An Interview with Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong is best known for her writing on religion. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is her most popular book, but she has written twenty-two others, as well as scores of articles on comparative religion and religious themes, including a memoir that details her experiences as a young Catholic nun in England, and why she left the order. In 2008, Armstrong won a $100,000 TED Prize. She used the opportunity to facilitate an online charter for a universal moral code based on the Golden Rule, which she called the Charter for Compassion. The Charter was has been affirmed by over seventy thousand people.
Her most recent book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which I came upon around the time I began my studies in theology (though I am not a religious person), shortly after witnessing a friend die. A priest who was present brought such a sense of compassion to the room, I left the experience thinking that doing something like that would be the best thing I could do. Armstrong’s book isn’t so much a book about religion, though it draws from various religious traditions. It is practical and direct, and she treats the state of noncompassion as the product of our addiction to “pet hates.” The twelve steps are a guide to quitting those addictions. She acknowledges that it’s hard to figure out not how to be nice, but how to be kind.
I. ONE MUST FALL SILENT
THE BELIEVER: The role of language in your work seems very important. You have talked about the failings of language to describe big, transcendent experiences, and you say that theology must be read as a poetry. What’s the act of writing like for you?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Writing is always a struggle. It’s very, very hard work, and it is frustrating at times, and it takes a long time to get things right. My first degree was in English language and literature and the study and meaning of words—a very detailed study of how words have changed and how our language has grown over the centuries. So language is very important. But there comes a time when one must fall silent, and that is where a lot of modern God-talk falls down, because people think that they can say that “He”—stupid pronoun—wants and thinks and forbids and hates. We should take a lesson out of the lives of the prophets. In the Hebrew bible there is a motif in the lives of all the prophets: they all have difficulty speaking. Moses has a speech impediment—
BLVR: “Take my brother, please!”
KA: Yes, his brother has to speak for him. And Ezekiel has to eat that scroll, and Isaiah says, “I can’t speak, I’m a child!,” and he has his lips burned with a coal before he can speak. Muhammad, when he received a revelation, used to go pale and sweat and struggle with the effort to articulate the word of God. We should take a lesson from that, because all of this facile God-talk has made the discussion of God actually impossible. Once you start saying “I know what God is” or defining God, you have created an idol. Religious language should be transparent to transcendence.
BLVR: You talk about the prophets and the disciples as being like friends. Do you find that people ever feel that way about you? There’s such an intimacy in reading someone’s memoir—reading yours. It’s a generous act to give that to a reader.
KA: But it can be quite uncomfortable. People can adulate, and I feel uncomfortable with that, because I’m no saint. I wish I were, but I struggle like everybody else with my faults and failings. Another thing people do is project their own anxieties onto me. A woman came up in the queue and burst into tears last night and gave me her own book to read. You wonder what they’re seeing and how to answer to that.
BLVR: I guess the label of “compassion” is a bit of a beacon for people.
KA: They’ve been doing this for years, ever since A History of God, and it’s very strange. But I don’t get it in England! That’s my worst market. They’re not interested. My friends find my writing absurd.
KA: Well, I think Europe had a very different experience of the twentieth century than North America did. There was a war, and troops were off fighting in it, but there wasn’t the same level of devastation in America. In my childhood, in England, I was surrounded by a city that looked like 9/11—bombed buildings, food shortages, the awful pain of those wars. The Holocaust had been prepared by a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. Hitler couldn’t have done that had there not been this tradition in Europe. We all know that. People know that the churches were implicated in the Holocaust; they were implicit in what was going on. So I think people in Europe have just had it with religion.
KA: This concept that people have of God, of “a God”— that’s a wrong thing to say, to start with. Saint Thomas Aquinas says that God is not a “sort of thing.” A God who is wise and good and kind and benevolent and compassionate and all-powerful—that God falls down in Auschwitz. There’s the famous story of the Rabbis putting God on trial and finding no exoneration, condemning him to death, and then getting up and saying it’s time for evening prayer. There have been struggles to continue, and I don’t think that the churches have done a good job in answering people’s doubts. They have given rather lazy, facile responses, and that’s not good enough.
