey with a presumption of self-existence, God intended for us to learn the baleful, violent and nihilistic outworking of the principle of self-existence in the presence of an “other.” Now, after thousands of years of irrefutable evidence, it is time for us to forever abandon our ill-conceived notions of self-existent divinization — just as God himself abandoned his own self-existence. It is time for us to acknowledge the truth and reality of the Christ event. It is time for us to embrace the transcendent humanity that God disclosed in his resurrection as Jesus Christ.
The future of God is not the retention and manifestation of self-existence. The future of God does not lie in the past, present or future divinization of mankind. Rather, the future of God has already been disclosed at Calvary in his own irrevocable abandonment of self-existence, the acceptance of his own human reality, and the compassionate desire to transform the race of mankind into his own transcendent humanity. To have done otherwise would have been to recover the satanic principle of self-existence from the hell to which God himself delivered it. It would have been to perpetuate evil, violence and, ultimately, the spirit that would annihilate the entire created order.
Today the nearly universal recognition of the death of the self-existent God represents remarkable progress in the human journey. To resurrect such self-existence from the abyss of nothingness would be a tragic return to our primitive beginnings. We now need to uncover mankind’s psychotic mania for self-existence and to consign that mania to the dustbin of history.
- Britannica Online, s.v. “Karen Armstrong (English Author),” at www.britannica.com/biography/Karen-Armstrong. (go back)
- See Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), back leaf. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 376. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 396. (go back)
- Sufis, Sufism: The mystics and mystical spirituality of Islam. (go back)
- Kabbalists, Kabbala[h]: The mystics and mystical spirituality of Judaism. (go back)
- Armstrong, History of God, p. 396 (italics supplied). (go back)
- See Karen Armstrong, “The Future of God: The Reclaiming of Spirituality’s Mystical Roots” (audiocassette, 1998). (go back)
- See “Change or Die!” Outlook (Prequel 1999.1). (go back)
- See Armstrong, “Future of God” (audiocassette). (go back)
- See Armstrong, History of God, chap. 7, “The God of the Mystics,” pp. 209-256. (go back)
- Britannica Online, s.v. “Christianity: Aspects of the Christian Religion: Christian Mysticism: History of Christian Mysticism: Eastern Christianity,” at www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Eastern-Christianity. (go back)
- See Georgios L. Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984). (go back)
- See Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997). (go back)
- See Britannica Online, s.v. “Christianity: Aspects of the Christian Religion: Christian Mysticism: Forms of Christian Mysticism: Negative Mysticism: God and the Godhead,” at www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/Forms-of-Christian-mysticism. (go back)
- See Armstrong, “Future of God” (audiocassette). (go back)
- Quotation from a Dostoyevsky character, in Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose, Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age (Forestville, CA: Fr. Seraphim Rose Foundation, 1994), p. 7. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 57. (go back)
- Ibid. p. 54. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 85. (go back)
- See Hugh Ross, “Design and the Anthropic Principle,” at www.s8int.com/anthropic.html. (go back)
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990). (go back)
- See George Mendenhall, “The Suzerainty Treaty Structure: Thirty Years Later,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), pp. 85-100. (go back)
- See Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995). (go back)