Monday, January 19, 2009

Introducing Karen Armstrong

Most of you who know me personally have some idea of my interest in philosophy and religion. Those of you who know me very well have probably experienced one of my endless questioning rants on God or mysticism or religious tradition. So it is probably no surprise to you that I'm very intrigued by Karen Armstrong, an ex-Catholic nun who left her order and went on to become one of the greatest scholars on world religions.

I'm currently reading Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, which is a very scholarly, balanced and insightful book. I've also read and listened to some interviews with her online, which have helped me see a new way to approach religion and myth.

At the moment, I can't find much to say about Armstrong's ideas. I'm still absorbing everything, seeing where they fit in relation to all of the other stuff I've been reading. So instead, I'll let Armstrong speak for herself.
Below, I leave you with some of Armstrong's own words.

Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.

* * *

Sacred texts have traditionally been a bridge to the divine. They're all difficult. They're not a simple manual -- a how-to book that will tell you how to gain enlightenment by next week, like how to lose weight on the Atkins diet. This is a slow process. I think the best image for reading scripture occurs in the story of Jacob, who wrestles with a stranger all night long. And in the morning, the stranger seems to have been his God. That's when Jacob is given the name Israel -- "one who fights with God." And he goes away limping as he walks into the sunrise. Scriptures are a struggle.

* * *

[O]ur theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur'an...
Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people's perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea, they feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.

We should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater because ritual — and theater, indeed, was originally a religious ritual designed to lead us to transcendence instead of just mechanically going through the motions of our various rites and ceremonies, trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form.

21 comments:

Nicholas Karavatos said...

This reminds me of today's experience with religious orthodoxy. A former student of mine added me on her Facebook page. I read things on her wall and she said something about Hamas "winning" no matter what Israel claimed and below that a friend had commented that that was Allah's doing. My comment was to caution getting caught up in anybody's war propaganda (it's all cr*p no matter who is propagating it) and to doubt that God gets personally involved in human wars. Next thing I knew she deleted her Friend request because, she said, she could not have such "blasphemous" opinions on her Facebook page.

How would she have reacted if I quoted Karen Armstrong saying, in effect, good religion is like good sex? Blasphemy!

Anyway, these are interesting quotes, and they resonate with me.

On the other hand, Karen Armstrong has said things that I can't yet agree with.

For example, In *Muhammed: Biography of the Prophet* she equates the attitude and activity of Muhammed with Gandhi in the context of pacifism & nonviolence. I know this is "blasphemous" but I have not been convinced of this parallel praxis. If this were the case, pacifistic non-violent civil disobedience would be the ethics of alleged "freedom fighters," certainly no bombs. Oops, is that blasphemous?

Also, when she is about to make a sharp, critical point, she pulls back. For example, though she noted Aisha saying to Muhammed "Truly thy Lord makes haste to do thy bidding," Armstrong goes on to say that Muhammed could never have been moved by lust by Zainab, "a woman of thirty-nine, who had been living on the brink of malnutrition all her life, and exposed to the merciless sun of Arabia would inspire such a storm of emotion in anybody's breast, let alone that of a cousin who had known her since she was a child."

First, could any woman make a more anti-feminist statement about female beauty or even no-accounting-for-chemistry? Second, she shows no inkling of the ingrained practice of cousin-marriage among Arabs. Third, she misses the beat on the convenience (as it has often been critiqued) of several of Muhammed's "revelations."

Even though Muhammed is to this day nearly deified (go on, admit it) as "an excellent model of conduct" (33:21), Armstrong writes as an apologist for the massacre of the Banu Qurayzah by arguing that "it is not correct to judge the incident by twentieth-century standards" and that "in the early seventh century, an Arab chief would not be expected to show any mercy to ... [the] Qurayzah." While that point may be historically true, she misses the larger issue. Conflicts today are often framed within quotes from the Quran and the Hadith, but I do not hear thoughtful people say we should not frame 21st century conflicts in 7th century ethics. If Muhammed is "an excellent model of conduct" then 7th century behavior is deemed legit for the 21st century.

Armstrong also denies the authenticity of the alleged Satanic Verses, stating that it is "not mentioned by Ibn Ishaq in the earliest and most reliable account of Muhammed's life." However, Tabari attributes his reference to the Satanic Verses to Ibn Ishaq, so maybe Armstrong missed it in her reading.

Karen Armstrong, according to Salon, is "one of Europe's most prominent defenders of Islam."

Aside from the above, I enjoy her rather existentialist position in religion. This includes her interest in mysticism (which has hardly found a friendly home in Islam, particularly Sunni) and its emphasis on the religious experience. That's always been my personal bias: direct religious experience, not unquestioning obedience. I side with The Quest. Which is why, I suppose, I'm an incorrigible blasphemer.

Distrusting blind obedience in favor of direct religious experience is also blasphemous for a lot of folks.

So would be her comments on the Axial Age: "From about 900 to 200 BCE, the traditions that have continued to nourish humanity either came into being or had their roots in four distinct regions of the world. So you had Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece." I think orthodox Islam only regards one of these as authentically divinely inspired.

Looking at the breadth of her ideas, though, it is plain that her thinking counters many of the lesser narratives of Islam's hegemonic discourse.

I liked that Salon interview.

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