Karen Armstrong is one of the most renowned religion scholars in the world today. Recognized for the lucidity of her prose and her extraordinary breadth of knowledge, she is the author of more than a dozen books, among them the acclaimed bestsellers A History of God, Islam, and Buddha. Born near Birmingham, England, in 1945, Armstrong was raised Roman Catholic, and entered a convent in her teens. After seven years, she left in personal crisis, feeling that she had failed her faith and that her faith had failed her. She embarked on an academic career, but her hopes were dashed when her dissertation was rejected. She took a position at a girl’s school, from which, after six years, she was “politely” asked to leave. Around this time she found out she had epilepsy. “My early life,” she has written, “was a complete catastrophe.”
Armstrong eventually found her calling as a writer. Today, the “runaway nun,” as she was called, derisively, early in her writing career, is in demand as a public speaker, a university lecturer, and a television and radio commentator. She teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, in London, and in 1999 received the Muslim Public Affairs Media Award. Her recently completed memoir will be published in 2004 by Knopf. In February of this year, she took part in an interview with Tricycle contributing editor Andrew Cooper.
You went from being a devout Catholic nun to being a sharp and skeptical critic of religion to being a writer with a deep appreciation for the world’s faiths. How do you account for these shifts in direction? I left my Catholic convent exhausted by religion, convinced that I was a spiritual failure. For about thirteen years, I wanted nothing more to do with religion. But I came back to an appreciation of faith by writing about it. After a series of career disasters, I found myself working in television, making programs about the various religions. At first my approach was very skeptical, but gradually the material began to get through to me. I realized that despite my own intensive religious background, there was a great deal about faith and spirituality that was entirely unfamiliar to me. I was also impressed by the profound unanimity of the major world faiths. It was the study of other religious traditions – initially Judaism, Islam, and Greek Orthodox Christianity, but later the oriental theistic and nontheistic faiths – that gave me back an appreciation of what religion was all about.
In your more recent work, you make frequent reference to the Axial Age. What was the Axial Age, and what does it have to do with understanding our own? The term Axial Age was coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the period from 800 to 200 B.C.E., when all the great world traditions came into being in four core regions of the world: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Greece. This period proved to be pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. We have never progressed beyond the insights achieved at this time, though they have often been restated and reinterpreted over the years. What is striking about these traditions is their similarity, beneath the obvious surface differences. You can see a clear resemblance between Socrates and the Buddha, for example. All these world traditions stress the importance of the inner life, of compassion; all put human suffering at the heart of their agenda and devised means of exploring the inner world. All emphasize the importance of thinking for yourself, of questioning everything, even the most cherished doctrines and traditions, and of never taking anything “on faith.” In the modern world, we have also been undergoing a period of major transformation, similar to the Axial Age. But our insights have been mainly scientific or technological. We have produced no spiritual geniuses of the stature of the Buddha, Confucius, Isaiah, or Lao-tzu. And the spiritual approach of the Axial sages will challenge the way that many people are religious today.
How so? Often, contemporary institutional faiths seem to go out of their way to reproduce exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial sages were trying to abolish: there is an excessive reliance upon doctrine (an approach that is alien to all Axial faiths) and on tradition (which must never be questioned); people are urged to accept things “on faith” in a way that the Buddha would have deplored; and the primal virtue of compassion is often ignored and quite inessential doctrines and practices put forward as the kernel of the faith.
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