At 17, she became a Roman Catholic nun. But it wasn't until British-born Karen Armstrong left the convent that she found her true calling: as a religion scholar.
Now 66, she has written a series of best-selling - and often provocative - books on Jerusalem, Buddha, the Bible and the Prophet Muhammad and other topics. Her latest book centers on making the world a more compassionate place, her current passion.
In "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life," she calls on religious people and others to return the Golden Rule to a pre-eminent place in their lives. Armstrong has helped launch a Charter for Compassion, a document around which religious leaders can work together for peace.
Armstrong was in Charlotte last week to address a national gathering of Unitarian Universalists. She spoke with me about compassion, belief, Jesu, and the danger of creating God in our image. Here are excerpts of our conversation:
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Q. What's the main headline when you speak these days?
That if we want a safe world, we have to practice compassion - for all beings, not just the people we find congenial. Unless we learn to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, all nations, all ethnicities the way we wish to be treated ourselves, we're not going to have a viable world.
Q. You say the Golden Rule started with Confucius, five centuries before Jesus?
Yes. All the world religions have developed the Golden Rule, quite independently of one another, and said it's the test of true spirituality. That's not to say that all religions are the same. But what they do agree on is that there's something wrong with your spirituality and your practice of religion if it doesn't lead you to compassion. That is the test in every religion.
Q. Not belief?
Belief is a very peculiar Christian obsession that developed very late in the 17th century. The word "belief" in English originally meant to love, to commit yourself as you do when you love somebody. To be loyal to somebody. And Jesus was not asking for belief (as it's now understood). He was asking for what in Greek in the New Testament is "pistis," which means commitment (to God), not acceptance of doctrines.
Q. When did this detour to doctrine come?
I think it happened at the beginning of the scientific era, as our idea of truth became more notional. Whereas religious truth is really a practically realized skill - like driving or swimming. You can't learn to swim by simply reading a book about it. You've got to get into the pool and acquire the knack. And we've lost the knack because we don't practice it. All those doctrines we believe in were originally calls to action.
Q. Here in the South, many evangelical Protestants say it's not about good works, it's about faith. And they can cite chapter and verse from the Bible. What do you say to them?
I would quote back: "I could have faith that moves mountains," it says in Paul, "but if I lack charity, it will do me no good at all."
Q. So are they misreading the Bible when they stress "being saved" by Jesus?
This is a form of Christianity that developed quite late. This preoccupation with being saved yourself is a bit on the egotistical side. I think religion is about giving yourself away to others. As the Buddha said, "A good life is to live for others."
Q. Is that what Jesus did at his crucifixion?
I think Jesus did it his entire life. Jesus did not go around with the pious people. He hung out with the people that were frowned on by the religious establishment. And when he asked them if they had faith, that didn't mean he was asking them to believe that he was the second person of the Trinity - he'd have found that idea very odd. But what he was asking for (was) people who would be prepared to work night and day for the coming of the kingdom of God. To give all they have to the poor, to live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
Q. What do you say to people who think you just want everybody to come together and sing "Kumbaya"?
No, I don't. Compassion's tough. Compassion means getting rid of your ego and it means working selflessly for others. And we don't want to do that. We want to look after ourselves first. I don't want people to be one. I don't want all the religions to merge into one. But I do think that religious people have to work together to make a better, safer and more just world.
Q. Besides Jesus, who are some people who have lived the kind of compassion you're talking?
Mother Teresa. Martin Luther King. Gandhi.
Q. Are you hopeful that the world will someday not just admire these figures but also seek to follow their example? I've been working on the Charter for Compassion. I've been immensely impressed by people who've come forward. Mostly businessmen. They're particularly interested in establishing more compassionate business ethics.
Q. How important is education in all of this?
Crucial. For all of us. We've got to learn about other peoples. The ignorance, for example, about Islam in this country is shocking ... These are supposed to be good Christian people. "Love your enemies," said Jesus. "Do not judge others," said Jesus. "Judge not and you will not be judged." People seem to have not read their Gospels when they pronounce these kinds of things. And this is dangerous - those kind of bigoted remarks, the burning of the Quran in Florida. And it is an absolute gift to the (Muslim) extremists who can use it to "prove" that the West is out to destroy Islam.
Q. You have said it's idolatry to imagine God as a being. So how would you define "divine"?
I couldn't define it. That's the point. All the religions say you cannot define God or Nirvana ... You have to think of it in some way. And the idea of a personal God is a very good image of God. But it's only an image. Religious language must be translucent. It points beyond itself to something inexpressible. If you get stuck with a human image of the divine, you're in danger of becoming an idolater. But I don't mind what people believe or how they think of God as long as it leads them to be compassionate and kind to others.
Q. But what do you make of Jesus talking about "my father" and "your father knows every hair on your head"?
That's fine, yes. He's talking about a benevolent force in the world that we feel. He's not defining God, like saying that he knows what God wants to feels. (Some) people talk about God as if he were their boss or something, and that they know exactly what he thinks and feels. There's a danger ... that you create a god in your own image.
Q. Do you pray?
No, not in a Christian way. But I see my study as my prayer. It's a form of meditation.
Q. Do you feel like you're on a spiritual journey?
Yes, most certainly.
Q. And you don't know where you'll end up?
That's the thing: In the Eastern religions, they spend less time worrying about what lies at the end of the journey. It's the path itself that's important.