BLVR: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are quite popular and powerful in our cultural climate. Their views have been branded as the new atheism, though atheism of course is not new; perhaps it’s the fundamentalist, biology-as-destiny atheism that’s new. But it’s using one angle on Darwin to make a very specific point— it’s skewed. I feel saddened or frustrated coming up against it so often. When I think about authors who are part of the conversation who do it well, I think of you, I think of Marilynne Robinson, who is wonderful…
KA: Well, literature was a very valuable start for me, because literature is about the interpretation of texts, it’s about myth, it takes fiction very seriously, and it has transcendence built into it. I think that art is essential for compassion. A novel—you live that life alongside your own as you go about your daily business, and then you go back to the novel you’re reading. It’s a sort of background to your life, and you are immersing yourself in completely different people who may live in a different part of the world, or who may have lived hundreds of years ago. That is teaching you to enter into the mind of another, stretching you and teaching you sympathy, compassion. I talk about the role of tragedy, which is largely about compassion—putting suffering onstage and making you empathize with people you wouldn’t give the time of day to in real life. Music is also very important.
BLVR: Music is huge.
KA: Art and religion have always been used together, right from the time of cave paintings. And music has always been part of it because music bypasses words, and it’s physical, and it enters your mind directly, bypassing the rational, cerebral part. It has a powerful effect. The fact that it’s physical, that it’s produced by breath and the gut of animals, the strings, and banging the skins as drums… it’s our bodies segueing us into the transcendental nature of the arts. Music is really built into our nature.
BLVR: How do you feel about the popularity of yoga, which is based in Hinduism, in America?
KA: The trouble with a lot of this yoga is that it’s not demanding enough. For a lot of people it becomes just an aerobic exercise that keeps you flexible and in shape, whereas it used to be about getting rid of ego. It was founded on a moral program in classical India, where until you had mastered these five points, you weren’t allowed to even sit in the yoga positions. Top of the list was nonviolence, meaning you couldn’t even swat an insect or say an angry or impatient word. That had to be second nature before you could even begin. That’s gone. It’s the same with the martial arts, which are also transcendent, but are seen as some kind of exercise. It won’t do people any harm, but…
II. “I’M NOT IN THE BUSINESS OF CONVERTING ANYBODY”
BLVR: You’ve written about butting heads with your Mother Superior after entering the convent—
KA: It was very unfortunate. She was struggling with the changes that were coming to the religious life. It was very painful for some of these older nuns. A beloved way of life was being tossed aside, and they felt as if their lives were being seen as rubbish. She must have seen that in me, I think. I was trying to fight my way out. She was the foil. I think if I had had a more understanding superior at the time, it would have delayed the whole business of my leaving. I was struggling with the horrible realization that I was going to have to go, and she personified everything about the religious life that I found increasingly impossible.
BLVR: Friendships between the nuns were not encouraged, because you were saving this love for God?
BLVR: But that smacks of a lack of compassion.
KA: Yes, it was a dreadful mistake, and that kind of thing made me see that [that way of life] had nothing to do with the gospel. It had gotten stuck in some kind of Victorian mode. That order was founded in 1844. I suppose Victorian ladies did have sentimental friendships with one another, and that wouldn’t have been appropriate. I experienced the old system at its last gasp, probably at its worst. They had brought in a novice mistress who was far less liberal than her two predecessors, who had been much more humane.
BLVR: You talk about how entering a convent for you was knee-jerk—very purposeful and reactionary, maybe in a similar way that punk is for some young people. When you made your decision to move into a religious life, did you, in your excitement, anticipate how hard it would be?
KA: I knew it would be hard, but I hadn’t realized it would be so grindingly awful. I hadn’t expected it would be quite so unkind. And I wasn’t cut out for it. Even if they’d all been sweetness and light, I probably would have left anyway. It wasn’t the right thing for me. I think it is the right thing for very few people.
BLVR: Even historically, it was always an odd choice to join if you didn’t have to, right?
KA: It’s a turning away from ordinary values. I didn’t mind that. There are a lot of ordinary values out here I don’t like, to be honest. I think in many ways there is a kind of corruption in our society. We’re self-indulgent and spoiled. If you travel to Pakistan, say, where I was recently, the people are so lighthearted in the midst of this ghastly civil war. You feel very spoiled.
BLVR: David Foster Wallace talked about—
BLVR: He was an American fiction author.
BLVR: He was talking about that kind of spoiledness in the West; how he felt like it translated into people’s bodies, and it sits kind of wrong—never being quiet with ourselves or alone. Anywhere you are, there is music playing and information coming at you, which he pointed out as a new thing. I wonder how our time is unique in other ways.
KA: Well, we now have the ability to finish ourselves off. Even if we don’t drop a bomb on ourselves, we can make the planet totally unlivable, and people haven’t had that capacity in this way before.
BLVR: How do you approach someone so unready to listen or receive, in terms of being challenged on their cruelty or destroying the planet?
