On Tuesday the 17th of November Jackie Tidey gave a presentation on Karen Armstrong as part of the Spiritual Reading Group session in the Carmelite Library. Here is the text of Jackie’s paper.
Ten years ago I read Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase after reading a favourable review.
I’m not sure what resonated so strongly with me but it was probably her extraordinary honesty, her frankness in describing her spiritual and personal struggle. I found the last chapter of the book extraordinary and I have read it many times. For me the spiritual nuances she expresses are quite profound.
I hadn’t heard of Karen Armstrong then but since that time she has become a prolific author and references to her writings and public appearances and utterances are everywhere.
So… who is she, who is Karen Armstrong? It’s a question she herself struggled with for a long time. It’s a question that has a number of answers. Karen Armstrong wears many hats. It’s impossible to tell you now in the short time I have all that much about her and her ideas, but I am going to approach this by using seven headings: phrases or descriptors that people use to describe her:
A spokesperson for religion
A former nun
A questioner and seeker
A prolific author
An historian of religion
Not liked by everyone
Awarded many honours
A spokesperson for religion
Michael McGirr, who many of you probably know, says of her, ‘For many years, Karen Armstrong has offered sane and lucid insight into the many ways in which religion and ideology have shaped the modern world. Hers has been the voice of calm and reason in a chaotic and often destructive storm.’
Karen Armstrong has become the go-to spokesperson for her views on religion and spirituality. In our increasingly secular Western world, and in many predominantly Muslim countries, she’s a well-known figure: on Youtube, on Oprah, at the TED forum, at the United Nations, speaking in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, addressing the US Senate, US Congress, in bookshops and university forums around the world. She spends her life thinking, studying and talking about religion and spirituality. It’s quite remarkable really: a woman who spent the 1960s living a fairly circumscribed life as a nun has been able, since leaving the convent, to become a sought-after commentator on spirituality and religious issues on the international stage. She has done this through sheer determination, necessity and use of her considerable intellectual gifts.
A former Catholic nun
Some background. At 17, to the astonishment of her family in Birmingham, who were not particularly devout … and who opposed what she wanted to do, Karen Armstrong joined a community of nuns called the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England. It was the early 1960s and she found convent life harsh. In her first memoir Armstrong says she was required to mortify her flesh with whips and wear a spiked chain around her arm. On one occasion when she spoke out of turn, she claimed that she was forced to sew for a fortnight at a treadle machine that had no needle. Those were the days before the Second Vatican Council when no-one dared question the authority of those in charge. Karen Armstrong obviously did in that convent and she paid the price. To the Superior’s credit, the religious order did recognise she had an exceptional intellect and she went up to Oxford where she completed an undergraduate degree, a Masters and eventually, when she had left the convent, she worked towards a Doctorate. Seven years after she entered the convent, she left, pretty disillusioned, ill and fully believing she was through with religion and God.
A questioner and seeker
Karen Armstrong was 24 when she left the convent and she knew she needed to work to survive financially so she became a teacher at a university college in London (Bedford College) teaching English Literature, then, when her D.Phil thesis at Oxford was failed outright, and controversially, by a visiting professor her academic career appeared to be over. She could not continue teaching at university level so she began to teach at a Girls Secondary College in London. Then a further blow: the blackouts she had been experiencing for many years were diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy and she eventually lost her teaching position because of her ill-health. At that point she believed she was a total failure: failed nun, failed academic, and now failing health. Out of work and desperate to do something, anything, she decided to write a memoir of her life as a nun. It was an unexpected success and propelled her into the life of a minor media celebrity. From that came television interview work with the BBC and eventually work in Jerusalem on a documentary about St Paul with a Jewish TV director and crew. It was the first time she had any experience of other religions and learning that there were other ways to lead a spiritual life was a revelation. She discovered the Jewish idea of ‘orthopraxy’, right conduct, rather than the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church with which she was familiar. Here began her reconnection with a life of the spirit. Though she was ‘still convinced that God and I were through,’ something began to happen as she conducted her research in the Holy Land. She says, ‘St Paul, a difficult, prickly genius, had stormed his way into my affections.’ Visiting the various holy sites, she began to come alive spiritually as never before: ‘I felt as though I had been plugged in, like an electrical appliance, and had suddenly come to life.’ But she had another setback: a new TV series on the Crusades that she had been writing and researching for three years was cancelled when funding ran out. Once more she was back to zero, forced to reinvent herself: She was again desperate to work on something to convince herself that she still had a future. That ‘something’ was this book A History of God, a book everyone warned her against: ‘Karen, don't write this book now! You need to do something more mainstream,’ one publisher pleaded with her. A book on God seemed like an ironic choice for someone who had fled a convent, but ‘at some inchoate, unconscious level, I felt that God and I had unfinished business’.
Again, something unexpected happened: she began to believe, not in the old patriarchal and limiting God of the convent, but in something radically new: ‘I had no idea that I was about to 'turn again' and experience what the Greeks call metanoia, or conversion.’
A prolific author
Karen Armstrong’s first three books are basically memoirs but The History of God is an extraordinary piece of scholarship. It’s a rich panorama of religious life in all its many facets and permutations. In writing it, Armstrong arrived at some powerful truths: ‘Theology, like religion itself, was really an art form. ... Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.’ While researching and writing it she also began to experience a kind of transcendence through the silent devotion of her writing: ‘A disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy. ... We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.’
Karen Armstrong has now written twenty-five books. Of those I have read the ones I would recommend are: The Spiral Staircase, Buddha, A Short History of Islam, The History of God, The Case for God, Fields of Blood. I’ve also read her books on the Mystics, and 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. There’s also a new book just out on St Paul called St Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle. St Paul hasn’t had a good press in recent times and this, her second book on Paul, is another attempt to reinstate his reputation.
An historian of religion
Karen Armstrong knows much about all the religions of the world, how they came to be, their founders, how they spread the word, how their influence has waxed and waned, the power shifts in their hierarchies, their followers. She has a challenging understanding of the purpose of religion and suggests there is not much difference between religious identity and human identity. Being religious is like being hungry or thirsty. It is inevitable because we all wrestle with ‘nothingness’. Armstrong’s books have a lot to say: they are well-researched, detailed, yet entertaining reads. She wears her scholarship lightly. She might be writing about 4000 years of religious history but every paragraph is gripping. There is so much detail and scholarship that’s it’s impossible to commit all that information to memory, but hers is also a panoramic view of what religion has meant to humankind over the millennia. How once it permeated every aspect of life and how now in the West many people are overtly hostile towards faith, belief, religions.
Not liked by everyone
Many people don’t like Karen Armstrong’s views. She has had numerous public debates with ‘New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens when he was alive and Sam Harris. (He is the US critic of religion who will be visiting Australia next January).
She says of Dawkins, ‘He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him much, but we are British, so we smile politely and exchange pleasantries. We have been on panels together, but it’s absolutely pointless.’
What she doesn’t say, but others do, is that debating God with Dawkins is pointless because he has a poor grasp of theology and lacks knowledge about the history of religion. One English critic has compared Dawkins on religion thus: ‘Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.’
She has won many awards and honours
In June of this year she received an OBE. For services to Literature and Interfaith Dialogue.
The myriad awards and honours she has received are too many to list here.
But, in 2008, she was awarded a prestigious TED prize and she took the opportunity to use the prizemoney to set up a Charter for Compassion. Unveiled in Washington, its signatories include the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. People across the globe have used it to affirm their belief that religion has a key part to play in compassion and tolerance.
Karen Armstrong believes that there is no point in saying you are religious if you do not actively practise compassion. It’s the Golden Rule, first promulgated by Confucius, ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ It’s a phrase we have heard again and again, probably expressed more often in positive terms, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
The Charter for Compassion has a website that is worth a look and which sets out the actual terms of the charter clearly and simply.
It's ironic that Armstrong now has ended up living a kind of monastic, solitary existence, alone with her focus on the divine. She has come full circle: spending her life thinking, talking and writing about God. As she says, ‘the very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life.’
Seeking the numinous and moments of transcendence in her life and work has finally delivered her to a place that she was seeking all those years ago, ‘when I had packed my suitcase, entered my convent and set off to find God.’