“A History of God” by Karen Armstrong.
An old college joke: A student prepared for a final exam by gathering his semester notes and condensing them into one page. He took that page and condensed it into one paragraph, then one sentence, then one word. As he went into the exam, he forgot the word.
Condensing nonfiction books has occupied a good part of my early retirement. I usually read each book three times. The first reading is to grasp the major theme. I then re-read, this time highlighting the important passages. The third reading is to gather together the highlights and rewrite them in connected order. I end up with about a 30-page abstract in Word format that I can later search and review without hunting through the original book. I find readable prose is much more useful than an outline. Just writing the abstract solidifies many of the facts in my memory and exposes gaps in my logic: How did this become that?
A History of God is the most recent book I abstracted. Karen Armstrong was once a Roman Catholic nun but left the convent in 1969. As a historian, she published A History of God in 1993, focusing on the commonalities of the major religions, particularly the universal importance of compassion and the Golden Rule. Her book became a New York Times bestseller. I am publishing part of the abstract here because the book is so good, not because of any particular quality of my abstract. The insights are hers.
This is not the entire abstract of her book. I just wanted to present the discussion of the Old Testament and the history of the early Christians, familiar territory for many readers. For this reprint, I leave off about halfway through Armstrong’s book as she moves onto mystic Islam. Even so, it is long and has to be read in several sessions with many side trips to dictionaries, Wikipedia, and the Bible.
I suggest you follow along in your own copy of the book, if only to be sure I got it right. The page numbers refer to my edition. I left them in to at least guide you through each chapter. My own notes are in square brackets. Do not become discouraged by your slow progress. Your measure should be how much you are learning, not how quickly you can complete the task.
A History of God
In an important sense, God is a product of the creative imagination. “God” as a word does not contain one unchanging idea. If it did, it would not have survived. Many times in history, a particular conception of God has lost relevance and has been discarded and replaced with a new theology, although fundamentalists would deny this, insisting the God who roamed Eden in the cool of the evening is the same God of today. Each generation has to create an image of God that works for them.
When an atheist rejects God, which God is rejected? The God of the patriarchs? Of the prophets? Of the philosophers? Of the mystics? Or of the deists? All of these were once venerated, but are quite different from one another, even with some characteristics that contradict. Religion is highly pragmatic. It is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically sound. (xxi)
Buddhism is fundamentally different. They see their visions and insights to be a natural part of humanity and not from a supernatural source. But all agree that it is impossible to describe this transcendence in normal language, this transcendence that monotheists call “God.”
In the Beginning
It is thought that a primitive monotheism existed even before humanity began worshiping a multitude of gods. Originally, they worshiped one supreme, unknowable deity who created the world and governed from afar. This “Sky God” was so distant and exalted that it had to be replaced by lesser spirits who were more accessible. Many were personalized unseen forces to express the people’s affinity with them. Some say that the Biblical God has today become the Sky God and has lost importance in people’s lives as the scientific culture has focused attention on the material world.
When people developed myths and artistic representations of their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation, but to connect the mystery with their own lives. The Mother Goddess was a widely-held expression of fertility and creation that lasted for centuries. She was Inanna in Sameria, Ishtar in Babylon, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt, and Aphrodite in Greece.
The sacred world of the gods was seen as a prototype of human existence, the pattern on which our life had been modeled. One could only become fully human by imitating the actions of the gods.
The Tigris-Euphrates valley was inhabited as early as 4000 BC, but was eventually invaded by the Akkadians who adopted their culture. Later, the Amorites conquered these Sumerian-Akkadians, making Babylon their capitol. In the eighth century BC, the Assyrians conquered Babylon.
Babylon was seen as an image of heaven and affected the culture of Canaan. The idea of a holy city would become important in all religions of the Levant. Babylon had an extensive new year’s festival in April to establish the king’s rein for another year, which allowed the people to immerse themselves in the sacred power, called mana, on which their fragile civilization depended. During the festival they recited the Enuma Elish, an epic poem celebrating the victory of the gods over chaos. The poem was understood to be symbolic since no one was present at the creation. In the poem, the gods emerge two-by-two from a watery waste without boundaries (not out of nothing), a divine substance that always existed. The first three gods shared the primal vagueness. They were Apsu (of the pure river waters), Tiamat (his wife, the salty sea), and Mummu, the womb of chaos. The forces of chaos could only be held back by incessant struggle. Successive gods had greater definition, and eventually Marduk, son of the sun god, with great difficulty finally defeated Tiamat, the last representation of the chaos, and uses her body to create the earth and sky.
Only as an afterthought, Marduk created man from dirt mixed with the blood of Tiamat’s oafish consort, Kingu, so mankind shared the divine nature of the gods. Since men, women and gods shared the same nature, there was no need for divine revelation from on high.
The myth of Marduk and Tiamat influenced the Canaanites’ story of Baal’s defeat of Yam who represented the hostile aspect of the sea. Both Baal and Yam were under El, the high god. Baal spares Yam, so the seas remain a constant threat. In another version, Baal defeats the dragon Lotan who represents the unformed.
Baal dies and descends into the earth, but, like so many other stories, Anat, his sister and lover, searches for him, kills the god of the underworld, and sows his pieces in the ground. This victory must be celebrated each year with ritual sex. The death of a god, the quest by a goddess, and a return to the divine, recurs in Christianity.
It is thought Abraham was a chief of one of the wondering tribes called Haibru. They were not Bedouin desert nomads, but worked as itinerant mercenaries, such as government employees, servants and merchants. Abraham is mentioned in the Bible as a mercenary for the king of Sodom [pg 11].
The Biblical account of Abraham may indicate three waves of early Hebrew settlement. The first was associated with Abraham and took place about 1850 BC. The second was linked with Jacob, father of the twelve tribes that emigrated to Egypt during a famine. The third wave was when they returned, led by Moses who was guided by Yahweh.
Nineteenth century German scholars discerned the four sources in the Pentateuch: J (From the southern kingdom of Judah. God is referred to by “Yahweh”), E (From the northern kingdom of Israel, God is referred to by “Eloheim”), P (additions by priests on return from the exile), and D (the Deuteronomists). J’s account of the creation is perfunctory and is not even clear that Yahweh is the sole creator of heaven and earth. Man is made from dust with no divine component. J hurries through prehistory and really begins with Yahweh’s instructions to Abram to migrate to Canaan. This was new. Marduk, Baal, and Anat were not expected to involve themselves with the lives of their worshipers. [pg 14] J says that men had worshiped Yahweh from Adam’s grandson, but P’s account suggests that Yahweh was unknown until he spoke to Moses in the burning bush when he had to explain that he really was the same god as the god of Abraham, just that Abraham had called him by the name El Shaddai. [Exodus 6:3]
These early patriarchs were not monotheists, but Hebrew pagans who certainly believed in Marduk, Baal and Anat. It is even possible that the God of Abraham, the Kinsman of Isaac, and the Mighty One of Jacob were three separate gods. Abraham’s god was most likely El, the high god of Canaan, a name still preserved in the names Isra(el), Beth(el), and Ishma(el). Abraham’s god was not the terrifying figure who thundered at Moses, but a mild god who appeared as a friend or as a wandering stranger, called an epiphany, that was common in paganism and occurs all through the Iliad. [pg 15] This was so accepted, Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes. By the time of J and E, the eighth century BC, such stories of intimacy with God were uncomfortable. J could still write about them, but E has God speaking to Abraham through an angel.
Jacob also experienced a number of epiphanies, and on one, El gives him the land and promises he will protect him when he leaves Canaan. This was unusual because pagan religion was territorial, and a traveler would worship the local deities. When Jacob woke up, he felt he was in the house of God. He called the area Beth-El (house of god), set his stone pillow upright and consecrated it with oil, a pagan custom. Jacob pledges to call El “Eloheim,” signifying the only god, if El does protect him. [Genesis 28:20] Both Jacob and Abraham put their faith in El for very practical reasons. El was not an abstraction [pg 17]. In a later story, Jacob wrestles all night with El, something that might happen in the Iliad but not in later Jewish monotheism.
Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac has pagan roots. The first born was thought to be the offspring of a god. This depleted the god’s energy and had to be restored by the sacrifice. These early stories show Yahweh as a simple tribal deity, a brutal, partial, and murderous god who has little compassion for anyone except his favorites.
Some have suggested the story of the Exodus is a mythical story of a successful peasant’s revolt against Egyptian control in Canaan. [pg 19] The Israelites would eventually transform Yahweh beyond all recognition into a symbol of transcendence and compassion, but the Exodus was used by the Deuteronomist author to illustrate the theology of election, of a chosen, favored people. The chosen were the oppressed Hebrews in bondage in Egypt. Yahweh heard their cries and led them out.
Where did the Israelites find Yahweh? He may not have been El, the Canaanite high god worshiped by the patriarchs. When he first speaks to Moses, he feels compelled to explain he is, in fact, the god of Abraham. Some suggest that Yahweh was a volcano god in Midian, where Moses was tending sheep when Yahweh spoke from the burning bush. Rather than the friendly El who shared a meal with Abraham, this Yahweh inspired terror and insisted on a distance between man and the divine. Later on Mt. Sinai, Yahweh made a covenant with Moses requiring the Israelites would ignore the other deities and worship Yahweh alone. In the entire Pentateuch, the existence of other gods is taken for granted. On Mt. Sinai the law was now handed down from on high, rather than experienced as in the pagan religion. The famous golden calf was the traditional effigy of El and showed most of the people wanted the older rituals signifying their vision of harmony between the gods, nature and mankind.
The formal covenant was made between Yahweh and Moses’ successor, Joshua, and followed the traditional form of an introduction and a statement of the terms. [pg 24] The Temple built by Solomon followed the design of temples for Canaanite gods of three concentric areas [strikingly resembling a vulva], the small center area known as the Holy of Holies. This contained the Ark of the Covenant, the portable alter carried during the years in the wilderness. [pg 25]
There was still the possibility that cult of Yahweh could be swallowed up by paganism. In 896 BC, Ahab was king of Israel and his wife, Jezebel, was an ardent worshiper of Baal. When a drought struck, a wondering prophet Elijah (El-i-jah, El is my god) challenged the Baal priests to a contest. Elijah won and had the Baal priests killed. After the massacre, he had to flee to Mt. Sinai where Yahweh told him to hide in a crevice of a rock while he passed by.
This story of Elijah was the last mythical account in the Jewish scriptures. Power had shifted from the kings and priests to the merchants, and the idea of “God” developed further in an aggressive market economy. Jews, Christians and Muslims all tried to adapt the rationalism of Plato and Aristotle despite their very different concept of God.
In India, the Vedas show the people were beginning to see their various gods (who, like the Babylonians, knew their myths were not factual) were simply different manifestations of one Absolute. The Vedas did not attempt to explain the creation nor answer philosophical questions, but rather helped the people come to terms with the wonder and terror of existence.
The concept of karma, known to the indigenous population of India, was that good and evil were inherent in every action chosen by the person himself, and were not rewards and punishments of the gods. Increasingly, the gods were seen as symbols of a transcendent Reality and, therefore, not that important on a daily basis. The gods were superseded by religious teachers who had a more practical value. The new religions of Hinduism and Buddhism did not deny the gods, but showed a way to transcend them. During the eighth century BC, sages addressed the issues in the Upanishads that, together with the Aranyakas, formed the Vedanta, the end of the Vedas. The holy power in the rituals was called Brahman which gradually came to mean the power that sustains everything. Brahman became the strictly impersonal unity behind everything. Not a being, it does not speak to mankind, and has no will. Sin does not offend it, and it does not have emotions. Praising it would be pointless. This divine power has no practical use. This same power pervades us, where it is called the Atman, or Self. God is not an external Reality abiding somewhere else. God is not just another Being added to the universe, nor is it identical with the universe. This enabling Power common to everything is only revealed to us by experience. It cannot be thought with the mind, but is that whereby the mind can think. It is not a mere object of thought, and cannot be explained any more than can a piece of music. Because this same Reality is immanent in both us and the world, God, nature and mankind are bound together. [pg 31]
Buddha did believe in the gods as part of his culture, but did not think of them as important. They, too, were caught up in the cycle of rebirth, and the ultimate reality of nirvana was higher than them. Nothing has permanent significance. One can gain release from the discontent inherent in all life by living a life of compassion for all living things. Buddha claimed to have only rediscovered these ancient truths known by Buddhas of a bygone age. [pg 32]
Effectiveness, rather than philosophical or historical validity, has always been the hallmark of a successful religion. Buddhists everywhere have found this lifestyle does yield a sense of transcendent meaning.
Buddha compared rebirth to a flame that is passed from candle to candle. If someone is aflame with a bad attitude at death, they will simply light another candle with the same bad attitude. Extinguishing the flame ends the cycle of disappointment, and nirvana will result. Attaining nirvana is not like going to heaven. It is more like escaping to a state of unborn, unbecome, unmade. The word “exist” bears no relation to nirvana, as Christians, Jews and Muslims have said about God. Like God, nirvana could not be discussed or defined as though it were just any other reality, but it could be discussed with imagery as is done with God. A person’s beliefs and rituals were unimportant. What counted was living the good life. [pg 34]
In stark contrast, the Greeks were passionately interested in logic. Plato believed in an unchanging reality behind our perception [as illustrated in the Republic by the shadows in the cave]. The things of this world are only echoes of eternal forms. Changes are sure signs of an inferior perception. The soul was a polluted deity from this reality imprisoned in the body that could be released by logic.
These eternal forms were still within ourselves. In his Symposium, Plato describes the eternal form of Beauty that has much in common with the concept of God, transcendent, but within us and intuitively sensed.
Aristotle was convinced logic could explain the universe as modern science does today. One quirk was that he believed the Greek tragedy purified the emotions of terror and pity that amounted to an experience of rebirth. The benefits of the tragedies showed poetry and myth were superior to accurate history. A presentation of events that would be unendurable in reality can transform them into something pure and pleasurable.
Aristotle’s idea of God was tied to a philosophical version of emanation accounts of creation. There is a hierarchy of existences where each imparts form to the one below. At the top is God, not a Being, but being itself, both the thinker and the thought. Successive stages of emanations end with humans. Our position imparts a duty and desire to become immortal by purifying our intellect, but Aristotle’s God is too transcendent to have any religious relevance.
Despite all of these different theologies, there was agreement that life contained a transcendent element that was essential for the development of full human potential.
In 742 BC, Isaiah had a vision of Yahweh sitting on his throne directly above the Temple in Jerusalem. Two seraphs covered their eyes. The ground shook and the Temple filled with smoke as Isaiah was filled with mysterium terribile et fascinans. The seraphs called out what is usually translated as “Holy” but is better translated as “Other.” As with Moses on Mt. Sinai, the great gulf between Yahweh and man was emphasized.
Isaiah’s vision was not expected to be taken literally. He was trying to impart his experience to the people and reverts to tradition in his description. Psalms often describe Yahweh on his throne as king, just as Marduk, Baal, and Dagon. Beneath the imagery, however, the encounter was with a person. Yahweh can speak and hear Isaiah’s answer.
The point of the vision was not for Isaiah’s enlightenment, but to assign him a task. Unlike Buddhism, a biblical experience with the transcendence does not result in illumination. The Israelites were on the brink of a war of extinction, and Yahweh had no cheerful message to give them. In fact, the Assyrian enemy would be used as a tool by Yahweh to punish them. For the first time, God controlled history, able to manipulate all nations. He would lead the Assyrians as he had once led Joshua but now against his own chosen people. The message was that the rituals and sacrifices were meaningless without compassion for others. The Israelites must discover the inner meaning of their religion. Since Mt. Sinai, God was on the side of the weak and oppressed, but now the Israelites were castigated as the oppressors. [pg 45]
The doom-and-gloom message was already being preached by Amos and Hosea. Amos was a humble shepherd who was commanded by Yahweh to prophesy. He was the first prophet to emphasize social justice and compassion. Yahweh roars in horror at the injustice of the Israelites for their own and threatens to use the Assyrian army for punishment.
Hosea was more concerned that the Israelites were worshiping other gods, especially Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility while Yahweh was the warrior god. Hosea’s message was that Yahweh was also in charge of fertility.
Hosea’s wife had left him to become a prostitute in the temple of Baal. Hosea forgave her and eventually bought her back, and from this experience saw Yahweh forgiving the Israelites for their infidelity.
As a result of the anthropomorphic image of Yahweh, each of the prophets saw God in their own terms. Isaiah saw God as a king, Amos saw his own compassion reflected in Yahweh, and Hosea saw Yahweh as the forgiving cuckold husband. [pg 48]
The people of Canaan and Babylon never did believe the images they worshiped were themselves divine, despite the disparaging biblical comments. Paganism was an essentially tolerant faith that always allowed room for one more god.
Yahweh began as a tribal god of war. Women lost their esteemed position of fertility in place of the greater danger of battle, and after Yahweh became the only god, his religion would be managed almost entirely by men. [pg 50]
Yahweh’s victory was hard-won. In Psalm 82 he makes a play for the leadership of the divine council presided over by El. They had become obsolete and would die like men. The Bible raves against idolatry, but there is nothing wrong with this as long as the idol is not confused with reality, as many Jews did with their conception of God as identical with the Ultimate Reality. This was clear when Hilkiah discovered the Book of Law (Deuteronomy) in the Temple undergoing restoration. Moses is now central to the covenant with Yahweh, and the Jews are not favored because of their merit, but because of Yahweh’s love, as long as they remain loyal and reject all other gods. In return, they are given the Promised Land and are told to destroy the inhabitants.
When King Josiah of Judah heard this, he had recently narrowly avoided the fate of the northern kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians in Babylon, and he immediately began destroying the alters and images of Baal and killing the priests. [pg 54] Instead of making God a symbol to force us to contemplate our prejudices, a personal God can be used to endorse our hatreds and make them absolute. It makes God behave exactly like us. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all, at some time, considered themselves the favored ones of God. A personal god can be manipulated to shore up a beleaguered self that an impersonal god such as Brahman cannot.
In 604 BC, Jeremiah revived the message of Isaiah, only now Babylon would be the instrument to punish Israel. They would go into exile for seventy years. Jeremiah continued the tradition of giving human emotions to Yahweh. God laments his own homelessness. He feels offended, stunned, and abandoned by his people as the first are take in exile. God is dependent upon man when he wants to act in the world. Jeremiah was allowed to remain in Judah and the oracles from Yahweh became more comforting.
