In this sweeping history, Ilan Stavans, one of today’s preeminent essayists, cultural critics, and translators, explores the way humans have evolved in their conception of the divine, from an animistic view defined by spirituality to Greek myths and the Aztec pantheon, onward to the development on monotheism as a powerful religion in the Middle East that was crystallized in the biblical narrative. He meditates on what type of divine presences coexist in the Hebrew Bible and how these entities take bifurcating paths in Christianity and Islam. He reflects on the difference between prophetic such as the Abrahamic type and wisdom religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. In these eight fascinating lectures he also ponders the way philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, Averroes, Aquinas, Spinoza, and Nietzsche reflected on the role of God in the world. Stavans criticizes the legacy of monotheism as based on violence, analyzes theology from a strictly linguistic perspective, and ponders atheism as an alternative in a world such as ours defined by science and technology. Along the way, he explores his own ordeal - “my wrestling,” as he puts it - with his own personal God. God: A History will make the listener question preconceived ideas, seeing them in the larger narrative of human belief.
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Disappointment in the Extreme
A light introduction to God and philosophy
This book is a light introduction to a history of God, and perhaps philosophy. Alternative titles that would have been more fitting kept coming to mind for me. "A Brief Introduction to the Abrahamic God" or "God 101" were a few titles that I kept thinking of.
"God: A History," is a series of lectures that are mildly similar to, "The Evolution of God," by Robert Wright. For those unfamiliar with this excellent book, Wright makes the case that the Bible is is a reflection of man's thoughts about God. And because of this, what you see in the Bible as God changing over time is really the evolution of man's concept of God -- from polytheism to monotheism, from law to love -- over time.
The weakness of "God: A History," is also its strength, however. Whereas the audiobook to "The Evolution of God" came in at 18 hours and 29 minutes, "God: A History," comes in at a much more comfortable 4.5 hours. Of course, trying to learn all about God in 4.5 hours of your life is slightly laughable. But on the other hand, the lecture series did bring something to the table, and did so in a timely manner. That's not always a bad thing.
The lecture series is divided into 8 lectures:
Polytheist and paganism
Hebrew Bible (and the god or gods thereof)
Legacy of monotheism in the Abrahamic religion
The wisdom religions. Prophetic vs. Wisdom traditions
Debate of philosophers regarding God.
God and Politics...
In my opinion, the best lecture was on the wisdom religions, followed by the lecture on atheism. Having the option of getting some deeper lectures on these subjects would be really nice. I think in the West, the eastern wisdom traditions are the least understood but at the same time, offer some of the greatest help to the general malaise we are steeped in here in America (the ego run amok).
What I thought Ilan Stavans really added to the conversation was his Jewishness, and the fact that parts of the lectures were at times touchingly personal. While certainly there are modern Jewish perspectives about God out there, the fact that this was aimed at such a general audience makes it a little different, in my opinion.
In fact, while listening to these lectures, I wondered who exactly the target audience was. It seems like an academic lecture, but it is certainly more than that. And yet it isn't necessarily aimed at a religious audience, either. Nor is it aimed toward Jews or any other group. Yes, it seems impossible to pigeonhole this lecture series, and I think that is what makes it worth of your time.