Karen Armstrong

Though this is the era of computers, science and high technology, God and spirituality are proving to be the rage of the late 1990s. Suddenly, it seems, Americans are getting religion. Or at least interested in reading, writing and thinking about matters of the soul. This closely mirrors other fin de siecle spiritualist movements.

News magazines are choosing religious topics for cover stories. Books about God and religion regularly appear on best-seller lists. And America’s deepest TV-thinker, Bill Moyers, produces a 10-part series about the first book of the Bible, Genesis.

Among Moyers’ guests on that series is a 52-year-old, former Catholic nun who has become a leading, if challenging, voice on religion in her native Britain. Karen Armstrong, a nun for seven years, left the convent in 1969 and abandoned Catholicism. In 1982 she published a scathing, autobiographical critique of modern religious life, “Though the Narrow Gate,” which earned her the tabloid title “Runaway Nun” and established her as Britain’s best-known atheist.

Still, as Armstrong’s belief in God diminished, her interest in God grew. She has now written 10 books about religion--including the 1993 “History of God,” a best-selling comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her latest work is an analysis of the Bible’s chronicle of the creation and the beginning of mankind; “In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis” focuses on the struggles biblical characters such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Noah endured in coming to terms with God. Armstrong finds in these struggles a message for people today who are wrestling with ideas about God and religion. Her conclusion is a paradox: God cannot be known, but the enduring effort to know God is the essence of spirituality.


Armstrong finds beauty in that paradox, and lately she has begun describing herself as a “freelance monotheist” rather than an atheist. Raised in what she describes as a “not-overly pious” Roman-Catholic family in the Midlands of England, she has one younger sister, a practicing Buddhist, who lives in Los Angeles. Armstrong’s life cuts across religions--she is a teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism in London, and also an honorary member of the Assn. of Muslim Social Scientists. In a conversation from her London home, she talked about some of our earliest spiritual legends, the human need to understand the meaning of life and her personal struggle to understand her relationship with God.


Question: One of the clear points one takes away from your study of Genesis is that it paints a very confusing picture of God. How would you describe God as depicted in the first book of the Bible?

Answer: There isn’t a clear, coherent teaching in Genesis about God and the creation. There are two quite different creation stories put side by side, which show that the editors were not really very concerned with describing the literal events of what happened at the beginning of time. These accounts sort of cancel each other out; they can’t both be right. Genesis One begins with what could be seen as a polemic against the prevailing religious teaching about creation. The view of the time was that a band of gods created the world out of a gigantic struggle, fighting other gods in mortal combat to create the world, such as you have in Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. But the God of Genesis is absolutely, effortlessly in control, a single God. And this God is totally good and benevolent, blessing everything that he makes, and totally impartial. But then, in the rest of Genesis, the authors seem to go out of their way to dismantle that notion of God, so that at the end of Genesis it’s very difficult to come away with any coherent teaching or theology about the nature of the divine, and his relationship with the world.


Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at Hajjar and Partners New Media Lab. He interviewed Karen Armstrong from her home in London.

Q: So, you start out with a God who creates heaven and the Earth and says “This is good,” and you end up with a God who is sort of meddling about in individual affairs?

A: That’s all right, he can meddle if he wishes. But, at the end of the book, he stops interfering at all, and then disappears, so that at the end of the book, Joseph and his brothers have no divine intervention in their lives. They have to rely on their dreams and insights as we do, with no help from God at all, who seems to have forgotten about the world and retired from it completely. And earlier, the God who was the benign creator becomes God the destroyer of the world at the time of the floods. The God who’s impartial, and totally fair in Chapter One, becomes a totally unfair God at the time of Cain and Abel, and throughout the story of the chosen family of Abraham, God is continually, rather arbitrarily choosing one person over another.

We’re always told by our rabbis and pastors that God loves us all the same--but that’s not the teaching of Genesis. This is a God who’s frequently seen to be unfair, to cause anguish, and to have favorites. I think the book of Genesis is pushing us up against uncomfortable facts of our experience, and making us aware that it is impossible to generalize, or come out with any clear coherent notion of the divine. Just as, at their best, the great monotheistic traditions have done.

Q: What are we to make of this? Where does that leave us if we look to the scriptures for understanding?

A: What it leaves me with is a reverent agnosticism. If we think we know all about God, and can predict his behavior, then we’re really in danger of creating a God in our own image and likeness. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all insisted that we can never feel we’ve got the last word on God. We’re supposed to be led in an attitude of reverent wonder and awe, and a realization that when we speak about the divine, we’re absolutely at the brink of what words and thoughts can do.

The Greek Orthodox had a maxim that said any authentic statement about God should be paradoxical, and should reduce us to silence. This is a reminder that we can’t sum up God in clear, coherent concepts. In our day and age, we’re obsessed with reading texts literally and reading a text for information. But you can’t treat the Bible like a reference manual to simply look up information about God, because you’re likely to find your data contradicted on the next page.

Q: If we cannot find clear understanding of God from the scriptures, can we find clear messages about faith, and about morals?


A: This is a struggle, too. Abraham, for instance, is often depicted as the man of faith par excellence. Yet we see Abraham enjoying no certainty about God. God doesn’t appear to him and give him a theology lesson, saying “Now Abraham, here I am, I’m a self-subsistent being, I’m the creator of Heaven and Earth, now when we’ve got our theology straight, we can begin our great adventure together.”

God erupts into Abraham’s life. He says “Get up and leave your parents, leave your country, leave behind your familiar ways of worship and go to a totally unfamiliar destination.”

And constantly, throughout his story, Abraham, the man of faith, is seen as constantly in doubt, endlessly questioning God, and in anguish about God’s apparent total failure to keep any one of his promises. Finally, at the end of his life, God asks him to sacrifice his own son. God leads Abraham right up to the brink of meaning. I take this to mean that faith, in the biblical sense, doesn’t mean having clear beliefs about God. It means being prepared to go on in the dark, to trust in the ultimate good outcome, of what looks like a totally hopeless situation.

Now, very often in our scientific world, we want to first believe God exists, and then live in the way that he requires of us. But that’s not what the great spiritual masters in any of the great traditions have taught us. Look at Buddha, who said, “First live in a compassionate way, and then you will know.” It’s by living in a certain way, by trying to expunge ego from your life in daily acts of practical compassion that you will achieve divine insight about the ultimate meaning of life. And that’s exactly what Abraham does.

Q: Why are we, as a species, drawn toward God, and to spirituality and religion, even though God is, according to your theory, not something we can ever hope to understand?

A: We are meaning-seeking creatures. We are also creatures who fall very quickly and easily into despair. As far as we know, which may someday all be disproved by zoologists and biologists, animals don’t seem to feel this need to agonize about their condition in the same way that we do. You don’t see a dog suffering greatly about the canine condition, or worrying about what will be the fate of dogs in the next life. Dogs seem very comfortable being dogs.

Contrast that with human beings. We are the only creatures, as far as we know, who seem to be conscious of our own impending mortality. We are also creatures who find it very difficult to live up to our nature. At its best, religion helps us to see that other human beings are sacred, and that compassion is the only litmus test of true spirituality. Good religions are a way of helping to kick the ego out, and teach us to revere one another as sacred, so that massacres or exploitation should be impossible for us. But religions are no different from any other human activity, all of which can be abused. Sexuality, for example, is something that is an activity that can be used to express great tenderness and love. It can even give us intimations of transcendence. And yet, it can also be used cruelly, to exploit. So religion is just like that. It can and has often been grossly abused.

Q: There is a sense that we here in the U.S. are becoming more interested in religion, that there is a flowering of spirituality. What do you think is propelling this interest?


A: I think there are all sorts of complicated reasons. After your revolution, religion was very often associated with popular movements, and so that it’s quite difficult in America for there to be a popular movement that isn’t in some sense religious. Whereas in Europe, religion remains very much associated with the establishment, with the rich and the middle classes. They still call the Church of England here the Tory Party at Prayer. The churches never were able to speak successfully to the working classes during the industrial revolution over here, whereas religion was a radical force for making democracy work in America. And of course, change often leads people to question, and that can lead to an interest in spirituality.

Q: You’re among a number of theologians who criticize Christians as being overly concerned about the afterlife. Do you think the focus on heaven and hell is just another attempt to simplify the difficult business of our relationship with God?

A: Yes, I think the Christians have become unhealthfully fixated on getting into heaven. And I think that the afterlife can be a huge religious distraction. Christians are supposed to be dying to the ego, not imagining the eternal survival of the ego in optimum conditions. It’s as if you’re paying your money every month into your retirement annuity, so that you can have a comfortable life in the hereafter.

Another thing I don’t like about this Christian notion of heaven and hell, is that for some Christians, I don’t think heaven will be heaven unless they can peer over the celestial parapet and look down at other people writhing in agony in hell below. Whereas I like better the Islamic notion of the afterlife, which is on the last day, even Satan will be forgiven, that the power of the mercy of God can even reach out toward the ultimate evil and redeem it. I like that better than sort of imaging all these horrible torments of the damned, while you’re strumming your harp on a cloud somewhere.

Q: Then putting aside the afterlife, where do you see your personal spiritual journey taking you?

A: You never know that, any more than Abraham did. Even Jesus didn’t know what was happening as they nailed him on the cross and he cried, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in a moment of total abandonment.

I look back on the past a little more however. I think my transition from ardent Catholicism to atheism was that I was simply exhausted by religion, after leaving the religious life. But I remained interested in religion, and I did quite a bit of talking about it.

When I was researching my book, “History of God,” I looked at the whole of the monotheistic tradition. I found that there was a tremendous amount in Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity that was much closer to Buddhism. I found much that was inspiring in both Judaism and Islam, and by studying these other things, I’ve learned that my notion of God--the God that I rejected--was a very limited and eccentric view of God as compared with the richness and complexity of the God I found in studying the great religions. So I remain, a freelance monotheist.*