Complete Q&A: Karen Armstrong
The title of Karen Armstrong’s latest book, The Case for God (Knopf Canada, $34.95), sounds like another entry in the debate that has erupted over such arguments for atheism as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. But the distinguished London-based historian of religion claims she has no interest in fanning the flames. As she explained to the Georgia Straight during a recent visit to Vancouver, she’d rather show how the clash between religious fundamentalists and their devoutly atheist opponents is a historical aberration, brought on by ideas about religion that are both ill-founded and thoroughly modern.
Georgia Straight: You’re a historian of the Bible and of concepts of God. People might think of this pursuit as somehow a process of disenchantment—taking things that were previously thought sacred and beyond time and moving them inside history and removing that aura. Yet you argue that the Bible is still a deeply spiritual document.
Karen Armstrong: Well, it is, but you’ve got to work with it. And what the book [The Case for God] goes on to say is, yes, it was a spiritual document in its time, but before the modern period, nobody ever thought of taking this literally. This is the modern disease. I mean, people are now reading the Bible with literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion.
And the rabbis showed that the Bible wasn’t something that fell down from heaven and cast in stone forever. You had to work on it and make it say something new, for the rabbis, even if that didn’t have any relation to the intention of the biblical author, because the word of God is infinite, and it must be made audible in each generation. So the rabbis felt perfectly free to invent new meanings, to discard certain books—just reverently laying them aside—and using their ingenuity. They used the example that the scripture revelation was not something that happened once on Mount Sinai—it was continued every time a Jew confronted the sacred text and brought his own interpretation to it. And that was all part of a continuous process since Mount Sinai. You must use scripture as a kind of springboard to make you available—to sort of apply this to the present.
And similarly the fathers of the church—called “fathers of the church” because they formed the Christian tradition—said you could not interpret these texts literally. There’s too many contradictions. And so from the fathers of the church right up until the 16th and 17th centuries, in the West, Christians sought four different levels of scriptural interpretation. You started with the literal sense, you moved on to the moral sense, you then moved on to allegorical-spiritual sense, and finally to the mystical sense. And it was an ascent from the body of the literal sense to the spirit of the others, and each text had to be interpreted in this fourfold way. So no one thought of sticking with the literal meanings.
GS: In the book you talk about these literal readings as the result of a misguided attempt to to take a scientific view of religious texts.
KA: Yes, and we started to read it like any other text. But it’s important—I’d like you to mention the fact that, for example, Saint Augustine, who’s the father of western Christianity and revered by protestants and Catholics alike as a major authority, says that if, for example, a biblical text contradicted science, it had to be reinterpreted. And that was the general practice right up until the 17th century.
A lot of the people who today are opposing, in the United States, the teaching of evolution in the public schools are Calvinists. But Calvin himself said the Bible has nothing to teach us about science. Science is very useful, he said, and it must not be impeded because—and I quote—some “frantic persons” tried to denigrate what they don’t understand. If you want to learn about cosmology, and if you want to learn about astronomy, don’t look to the Bible. It has nothing to tell us about that—go elsewhere. And at the same time, a cardinal in the Vatican during the Galileo crisis said, “In scripture, the Holy Spirit is telling us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
GS: You show in your book that even the ancient Hebrew Bible is split between compassion and chauvinism. In your own work, you’re obviously in favour of the first as being the truest spiritually and the most useful to us now. Would it be better, then, to redact the Bible, and remove the parts you don’t like?
KA: I don’t think you can do that in a democratic society. You know, the devout often sneer at biblical criticism, but I think you need to make study of these texts, a serious study of these difficult texts. We’ve all got them. The Christian New Testament is full of nasty stuff that actually caused Jewish pogroms. You can’t ignore that. The Book of Revelation is a highly problematic book. And the Koran, too, has its passages—but there’s far more violence and extremism in the Bible than there is in the Koran.
