is a best-selling author, scholar, and former Catholic nun. Her latest book is The Case for God.
November 5, 2009
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Best-selling author and TED prize winner Karen Armstrong has been called the most provocative, original, and inclusive thinker about religion in the modern world. Yet, at one point in her career, she set out to debunk the Christian faith. Instead, she found Christianity filled with new ideas, and she discovered a delight in other religions as well. I’ll speak with Karen Armstrong this hour about her love for figures like the apostle Paul, the prophet Muhammad, and Buddha.
MR. KAREN ARMSTRONG: You miss the essence of these people if you imagine them just sitting, uttering a list of doctrines. I think we should take greater care when we write our theology so that when people listen to a theological idea they feel touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Karen Armstrong has a new best-seller, The Case for God. And this month she unveils the Charter for Compassion, a kind of global call to action she initiated after winning the prestigious TED prize in 2008. When I interviewed Karen Armstrong 2004, I wanted to understand the woman behind the ideas. What compels her and how she evolved from a disillusioned young nun into a thinker with a singular influence on religious understanding in our time. We replay that revealing conversation this hour.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong.”
Karen Armstrong’s many best-selling books include A History of God and The Battle For God as well as biographies of Buddha and Muhammad. In recent years, many have turned to her books to understand the consonance and dissonance between world religions. Armstrong calls herself an amateur theologian. She notes that the Latin root of the word “amateur” means “a love of one’s subject.”
But she didn’t always have this passion. She had little experience of non-Christian religions in her early life. In fact, as she describes it, seven years in a convent as a young woman nearly snuffed out her ability to think about faith at all.
MS. ARMSTRONG: There wasn’t very much theology involved in my convent years. We rather took the idea of God for granted as a being who would listen, who was present, who’d somehow made the world, and who had appeared on earth in Jesus Christ. But I think the limiting factor was the lifestyle, because we were not encouraged to think or explore.
Obedience was the key, and we had to —; in common with most religious orders at that time, we were supposed to be subservient to our superiors, seeing them in the place of God, and not following your own thoughts through or exploring ideas or expressing doubt or confusion
MS. TIPPETT: And there’s something that feels sad and almost tragic, you know, reading your accounts of that, because you did have a spiritual longing. I mean, you were young; it was undefined in many ways, but it seems almost like the structures of that religious life got completely in the way.
MS. ARMSTRONG: It could do. Now, I was also privileged to meet with some nuns who had been able to work with these structures and who’d done it. They were wise. They were benevolent. They were compassionate. They were even funny. They were mature, full human beings, and they were holy people. But I knew that I wasn’t going to be like that. I was going to be one of the — sadly, one of the more common variety of nun who was taking back little satisfactions here and there.
I was much too young really, I think, to make that kind of momentous choice. I was only 17 when I entered the convent, and I was basically a child. And I had lots of inchoate yearnings, and I was hoping for transfiguration. I was hoping for God to invade my life and that I would become sort of holy and wise and serene, a sort of Buddha, perhaps even a saint, and it would all happen fairly quickly. And, of course, it didn’t happen like that at all.
MS. TIPPETT: And even though by the time you left it almost sounds, as you tell the story, like there was no choice. You know, you describe that leaving as a form of exile that entailed spiritual dislocation as well as physical dislocation.
MS. ARMSTRONG: I lost my orientation, because being a nun at that time was not like training to be a teacher or a broadcaster or a doctor, where you learn a skill but your deepest self remains — and personal life remains intact and unaffected. This training was meant to be a conditioning, a conditioning that was designed to last a lifetime, and it did. And when I left the convent, I did not know how to live without these structures. I felt the whole tenor of my life had changed, and yet I was still the same. I was still basically a nun, but in secular clothes, and I needed to train myself to become a secular as rigorously as I had trained myself to become a nun.
MS. TIPPETT: And even in that terminology, it almost seems to make inevitable what happened, which is that when you left the religious order and became a secular, you were truly a secular person, that there was very quickly no spiritual dimension really to your life in the world.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Well, not only that. I’d been a complete flop at spirituality …
MS. TIPPETT: That’s how you felt? Right.
MS. ARMSTRONG: …; in the convent. I mean, I had found it almost impossible to pray, and that was clearly a bit of a drawback for a nun. I used to go into meditation every single morning at six o’clock and we’d have to meditate for an hour, and I could not do it. I could not keep my mind on my prayer for more than two minutes. My mind would go skittering off, or else be sunk in a sort of sloth of boredom and torpor and sleep. And however hard I tried, I could not pray, and God remained utterly distant and elusive. The heavens remained closed. So that when I finally left the religious life, I tried to stay in the Catholic Church, and did for a few years, but God eventually fell away. So the next step was that really He didn’t exist. He had never really existed for me, as I thought.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s something about the life of the mind in your story. I mean, you talk about your mind skittering off, but really you found some salvation in your intellect, didn’t you, or a gift in that? Although I don’t know if you — did you recognize it as a gift early on?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Well, in the convent we didn’t use it much. But we would spend most of our time sewing and cleaning and scrubbing, chores that I detest to this day. But when I got to Oxford University, then this was pure delight to be able to read again. Before I’d entered the religious life, I had been in love with literature and poetry. When I read a poem, my whole self would jump out to greet it. You know, I was moved, touched within and lifted above myself, just wrapped up in it.
But now when I came, I could do everything intellectually, but none of myself was going into it. I found it almost impossible to have a fresh idea, an original response or my own response to a poem, unless I found that somebody else was there first to tell me what to do, some other critic or some other teacher, to tell me what to think. Because for years every time I’d had an idea of my own, I’d stamped down on it. You know, I’ve had doubts about the existence of God, I had doubts about the efficacy of prayer, I had doubts about the wisdom of the system, all of which I had to quash. And I think basically I damaged my brain. Not neurologically …
MS. TIPPETT: No.
MS. ARMSTRONG: …but that I deflected it from its healthy bias towards seeing things as they are.
MS. TIPPETT: And that went on for quite some time, didn’t it?
MS. ARMSTRONG: It was a long time, and it was about two or three years before it started to come back. And the first moment when it came back actually was when I heard a lecturer reading T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.” As soon as Dame Helen Gardner, great professor of Oxford in my day, started to read this poem in her wonderful way and started to explain it, to expound it, I felt that answering response because it seemed to be speaking directly to my condition.
MS. TIPPETT: It was after a period of mental and physical illness, brought on in part by undiagnosed epilepsy, that Karen Armstrong took solace T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.” This poetry evokes a passage through spiritual despair, and it framed Karen Armstrong’s 2004 autobiography, The Spiral Staircase. Here’s a reading from “Ash Wednesday.”
READER: Because I do not hope to turn again Because I do not hope Because I do not hope to turn Desiring this man’s gifts and that man’s scope I no longer strive to strive towards such things (Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?) Why should I mourn The vanished power of the usual reign? Because I do not hope to know again The infirm glory of the positive hour Because I do not think Because I know I shall not know The one veritable transitory power Because I cannot drink There, where trees flower and springs flow, for there is nothing again. Because I know that time is always time And place is always and only place And what is actual is actual only for one time And only for one place I rejoice that things are as they are and I renounce the blessed face And renounce the voice Because I cannot hope to turn again Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something Upon which to rejoice.
MS. ARMSTRONG: The center of that poem is when Eliot says, “Because I do not hope to turn again, consequently I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice.” And it seemed to me that now my project was if I couldn’t get joy spontaneously anymore, I was going to have to construct my well-being and my life, and even try to manufacture joy as carefully as an engineer will put together an airplane or a piece of intricate technology. This was to be my project, giving up hope of some salvation coming at me from outside myself. And things did take a turn for the better after that. They really did.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, you’re very clear that at this point, I think, you well and truly did not consider yourself to be a religious person at all, that God was no longer part of your equation.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. When I moved to London, that was the end of it. I mean, I just never went near a church again. I felt exhausted by the whole religious enterprise. I wanted nothing to do with it. I described myself as atheist. I felt not anger, but just simple exhaustion.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and then it is fascinating that as you began to approach religion again as a subject that was part of your career, you started to do some television work. And, in fact, you were setting out on this series with the goal of debunking religion. Is that fair?MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. No, absolutely. People say, ‘Well, how did you get into television?’ Well, a series of utter career disasters. And I think this is important, too. Because everything I turned my hand to failed for all these years. I mean, I failed my Ph.D. So I couldn’t be an English literature professor. My health was so bad even after the epilepsy was diagnosed that I lost my school teaching job. And this was a new television channel opening up. The commissioning editor for religion was a passionate atheist who loathed religion, and he said he wanted to discuss religion with the same rigor as every other subject.
