Sunday, May 15, 2011

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (2004, 306 p.) is an extraordinarily engaging memoir. Ms. Armstrong recounts the time from when she left a Roman Catholic convent in about 1969 to her transformation into one of the leading writers about religion. However, this is not a story all filled with grace and light. In fact, she tells a story of struggle, hurt, and misfortune, although I would say it is one of ultimate success, and I believe that in the end, she must appreciate the immense contribution that she has made to religious understanding.

Armstrong left the convent feeling a bit of a failure as a religious, never having found God has she had hoped and expected. She left Oxford without a Ph.D., thus never having qualified for the academic career that she had pursued, and she was eased out of a secondary teaching career without any apparent alternative available to her. Along the way, hide-bound and insensitive nuns, dull-witted psychiatrists, arrogant professors, and penny-pinching administrators contributed to her woes. She does not berate them, and in the end, despite obvious cruelty and arrogance, one almost secretly rejoices that these impediments led to so many misfortunes, since she might not have turned to the career that I’ve found so enriching.

Only by chance and not really by choice (intentional, anyway) did she turn to religion as a subject for her career as a writer. With her book, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which she writes a parallel history (so much as history allows) of the three great monotheistic religions she turns again. (I use this phrase because she the first portion of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” serves as the epigram for the book and names the chapter titles.) She comes to the conclusion that religion is not about belief, but about practice; not about conflict, but about compassion; that self-emptying (kenosis in the Greek) comes through compassion as much as through meditation; and understanding comes from the inside, from making myth into ritual, and not from a mere recital of facts or creeds. In the end, this book is like a grail quest, altered, of course, by the age in which we live and that Eliot reflects in much of his work.

I’ve put off reviewing The Case for God (2009, 390 p.), so I’ll do that now as well briefly. First of all, although I have a hardback of this book, I listened to it on audio, with Armstrong reading it. Her reading added delight. Even though I had not yet read The Spiral Staircase, one gets a sense of her from her books, and that is enhanced by her reading, which is quite good. (One of her careers, after secondary school teaching and before full time writing, was as a television presenter.) Her firm authorial voice reveals itself fleetingly in print, but clearly in her reading.

This book takes us from the earliest cave art to the present, suggesting ways of understanding God that I mentioned above. She does not pretend to prove or disprove God’s existence; instead, she seeks to understand what all of this God-talk can be about and how it might all go astray or lead us to a better life. Modernity, which brought so many benefits into the world, also made us terribly literal-minded. Religion, as myth and ritual giving shape and substance to lives, went astray (for the most part) because of this mindset. She, like me, believes that the mystics, those who find God a paradox and elusive (not magical), have the deepest insights, but they are a minority in any religious culture.

These two books, like others of hers that I have read, give us a profound insight into what religion can and should be. I highly recommend both of these books.

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