I never got much out of Sunday School aside from the watered down bible’s stories, usually stripped of all context and religious meaning. Karen Armstrong’s early experience was similiar:
When I was eight years old, I had to memorize this catchsim answer to the question, “What is God?”: “God is the Supreme Spirit, Who alone exists of Himself and is infinite in all perfections.” Not surprisingly, it mean 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… I have come to believe that it is also incorrect.
Not what you would expect to hear from an ordained nun; but if you are expecting the “party” line, you are in for a pleasant surprise.
Armstrong traces the entire history of monotheism from the early Jews forward, shows how each generation reinterpreted the relationship between God and man, and how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and the faiths that came before) influenced each other. For a basic primer on the history of religious thought, I cannot think of a better first option. She presents each argument and advance with the same earnestness, providing a very balanced narrative of the evolution of religion, and always puts each new thinker in his historical and ideological context. She also includes the development of atheism, and ends with a look to how religion might be redefined in the future.
The writing is a bit dense, but considering it covers 1000’s of years of theology in a few hundered pages, that can be forgiven. If you are looking to dig a little deeper into what religion is actually about, this is a great way to start.