PHILIP ALMOND is already the author of an acclaimed biography of the devil (The Devil: A new biography, I. B. Tauris, 2014). Now he has turned to a subject that causes equal controversy: to the One widely known — although whether he can be known at all is a moot point — as “God”.
Although God may not be readily susceptible to biography, Almond shows that what we have thought of him may be. Specifically, the life-story of monotheism can be told. It is a story with a birth and a death, a beginning and an end. Monotheism is born, Almond says, at the moment in the sixth century BCE when “the God of only one nation became the only God of all the nations”. Monotheism dies when theism perishes — a demise said by such as Don Cupitt to have lately taken place.
This book tells the story of an idea fraught with unresolved paradox and unsettled conflict, played out across a vast swath of human history, and testing to their far limits humanity’s greatest minds. It is a bold scholar who dares chart such a history in a single volume. Certainly, there are many occasions in this story, and many personalities bestriding its stage, that demand far more space than Almond can give them. Having said that, his “new biography of God” is about as successful a bid to achieve the impossible as one could hope for.
Almond begins with the at once wrathful and compassionate God of the Bible. He then turns to the tortuous and not always edifying debates of the earliest Christian centuries, from which emerged the understanding of the person of Christ and of God as Trinity, which — give or take an iota — have remained to this day the “orthodox” account of these mysteries.
In subsequent chapters, he discusses — among much and many beside — the assimilation of Platonic concepts into Christian thought, the tension between the God of reason and the God of revelation (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”), the alarming doctrines of John Calvin, the more temperate climate of deism, and — coming to our own day — “the delusions of Dawkins”.
Almond writes with an admirable lucidity and a pleasing lightness of touch (“Nestorius always thought that he was the most intelligent man in any room”). He is succinct because he has to be, but too fine a scholar to be superficial.
In his last chapter, “An Agnostic Spirituality”, Almond adds a moving personal epilogue to his absorbing story. He tells how, when he was a young theological student, his quest for meaning was embedded in the certainty of faith in God. His quest continued until he came to a place where all belief was lost and God was gone.
Now, that continuing quest has brought him yet further, to somewhere “beyond the certainties of belief and unbelief, beyond both theism and atheism”. Here he rests, still wistfully hoping that “there might just be” someone behind it all. Many now reliant on the Church of England Pensions Board will echo his testimony.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
God: A new biography
Philip C. Almond
I. B. Tauris £20