Saturday, March 29, 2008

Karen Armstrong & Religious Tolerance

A few weeks ago, my bookstore hosted author and internationally renowned religious historian Karen Armstrong. I've meant to read her books for years, and now I have no excuse not to start reading immediately.

Her latest book is a biography of the Bible, written for the Books That Changed the World series. Armstrong's other books include investigations into fundamentalism, a history of the three major monotheistic religions, biographies of Muhammed and Buddha, and memoirs detailing her spiritual journey as a former nun.

Armstrong is a small woman with flashing, intelligent eyes, a melodic British accent, and hands that cracked when I shook them. Before the event began, I sat with her in our office while she signed stock. She was funny and open, and a conversation about author's signatures led her to start signing her own book as Barbara Taylor Bradford, a quite different author and person entirely. Because of the possibly contentious nature of her topics, I asked her if she wrote for an audience resembling herself or another ideal person. She replied that she writes for non-specialists, often imagining a conversation with friends. That same conversational quality came across during her brief lecture.

I walked her to the event space where 350 people were waiting. I was supposed to read a short introduction, but she literally leapt in front of me and stood at the microphone. I wisely cut the introduction short and let her proceed with an incredibly interesting - and seemingly off the cuff - speech about the history and interpretation of the Bible over the last two thousand years. I jotted down notes for half an hour.

Armstrong is a delightful public speaker. Her accent and earnest delivery remind me of the best University professors: possessed of a complete grasp of her topic, able to inform a general audience about a complex subject, and with the ability to engage her audience with intelligence and humor without condescending. Though I consider myself spiritual, I am not religious. Much of Ms. Armstrong's talk struck a chord in me; her approach to spirituality is more universal, liberal, tolerant, and healthy than fundamentalism, which she has no time for. It's in the spirit and history of open interpretation that she wrote this book.

Words are used in speech to express the personal interior that is ultimately unknowable and untranslatable to others. To say that Jesus is God is heresy (according to Armstrong), but the Bible does say that the word was made flesh; we create our own interior Gods and make them flesh through words. She spoke of words being combined and studied by ancient rabbis, and the words flashed, danced, sparkled and flamed in visionary rejoicing. Likewise, she discussed the development and codification of the Bible, and the history of fundamentalism. According to Armstrong, fundamentalism didn't become a force in Christianity until the 19th century, when literacy rates and scientific advances (including theories of evolution) seriously challenged the Church's position in western societies.

Later, an audience member asked her for a response to Pope Benedict XVI's recent book, which supposedly argues for a literal interpretation of scripture. Armstrong hadn't read the book, but argued that strict literal interpretation is contrary to the unity and the unifying properties of scripture. Scripture, she said, was for most of history wide open to interpretation, and legends describe how scripture and its interpretation were considered part of the earthly realm, rather than the heavenly. One legend recounts Moses coming down to earth to listen to a preacher; the sermon he hears is so much more complicated than the ten commandments that Moses exclaims, "My children have surpassed me!"

This tolerant view of spirituality is no doubt informed by Armstrong's research and investigations into other religions. Her capacity to critically accept and understand belief systems and open them to general readers has certainly granted her an important voice in religious studies. For example, she recently visited Pakistan ("What's an old wine-loving woman like me doing there?" she joked) where she spoke to assemblies of thousands and met with President Mushareff. The people who attended her lectures are "desperate for a friendly western voice; there's a real hunger in the Muslim world for a friendly western voice." What pains Muslims the most, she said, is the west's denigration of Islam. President Mushareff made this clear to her when he stressed above all else that the west must stop trampling on other people's traditions.

I'd like to share a few short quotes that deserve mention, and that embody some of the best aspects of Armstrong’s lecture:

"You'd better start somewhere on your journey to the divine."

"We can all converge on the mountain of God with our own unique Gods."

"Theology is poetry, an attempt to express the inexpressible."

"Each of us is an incarnation of one of God's hidden names." (Ibn Arabi, 12th century Sufi philosopher)

We should use our religious traditions to build community, said Armstrong, and I agree. Most of us do, I think. 350 people showed up to a suburban bookstore to hear someone talk about religious tolerance; clearly there is a need, in a time of declining faith, war, and election-year rhetoric, to find some common ground. When common ground is suffering, as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan, then fundamentalism can take root, and intolerance can follow. When a democracy fails itself and asserts the ancient code of “might makes right,” what follows is a divided and suspicious citizenry, an angry and oppressed population, a reversion to the principle of lex talionis, and the rising of religious and political voices calling for either-or choices framed in agitprop: “You’re with us or you’re against us;” the “Axis of Evil;” “God Bless Our Troops.” And that’s just in the aggressor country, not in those destroyed by bombs, or forced into poverty by propped-up governments, or bullied into submission by economic sanction and saber-rattling. Armstrong didn’t go so far as to say this, but she did offer hope – an ancient message, found at the heart of all the world’s religions, and the one thing we can all agree we need more than ever.

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