Now, what we need to do is look at these texts, study them—and I like to do it in a collaborative way, so Jews, Christians, Muslims do it together, so instead of just pointing the finger at other people’s difficult texts, ignoring those in our own—look at them. How did they come into the tradition? What part have they played over the centuries in the tradition as a whole? Why have they come to the fore now? You know, really in depth. That’s number one—that’s a project.
Saint Augustine, who’s not someone I quote often with great joy—I have issues with Saint Augustine on many things—but on biblical interpretation and on the sciences, he’s excellent. Again, he said, “If a scriptural text seems to teach hatred, you must give it an allegorical interpretation and make it teach charity.” And that probably won’t do for us now, because we don’t think allegorically.
GS: That would seem to many present-day readers as if you’re bending the text to suit your purposes. It wouldn’t be considered valid.
KA: But the rabbis didn’t mind doing that. Basically, I think it’s better in our sort of rationalistic world—I was brought up a Catholic, and I never heard the word evolution in a religious context. When we were preached to or had retreats, they segued very easily from the literal text to an allegorical interpretation.
RELIGION AS WORK, NOT WORDS
GS: One of the main things you argue in The Case for God is that practical applications or actions are the only context in which these truths or beliefs make sense.
KA: Yes. Religion is a practical discipline. And these doctrines, as we call them, were designed to tell us how to behave, not to tell us what to believe.
GS: Certain skeptics are going to see this as a process of auto-suggestion, a dangerous state in which anything can be true.
KA: But that’s not it. Try it out. I’m with the Buddha here. He used to say, “If my teaching doesn’t do it for you, leave it.””¦It’s like saying, “I don’t believe in athletics because I am not able to do the long jump or run the 100 yards in 10 seconds.” Religion is something you have to do. And it’s only when you do it that it makes sense. So to sit on the sidelines in a magisterial way, assessing whether you believe it or not, that’s a modern attitude. That’s what I’ve tried to show in the book.
GS: When does this modern attitude emerge, historically?
KA: It’s the scientific revolution. To say that’s there’s always been enmity between religion and science is, as I show in the book, not true. Despite blips like Galileo, the unfortunate fact was that religion and science were in love with one another throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Newton thought that he’d proved the existence of God, and God was essential to his physics. But of course, it was only a few generations before people were able to get rid of the God hypothesis and say, “We find a natural explanation for the cosmos.” And that wouldn’t have mattered had not the churchmen become so intoxicated with this scientific proof of God that they made this rationalized God essential to the Christian tradition, and they lost the older habits of thought I describe in the book.
GS: In the book you call this an addiction. Religious leaders in this period didn’t realize it, but their fascination with scientific proofs of religious ideas was extremely damaging to their cause, you argue.
KA: Because religion was never designed to tell us the origin of the universe. It wasn’t designed to help us find out things that we could find out with natural reason. It was to help deal with those aspects of life for which there are no easy answers: mortality, pain, old age—which I never used to worry about. I kept wondering why the Buddha, for example, made such a fuss about old age, until my mother got old and ill, and it was a dreadful thing to see. And I hope I don’t live to be too old or at least lose my faculties.
So, old age and death, the injustice that we perpetrate on one another, the senselessness of life—and religion was about that. Nobody took the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life, until the 17th century. You know, I’m not knocking science—science is terrific, and as someone who’s benefited from modern medicine enormously, I’m all for it. But it has nothing to tell us about religion, and religion has nothing to tell us about science. Before the modern period, everybody knew that.
GS: Your own relationship with religion has gone through several stages. You were once a Catholic nun, then went through a period of deep skepticism and even hostility toward religion, before reevaluating religion once again in a positive light. Has the recent debate involving Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion and others stirred up new perspectives for you?
KA: It’s been a deepening chapter, because one of the things that irritates me about the debate and the Dawkins phenomenon is that they raise many good points, if they weren’t so spiteful about it. I don’t believe that we need, in our polarized world, another divisive discourse that sets us at odds with one another.