Those who had gone into exile (not everyone had gone) were not forced to assimilate as the northern tribes had to earlier, and they lived in two communities: in Babylon, and what is now Tel Aviv. One of the first to be taken was the priest Ezekiel who was so upset, he spoke to no one for five years when he had his first horrific vision. He was commanded to speak to the Israelites from a scroll handed to him by Yahweh that he was instructed to eat. Many later commands were equally bizarre. He had to lie on one side for 390 days, then 40 days on the other, he could not mourn the death of his wife. [pg 59]
Pagan gods had always been territorial and the exiles beside the rivers of Babylon felt they could not sing their songs of praise. An unknown new prophet, however, preached tranquility. Since his works were later added to the sayings of Isaiah, he is called Second Isaiah. This Second Isaiah stated that Yahweh, far from being destroyed, was, and always was, the only god, and he could easily restore the old glory of Jerusalem. For the first time, Israelites became interested in the creation, trying to find comfort in Yahweh’s larger role. [pg 61] Once again, the new theology succeeded because it worked.
Second Isaiah’s view of Yahweh was as a transcendental god, not a personal one, a totally separate being incomprehensible to man. [pg 62]
[The Book of Isaiah ends with another skip in time, to after the return from the exile, suggesting a third Isaiah. Asimov]
In 538 BC, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return, but most stayed behind since life in the cosmopolitan Babylon was all they knew. Those that did return imposed their new Judaism on those who stayed in Israel. The writer P, one of the returnees, gave his sophisticated interpretation to the writings of J and E and added Numbers and Leviticus. Humans could only see an afterglow of the divine presence, what he called “the glory of God,” which was a symbol of His presence. Rather than Yahweh accompanying the Israelites during their wondering, it was the glory of God filling the tent where he met Moses. P’s most famous contribution was the first chapter of Genesis which drew on the Babylon account in the Enuma Elish, but without any battle of gods. P’s creation was done by separation, just as man was separate from God. The quiet last day of Sabbath stood in symbolic contrast to the chaos of day one. [pg 64]
In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath was to remind the Israelites of the Exodus, but P made it an imitation of God’s rest after the creation. Just as in dietary laws, separation was raised to a divine level.
The work of the Priestly tradition was included in the Pentateuch alongside the narratives of J, E and D, a reminder that any major religion consists of a number of independent spiritualities. After the exile, it was tacitly agreed that the age of prophecy had ended. One of the distant heroes, Job, was venerated in Babylon. In the old story, Job suffered in silence, but in the new version, he rages against God and debates with Him. The Jews were no longer content with the old answers. [pg 67] The lesson of Job is that the intellect alone is inadequate to make sense of divine matters.
Following Alexander the Great, the Jews of Palestine were surrounded by Hellenic culture. Both learned from the other, but most Jews held aloof. Religion was not a private matter. A god would withdraw patronage from a city if his cult was ignored. Jews began to write their own books of wisdom that was different from Greek cleverness. The author of Proverbs even suggests wisdom was the master plan of God and personifies it as the first of his creatures. [pg 67] The Jews were increasingly seeing God as transcendent, incapable of intervening in human life. Wisdom, like glory, became the aspect of an unknowable god to human understanding.
There was a wide gap between the god of Aristotle, knowable by logic, but who was scarcely aware of the world he created, and the god of the Bible, passionately involved in human affairs. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, tried to combine the two by distinguishing between God’s unknowable essence and his activities, which Philo divided into “powers.” God communicates to us through these powers that allow us a glimpse of a reality beyond anything we can conceive. God formed a master plan of creation (logos) that corresponded to Plato’s realm of ideal forms, that were then incarnated in the physical universe. Contemplating the Logos can be a joyful journey into the unknown, a rapturous recognition of the transcendence of God. The soul is trapped in the body and physical world, but can rise to a higher reality by breaking the bonds of passion, the senses, and even language. This concept never much appealed to other Jews, but was enormously helpful to later Christians.
The relations of the Romans with the Jews were usually good. They admired the high moral character of Judaism, but in 66 AD, a group of Jewish political zealots rebelled and were crushed by the Romans. In 70 AD, Vespasian conquered Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground. The destruction was a tragedy, but the Palestinians were already dissociating themselves from the Temple. The Essenes and the Qumrans believed the Temple was corrupt and had withdrawn to separate communities to build a temple of the spirit based on personal purification rather than animal sacrifices.
The Pharisees were passionately spiritual and the most progressive of the Jews, despite their bad depiction in the New Testament. They found God in the smallest detail of daily life, without the need of the Temple. Charity and kindness to their neighbors could atone for sins. Rabbi Hillel led what was by far the most popular party and stressed the Golden Rule.
Rabbi Yohannan escaped the conquest of Jerusalem and had been against the Jewish revolt, feeling they would be better off without a state, and the Romans permitted him to head a Jewish community to the west of Jerusalem. Jewish scholars developed there and began a commentary on the code of Jewish law called the Talmud which was not completed until the fourth century. A second Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud was completed a hundred years later and is considered to be more authoritative. Each generation of scholars added their comments in turn and it symbolically represented the successive walls around the Temple. (pg 73) The Rabbis transformed the distant, transcendent Yahweh to one intimately involved within mankind in the smallest details of life, an almost tangible, mystic presence that eliminated any need for formal doctrines. God, they thought, adapted himself to each person according to their level of comprehension, as even the prophets experienced God differently. The whole point of God was to encourage a sense of mystery, not to find neat solutions to life’s problems. Even praying was discouraged because the words would be inadequate.
A synonym for God was Shekinah, meaning one who dwells with others in a tent. The destruction of the Temple freed the Shekinah from Jerusalem and enabled it to inhabit the rest of the world, not as a separate being, but like the divine glory, or Holy Spirit. This cultivated a sense of God’s presence wherever they were, and the concept of an immanent God helped them see all humanity as sacred, not just Jews.
A Light to the Gentiles
At the same time as Hillel and Philo, Jesus began his career as a charismatic faith healer, one of several familiar religious figures in Galilee who also had their disciples. Even by the time of Mark, historical facts had been overlaid with mythical elements to express the meaning for his followers. During his lifetime, many believed he was the Messiah, who everyone expected to be a talented leader, but not divine. The closest to a sense of divinity was the belief that the Messiah was known to God through all eternity, but so was everything else. But when Jesus was executed only five days after arriving in Jerusalem, the thought arose that he would return and fulfill his messianic duties then. His followers were fully observant Jews who worshiped at the Temple every day, and there was nothing heretical about expecting the return, so their sect was accepted as authentically Jewish.
The teachings of Jesus were in accord with the teachings of the Pharisees. He taught a version of Hillel’s Golden Rule, emphasizing charity and loving kindness, and was devoted to the Torah. Matthew’s account of his frequent denigrating of the Pharisees would be out of character, contrary to his principle of charity, and a distortion of the facts.
No one, even the disciples, imagined Yahweh actually had a son. The Psalms called David the Son of God, but that was understood to be a figure of speech. The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus developed slowly and was not finalized until the fourth century by St. Augustine. Certainly, Jesus never claimed to be God and even called himself the “son of man.” His powers, he assured his followers, were available to them, too. The powers could be attained by faith, meaning a surrender and openness to God. Just as the Rabbis taught, the Spirit did not just belong to the privileged few.
Incarnational devotion has become a feature in many religions as either a fact or a metaphor that evokes an emotion that a philosophical idea cannot. Buddhism began as a philosophy but evolved the concept of the bodhisattva, persons who achieved enlightenment through the traditional, long and difficult method, but who put off their nirvana to help others. A person who prayed to a bodhisattva could be reborn into one of many Buddhist realms where enlightenment was easier and even automatic. These realms, however, were not literal, but imaginative aids to comprehend a more elusive truth. Even the concept that everything is an illusion was developed by later Buddhists.
Hindus developed a concept, similar to the Trinity, of Brahman, Shiva, and Vishnu as three aspects of one ineffable unity. Vishnu, in particular, showed himself to mankind as an avatar, most famously as Krishna, who could be worshiped. Brahman was utterly transcendent. (pg 86)
In Judaism, Jesus seemed to fill the need. Paul, a Jew, believed Jesus had replaced the Torah as God’s principle revelation, although we don’t know exactly what he meant by this. His only writings were the letters answering specific questions, not a logical presentation of a theology. As a Jew, Paul did not believe Jesus was God incarnate.
Paul did say that Jesus “died for our sins,” showing at a very early stage the disciples had developed an explanation for his death. However, there were no suggestions that the sins were an inheritance of the original sins of Adam. The early Christians felt in some mysterious way Jesus was still alive, and his powers were now embodied in them, such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, and receiving messages from God.
Like the bodhisattvas, Jesus became a mediator between humanity and the Absolute, except that he was the only mediator and the salvation offered was immediate, not just a future possibility requiring significant effort. The Buddhist and Hindu concept of many avatars reminded the faithful that the ultimate Reality could not be expressed in one form, while the Christian view of a single Incarnation easily led to an immature idolatry. (pg 87)
In the letter to the Philippi, Paul quotes a very early hymn that suggests Jesus originally had some sort of Godly existence, but willingly shed this to share in human suffering and death. God then raised him up, although still distinct and inferior to God. (pg 88)
By the fourth century, Christianity became strong in synagogues in the diaspora with large numbers of Godfearers (non-Jews attracted to the synagogue). Diaspora Jews had come to regard the Temple as primitive and barbarous, drenched in the blood of sacrifices. Stephen claimed the Temple was an insult to God and was stoned to death.
The conservative Romans first saw Christianity as a branch of Judaism, but when the Christians broke from the synagogue, their tolerance turned to contempt for rejecting the parent faith. Romans were constantly on guard to protect citizens from religious quackery. (pg 91) There was, however, a spirit of restlessness as the experience of living in a huge international empire made the old gods seem petty. Oriental cults were adopted as gods such as Isis were worshiped along with the traditional gods. In the first century, the new Greco-Roman mystery religions claimed to have inside information of the next world, but little is known about them because they kept their secrets.
No one expected religion to be a challenge or to provide a meaning of life. Religion was a matter of cult and ritual rather than ideas. Educated pagans looked to philosophy for enlightenment. The Christian God seemed primitive and irrational, a far cry from Aristotle’s remote and unchanging God.
The Gnostics believed in a totally incomprehensible Reality which they called the Godhead. There was nothing we could say about it because it was so far beyond our comprehension. (pg 94) Neither good nor evil, the Godhead cannot even be said to exist. But from the Godhead came emanations. The first was God, but even he was inaccessible. New emanations proceeded from God in pairs, male and female, and each pair expressed a divine attribute. After thirty emanations, the complex spirit world of angelology was complete. Paul referred to Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, and Powers, thought to be hierarchies of angels. Then there was a catastrophic fall, variously described, but a popular one was the last emanation, Wisdom, sought forbidden knowledge of the Godhead and was expelled from heaven. Her tears formed the world of matter.
These myths expressed the belief that our world was a perversion of the celestial world created by one of the Aeons, a form of angel, not by God. These myths were not meant to be literal, but symbolic expressions of an inner truth, and all were to be found within. The Gnostic myths showed many new Christians were not satisfied with the old Judaism concept of God.
Marcion (100–165) almost formed a separate church with his thought that there were two gods. The first, the evil Yahweh of the Old Testament, formed the flawed world with impossible demands of humans. But Jesus revealed another higher, benevolent God who produced Jesus out of pity for humans, We should therefore turn away from the material world, since it was not the good God’s creation and reject the Old Testament. (pg 97)
The theologian Tertullian pointed out that Marcion’s secondary God had more in common with Aristotle’s serene deity than with the Jewish Yahweh, who many saw as a blundering, ferocious God unworthy of worship.
In 178, the pagan philosopher Celsus was appalled that Christians should claim a revelation just for them when God should be available to everyone. The Christians were persecuted by the Romans because they were seen as a barbarous creed that endangered the state by ignoring the traditional gods.
By the end of the second century, some cultured pagans began to accept Christianity. Clement of Alexandria (150-215) had no doubt that Yahweh and the God of the Greek philosophers were the same, and there was no gulf between God and humanity. The two could be brought together by observing the Quietness within that eventually became a fundamental Christian concept. Quietness within should also be practiced without by speaking softly and moving gently.
There remained the question of what it meant to say Jesus was the Logos, or divine reason. Sabellius reasoned that the terms Father, Son, and Spirit were like masks used by an actor that God used when dealing with the world.
Clement’s brilliant pupil and successor, Origen, developed a theology of a continuity between God and man that could be awakened by special disciplines, and the ascent would continue after death. He considered the Bible as symbolic, such as the virgin birth which was symbolic of the birth of divine wisdom in the soul. The soul had the capacity to know God since it shared the divine nature. Belief in Jesus was only an aid to understanding, but would eventually be transcended when we view God face-to-face. We ascend to God on our own merits, not by the death of Jesus. [pg 100] All of these views were acceptable at the time because there was not yet any official doctrine. Later, in the ninth century, some of the views were declared heretical. Origen is most noted for his self-castration.
