Karen Armstrong: On God, Love, Religion and Science

Thank you, Big Think for portions of your interview of Karen Armstrong, posted at: http://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-karen-armstrong

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:

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.

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

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