Now, before Dawkins, Muslims had no problem with evolution. The Koran says that every single one its statements is a parable—just as the Christians would do at about the same time. No one read these texts literally. And Muslims were saying, “Evolution is fine by us.” But then—you know, I get a lot of e-mail”¦and I suddenly see in the Muslim press all over the world “British atheist attacks Allah’s creation.” Now they’re all up in arms about evolution. They don’t need this on top of all their other problems.
GS: In your book, you emphasize the Socratic ideal that such debates must be good-natured—that’s supposed to be the base rule, the bottom line.
KA: And that nobody wins at the end. At the end, everybody realizes that they don’t know anything. You don’t bludgeon your opponent into accepting your point of view. Your point of view is as limited as the next person.
GS: You also write about “the intolerant tendency of modernity”. What do you mean by that?
KA: Basically, in the modern period, what science does is take one problem after another, eliminates that problem, and moves on to the next—and that’s how it progresses. And right from the time of very early modernity, you find people thinking it necessary that in order to find truth, you have to oppose or eradicate the recent past. So you see the Renaissance and the Reformation turning against the Middle Ages—anything medieval was bad. But the Middle Ages were a complex time, and there was a lot of good stuff there that they lost.
And similarly now. In order to progress, you’ve got to get rid of the religious position. But, you see, humanities don’t progress in that way. In the humanities, people keep on asking the same questions and discussing the same problems: the nature of happiness, how do we deal with our mortality, how do we die well, how do we live at peace amidst the sufferings that we experience ourselves or that we see in the world around us.
GS: So you wouldn’t expect progress in this area any more than you would expect progress in the novel or any other art form?
KA: No. It’s like saying Beethoven is less advanced than Shostakovich. Shostakovich just has something else to say. Or that Plato isn’t as brilliant as Kant. They’re both brilliant, and they’re both responding to crises, but you can’t say one is better than the other.
GS: That’s the kernel of the intolerance?
KA: Yes. Newton’s system, genius though he was, has now been discredited, as it were, in quantum mechanics. You know, you can’t go back to revive the Newtonian system.
Plus, we are intolerant, as modern people. I mean, the way we approach truth, the way we argue—it’s not along Socratic lines. It’s not enough for us to seek the truth. We also have to discredit, defeat, and even humiliate our opponents, whether that’s in academia, the law courts, the media.
GS: You contend that writers like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, with his anti-religious book God Is Not Great, really haven’t done their homework regarding religion.
KA: When my publisher said, “Would you write something about this?” I said that I cannot write about the new atheists. I cannot write about Hitchens and so forth. It’s been done, it’s boring, and the theology is so poor. The thing to do is to go back in time and show how we’ve changed—what religion was, and how we got to this point.
GS: Instead of just producing more polemic?
KA: I’m not interested in polemic. I don’t care what anybody believes, to be honest. And neither did most religious people.
As I say in the book, the emphasis on belief is another modern problem. The word has changed its meaning. You know, when I was Oxford, I was reading English literature, and we were supposed to look up a word in the Oxford English Dictionary every day, to see how meanings changed. And I wish I’d looked up belief—it would have saved me a lot of trouble. It used to mean “to love”, related to the German liebe. But it’s only in the late 17th century that you find it being used—first by scientists and philosophers, and only in the 19th century does it start being used in the new way in a religious context—it starts to mean the acceptance of a proposition.
GS: In which case, lots of religious propositions begin to look incredible
KA: Yes. Because you don’t have to believe them or accept them, you have to do them.
GS: As opposed to that standard objection to religious beliefs as being the equivalent of believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus.
KA: Yes—or, you know, “You have to believe in God.” Well, what on earth does that mean without awakening within yourself a sense of utter transcendence by ethical action—getting rid of ego?
BELIEF AS A SKILL
GS: As someone who maintains the value of the religious impulse, is it hard to live with its defects?