Plotinus (Plo-TINE-us, 205-270) founded a school of philosophy in Rome and influenced generations of monotheists. [pg 101] Little is known about him because of his extreme reticence. He never spoke about himself and did not even celebrate his own birthday. He is considered a watershed who absorbed philosophies up to his time and transmitted them in a form with influence even today.
He postulated a primal unity of everything, derived from Plato’s realms and similar to the Hindu Brahman. He called it the One. Everything emanated from the One just as a geometric point contained the possibility of all future circles that could derive from it, like ripples in a pond. The first two emanations, the Mind and then the Soul were divine and could be taken as an early form of the Trinity. Each emanation was a little weaker and less pure than its predecessor. The outward flow of the emanations was constrained by a corresponding flow back to the One. The natural human yearning for the singularity of God is not an ascent to an external reality, but a descent to the inner depths of the mind. The soul yearns to return to true, simple self.
Like Brahman, the One is entirely impersonal and oblivious of us. It is not an alien object but our own best self. The rapture of its apprehension was the human spiritual quest. [pg 104] Religions ever since have described their experiences in these terms.
Early Christianity produced many beliefs, some bizarre. A profit, Montanus, in 170 claimed to be a divine avatar and taught martyrdom was the only sure path to God. Death of believers would hasten the coming of Christ. This appealed to worshipers of Baal who advocated sacrifice of the firstborn. Yet orthodox Christianity was making great strides by choosing a middle path and by 235 was an important religion in the Roman Empire. It was not demanding in its practice, it appealed to women, and had all of the advantages of Judaism without circumcision and an alien code of law. Its force for stability appealed to Constantine. It became the state religion and that alone attracted followers. The doctrine of God, however, remained to be solved and split it into warring camps.
Trinity: The Christian God
By 320, many Christians had come to believe that God had created the world out of nothingness, despite the assertion of Genesis that he created it from chaos. This was no mere technical point. It introduced and emphasized the vast gulf between the divine world and the fragile, temporal world that anytime could return to nothingness. Humans can create by separation, but only God can create out of nothingness. God and humanity were no longer akin. People could no longer ascend the chain of being on their own.
As Christians, they believed Jesus somehow bridged this divide to allow believers to live on in the divine realm, but which realm was Jesus part of? It was impossible to accept that he was in the divine world as a god second to Yahweh. Yet Jesus had specifically said that the Father was greater than he. How could a monotheistic religion have both Yahweh and Jesus as divinities? [pg 108]
The debate was fired by Arius (AH-ree-us), a popular presbyter of Alexandria who challenged his bishop, Alexander, and his brilliant assistant Athanasius (atha-NAA-shus). Athanasius placed Jesus in the divine world while Arius placed him in the created order. The debate became so distracting that Constantine summoned a synod in Nicaea, Turkey, to decide.
The position of Arius was: Proverbs clearly said that God’s first creation was Wisdom which then became the agent for the rest of creation. In John, the Word had been with God from the beginning. The Logos was the instrument used by God to bring other creatures into existence, so it was separate from God himself. And Jesus, according to scripture, was the Logos. It was not inherent in him, but was bestowed by God. Individual Christians could, in theory, also become divine by following the perfect example of Jesus. Even Paul had said that divinity was bestowed on Jesus because of his obedience unto death. (Philippians 2:6-11) [pg 110]
The position of Athanasius was: We had come from nothing, as everything else, but had fallen back to nothingness by our sins. Only by participating in God, through his Logos, could we avoid annihilation. The Logos had to be inherently divine to accomplish this.
Under pressure from Constantine to form a consensus, all but two bishops signed, but the “consensus” see-sawed back and forth for the next sixty years, and most bishops returned home and continued teaching what they always had. The conclusion was that the Logos could only be a potential within God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being one, not three gods. Christians maintained both the divinity of Christ and monotheism, even though difficult to understand. To outsiders, it appeared to be a meaningless, divisive debate that could not be proved. To the participants, however, it was a serious attempt to articulate a new experience. But the words could only be symbolic since the realities to which they pointed were ineffable. [pg 112]
The Cappadocians (~350) were three bishops of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Church in eastern Turkey who held that religious experience alone could deal with the problem of God. They were familiar with Plato and Aristotle’s distinction between factual, logical information that could be proved, and mystical knowledge that could only be experienced. One of the Cappadocians, Basil, distinguished between kerygma (ka-RIG-ma), the public church teachings based on scripture, and dogma, the deeper meaning that could only be experienced and expressed in symbolic form. The secrets of dogma were handed down by the apostles to a select few. They were not intended for the uninitiated and were not written down. They required a more developed understanding of the faith. Dogma was not meant to shut people out, but was a recognition that some religious truth was incapable of being expressed in a manner that could be understood by all. The scriptures had a spiritual significance that was not possible to articulate since they were referring to an ineffable God.
Buddha also referred to ineffable truths that could only be understood by lengthy training and contemplation. This distinction between esoteric and exoteric truth is extremely important in religion. [pg 114] Western Christianity would concentrate on kerygma, but in Greek Orthodox Christianity every concept of God is a false likeness, an idol, and could not reveal God himself. Abraham, they say, laid aside concepts of God and embraced a pure vision that consisted of not seeing. We must only feel the presence of the transcendent holy spirit.
The Cappadocians tried to develop the notion of the Holy Spirit. Was it a synonym for God or something more? Some at the time saw it as an energy, some as a creature, and some as God. The Cappadocians postulated that God is unfathomable and can only be comprehended by the Trinity revealed to us. The Trinity was only the perception from the outside and did not imply three separate parts. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should not be applied to God himself. Humans have experienced God as transcendent (expressed as Father), creative (Son) and immanent (Holy Spirit), but this is only a human concept. The revelation of the Son would not have been possible without the Holy Spirit, and the Father would not have been known without the Son. [pg 117] Ultimately, however, the trinity only made sense as a mystical experience that had to be lived, not logically explained. [Human minds can only grasp a complex idea in parts. To think of a circus, our minds can only form an image of one part, e.g., the clowns, the three rings, acrobats, etc.]
The synod at Nicaea was mostly Greek. Only three Latin bishops were there and they did not fully understand the philosophical terminology. They left unhappy with the Trinity concept. It took Augustine, who was familiar with Plato and Plotinus, to describe the Trinity understandable to the West.
Augustine used the term “memory” in a way that was more similar to the subconscious, except that it applied to the whole mind, conscious and subconscious. [pg 120] He saw memory as an unfathomable world of images, caverns and caves. God, paradoxically, was both here within and yet above. God was not an objective reality but a spiritual presence in the complex depths of the self, a view common with Buddhists, Hindus, and shamans.
Augustine spoke from his own experiences. When we hear phrases like “God is truth,” we feel the illumination, but only momentary and we fall back to our normal frame of mind. Try as we might, we cannot recapture this illumination by normal thought processes but must instead listen to the heart. Since our minds mirror God, there is a trinity there, and, like any Platonic image, we yearn for the Archetype. The trinity in our mind is not God himself, but only a trace of the God who made us.
Augustine even anticipated Descartes by saying knowledge of ourselves is the bedrock of all other certainty. Even doubt makes us conscious of ourselves. Later, his despondency over the fall of Rome led Augustine to the doctrine of original sin and the church’s obsession with sex. The loss of rationality in sex when God is forgotten is similar to the civilization of Rome defeated by the barbarians. Augustine even wondered why God made the female at all. This view was unique to Western Christianity and was not part of Greek Orthodox Christianity nor Judaism. [pg 124] Western Christianity never recovered from this neurotic misogyny.
In 529, the emperor Justinian closed the ancient school of philosophy in Athens. Within four years, treatises appeared purportedly written by Denys, Paul’s first Athenian convert, but actually written by an unknown Christian who extended the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers. He affirmed there were two Christian traditions, one based on kerygma and the other on dogma. The religious truths of dogma were expressed symbolically by the liturgy (Mass) and was the chief path to God, the only way to sense the inexpressible reality.
Denys disliked the term “God” because of its anthropomorphic connotations, and preferred “Nothing,” meaning no-thing understandable to us. God is not one of the things that exist and is unlike anything that does exist. We should not even call him a Trinity since he is not a trinity nor even a unity. He is above all names and is above all being. Names he revealed in scripture, like “Father” was not to impart actual information about himself, but to enable humans to share his divine nature. Reading scripture is not a process of discovering facts about God, but to convert kerygma to dogma. We must leave behind all conceptions of the divine and halt the activities of our minds. We will then have an ecstatic union with God, which is not a yoga-like alternate form of consciousness. It is available to every Christian through prayer and liturgy. [pg 127] Prayer is a place of silence, more like calming meditation than a conversation with God.
When Moses climbed Mt, Sinai, God was obscured by a thick cloud. Similarly, everything we can see or understand is only a symbol revealing a reality beyond thought.
The Greek concept of the Incarnation was defined by Maximus the Confessor (580-662), the father of Byzantine theology. He believed humans would only fulfill themselves when united with God, similar to Buddhist thought. Humans were created in the likeness of the Logos and their full potential could only be in the perfection of this likeness. The purpose of the Incarnation was not as a salvation from the sin of Adam, but would have occurred anyway. Christians could reach the deified state by copying Jesus, just as Buddhists could use Buddha as the pattern to follow.
Classic theology believed original sin was such an affront that only the Son of God could atone for it. It was a tidy, legalistic scheme that depicted God in anthropomorphological terms of thinking and judging as though he were a human, even to human harshness requiring a hideous death of his own son.
Even today, people misunderstand the Trinity, either imagining three figures, or identifying God with the Father and making Jesus a divine friend. Yet kenosis, the self-emptying of God in Kabbalah and Sufism, is a similar concept. In Christianity, the only God we know is the Logos. The Father, therefore, has no identity in the normal sense and confounds our notion of personality. At the very source of being is the No-thing glimpsed by Denys, Plotinus, Buddha, [and the writers of the Upanishads].
All religions personalize the Absolute as a necessity for devotion, but the Trinity suggests it is not enough to imagine God as man writ large. God as a separate human-like being can easily become an idol, a projection of our own prejudices, and the doctrine of Incarnation can be seen as a counter to this. A similar binding of the divine with the human condition is seen in the Hindu Brahman-Atman paradigm.
Unity: The God of Islam
By making Jesus the only avatar, Christians adopted an exclusive notion of religious truth with future revelation unnecessary. The Trinity, however, was a difficult concept and did not fit the Semantic way of thinking.
In the year 610, an Arab merchant in Mecca had a religious experience during a spiritual retreat that was common among Arabs at the time. Mohammed’s tribe, the Qurayah, were undergoing a severe cultural change. Just shortly before, they were living the harsh life of the Bedouin, and now they were extremely successful traders, rich beyond their wildest dreams. But their old tribal values were lost in ruthless capitalism where the individual came first, not the tribe.
The Arabs of the time had no real religion. Instead there was a code of conduct that dictated personal sacrifice for the sake of the tribe and qualities of manliness: courage in battle, patience, unflinching obedience to the tribal chief, willingness to avenge any wrong to the tribe, and endurance in suffering. This code encouraged egalitarianism and an indifference to material goods. They did have a pantheon of pagan gods, but no mythology to explain their relevance and no notion of an afterlife.
Like many Arabs, Mohammed believed that the high god of their pantheon, al-Lah (“the God”) was identical with the Jewish and Christian god and wondered why He did not send them a prophet or scripture of their own. They were proud of the ancient Kaaba, the cubical shrine in Mecca, that had originally been dedicated to al-Lah and was the most sacred place in Arabia where many Arabs made their pilgrimage each year. Because of its sacredness, violence was forbidden and trading could be done peacefully, which was of great benefit to the ruling Qurayah tribe.
As early as the fifth century, some Arabs claimed to have discovered the ancient religion of Abraham, which was before the Torah or the Gospel and therefore neither Jewish nor Christian. There is a story that relatives of Mohammed were involved with this group before Mohammed’s revelation.
Mohammed was an unlikely selection by God, and at first he refused when commanded to “Recite.” He was illiterate and followers had to write down the revelations, but for the first time, God spoke in Arabic, a particularly subtle language capable of great beauty. The revelations came over a period of 23 years, often repeating and sometimes contradictory, but all in superb Arabic that helped recruit early converts. The final collection, arranged with the longest passages first, was ultimately called the Qur’an, “the Recitation.” The Koran is neither a narrative nor an argument that needs a specific order, but a reflection on various themes. It is meant to be recited aloud for inspiration, not simply read to acquire information.
Like Jesus, Mohammed did not think he was forming a new religion, but simply bringing the old religion to the people. It was a joyful message of hope, free from mythologies of heaven and God. All Arabs already believed in al-Lah, so this did not have to be explained. It did not claim to teach anything new, but was to remind people of what they already knew. It stressed the need for intelligence in deciphering the messages of God. Muslims should look at the world with attention and curiosity. Early verses encourage the Qurayah to become aware of God’s benevolence, which can be seen wherever they look. [pg 141] The moral message is that it is wrong to build private wealth, and good to share the wealth of society fairly.
Mohammed insisted his followers bow down in ritual prayer twice a day to reorient their lives and this act of submission was shocking to the proud Bedouins. Eventually, his religion would be called Islam, the act of surrender.
During the first few years, Mohammed attracted young converts disillusioned with the capitalistic ethos. At first, Mohammed did not emphasize monotheism, and his followers continued to worship their traditional deities along with Allah, but when he finally did condemn these cults, Islam lost many converts and became a despised and persecuted minority. This split distressed Mohammed and he revealed some sayings permitting the old deities to be worshiped as lesser beings who could intercede with Allah as angels did. Later, Gabriel told him these verses were inspired by Satan, and should be cut from the Koran. These became known as the Satanic Verses. From here on, Mohammed became a dedicated monotheist and idolatry became the greatest sin in Islam. The Koran pours scorn on the pagan deities, just as in the Torah [pg 149]. Mohammed knew that monotheism would integrate the separate tribes into a single society.
Allah is not a simplistic being like ourselves that we can know and understand. He is totally incomprehensible and inaccessible, but an aspect of the divinity can be glimpsed in recognizing his works that surround us on all sides. In the Koran, he is given the names of 99 positive attributes. These names are central in Muslim piety and are chanted and counted on rosary beads.
The unity of Allah, who is the one God referred to in all religions by different names, means there is no need for anyone to convert to Islam. Each religion has received an authentic revelation of its own. The intolerance seen in Islam today stems from politics, not the religion. [pg 152]
In 622, the reaction to Mohammed’s opposition to the pagan gods forced him with about 70 families to move to Medina in what is called the hijra. Medina had a large Jewish population, and Mohammed hoped to bring Islam closer to Judaism. Eventually, those in Medina, pagans and Jews, rejected him. The Jewish rejection was particularly painful because it questioned his whole religious position. He learned that many Jewish beliefs were contrary to his teachings. Instead, he developed his religion as descending from Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar. Two years later, Mohammed instructed his followers to pray facing Mecca instead of Jerusalem. Until his death in 632, he was mostly fighting for survival. By 630, Mecca opened its gates to him and he could take it without bloodshed.
Like Christianity, many early converts to Islam were women, and, also like Christianity, the religion was hijacked by men. The veil is only specified for Mohammed’s wives in the Koran.
The split between the Shia and Sunnis was political. When Mohammed died, his elected successor, his best friend, soon died himself, and his successor was not even known by Mohammed. The Shia felt succession should be through Mohammed’s daughter’s husband, Ali, and his son, Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein, became a hero when he was killed in a small battle with the traditional followers, the Sunni. “Remember Hussein,” is still a Shia battle cry.
The Shia had come to believe only the members of Mohammed’s family through Ali had the true knowledge of God. An old Persian tradition was that a chosen god-begotten family transmitted the glory through the generations. The Imams were revered as avatars of the divine, the road and guide of each generation.
The success of Islam produced luxury and corruption among the aristocracy, conditions very different from the austere lives of Mohammed and his followers, but similar to the early Roman Catholic Church. The solution was the formation of Sharia law. [pg 160] Mohammed was believed to have surrendered perfectly to God, and Muslims were to imitate him in their daily lives. He greeted everyone by “Peace be with you,” and so did Muslims. These gestures were not the end in themselves, but as a means of acquiring God-consciousness. They have worked. Like the Jewish laws of the Torah, they have brought a sacramental sense of the divine into the daily lives of Muslims over the centuries.
The Muslims who promoted this imitation of Mohammed were the Traditionalists. Imitation could be done by anyone, and this egalitarian ideal was threatening to the establishment, including the priests whose mediation was not needed. They taught that the Koran, like the Torah or the Logos, was somehow of God himself, much like the early Christians thought of Jesus. And, just like some early Christians were scandalized by the idea of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, some Muslims were scandalized by the elevation of the Koran.
The Traditionalists believed in predestination and that God was too transcendent to be judged by our standards of good and evil. A central problem with a personal God, Christian or Muslim, is that a God who takes an active part in history opens himself to criticism, unlike an impersonal God like Brahman. Like the Christians, the Traditionalists distinguished between God’s essence and his activities. Those attributes which allowed a transcendent God relate to the world, such as power, will, sight, hearing, had existed with him through eternity, but were distinct from his unknowable essence. When the Koran says that God speaks, or sits upon his throne, it should be interpreted literally, but without asking how. (pg 165)
The God of the Philosophers
During the 9th century, a team of mostly Nestorian Christians translated Greek texts into Arabic. Arab Muslims now studied astronomy, mathematics, and medicine and enjoyed more scientific discoveries than ever before. A new type of Muslim, the Faylasufs, emerged dedicated to an ideal called Falsafah. The literal meaning is “philosophy,” but in a broad sense that included living rationally with laws that governed the universe. It first centered on natural science, but then expanded to Greek metaphysics. They believed al-La was identical with the impersonal God of the Greek philosophers and rationalism was an advanced form of religion that formed a higher notion of God than that revealed by scripture. Rather than seeing science as antagonistic to religion, they saw it as a support.
At first, the two Gods seem too different. The God of the Greek philosophers was more like a scientific principle that was timeless and impassable, did not interfere in human events, did not create the world, nor would judge it at the end. The Faylasufs saw God not as a mystery, but as reason itself. But this required a faith of its own—a faith that the chaotic world of random pain and suffering was really ruled by reason. (Greek Christians took the opposite view and felt reason and logic had little to contribute to understanding God.)
The Faylasufs did not feel there was any need to reject the Koran. Rationality was just another valid religion created by God to have meaning for specific people. They wanted to find the kernel of truth common to all of them. Since they read the Greek texts as they became available, rather than in the usual standard sequence, they had new perspectives, as well as perspectives from the Gnostics, Persians, and Indians.