KA: Fine, leave ’em, I’m not in the business of converting anybody. Dialogue is not about bringing people around to your side of things. It’s about offering them something, and if they don’t like it, fine. Dialogue is about being prepared to be changed by the encounter.
III. THIS WAR BUSINESS
BLVR: When one thinks about Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, the smallness of our actions can feel meaningless. There’s a part at the end of Middlemarch— the part about the unvisited tombs and unseen deeds that push society forward—that suggests that small acts are worthwhile; putting them into the world is always good.
KA: Yes, and if you’ve changed one moment in one life, you haven’t lived in vain. But you can still think about the big picture; you can think about a worldview and work toward that.
BLVR: In the last few years, a few dictatorships have been dismantled. Bin Laden is gone. How do you address these circumstances in the context of your mandate for compassion?
KA: Well, for one thing, all of these dictators have been supported by us. We’ve helped create them, so all that pious talk about how all these people have finally been relieved from suffering—I was in the Middle East and I said, “We’ve kept them in power all these years,” and there was vast applause! Mubarek was our man, he was a yes-man, and the United States finally decided to drop him. We helped create Bin Laden, too. We armed him, we trained him. We’re all implicated in what happens. It isn’t good cop and bad cop.
Revolutions are very messy processes. The French Revolution took at least fifty years, and it had various phases—the storming of the Bastille was one, the one everyone remembers and celebrates. But they had a reign of terror. They had dictators. They had wars that armed most of the young male population in Europe for the first time in history. They brought back the monarchy. They had to get rid of it again.
This will take decades. There’s a joke in England: “What do you think of the French Revolution?” “It’s too early to say!” It’s too early to say what will happen here. What we are seeing in Iran is just another phase of the Islamic revolution that started in 1978. Democracy was a product of the modern West. It’s an industrial virtue. Unless you’ve got a strong industrial culture, which demands a certain level of education for most of the population to be able to participate in, you’re not going to get a democratic government.
BLVR: Do you think democracy is still our best option?
KA: Well, for us it is. It’s great; it’s flawed. People are brought into power, but maybe they don’t have a mandate, even though they may have a majority, and people vote for things they don’t really know about. In the United States, people voted for war in Iraq, and so many couldn’t point to it on the map. There are flaws. There are flaws in any system of government.
IV. NOT TO RISE TO THE BAIT
BLVR: I’m finding it harder to tolerate small cruelties in conversations, and it’s a struggle sometimes with someone I like very much if there’s nastiness or intolerance, leaving me to wonder what tolerance I must have for them. How tolerant should one be of other people’s intolerance?
KA: There are times when you have to speak out against injustice or cruelty. But if you speak—and this is what Gandhi said—in order to punish or wound, you will do more harm than good. The Dalai Lama said that to condemn injustice with hatred in your voice will make the injustice worse. A lot of fundamentalist spirituality is rooted in fear, and when we attack, they become more extreme. So it does no good to attack viciously. The thing to do is not to rise to the bait.
BLVR: But it’s so hard not to react in the moment!
KA: It is hard, but all this is hard. The thing to do is to say, “Right, well, thank you, that’s your point of view,” and try to meet them insofar as you can. It does no good to attack back. It all just escalates.
BLVR: I’m thinking of Gandhi’s passive resistance, and of Christian groups like the Doukhobors. That ultimate selfless act is so impressive, but so hard to get your mind around. Struggling with the line between when to act and when not to act, the terrible Hamlet problem, when to act on what you see…
KA: I don’t think we’ve worked out, since Gandhi, a creative, nonviolent response. I think we need it. It’s not just a question of not doing anything. Did you see the film when they’re all walking up to the British and the British are clubbing them down, and up they go and do it all afternoon?
BLVR: Yes. And you watch your friend ahead of you get it, and you know you’re going to get it, and you go back! I remember Gandhi saying that he was studying Christian scriptures, about Jesus’s saying “Turn the other cheek”— the metaphor—but he understood it to mean something key to human nature, when you literally offer someone the other cheek after they have hurt you.
KA: Yes, turning the other cheek allows you to be very firm and brave in the face of cruelty and oppression.
BLVR: That bravery is almost inaccessible. It’s almost reached a mythic status.
KA: But they are all flawed people. Gandhi had serious character defects, and so did Martin Luther King, but look at what they achieved. It shows you what one person can do.
BLVR: Moving through life, knowing that you have flaws, and still acting despite them, or because of them, seems like the biggest thing you can do.
KA: It is, yes.
BLVR: We’re often really scared to fail, and it often stops us from trying.
KA: It’s good to fail when you’re young and you’ve got the resilience, so when it happens later, you can realize that you’ve been there before.