Born in England in 1944, Karen Armstrong is a TED Prize-winning scholar of comparative religion best known for her bestselling 1993 volume "A History of God." A Catholic nun from 1962 through 1969, she left the order to become a student of English literature at Oxford amidst a struggle with then-undiagnosed epilepsy, a period of her life discussed in her 2004 autobiography "The Spiral Staircase." In 2008 she called for a council of world religious leaders to draw up a "Charter for Compassion" based on the moral principles embodied in the Golden Rule. In November 2009, she unveiled the Charter in Washington, DC and online.
Question: Can faith and science be reconciled?
Karen Armstrong: There's no question of reconciling them. They have different jobs to do. And before the modern period, people in all cultures understood this. People knew there were two ways of coming at truth. One was science, or what the Greeks called logos: reason, logic. And that was essential that the discourse of science or logic related directed to the external world. The other was mythos, what the Greeks called myth, which didn't mean a fantasy story, but it was a narrative associated with ritual and ethical practice but it helped us to address problems for which there were no easy answers, like mortality, cruelty, the sorrow that overtakes us all that's part of the human condition. And these two were not in opposition, we needed both.
If your child dies, or you witness a terrible natural disaster, yes, you certainly want a scientific explanation as to what's happened. But science can't help you to find meaning, help you deal with that turbulence of your grief, rage, and dismay. A science can diagnose a cancer and can even find a cure for it, but it can't, and a scientist will be the first to say, it can't help you to deal with the stress and disappointment and terror that comes with a diagnosis, and nor can it help you to die well, like Socrates, kindly, not railing against faith, but in possession of your own death. For these imponderable questions people have turned to mythos.
But the important thing about myth is that it's not just something that you believe, a myth is essentially a program for action. And unless you translate a mythical story, or a doctrine out of the church, into practical action, it just remains incomprehensible. Rather like the rules of a board game which seem very sort of dull and complicated and incomprehensible until you pick up the dice and start to play, when everything falls into place.
And so, the early doctrines of the church, even doctrines like Trinity and Incarnation, were originally also calls for action, calls for selflessness, calls for compassion, and unless you live that out compassionately, selflessly, you didn't understand what the doctrine was saying.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen