Big Think Interview With Karen Armstrong

  • Transcript


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.

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.

Question: Who or what is God?

Karen Armstrong: We can't say, and that's my answer to you.  We can't say what God is, and until the modern period, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians in the three God religions all knew that.  They insisted that we have no idea what we meant when we said that God was good, or wise, or intelligent.  God is not good, or wise, or intelligent anyway that we know.  So, people like Maimonides in the Jewish tradition, Eboncina in the Muslim tradition, Thomas Aquinas in the Christian tradition, insisted that we couldn't even say that God existed because our concept of existence is far too limited and they would have been horrified by the ease with which we talk about God today. 

When I was a young girl, I had to learn this definition of God.  "God is the supreme spirit who alone, exists of himself, and is infinite in all perfections."  Now, I always found that rather dull and I was eight years old when I learned that and it really didn't mean very much to me.  But I now also think it's incorrect because it takes it for granted that it's possible simply to draw breath and define – and the word define means literally to set limits upon a reality that has to go beyond anything we think or know. 

The trouble with a lot of modern theology and a lot of modern thinking about God, is that we think of God a sort of being like ourselves, but bigger and better with likes and dislikes similar to our own.  Now, as the great Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich said, "That's an idolatry.  That's making a God in our own image."  And that's where some of the awful atrocities of religion happened when people assume that God shares your likes and dislikes.  The Crusaders when into battle to kill Muslims and Jews and cried, "God will's it."  That was their battle cry.  Obviously God willed no such thing.  The Crusaders were simply projecting onto a deity they’d created on their own image and likeness, all their hatred and loathing of these faiths and made it endorse some of their most awful prejudices and lethal prejudices.  And modern terrorists do the same.  And that is why the theologians insisted before the modern period, that it was really better to approach God in silence. 

In ancient India, they developed what I think is an authentic model of theological discourse, religious talk about the ultimate.  It was called the Remaja Competition.  The priests would go out into the forests; we're talking about the 10th century before Christ.  And they would make a retreat and put themselves into a different frame of mind.  And that's very important, because you can't talk about God in the same way as you would have an argument with a colleague or discuss an abstruse point in law, in politics, or in business.  You put yourself in the receptive frame of mind with which we approach music or poetry, which you can measure the difference on a neurological scanner.  When they came back the priests would begin the competition and the challenger would kick off and give a description of the Brahman, the ultimate reality that lay beyond the Gods.  He would pour into this definition all that he could think, all his knowledge and insight and found a verbal formula, puzzling, illusive, and difficult.  But that's what Brahman is. 

And then his opponents would have to build on that and respond to him.  But the person who won the competition was the person who reduced all of his opponents to silence.  And it was in that silence that the Brahman was present.  The Brahman was not present in the wordy definitions.  It was present only in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.  And Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians all developed similar disciplines, similar rituals, to help people realize that when we talk about God we are at the end of what words and thoughts can do.  

Well, nowadays, we've forgotten all about that.  We talk about God as though he was like a **** or somebody.  We ask him to bless our nation, or save our Queen, or give us a fine day for the picnic.  And we actually expect him to be on our side in an election or war even though our opponents are also God's children.

So, we think about God far to easily and that's because of a lot of social, intellectual, and scientific changes that have taken place in the western world and that has made God very problematic for a lot of people.

Question: What can be gained from the study of God?

Karen Armstrong: It's not what can we study; it's what we do.  Religion is a practical discipline and it's one that we have always done, ever since humanity appeared on the scene when Homo sapiens became Homo sapiens.  Sapiens became a human being, our minds very naturally segue into transcendence.  We constantly have ideas and experiences that go beyond what we can say or know.  Most often these are expressed in art, in painting, in music.  Music, everyday confronts us with a form of knowing that doesn't depend on words.  You know how it is in the symphony when you are listening to the symphony, the last notes die away, and there's often a beat of silence in the auditorium before the applause begins.  It's a very full and pregnant silence.  Now theology should bring us to live into that silence, into that pregnant pause. 

But religion is a practical discipline and in the 17th century in the West, we turned it onto a head trip.  But it's like dancing, or swimming, or driving, which you can't learn by texts.  You have to get into the car and learn how to manipulate the vehicle.  You have to get into the water and learn against what seems to be the law gravity to float and dancing, or athletics takes you years before you develop a skill.  But if you work at it, practicing daily, you can enable your body to do things that are utterly impossible to an untrained physic.  And the religions have found that if you behave in a certain way, if you sort of perform certain rituals that expand your mind and make you realize that will make you realize and help you to seguey into transcendence and perform certain acts, adopt a certain lifestyle, you develop new capacities of mind and heart, just like the dancer, or the athlete that make you into a whole human being and principle after one of these disciplines right across the board in all of the faiths is compassion, the ability to feel with the other person.

Question: How can compassion become a discipline?

Karen Armstrong:  Compassion has to become a discipline.  It's something that you do. It's no good thinking that you agree with compassion or not, you've just got to do it.  Just like it's no good agreeing that it's possible to float, you just have to get into the pool and then you learn that it's possible. 

Every single one of the major world faiths, whether we’re talking about Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Darwinism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have all come to the conclusion that what holds us back from our better self is ego, selfishness, greed, unkindness, hatred.  And it all springs from a sense of thwarted ego.  People don't like us as much, people threaten us, and so in various ways, we cut them down to size to enhance ourselves when the best way of getting rid of that kind of unkind grasping frightened ego is by compassion.  Which doesn't mean to feel sorry for people, it means to put yourself consistently in the position of another person, put the throne and yourself from the center of your world and putting another there.  And that's what brings us, the religions say, into contact with what we call Brahman Nirvana, God, or Dove.

And every single one of the major world faiths has developed its own version of what's now known as the Golden Rule.  "Always treat all others as you would wish to be treated yourself."  Or, in the Jewish or Confucian versions, "Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you."  And this requires that you look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.  Don't do to others what you wouldn't like them to do to you. 

And they’ve all insisted that this is the essence of faith, that this is the test of true spirituality, not correct belief, or adopting the correct sexual behavior, or a certain political behavior, or a ritual practice, it is this essential thing.  And Confucius, who is the fist person, as far as we know, to formulate the Golden Rule, said you do it all day, every day.  All day, every day.  Not just doing, as we often say, "Well, that's my good deed for the day."  And then you can return to your ordinary life of greed and selfishness.  No, you have to make that—have empathy for the other absolutely reflects it.  If you can do that, people have found that you develop a new peace, you encounter within yourself and within the other person, sacredness, a transcendence, and it is that that brings us into relation with the Dove.  

There is a very good story that shows how central that is, associated in the Jewish tradition with Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus.  One day, it said that a Pagan came to Hillel and promised that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg.  And Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the Torah, and everything else is only commentary.  Go and study it.” 

Now, that's a remarkable and provocative statement.  And everything in the Torah, that’s the exodus from Egypt, the creation of the world in six days, the 613 commandments of the Torah, all of this is only a commentary on the Golden Rule.  And Jesus, St. Paul made the same point when he said, "I can have faith that moves mountains, but if I lack charity it's worth nothing."

Question: Can the Golden Rule be separated from faith?

Karen Armstrong: Look, the Golden Rule lies at the heart of every religious and of every ethical system of morality, it what makes us look at one another.  The religions have all adopted it independently, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, because they find it works and because it says something very deep about the structure of our humanity.  This is the way human beings work, and if we do it consistently, all day and every day, not when we just happen to feel like it, but even when it's utterly inconvenient, or it goes against our self-interest, then if we do that consistently we discover an enhanced capacity of human mind.  The trouble is that most people don't.  And so, one of the reasons why I started my Charter for Compassion, was to bring the Golden Rule back to the center of religion and morality and not put other's secondary goals, less demand goals, into the forefront.

Question: How do you hope to affect global policy by codifying the Golden Rule?

Karen Armstrong: Well, look.  This a huge question.  But it seemed to me for a long time that unless we now learn to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, all nations, whoever they are and however distant they may seem to us in terms of either distance or ideology, as we wish to be treated ourselves, we are not going to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation. 

We are now linked together as never before, electronically, financially, economically, politically.  What happens in Afghanistan or Gaza today can now have repercussions in New York or London tomorrow.  It's no longer "trouble spots are over there"; we're all bound together and yet our world is deeply polarized.  And a huge imbalance of wealth, and this is both a religious and a moral problem that should concern us all. 

There's a huge imbalance in power and that has resulted in the alienation, rage, fury, and awful amoral terrorism that has erupted and is erupting at the present time.  And in order to counter this, we need to make the compassionate voice of religion and morality a dynamic force in our world.  And often it has been frustrating to me as a historian for religion that the religions which should be making, because of their ethos of the Golden Rule, a major contribution to this very crucial endeavor of our time, main task of our time are often seen as part of the problem and often when religious people get together all they talk about is doctrines or – I want to change that.  And the more aggressive our ideologies become, the more aggressive our discourse whether it's in the United States, from Washington D.C., or whether it's from Tehran, or from some underground Al-Qaeda cell.  The more aggressive that discourse is, the more people of moderate persuasion have to organize and speak a voice of compassion.  That means to feel with the other. 

And that doesn't just mean that we all fall into each other's arms.  This requires dedicated practice.  In order to always treat others, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we have to learn about each other.  Not just relying on an op-ed piece we may have read here, or a half-remembered interview on the television program there that happens to chime with our own views.  We have to make a disciplined effort to find out what our governments are doing in these various parts of the world and what is actually happening.  We have to learn to listen to each other's stories.  Something we are not very good at.  We are opinionated society.  We're very happy to spout forth our own views; we're not good about listening.  We have to listen to other's stories.  Learn to listen to the stories of the terrorists just as we hope that they will listen to ours because very often these narratives express frustrations, fears, and anxieties that most societies can safely ignore. 

St. Augustine, founder of the western Christian tradition, said that if a biblical text seems to teach hate and violence, you have to give it an allegorical interpretation and make it speak charity even if this distorts the meaning of the original biblical author, and the rabbis in the Talmudic age do the same.  Somehow this has to be orchestrated and now we've got onboard in the charter, at this moment about 140 partners, worldwide, and they have their own website, and these people have all been working on this, but independently, in isolation.  Now we can all work together and create a global grassroots network.  Thousands of people are signing onto the charter online, and that means an act of commitment.  We'll keep them informed.  We want to create, never mind the leaders or the bishops or chief rabbis or imams, or Popes.  We want to create a grassroots movement where people will become attuned to uncompassionate discourse in the same way as we are now attuned to sort of gender imbalance in our speech. 

I was reading in a book the other day where people spoke about man and mankind.  Now, that's offensive.  Now, we're attuned to that.  I want to give people an ear to that.  I want to create a rapid response team, right around the world, perhaps starting originally with our partners, similar to the one we have in the United Nations whereby, where there's a problem in our society which demands a compassionate response, an educated, informed, not just a splurgy emotional thing, but an informed compassionate response that puts yourself in the position of the other and sees all sides of the problem, not just your own, there'll be somebody poised in each society who can write to the media, write an op-ed piece, to go on TV or radio.

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's 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.

Question: As a scholar, what attracted you to Tennyson’s struggle with faith?

Karen Armstrong: It doesn't say much his struggle with faith and doubt that attracted me; it was something else.  At the time, I was studying for my doctorate, studying the poetry of Tennyson.  I was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy.  It's a form of epilepsy that derives from a brain injury that I probably received at birth.  There's a big scar on my brain that gives you all kinds of weird and strange psychic experiences, and I thought I was going mad.  It wasn't diagnosed until I was 34 years old.  People just dosed me with anti-depressives, which didn't touch this brain disorder.  I recognized in something similar in Tennyson.  And years later, I discovered that he too had suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and that he too, and as did his whole family, a sort of familial thing.  It was a great disgrace in Victorian society.  Epileptics were shut away into asylums, so he kept it dark.  But I could experience – I could see certain few mistakes in his poetry which was similar to some of the rather disturbing experiences I was having myself.

Question: Does severe illness bring the sufferer closer to God?

Karen Armstrong: Illness itself can make you angry, enraged, furious, and it made me angry, enraged, and furious. I don't think it brought me to God at all.  It depends how you deal with it.  And I think that, at its best, three little words that always have to be applied to religion, religion can help you to deal with that.  Not by giving you some **** story about how Jesus loves you anyway and you'll soon be reunited with everybody upstairs.  But helping you to do some serious work on yourself, psychological work on yourself, helping you to deal with your fears, helping you not to exclude other people, but to let them in on your sorrow.  Help you not to sink into a morass of self-hatred and egotism, and that's a continual challenge and it doesn't just come with singing a couple of hymns.  This requires hard discipline, serious work.

And if you sit lightly to ego – I'm not at this stage yet, I have to say, but I'm still struggling towards it – but if you teach yourself, day by day, all day and every day, as Confucius said, to sit lightly to ego, putting ego on the back burner and putting yourself in the place of another, it doesn't seem quite so terrible when you get ill yourself.

Question: Can religion help people die well without deceiving them?

Karen Armstrong: I think there are two examples which show – I can think of many examples, which show how to die well.  One is Socrates.  Who is condemned to death, unjustly by the Athenian democracy and is forced to swallow the hemlock.  But there is no rage in Socrates, he could have escaped, he chooses not to escape.  He swallows the hemlock, he is thinking all the time of other people.  He washes his body to save the women the trouble.  He jokes kindly with his jailer, he doesn't rail against him.  And he sits and accepts the loving companionship of his friends as he drinks the Hemlock.  There is no rage, there's a big accepting kindness.  And that was not just because Socrates got a blast from God at the end, but because his whole life had been about facing the unknown, preparing for this moment, sitting loose to life and ego, and emptying himself compassionately in dialogue with other people.  In a Socratic dialogue, the kind of conversations he had without other people, nobody won the argument, everybody realized that they knew nothing at all and it always had to be conducted throughout with gentleness.  There must be no anger or malice.  And that endless discipline throughout his life enabled him to face this unjust death.  

And the other one is Jesus, who on the cross in the depths of agony is presented by the gospel writers as having time to have a kindly word for one of his fellow victims, to make provision for his mother, and forgive his executioners.  But again, we don't know much about Jesus' disciplines.  But he had lived a compassionate life. 

It won't just come at the end.  I've just seen my mother through her last years and a lot of the distress that she experienced in her life came to the fore in the end, things that she hadn't really dealt with.  Now is the time to prepare for death.  A lot of the religions say that life is a preparation for death, which sounds morbid, but extinction, something we find very, very difficult to cope with, the idea that we're not going to be here anymore and that we've got to go through as the Buddha always said, "Sickness, old age, and an undignified death."  He himself suffered a death of dysentery in some jungle miles from his friends and died comforting his followers saying,” Don’t worry about me.  You have got in yourself the means to go on."  Thinking of them. 

And I'll tell you one personal story if you'd like of somebody who was dying and who made an immense impact on me and has remained an icon with me.  When I was a young nun, we were trained quite abrasively.  People who have read my story always think it reminds them of boot camp in the Army, and you don't expect your Sergeant Major to be full of compassion towards you.  He's supposed to be training you to face fire and to be tough. 

But I had one Superior who was kind.  And she had had a grim life.  At the age of 29, she'd gone deaf and had a very good mind, but spent all of the intervening years I think something like 30 or 40 years, sewing and mending sheets in the laundry.  You'd think a waste of a life and anybody else would have become rageful and bitter.  But she didn't.  And at the end of her life, she was dying all the year that she was training me.  She was dying of cancer.  When I arrived in her community, she had been given three weeks to live, but she lasted the whole year and she refused to take any pain killers because she said they would make her head muzzy, and she was dealing with young people and had to be alert for them.   Now, you couldn't put her on a pedestal, but she was really quite eccentric in many ways, had many, kind of quirky eccentricities.  She used to get furious if we broke things.  As a result we were also nervous.  I had never broken so many things in the whole course of my life, but I was beginning to realize that I was going to have to go.  My body was telling me, all ready.  I was starting vomiting, sickness, nose bleeds, all psychosomatic symptoms that I was going to have to leave the convent.  But she was always so kind.  

Then came the day when they were going to take her away to the Mother House to die and she was in bed, full of pain, skin and bones.  We all went in, us young nuns to say goodbye to her and she smiled, rather like Socrates, and joked with us.  And said she'd be looking down on us from heaven and she'd be dead soon and all the rest of it.  Sent us out, and she asked me to come back.  And I went and knelt by the bed and she said, "Sister, I was told that you would be a troublesome young woman.  I want to tell you, you have never been a trouble to me.  You've been a good girl, sister.  And always remember I told you so.  You are a good girl."  And then she put her hand on my head and blessed me and I went out. 

Now, for someone in an extreme of agony to take notice to no doubt a rather annoying young woman, troubled young woman in that moment of that extremity.  I've never forgotten that.  But that's—she had trained herself, through all those difficult years not to become bitter, not to think, why me?  Why am I deaf?  Why am I wasting my life?  And as a result, she has remained in me as an icon of what a good person should be.

Recorded on November 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen