The Freelance Monotheist

An Interview With Karen Armstrong

Buddhism, too, is rooted in the Axial Age, yet for Western Buddhists like Tricycle readers, much of its appeal seems to be that it offers a new way of being religious. What do you make of this seeming contradiction? I think this ties up with my last answer. I think many people find that the personalized God does not work. They are often wearied by excessive doctrinal claims, and want a religion of practice. They are also sickened by the religious intolerance of some of the monotheisms. So Buddhism seems “new,” but of course the monotheisms themselves are religions of practice, and the Western insistence on dogma (which is very different from the Greek and Russian Orthodox approaches) is a very peculiar development. Buddhism seems new only because people in the West have lost an understanding of what the Western religious traditions were really trying to say.

In A History of God you call the French scientist and theologian Blaise Pascal “the first modern.” He was the first to recognize that in the scientific age the existence of God could not be taken for granted and that faith was, therefore, a matter of personal choice. How is Pascal’s religious dilemma our own? How is it different? Voluntarism is an essentially modern development. Earlier, it was impossible to live outside a religious tradition. I show this in the first chapter of The Battle for God. Now religion is optional, a matter of personal choice. We can shop around and find a tradition that suits us, in a way that would have been impossible in the premodern world. Pascal also felt pure dread when he contemplated the cosmos, which seemed empty of religious significance. But in recent years, some physicists seem to be developing a new kind of religious discourse when they contemplate the immensity of the universe. They talk mythologically—the Big Bang, Black Holes—and, like the mystic, force us to face the darkness of uncreated reality. Like the best theology, this discourse makes us realize that we have come to the end of what thoughts and words can do, and pitches us into what mystics used to call “the cloud of unknowing.” I think that there is now less dread in modern “unbelief” than there was in Pascal’s day. Instead, there’s a tired weariness and ennui. Which is just as dangerous because it leads directly to nihilism, where nothing much matters anymore.

Your extensive writings on Islam have done much to illuminate for Westerners the power and genius it has shown in addressing the spiritual needs of its adherents. Your nation and ours are on the verge of war with an Islamic country. How are you feeling these days about the world situation? I have great fear for our situation. I had been subconsciously dreading something like 9/11 for years because I felt that we were on a dangerous course vis-á-vis the Muslim world. The 9/11 atrocities are a hideous example of the nihilism I mentioned. It is hard to think of anything more nihilistic than the suicide bomber or hijacker. But this is what happens if you behave as though people don’t matter, if you tell a people for long enough that they don’t count and that their needs and desires are not important. The suicide bombing in Israel also springs from a despair with conventional politics, a feeling that you have nothing to lose. The fact that people in the Arab world feel this is very, very dangerous indeed. This is why all the faiths need to go back to the primal duty of compassion. This is what the world needs from religion right now. We do not need more certainty—we have seen too much certainty recently—but we need greater respect for the sacred rights of others, including our enemies. Buddhism has a lot to contribute here, but so do all the faiths. September 11 shows what happens when this sense of the sacred value of all beings is lost.

I am also worried about the rise in religious intolerance in the West. Immediately after 9/11 there was a window of opportunity, and many Americans were eager to learn more about Islam. But recently the mood seems to have hardened. The Christian Right, for example, seems to have been fanning the flames of hatred and misunderstanding. And this is simply too dangerous. We cannot afford these polarities anymore because we live in one world—that was the revelation of 9/11. We are all members of one another, as St. Paul said, and what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan today will have repercussions in New York and London tomorrow.

From reading your books, I get the sense that, for you, scholarship is a spiritual pursuit. Is that true? Yes, my study is a spiritual quest. Studying texts is my form of prayer and meditation, and often, while studying, I experience moments of awe and wonder. The effort of getting beyond my own preconceptions to enter another form of faith and thought is also a means of transcendence—a transcendence of self, which is one of the objects of such spiritual practices as yoga. A scholar called this discipline “the science of compassion” because in this kind of study you have to put yourself to one side and learn to feel with others.

Do you see, in the countless forms religion has taken, a sine qua non of the religious life? Yes. Compassion is the sine qua non of religious life. Spirituality that does not lead to respect for others has no value at all. And compassion is one of the chief ways in which we leave the self behind and can thus enter into what Buddhists call nirvana and what monotheists call the presence of God. Without compassion, there is no religious life at all.

In Her Own Words

On Fundamentalism, from Islam: A Short History

"Fundamentalists have been successful insofar as they have pushed religion from the sidelines and back to center stage, so that it now plays a major part in international affairs once again, a development that would have seemed inconceivable in the mid-twentieth century, when secularism seemed in the ascendant... But the desperation and fear that fuel fundamentalists also tend to distort the religious tradition, and accentuate its more aggressive aspects at the expense of those that preach toleration and reconciliation."

On the Axial Age, from Buddha

''[During the Axial Age], a few men sensed fresh possibilities and broke away from the old traditions. They sought change in the deepest reaches of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a reality that transcended normal, mundane conditions and categories. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves"

On Faith, from A History of God: The 4,OOO-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

'When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly: If the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded. Yet in the past people have always created new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality. Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life.'

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