Karen Armstrong: ‘We’re simply not good at faith’

Karen Armstrong: ‘We’re just not good at religion’

“I all the time say”, Karen Armstrong admits with a conspiratorial grin, “that God purchased me that place.” She is referring to the north London home she paid for with the proceeds of her collection of bestsellers on faith — and Islam specifically.

If there was one particular guide that underpinned the foundations of her Islington residence, it was her brief historical past of Islam. Revealed in 2000, this was completely timed for the west’s agonising over faith and the potential for a conflict of civilisations sparked by the September 11 assaults the next yr.

“I by no means noticed the within of a library” after that, she tells me as we’re steered to our desk. As a substitute, she was on the radio nonstop, “speaking about Islam ” — as certainly she has been just about ever since. She sees it as a civic responsibility to defend the faith — in opposition to each the misconceptions of non-Muslims and in opposition to what she sees because the corrupting affect of sure strains of Islamic theology, notably Saudi Wahhabism.

It’s, Armstrong says of the latter, “as if a tiny sect within the [American] Bible belt had petrodollars and worldwide approval to export their type of Christianity over the remainder of the world.”

A youthful-looking 74-year-old with a severely geometrical haircut, Armstrong has organized to satisfy me at Frederick’s, a restaurant in a warren of artwork galleries and vintage sellers not removed from her residence. We’re seated in a high-ceilinged room that’s all uncovered brickwork and daring summary expressionist artwork — a suitably austere setting to tackle a number of the most intractable concepts of this or any age.

After scrutinising the menu with a practised eye, Armstrong means that we go for the set lunch. I fortunately comply, ordering a calamari tempura starter and a most important course of Chateaubriand with chips and chimichurri. She chooses smoked duck breast adopted by a pan-fried sea bass, and is admirably decisive once I ask if she would love some wine.

“Sure, I’d!”

Though I’m having the steak, and may most likely drink crimson, we decide on a carafe of white as Armstrong takes me again to the origins of her curiosity in Islam. It dates again to the Satanic Verses affair in 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in opposition to novelist Salman Rushdie.

She was “appalled” by the fatwa, she recollects. “However I used to be equally horrified by the way in which the good and the great had been speeding into print saying Islam was an evil and bloodthirsty faith.” That was when she determined to write down a biography of the Prophet Muhammad.

“The difficulty is that the majority British individuals don’t know something about Muhammad.” British ignorance about Islam, she provides, is rooted in a local distrust of faith extra typically.

“We’re simply not good at faith. I feel we’ve by no means been good at [it]. Have a look at the Reformation — Catholics and Protestants had been at one another’s throats. And what did we do? We based the Church of England. A pleasant compromise.”

It happens to me that a “good compromise” that spared the nation the worst depredations of Europe’s wars of faith was not a foul consequence. I don’t assume for a second that Armstrong, who was raised a Catholic, would disagree concerning the desirability of avoiding spiritual violence — she wrote a guide on the topic — however she does see the Reformation as a second in Christianity’s estrangement from its premodern roots.

“Protestant Christianity”, she jogs my memory, “is a contemporary religion”. By this she means it treats faith as a matter of perception, slightly than a matter of observe or ritual. She says she has “to go to lots of Protestant providers”, significantly when she’s within the US, the place she spends a great deal of time.

“What I can’t take care of are these terrible [modern] hymns. They make me really feel completely atheist.”

What I appreciated about Judaism was that [Jews] by no means cease asking questions.In Islam, it was the openness to different faiths

She has described herself prior to now as an “agnostic in the most effective sense of not realizing, not talking about issues”. These Protestant providers, she says, are merely “too wordy. Everyone seems to be all the time speaking about God. Oh God, shut up!”

Our starters arrive. There’s a scrupulous simplicity and class about the way in which the meals is offered. My calamari is completely tender, whereas Armstrong pronounces her duck breast with celeriac remoulade “excellent certainly”.

Over our most important programs (hers elicits a terse expression of approval), I ask her to elaborate on the thought of faith as a quest for transformation. “It’s a way that we will all be divine. All of the scriptures make that time. We’re all craving for transformation.”

Armstrong’s personal life has been formed by dramatic transformations. I remind her of one thing she as soon as stated — that till the age of 50, her life was a succession of failures. She acknowledges with disarming candour that “each seven years my life disintegrated. However from the age of 50, issues have been higher. Most individuals have a beautiful youth after which issues go downhill.”