KA: Sure. It’s like if you’re a painter and you see some really bad painting on a daily basis, it hurts. If you are a musician, it’s agonizing to hear someone playing out of tune. It’s in that way—it jars, because it’s not skillful. You don’t say it’s bad, because that suggests anger and contempt. But it’s not helpful. It’s going to get you stuck in a sort of stupid cul de sac, either intellectual or moral.
GS: And it’s the intellectual part that’s attracted to polemic, right?
KA: Yes. Intellectual is also unskillful spiritually, because when we argue in that sort of polemical way, it’s promoting ego. You know, when people say, “I believe this and this is what I think,” it’s puffed up with ego. When they say what they believe, a sort of noble look comes upon them. And who cares what you believe?
Third-century B.C. Taoists would say that to say this cannot mean that is nonsense, because we’re talking about the transcendent. Nobody can have the last word. So saying this is wrong and that’s right—you’re simply trying to impose your own view on others. And that’s ego, and it’s ego that holds us back from religious enlightenment, and it also holds us back from good artistic achievement. An artist loses him or herself in the art. And once it becomes an expression either of a narrow political ideology, you get Soviet realism or fascist art. And if it’s all about ego, it becomes self-indulgent mush, a lot of the time—you know, that awful element of self-pity that we all have: “Poor me and my suffering” and all of the rest when we’re awake at 3 in the morning.
GS: Like teenage poetry.
KA: Like teenage poetry. You know, you need to go through that stage, but if you get stuck in it—it’s that kind of religion that’s aggressive. I really believe that aggression is incompatible with religion, of any sort. I don’t mean just fighting and killing, I mean unkind words about other people or other nations, or other ideologies. That is not what religion is supposed to do. Love your enemies, honour the stranger. But people don’t want to be compassionate. They’d rather be right.
GS: And that’s a more recent development, fuelled by modernity?
KA: No. it’s always been a struggle to be compassionate, as I say, because people don’t want to do it. They’d really rather use religion to endorse their identity—rather than lose it. But without depth, all we have is ourselves, and that’s a pretty dismal prospect—depth to look at the immensity of what we don’t know, to look at the pain we see on all sides of us, the wrongdoing that we ourselves are committing, without just looking at other parts of the globe, but that we ourselves in the West have certainly inflicted on the rest of the world. How can one feel proud?
GS: So you have to do this kind of inventory?
KA: To say, you know, we don’t know anything. You have Einstein saying—and I quote it in the book—that powerful statement about living in the presence of what we cannot understand as a source of wonder and awe. Karl Popper used to say we don’t know anything”¦.And yet it’s not a source of frustration. It’s a source of contentment.
GS: Have we lost the art of feeling this way?
KA: Yes, we expect information at the click of a mouse, but information is not the same as wisdom.”¦It [information] can consume you. But, you know, it’s good—you can use it for good. But it won’t help us to die well. It won’t help us when the diagnosis comes that tells us we’ve got a terminal illness.
As I say in the book, science can diagnose your complaint, and it might even be able to cure it, but it can’t help the dread and terror and dismay and disappointment that comes with the diagnosis. And it can’t help you to die well—like Socrates, who died an unjust death, not raging and spitting but with full humanity, and joking with his jailer, washing his body to save the women the trouble, all of that. How it was, I don’t know, because they say that hemlock is such an agonizing death that it’s really unlikely that Socrates was able to chat. But nevertheless, that was the ideal that they wanted to project. They wanted him to die as he’d lived. And Jesus too—I mean, he’s presented as someone who has time to say a kind word to one of his fellow victims, to forgive his executioners, and to make provision for his mother, even in the depths of agony and despair”¦.You know, this is a human being, not this divine god who’s only pretending to be suffering.
And so to achieve that kind of death—you will suffer, but the thing to do is be at peace within yourself, in suffering. And I’ve just been through my mother’s death, and she wasn’t at peace, and it was a very disturbing business. But it made me aware, even more, that it won’t come by chance. There’s work we have to do on ourselves. And computers can do a great deal for us, but they can’t help us to deal with all this inner stuff, and that’s what religion is about, really.