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: What religious thinkers have influenced you most?
Karen Armstrong: Well, I never intended to be a historian of religion. My aim was to become a professor of English Literature in a university, but I had a series of absolute career disasters and found myself making television programs about the nature of religion and about Christian history and started to discover about other religious traditions, and that was an absolute eye-opener for me because, in fact, the study of the traditions doesn't necessarily make you want to convert to another tradition, but it helps you to see your own differently and expands your outlook. So, I learned a lot from both, initially Jewish and Muslim theologians that had been missing, perhaps from my rather parochial Catholic upbringing.
From the Rabbis of the early Talmudic age I learned that there is never a last word on God. There's, you always continue to question. Even God himself could be questioned and you can keep arguing with one another and there will be no end to this conversation about the divine because no human expression of God can be ultimate.
From the Muslims I learned from the extraordinary pluralism of the Koran, the fact that the Koran endorses every single one of the major world faiths, but I was particularly enthralled by the Sufi tradition, the mystical tradition of Islam, which is so open to other religious faiths. It's quite common for a Sufi mystic to cry in ecstasy that he's neither a Jew, a Christian, nor a Muslim. He is at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or a church because when one's glimpsed the divine, one's left these man-made distinctions behind. There's on quotation I discovered very early in my researches, very early, and it just opened huge doors to me. It's by the major Sufi philosopher/mystic, Ebbon Arabi who lived in the 12th and 13th century and is still deeply studied by Muslims today. And it goes like this: "Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss much good, neigh, you will miss the whole truth of the matter. God, the omnipotent, undulmissioned, cannot be confined by any one creed. For he says in the Koran, wheresoever he turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature and in praising it, he praises himself, which he would not do if he were just. But his dislike is based on ignorance."
I suppose from the time I read that, one of my objectives was to knock down those barriers of ignorance that hold us pack from that kind of openhearted appreciation of the unanimity of the human quest for the divine.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen