The Freelance Monotheist

An Interview With Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is one of the most renowned religion scholars in the world today. Recognized for the lucidity of her prose and her extraordinary breadth of knowledge, she is the author of more than a dozen books, among them the acclaimed bestsellers A History of God, Islam, and Buddha. Born near Birmingham, England, in 1945, Armstrong was raised Roman Catholic, and entered a convent in her teens. After seven years, she left in personal crisis, feeling that she had failed her faith and that her faith had failed her. She embarked on an academic career, but her hopes were dashed when her dissertation was rejected. She took a position at a girl’s school, from which, after six years, she was “politely” asked to leave. Around this time she found out she had epilepsy. “My early life,” she has written, “was a complete catastrophe.”

Armstrong eventually found her calling as a writer. Today, the “runaway nun,” as she was called, derisively, early in her writing career, is in demand as a public speaker, a university lecturer, and a television and radio commentator. She teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, in London, and in 1999 received the Muslim Public Affairs Media Award. Her recently completed memoir will be published in 2004 by Knopf. In February of this year, she took part in an interview with Tricycle contributing editor Andrew Cooper.

You went from being a devout Catholic nun to being a sharp and skeptical critic of religion to being a writer with a deep appreciation for the world’s faiths. How do you account for these shifts in direction? I left my Catholic convent exhausted by religion, convinced that I was a spiritual failure. For about thirteen years, I wanted nothing more to do with religion. But I came back to an appreciation of faith by writing about it. After a series of career disasters, I found myself working in television, making programs about the various religions. At first my approach was very skeptical, but gradually the material began to get through to me. I realized that despite my own intensive religious background, there was a great deal about faith and spirituality that was entirely unfamiliar to me. I was also impressed by the profound unanimity of the major world faiths. It was the study of other religious traditions - initially Judaism, Islam, and Greek Orthodox Christianity, but later the oriental theistic and nontheistic faiths - that gave me back an appreciation of what religion was all about.

In your more recent work, you make frequent reference to the Axial Age. What was the Axial Age, and what does it have to do with understanding our own? The term Axial Age was coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the period from 800 to 200 B.C.E., when all the great world traditions came into being in four core regions of the world: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Greece. This period proved to be pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. We have never progressed beyond the insights achieved at this time, though they have often been restated and reinterpreted over the years. What is striking about these traditions is their similarity, beneath the obvious surface differences. You can see a clear resemblance between Socrates and the Buddha, for example. All these world traditions stress the importance of the inner life, of compassion; all put human suffering at the heart of their agenda and devised means of exploring the inner world. All emphasize the importance of thinking for yourself, of questioning everything, even the most cherished doctrines and traditions, and of never taking anything “on faith.” In the modern world, we have also been undergoing a period of major transformation, similar to the Axial Age. But our insights have been mainly scientific or technological. We have produced no spiritual geniuses of the stature of the Buddha, Confucius, Isaiah, or Lao-tzu. And the spiritual approach of the Axial sages will challenge the way that many people are religious today.

How so? Often, contemporary institutional faiths seem to go out of their way to reproduce exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial sages were trying to abolish: there is an excessive reliance upon doctrine (an approach that is alien to all Axial faiths) and on tradition (which must never be questioned); people are urged to accept things “on faith” in a way that the Buddha would have deplored; and the primal virtue of compassion is often ignored and quite inessential doctrines and practices put forward as the kernel of the faith.

You write that the grand-scale social, economic, and cultural transformations of the Axial Age necessitated that people find “new ways of being religious.” In the modern period, we are confronted by the same imperative, but we have yet to find a historically meaningful and sufficient response. What do you see as some of the more promising trends in that direction? I think one of the most positive developments of the twentieth century was a growing pluralism. For the first time in history, we learned to understand other people’s faith. Before, travelers reported exotic religious practices but had no understanding of the religious feeling that lay behind these rites. But thanks to improved communications and linguistic skills, that has been rectified. We have yet to understand the full implications of this development, but it is likely to have as profound an impact on our consciousness as the development of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We will never be able to see either our own or other people’s religion in quite the same way again. Some people find this threatening and have created new denominational ghettoes, but the new pluralism is already a fact of life. It is not that we are going to create a giant “World Religion,” but rather that people turn quite naturally for nourishment to more than one tradition. More Christians than Jews read Martin Buber, for example, and Jews read Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox. People call themselves Christian or Jewish Buddhists. And this cross-fertilization could revitalize sagging traditions and infuse them with new life.

You’ve explored the rise of fundamentalism as a response to modernity’s challenges to religious faith. Could you characterize a fundamentalist mindset? Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. It is a defensive, embattled religiosity that is fighting for its life. Because fundamentalists fear annihilation, they are highly suspicious of the “other” and have all developed quite pernicious views of the “enemy,” though it must be emphasized that only a tiny proportion of fundamentalists take part in acts of terror and violence. Most are simply trying to live what they regard as a true religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith, and all have developed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularism that is felt as invasive and destructive. Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied is convinced that modern secular society is trying to wipe out religion. And besides religious fundamentalists, there are secular fundamentalists who often have as bigoted and inaccurate an idea of religion as fundamentalists have of secularism.

What does it mean to be a “freelance monotheist,” as you have described yourself? I do not belong to any one tradition exclusively. In my studies, I have drawn nourishment from Judaism and Islam, as well as from the various forms of Christianity. I cannot regard any one of these faiths as superior, and certainly do not regard any one as having the monopoly of truth. But this description of my position is not really accurate any longer, because, as you know, my last book was about the Buddha, and I was quite enthralled by his insights. I am also discovering the Chinese traditions, as well as Hinduism. These faiths are all so deeply similar. Each has its own particular genius, each its peculiar weakness. And at the moment I find inspiration in them all.

Writing Buddha was a departure from your more familiar territory in the Abrahamic faiths. Why did you take on the project? Because I had always been very interested in the Buddha. My sister has been a Buddhist for over thirty years, so it is in the family, as it were. But when I wrote A History of God, even though I dwelt on the monotheisms, I was astonished to find how “Buddhist” many of them are. The common Western view of a personalized deity, a Supreme Being, a literal creator figure, is really a very primitive, bowdlerized development—a symbol of the decline in religious understanding that has been growing apace in the West since the scientific revolution. As I explained in The Battle for God, we have developed a purely literal understanding of scripture, and cannot think mythically anymore. But the most eminent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians always maintained that God was not another being, that it was better to say that God did not exist, because our concept of existence was far too limited to apply to God. That it was better to call God Nothing. He—a ridiculous pronoun—was not the Supreme Being, was not a being at all, but something entirely other. And Greek Orthodox Christians see Jesus in a way that is very similar to the way Buddhists revere the Buddha, the Enlightened Man, something that we can all be, even in this life. And doctrines like the Trinity were devised in part to remind Christians that it is impossible to think about God as a simple personality. So there was nothing strange for me about Buddhism. It is very close to the best forms of monotheism.

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