The Freelance Monotheist

An Interview With Karen Armstrong

An Interview With Karen ArmstrongKaren 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.

 

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-�-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.

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