Hers is now the lifetime of the peripatetic public mental, shuttling between visitor lectureships and award ceremonies, nevertheless it started in slightly unpromising circumstances. “[I was born into] a barely troubled household, I now realise,” she says coolly, recalling her upbringing in a small city outdoors Birmingham.

“My grandmother, who I liked dearly, was an alcoholic and promiscuous. It was not straightforward for my mom, rising up with that form of mom.” Her maternal aunt later left her husband and youngsters, who went to reside with Armstrong’s household (she has one sibling, a sister).

“My father didn’t need them,” she recollects. “He was properly into his fifties they usually had been tough kids. There was a rigidity in the home.”

The maitre d’ approaches our desk to ask if we now have loved the meals. Armstrong fields his inquiry politely however briskly, eager, apparently, to return to the matter at hand — although not earlier than I high up our glasses of Muscadet.

When, I ask, did she come to understand how uncommon and dysfunctional life within the household residence was?

“I didn’t actually give it some thought till I used to be older, however we by no means spoke about it as a household. This was the 1950s and also you simply received on with issues. All I needed to do was learn books. I suppose I simply shut off from all this. I used to be shy; I didn’t make pals very simply.”

Camden Passage, London N1

2 x set lunch £34

Steak complement £2.50

White chocolate ice cream £four

Eton mess £four

Glowing water £three.50

Carafe of Muscadet £16

Cappuccino £three.80

Espresso £three.20

Service cost £eight.88

Whole £79.88

By the early 1960s, the pure vacation spot for such a bookish lady might need been college. As a substitute, to the horror of her dad and mom, she stated she “needed to be a nun”. On the age of 17, she entered an austere Catholic order, the Society of the Holy Little one Jesus, the place she remained for the following seven years.

In 1981 she revealed By means of the Slender Gate, a memoir of her time as “Sister Martha”. The guide describes the punishing privations of convent life, the striving of the opposite nuns “for a superhuman excellent” and finally the unravelling of her personal “blind obedience”.

The break with the order — and with the church and her religion — got here at Oxford, the place she had gone as a nun to check English literature.

“I went up in 1967, within the full fig,” she recollects. “They simply dumped all of the nuns with a dreadful superior, who occurred to be the daughter of [the novelist] Ford Madox Ford. On the finish of that yr, I had a breakdown as a result of I used to be being pulled in two by this ghastly terror on the considered leaving, I collapsed and went to mattress for 2 days. They stated, ‘Would you want a yr off?’ I stated, ‘No, I’ve received to return to Oxford.’ In order that they moved me into faculty, however on the finish of the primary time period I knew I needed to go. They needed to ask Rome for permission, as a result of I needed to be launched from my vows.”

The permission from Rome was finally granted in 1969, whereupon Armstrong was confronted with the problem of rising into the world.

“I used to be dreading popping out — simply the considered placing on garments.” The method was eased by a bunch of scholars who took her to Marks and Spencer and purchased her some civvies. “Once we got here again,” she remembers, “there have been crowds of individuals and somebody had introduced a bottle of sherry.”

After graduating from Oxford with a First, she determined to remain on to do a doctorate. “I’d failed at being a nun. After which I failed my PhD” — one other of these seven-yearly upheavals.

She wrote a thesis on Tennyson’s language and poetic fashion, however, she tells me, the “examiner wrote 4 traces saying I used to be a really intelligent younger girl, however that in his view this was not a correct PhD topic.” That examiner was literary critic Christopher Ricks. She remembers Richard Ellmann, biographer of James Joyce, ringing her up “repeatedly to say how sorry he was”. However regardless of Ellmann’s protestations of concern, she was, she says, “forged out” of Oxford.

She went to show at a ladies’ college in south London, a job she needed to depart within the early 1980s, after a collection of terrifying episodes that might finally be traced to undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy. “In late adolescence, I began having these moments of jamais vu — it’s the other of déjà vu — the place the world turns into completely unrecognisable.”

I inform her I discover it astonishing that the situation went misdiagnosed for thus lengthy, particularly given her common visits to NHS psychiatrists.

