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: Why did you decide not to remain a nun?
Karen Armstrong: Well, I didn't leave the faith just when I left the convent. First I left the convent and that was because I wasn't a very good nun. I could see that I wasn't going to make it. It's very difficult to be a nun, or to live a religious life. It's very difficult to live a life of total celibacy or a life without any possessions or material responsibilities at all, or in total obedience to somebody else, and remain a mature whole human being, and I knew that I wasn't going to be one of those. There were some nuns in the convent who were able to do that and were fulfilled by it, but there were a lot of others who weren't and I could see that I was going to go into that category.
So, with great sorrow, I left. It wasn't a wonderful freeing experience. I didn't leap over the wall, as we say, in order to travel and wear beautiful clothes, and make lots of money and fall in love. I knew it was going to be awful. And it was awful. I'd been in the convent for seven years from the age of 17 years old to 24. That's a very formative period in anybody's life and I had totally missed the 1960's, which were a huge change in western social mores. I entered in 1962 and left in 1969. I had my first Beatles record in 1970, and I had never even heard of Vietnam. I came out of my convent, I was already at Oxford at that time and all of my fellow students were protesting against the Vietnam War, and I had never heard of it.
There was one time when we had been told about the Cuba Crisis in 1963, which happened shortly after I had left – or after I entered, I should say. And we were told that the end of the world was nigh and so we were all praying. But then they forgot to tell us that the crisis was over. So, for three weeks we sat and were expecting Armageddon. We were very isolated. That made it very difficult for me to make a comeback to the world because I didn't know what had happened. Society was transformed, it was as though I had been like Rip Van Winkle who had gone to sleep for a hundred years and came out and found totally transformed and unrecognizable world.
So, when I left, there was never any great moment when I stalked out of the Catholic Church. It fell away from me. I had tried, as I thought as a nun, to open myself to God and God seemed totally uninterested in me. The heavens remained closed and opaque. I now realize, of course, that I had a very, very inadequate idea of God. I was expecting clouds to part, a little sort of whisper in my ear, and of course, that's not what God is. God is not another being; we are talking about something much more profound.
So, I think I just found increasingly the whole weight of theology and theological dogma incredible and God remained distant and unknowable, and I just sort of drifted away from it.
Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen