With sweeping books like A History of God and The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong is known for her singular insight into religion in our world. But Armstrong herself first discovered an interest in world religions in midlife, and practically by accident.
She was a Roman Catholic nun at a young age, with a narrow view of Christianity and no knowledge at all of other traditions. She spent years after that as a non-religious person.
After my conversation with Karen Armstrong, I felt that her personal trajectory of faith strengthens her personal appeal for modern readers. She is a formidable intellectual, but as a theologian she calls herself an amateur, in the full sense of the Latin root of that word "amateur" — "a lover" of her subject.
America today is full of amateur theologians: people who are searching for a fullness of knowledge about their own faith and that of others, and who find this search to be intellectually thrilling and spiritually nourishing. Some conduct their searches outside the realm of religious practice altogether. Others supplement and complement their formal religious lives with further reading, learning, and thinking.
Karen Armstrong's books have helped many people think more deeply about religion in the world in recent years. I'll turn over the rest of this reflection to illuminating words she shared in our interview — and that I have continued to ponder.
On becoming a student and scholar of religions:
"Early on I had a great gift. I was reading a very scholarly and wonderful book about Islam in three volumes, and I lit upon a footnote that explained in very dry academic language what a religious historian was supposed to do. He — I think they assumed it would be a he rather than a she — was supposed to practice what was called 'the science of compassion.' Now science is used here in the sense of scientia, 'knowledge.' So it was a knowledge acquired by compassion. And compassion, of course, doesn't mean feeling sorry for people, pitying people. Compassion, com-pas-sion, means 'to feel with.'
"And in this little footnote, the author said that you must not lead the discussion of a religious idea or a theology or a personality such as Muhammad without being able to find out what lay at the root of this, not to dismiss these ideas out of hand from a superior viewpoint of post-enlightenment, Western rationalism, but to divest yourself of that rationalistic outlook and enter the minds of these mystics and sages and poets and keep on asking, 'But why? But why?' And filling up with scholarly knowledge the background until you come to the point where you can imagine yourself feeling the same, or believing the same as them until basically the intellectual idea learns to reverberate with you personally."
On the essence of religious experience and ideas:
Theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur'an.
"Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world, that changes people's perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer. So that when people listen to a theological idea, they [should] feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.
"And we should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater, because that ritual was originally designed to lead us to transcendence, instead of just sort of mechanically going through motions of our various rites and ceremonies. [We should be] trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form."
On religion and violence:
"One of the things I've been finding recently in my studies is that every single one of these major traditions that continue to nourish humanity all began in extremely violent societies. They all came to birth in times like our own, which are filled with violence and when society seemed to be crumbling. And all of them took a position against violence, tried to find what lay at the core of this — which is largely egotism, fear, greed and hatred — and to relate deeply to this. And they were deep and profound, these religious traditions, to the extent that they eschewed violence.
"And also because these religions were all operating in times of great violence, that violence in the surrounding world sometimes seeps into the Scripture. We have it in our Bible, for example. On one page God is telling us not to kill, and then a few pages later we find God telling the people of Israel to wipe out all the inhabitants of Canaan. Jesus, in the New Testament, tells his followers to turn the other cheek, not to attack and to forgive and love. And then we turn to the Book of Revelation where he, Jesus, is leading armies and destroying the enemies of God in battle with great gusto.
"Same with the Qur'an. There are moments when Muhammad is the general telling, 'You've got to fight hard. You've got to fight the enemy wherever you find them,' as any general has to do. But then, ultimately, 'forgiveness is better.' Ultimately, if the enemy seeks peace, you've got to lay down your arms immediately.
"When we look around the world in many of these conflicts, it's not that religion has sparked these traditions, it's rather that violence has become endemic in a region and religion has got sucked into that vortex of violence."
"I see my work, my study, as prayer. Its silence, the disciplines of the science of compassion where you get out of your own preconceptions and into the world of another, this changes you. And I love my work. While I'm studying I will sometimes have intuitions of awe and wonder and transcendence. And some of my Jewish colleagues tell me that's exactly what Jews do when they study Torah and Talmud and immerse themselves in the sacred texts. So yes, I am a religious person and I'm still on a quest. I still haven't finished. Who knows where I will end up. But at the moment, I see my path as drawing great nourishment from other traditions, learning to absorb them, and trying to make the delight of my private studies accessible to other people."