“Effectively, I’d been a nun, in order that they thought I used to be most likely a bit disturbed! Ultimately I had a grand mal match on Baker Avenue station. I used to be taken to hospital they usually informed me, ‘You’ve had an epileptic match.’ ”

Within the introduction to her 2009 guide The Case for God, she writes that for a few years she “needed nothing in any way to do with faith”. It was her examine of different faiths, particularly Judaism and Islam, that compelled her to “revise [her] earlier view”.

This revision was not a matter of her returning to perception a lot as growing a extra expansive appreciation of various spiritual traditions. Within the mid-1980s, she was commissioned to current a TV documentary on St Paul. It was shot in Jerusalem, the place, she says, she was launched to Judaism and Islam correctly for the primary time.

“What I appreciated about Judaism was that [Jews] by no means cease asking questions. In Islam, it was the openness to different faiths.”

Sufi poets will say once they’ve glimpsed God that they’re neither a Jew, a Christian, nor Muslim

In The Case for God, Armstrong writes that within the premodern world faith was “not primarily one thing that folks thought however one thing they did”. And in her newest guide, The Misplaced Artwork of Scripture, she deplores the identical distorting “trendy” emphasis on information over observe. “Rescuing the sacred texts”, as her subtitle has it, means studying to learn them afresh as works of the creativeness supposed to “obtain the ethical and religious transformation of the person”.

She contends that scripture in all of the traditions she explores converges on the identical moral or ethical injunction: “To by some means transcend selfishness. That’s what results in enlightenment in Buddhism. And it’s what St Paul says Christ did on the cross. You divest your self of one thing, then you definitely turn out to be bigger.”

The Misplaced Artwork of Scripture examines, with attribute sweep and ambition, scriptural traditions in India and China, in addition to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like its predecessors, it insists that what the world’s religions — particularly the three Abrahamic faiths — have in frequent is far more essential than what divides them.

She sees Wahhabism and different 20th-century mutations of Islam as corruptions of an authentic purity. “Till the 19th century, Sufism was the dominant type of Islam,” she argues. “It achieved an unsurpassed appreciation of different faiths. Sufi poets will say once they’ve glimpsed God that they’re neither a Jew, a Christian, nor Muslim.”

Armstrong thinks that fundamentalism, which she insists is as a lot a characteristic of contemporary Christianity and Judaism as it’s of Islam, is a political downside slightly than a non secular one. There’s a construction, she thinks, that fundamentalisms of all varieties share.

“It begins with what’s perceived as an assault by secular or liberal governments. The primary fundamentalist motion is within the US at first of the 20th century. It’s largely [a product] of the ridicule [Christians] encountered in press after the Scopes trial.” (She is referring to the 1925 case through which John Scopes was prosecuted for educating evolution in a Tennessee public college.)

We’re interrupted by a waitress asking if we’d like dessert. I select Eton Mess. Armstrong has white chocolate ice cream. “Gosh, take a look at that,” she exclaims because it arrives, as if a interval of wartime shortage had been coming to an finish.

We talk about the work of the late American scholar Frederick Streng, which Armstrong attracts on in her new guide. Streng outlined faith as a form of straining or reaching past oneself to the “true and supreme actuality” — an final actuality that has been given completely different names within the numerous traditions.

She jogs my memory of the Catholic catechism, “God is the Supreme Spirit, who alone exists of himself, and is infinite in all perfections.” “I feel it’s fairly incorrect,” she says firmly. “God is just not a being. God is, as Thomas Aquinas stated, being itself.”

Armstrong returns at a number of factors in our dialog to some traces from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: “A way chic/Of one thing way more deeply interfused/Whose dwelling is the sunshine of setting suns/And the spherical ocean and the dwelling air/And the blue sky and within the thoughts of man.” Her subsequent guide, she reveals, might be on God and nature. “It’s a special view from this God caught within the heavens.”

Over espresso, I ask whether or not she thinks her mission to advertise spiritual understanding has had any impact on the standard of public discourse.

“I’d prefer to really feel the world has been just a little bit higher as a result of I’ve lived in it,” she replies. However she warns that we shouldn’t assume that the “final frantic gasp” of fundamentalism might be something aside from ugly and extended.

“The extra we realise how a lot the religions of the world have in frequent, the extra the fundamentalists put up boundaries.” And as a protracted as we neglect that “faith is a matter of creativeness” and ethical striving slightly than strict observance of unvarying doctrinal truths, “we’re going to hell in a hand basket”.

Jonathan Derbyshire is the FT’s govt opinion editor

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