MS. TIPPETT: Which is to tear it apart.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Was to tear it apart. I was a major weapon in his anti-religious arsenal. He also commissioned a very controversial series called “Jesus: The Evidence,” which was actually, at the beginning of the series, going to actually blow up a life-sized statue of Jesus. You know, this was going to be the end of the whole thing. And I felt — it wasn’t just that I was being cynical, I felt that I was a woman with a mission, that people should see the harm that religion had done over the years, and that I would show them that, you know, this was bonkers. But, much to my astonishment, people started writing to me after my first series on Saint Paul and saying now they felt they could go back to church, having listened. And I thought ‘Well, how?’ I mean, I …
MS. TIPPETT: What did you do …
MS. ARMSTRONG: What did I do wrong? I mean, haven’t I conclusively shown that, in fact, these tenets of Christianity are not true? That Paul, not Jesus, was the first Christian and …
MS. TIPPETT: But you also found yourself to be very drawn to the person of Paul…
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …and weren’t you surprised, yourself, at what you discovered there?
MS. ARMSTRONG: …and weren’t you surprised, yourself, at what you discovered there?
MS. TIPPETT: Including women keeping their heads covered in church and…
MS. ARMSTRONG: Women, and also, you know, he perverted the loving doctrine of Jesus and made it all into something intellectual and mystical and doctrinal and harsh. And found, of course, when I started to look into the actual evidence, and I found that the evidence didn’t match up to that. A lot of the epistles that are attributed to Saint Paul in the New Testament are not written by him at all.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, and some of them don’t even claim to be, when you…
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: …actually read the text. It’s interesting, isn’t it?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Exactly. They’re just lumped together with Saint Paul. Some of the most misogynist, anti-female sayings are not in — are not written by Saint Paul at all. He was much more egalitarian.
See, it was a program that I had to follow in his footsteps, more or less. We went round, and I was standing in places where he’d stood. I became very close to him, because there’s a great passion about those writings. He was a genius, and geniuses are not always easy people, or even very pleasant people. But there was a huge vulnerability about him.
MS. TIPPETT: And this was all new to you. You just …
MS. ARMSTRONG: It was completely new. I mean, I had — we’d done a little ladylike theology in the convent, but we left out the really challenging stuff. And this whole idea that Paul was in some sense the founder of Christianity, inspired by Jesus, passionately in love with a Jesus whom he’d never met, but bringing the whole richness of the Jewish tradition, especially its teaching on compassion and love. Paul’s epistles, the ones he actually wrote, are overflowing with affection for people. And, of course, it is Paul who says, you know, that you can have faith that moves mountains, you can give your body to be burnt as a martyr — words that have terrible resonance with us these days, of course — but if you lack charity, it’s worth nothing at all.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today we’re tracing the story behind religious scholar Karen Armstrong’s own ideas about God. Her first encounter with a non-Christian religion came about in the 1980s when she encountered Judaism for the first time, in Israel.
MS. ARMSTRONG: I was working with an Israeli film crew, and it was a very funny project because we had absolutely no money. We made it for $100,000, the whole thing, six parts. But it was wonderful fun. But a very important thing: Here for the first time I encountered Judaism and Islam.
Now, I was ashamed to find that I, through religious life, had been entirely Christian, and now it seemed terrible that I had merely thought of Judaism as a kind of prelude to Christianity, later discredited. And I’d never given Islam a thought. But when you’re in Jerusalem where you see these faces jostling often uneasily at the same sacred sites, you become aware of the profound connections between them.
MS. TIPPETT: I know that you call yourself an untrained or self-trained theologian, but you are considered to be one of the world’s great experts on these religions. But when you went there, you really knew nothing…
MS. ARMSTRONG: Didn’t know a thing. I didn’t know a thing.
MS. TIPPETT: … and you were very straightforward about that.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. No, no, I was learning on the job. I think that gives you a bit of an advantage in one way. I’m an amateur, and an amateur — the word literally means “one who loves.” And I haven’t done — because I haven’t imbibed the correct jargon or anything, but I didn’t know anything about it at all.
And there was a wonderful moment when I actually went and asked for some help from a Jewish scholar at a college where I later, much to my astonishment, found myself a teacher for some years. And he explained to me, for example, the — to me — revolutionary idea that religion was not about believing things. He was telling me the story of Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus who’d been approached by a bunch of pagans who said they would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” And I said, ‘Well, that’s all very nice, but I mean, what were these Gentiles supposed to believe?’ And Chaim said, ‘Well, it’s easy to see you were brought up Christian.’ He said, ‘We Jews, we — it really doesn’t matter what you believe, religion is about doing things. It’s about, say, living, as Hillel says, in a compassionate way that changes you.’
And the more I started going into all this, the more I saw that certainly that was true of Judaism, certainly it was true of Islam, whose cardinal practices are not a whole list of beliefs to which you have to subscribe, but rather, that you have to fast during Ramadan, you have to go on pilgrimage, you have to pray facing Mecca several times a day — other words, orienting yourself, teaching your body in the prostration of prayer the humility and surrender that is required of the act of Islam or submission to God, you give alms — these practices that are designed incrementally over the years to change your inner world. Now, this was completely revolutionary to me in one way, but I could also see that this was rather like the training we had in the convent where every one of these practices during the day was seen as a possibility for an encounter with God.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. ARMSTRONG: And if you look at the Gospels, in fact, there’s very little about doctrines as we later know it. I mean, Jesus does not go around discoursing about original sin or the Trinity or the fact that he’s the son of God incarnate. He is going out to people who are regarded as beneath contempt, or as traitors to their country, or as irreligious people, sinners, and saying that everybody is welcome.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And as you pointed out — I mean, I think it’s easy to forget in this country — Jesus was Jewish …
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: … from the tradition you had just discovered, that valued practice over ideas.
MS. ARMSTRONG: I know. And, of course, once you start looking at the Gospel sayings alongside the sayings in the Talmud of the early rabbis, you see Jesus as very deeply embedded in the Jewish world. You know, he himself teaches a version of Hillel’s golden rule, but he says, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” And many of his sayings resonate with the sayings of the great rabbis of this time, or that you find in the Talmud.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think as we’re speaking, I mean, you have come to be someone who has that large perspective of the three monotheistic traditions. And really it’s occurring to me, I mean, you discovered them together also.
MS. ARMSTRONG: And, in fact, it was because I did other religious programs, too, where I had to, like you, interview people, religious people, and that meant I had to hastily find out about what they were supposed to be believing and doing and thinking, and what Sufism was, what Islam was, what Buddhism was, and putting myself through a bit of a crash course in that. And it was actually the study of these other traditions, the study of Judaism, the study of Islam, the tremendously rich traditions with its immense, complex and inspiring mysticism, for example, and also Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity. I mean, that — and it’s very different from our Western forms of Christianity, and much more mystical and actually much closer to a religion such as Buddhism than we are in the West.
And so all this was actually teaching me that there were many things in religion that I just hadn’t taken on board in my convent years, in my early years, and that I could really relate to. But also, I could see what my own Catholic tradition had been trying to do at its best once you saw it in the context of these other faiths and saw ultimately the profound similarities between them. That, you know, working in isolation from one another often, and often in a spirit of deadly hostility with one another, still, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have continually over the centuries asked many of the same questions about God, spirituality, prayer, ethics, and come up with remarkably similar solutions. So that this tells you something about what kind of human beings we are, what we are as humans, how we behave when we’re confronted with the absolute, and what brings us into enlightenment.
MS. TIPPETT: Learn more about the new global initiative that’s grown out of Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED prize, the Charter for Compassion. On our Web site and staff blog, you can watch her speak about this summons to action based on compassion, a piece of moral imagination she finds at the heart of all the world’s religious traditions. Also, download a free MP3 of our complete unedited conversation and listen to archival audio of T.S. Eliot reading his poem “Ash Wednesday.” You’ll find those links on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, Karen Armstrong on how theology is like poetry. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong.”
With books like A History of God and The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong became known as one of the most provocative, original, and inclusive thinkers about religion in the modern world. Many Western readers have turned to her books in recent years to gain a better understanding of Islam. Karen Armstrong herself, I learned, discovered Islam in Israel, practically by accident.
MS. ARMSTRONG: I was absolutely ignorant. I knew nothing. And I was taken up to what the Jews call the Temple Mount, which the Muslims call the most noble sanctuary, the Haram al-Sharif. And there I was shown the Dome of the Rock, that — with the great golden dome which has a big rock in the middle of it. And on this rock I was told Abraham is thought to have sacrificed his son.
And I realized that Abraham is a great prophet. And it had to be explained to me that not only Abraham, but Moses, Jesus, Adam are all revered as great prophets in Islam, that you cannot be a Muslim and deny the truth taught by Jesus and Moses and Abraham, that your Islamic spirit must include an appreciation of these other traditions. Astonishing to me that this was so.
And then I found later in the Sufi tradition that it was quite common for a Sufi mystic — the Sufis being the mystics of Islam — to cry in ecstasy that he is no longer a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim, he’s at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or a church, because when one has touched the divine, one can leave these manmade distinctions behind. This was wonderful to me, and I was just inspired by it. But instead of seeing other traditions as, at best, you know, a mistake, but to see them as positively and as enriching, that gave me a blueprint, as it were, for delving into these other traditions and drawing what nourishment I could from them.
MS. TIPPETT: It sounds like also when you then took up to write a life of the prophet Muhammad — was it one Pakistani scholar said to you, “Your book is a love story”?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes, he said it’s a love story. He also went on to say that if I had known the prophet, I would have consented to become his 15th wife. I’m not sure that that’s actually the case, but…
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about that. What did you come to love in the prophet Muhammad?
MS. ARMSTRONG: The fact that he’s extremely human. We know more about him than we know about the founder of almost any other major tradition, because he’s so much later than Jesus, say, and so there’s more documentation. And his first biographers are really trying to write history — not history as we know it in the 21st century, but it certainly presents the prophet, warts and all. It doesn’t attempt to whitewash him. It shows him sometimes having awful trouble with his wives, who were not entirely an unmixed blessing. People often assume that Muhammad had a wonderful harem and was basking decadently in a garden of sensual delights. Far from it. I mean, the wives were often a headache and undertaken for political reasons.
But also, you see him struggling. He was living in a violent and desperate, brutal society, and he managed to bring peace to that world, not by force, but actually he — for five or six years he and the Muslims were fighting a war against Mecca, which — because the Meccans were going to exterminate the little Muslim community, Muslims were fighting for their lives. But he won not by violence, but by eschewing violence, and for two years practicing a campaign of nonviolence that’s not dissimilar to that practiced by Gandhi or other inspiring peaceable rulers.
And you see his vulnerability. You don’t often see Jesus laughing in the Gospels. In fact, I think you almost never do. You often see Muhammad playing with his grandchildren, putting little Hassan and Hussein on his shoulders and running around with them, weeping over a death of a friend, comforting his daughters, striving and sweating literally with the effort as he uttered the words — beautiful words of the Qur’an. The Qur’an doesn’t come out well in translation, but the Arabic, I’m told is just of surpassing beauty.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes. And Muslims respond to that beauty at a spiritual level.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Indeed. It is something that is heard and listened to. The word “Qur’an” means “recitation,” so it’s not something you sit and read to yourself silently, it’s something you listen to with its beauty. Muhammad was one of the great prophets, but also a poet and a statesman. And all this was sort of wonderful to me. I felt close to him, inspired by him.
In recent years, of course, with the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of the tradition that he founded, he would have been so shocked, appalled, and devastated to see what has been done.
MS. TIPPETT: In addition to her biography of the prophet Muhammad, Karen Armstrong has also written A Life of Buddha. I asked about the method of her scholarship, how she combines intellectual rigor with an empathetic comprehension of great religious figures and their traditions.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I early on had a great gift. I was reading a very scholarly and wonderful book about Islam in three volumes, and I lit upon a footnote that explained in very dry academic language what a religious historian was supposed to do. He, I think they assumed it would be a he rather than a she, was supposed to practice what was called “the science of compassion.” Now science is used here in the sense of scientia, “knowledge.” So you had — it was a knowledge acquired by compassion. And compassion, of course, doesn’t mean feeling sorry for people, pitying people. “Com-passion,” com-pathein, it means “to feel with.”
And in this little footnote the author said that you must not leave the discussion of a religious idea or a theology or a personality such as Muhammad without being able to find out what lay at the root of this, not to dismiss these ideas out of hand with — from the superior viewpoint of post-Enlightenment, Western rationalism, but to divest yourself of that rationalistic outlook and enter the minds of these mystics and sages and poets and keep on asking, ‘But why? But why?’ and filling up with scholarly knowledge the background until you come to the point where you can imagine yourself feeling the same or believing the same as them, until basically the intellectual idea learns to reverberate with you personally.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think your own passion for these ideas, and for learning about them and for asking the questions about them, seems to connect with the passion that these figures had and brought into the world.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think you miss the essence of these people if you imagine them just sitting, uttering a list of doctrines. And our theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur’an.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s such a lovely thought. Say some more about that.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Well, you see, I think theology is poetry. That’s what my Jewish friend, Chaim Maccabee, told me all those years ago when he quoted Hillel’s golden rule to me and said, “You know, it doesn’t matter what you believe. Theology is poetry.”
Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people’s perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea, they feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.
We should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater because ritual — and theater, indeed, was originally a religious ritual designed to lead us to transcendence instead of just mechanically going through the motions of our various rites and ceremonies, trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form.
There’s a wonderful moment when one of my favorite Greek Orthodox theologians, a man called Gregory of Nyssa, who was fourth-century wonderful mystic, and he and his brother and friend were the people who formulated the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Trinity. And he said, first of all, this doctrine could only be understood in a ritual context and in the context of prayer and contemplation. It’s not something like an equation that you can just follow rationally. But he said when he thinks — “When I think of the three, I think of the one. When I think of the one, I think of the three. And then my eyes fill with tears and I lose all sense of where I am.”
And that’s what a theological formulation of the Trinity should do to us. And so often our theological formulations don’t do that to us. They remain opaque and a bit soulless. But I think we should be a bit more creative and inventive with our theology.
MS. TIPPETT: On our Web site, speakingoffaith.org, you can read Gregory of Nyssa’s letter defending the concept of the Trinity. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faithfrom American Public Media. Today, “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong,” exploring the nature of theology in the story of Karen Armstrong’s life.
In our time, especially since September 11th, when people ask, ‘What do the religions have in common?’ they often look to see what ideas religions have in common, or what doctrines. But where you end up with all of your study of the many religions — and you’ve also written a life of Buddha — you end up with the litmus test of compassion. So this action rather than this idea.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes, that the religions are forms of ethical alchemy, if you like. That you behave in a compassionate way and this changes you. Why? Because all the great masters of religion tell us that what keeps us from a knowledge of the divine, from — which has been called variously God, Nirvana, Brahman, the sacred — what keeps us from this ultimate reality is our own egotism, our greed, that often needs to destroy others in order to preserve its sense of self, or even just to denigrate others. What compassion does, it makes us dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there. And it’s this that they all teach leads us into the presence of the divine. It gives us an apprehension of the divine, not believing in creeds, not undertaking weird penances.
Buddha said that the practice of compassion can introduce you to Nirvana. Jesus said that on the last day, it’s those who have visited people who are sick and naked, hungry and in prison, looked after them, who will enter the kingdom of God, who come into the divine presence, not those who have the correct theology or the right sexual ethics, for example. And so I think that is the test, that compassion is the key. And they’ve all come to this conclusion, not because compassion sounds good, it sounds nice, but because it works. That we are at our most creative when we are ready to give ourselves away. And we’re at our most sterile and dangerous when we seek to have ourselves and more so, and to use religion, indeed, to enhance our sense of ego.
One of the things I’ve been finding recently in my studies is that every single one of these major traditions that continue to nourish humanity all began in extremely violent societies. They all came to birth in times like our own, which are filled with violence and when society seemed to be crumbling. And all of them took a position against violence, tried to find…
MS. TIPPETT: At their roots?
MS. ARMSTRONG: At their root. Tried to find what lay at the core of this, which is largely egotism, fear, greed, and hatred. And hatred is a form of ego. And to relate deeply to this. And they were deep and profound, these religious traditions, to the extent that they eschewed violence.
However, a lot of people come into religion and they don’t want to lose their egos, frankly. They’re quite happy with themselves.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s a hard thing for human beings to …
MS. ARMSTRONG: It’s very hard. It’s unpopular. And also because these religions were all operating in times of great violence, that violence in the surrounding world sometimes seeps into the scripture. We have it in our Bible, for example. On one page God is telling us not to kill, and then on a few pages later we find God telling the people of Israel to wipe out all the inhabitants of Canaan. Jesus, in the New Testament, tells His followers to turn the other cheek, not to attack, and to forgive and love. And then we turn to the Book of Revelation where Jesus is leading armies and destroying the enemies of God in battle with great gusto.
Same with the Qur’an. There are moments when Muhammad is the general telling, you know, ‘You’ve got to fight hard. You’ve got to fight the enemy wherever you find them,’ as any general has to do. But then, ultimately, forgiveness is better. Ultimately, if the enemy seeks peace, you’ve got to lay down your arms immediately. And what happens when we look around the world and many of these conflicts, it’s not that religion has sparked these traditions, it’s rather that violence has become endemic in a region and religion has got sucked into that vortex of violence. The Arab-Israeli conflict began on both sides as a secular conflict. Zionism was originally a secular movement, a secular revolution against religious Judaism, and the PLO was essentially secular liberation ideology.
The lesson is let’s settle disputes while we can, while they’re still secular — and therefore capable of a pragmatic solution — before they fester, become sacralized and therefore the issues have become absolute. Because we can use a God horribly simply to endorse our own fears and loathings and hatred, and then you get horrors like September the 11th, you get the atrocities of centuries ago of the Crusades, because people are not disciplined enough in realizing that God is not just a bigger and better version of ourselves writ large, with our likes and dislikes, but a reality that is entirely different.
MS. TIPPETT: Karen Armstrong has identified compassion as a practical virtue, an aspect of moral imagination that unites all the great religious traditions. Yet one of her early best-selling books was The Battle for God. I wondered how compassion might be more complicated among religious people who have starkly different beliefs.
MS. TIPPETT: I think that this core virtue of compassion that you describe, that you find in religious traditions, it’s especially tested in our time in an interesting way, I think, by the clash within religions between people who are more fundamentalist, who we associate with using violence in the name of religion, co-opting religion to that end, and those who feel that their religion has been co-opted and taken away. It’s hard to apply that virtue of compassion to people who seem to be abusing their religion. I mean, where do you see this virtue of compassion playing into this very real dynamic of how religion gets divided?
MS. ARMSTRONG: I think we’ve all got to make an individual decision, you know, all those of us who are religious in one way and another. We don’t have to wait for a leader or a prophet to come along to look at our scriptures and reclaim them from the bigotry or the ignorance that has taken root in so many — and insecurity, and reclaim the compassionate ethos, which lies at their very root.
MS. TIPPETT: I wonder if you would tell a story that you told when you and I were on a panel together. It was a simple story, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. You described being on another — part of another discussion and a fundamentalist Christian, I believe, beginning to rant and rave. Do you remember this?
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I was at Oregon State University and it was a conference called “God 2000” and it was a wonderful conference. We had lectures from Jews, a rabbi, a Muslim scholar, and we were all asked to say what we had learned about God, and it was wonderful. People were asking profound questions about the nature of prayer, spirituality, listening to very, very religious ideas. Very pluralistic ideas were coming out that nobody thought that their tradition alone had the right answer, the monopoly of truth.
And then when we were on the final panel, suddenly erupted in the hall a fundamentalist who started to shriek at us incoherently. What I could make out was that he was saying that Jews and Muslims denied Jesus and therefore they were going to hell, and all of those of us who sided with Jews and Muslims were also going to hell, and this was evil. And you couldn’t hear much, because he was so incoherent with rage and despair. What I could hear, however, was the note of pain in his voice. This was not just some loony. This was somebody who was suffering and in pain, and felt profoundly threatened by what we were saying.
And the point is that we, seven of us on this panel — we’re all articulate people, we’d all been talking nonstop to each other and to the audience for the last two days. We were utterly struck dumb. None of us could say a word. We felt utterly winded by this assault. Even me, and I should have known better, because I’d just finished my book on fundamentalism. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Eventually this man was hustled out, and the moderator said, ‘Well, I wish we could have talked to him, because he is part of the conference of God, “Where Is God at 2000?” He’s part of this conversation.’ But somehow we couldn’t talk with one another. He was incoherent, we were struck dumb and useless, and this is the problem that we’re facing.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s also — it says something about the limits of words and dialogue.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes, it does, and I think what we’ve got to do is listen to the pain of the other. You could hear the note of pain, and you can hear the distress in it. When we look, say, at fundamentalist doctrine, we’ve got to see what pain and fear lies at the root of this because, as we’ve learned to our cost, they’re trying to express — often very badly and in noxious ways — anxieties and fears that no society, no government, can safely ignore. And so our future, I think, depends on learning to listen. Now, it’s maybe too late, because I don’t hear a great deal of pain and fear in Osama bin Laden. I think that this has moved on now and has stopped being fear and distress in some parts of the world, only in a tiny minority, but we can see — we saw on September the 11th that it only takes a very few people to commit immense havoc these days.
MS. TIPPETT: And you’re really back at that virtue of compassion again.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. It means “to feel with.” Not to feel sorry for, but to say, ‘If I were in his position, maybe I would feel the same.’
MS. TIPPETT: Even having read to the end of your memoir, I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to answer this question. Do you now consider yourself to be a religious person? You.
MS. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes, I do. And I see my work, my study, as prayer. And it is — I’ve tried to describe that in the book, both its silence, the disciplines of the science of compassion where you get out of your own preconceptions and try and enter the world of another. This changes you. And I love my work. While I’m studying, I will sometimes have intimations of awe and wonder and transcendence. And some of my Jewish colleagues tell me that’s exactly what Jews do when they study Torah and Talmud and immerse themselves in the sacred texts.
So yes, I am a religious person and I’m still on a quest. I still haven’t finished. Who knows where I will end up. But at the moment, I see my path as drawing great nourishment from other traditions, learning to absorb them, and trying to make the delight of my private study accessible to other people.
MS. TIPPETT: Karen Armstrong’s many books include A History of God, The Case for God, and her memoir, The Spiral Staircase.
In closing, we return to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday,” that was a turning point for Karen Armstrong.
READER: Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still Even among these rocks, Our peace in His will. And even among these rocks Sister, mother And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, Suffer me not to be separated And let my cry come unto Thee.
MS. TIPPETT: You can hear a 1955 recording of T.S. Eliot reading “Ash Wednesday” in its entirety at speakingoffaith.org. And download a free MP3 of this program and my complete unedited conversation with Karen Armstrong through our Web site and podcast. Also, visit our staff blog, SOF Observed, to hear Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED prize speech about compassion, which gave rise to the Charter for Compassion initiative. It launches globally this month. All this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Marc Sanchez. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.