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TED and Reddit interview Karen Armstrong

Posted by: Matthew Trost

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With the launch of the Charter for Compassion, it’s the TED Blog’s pleasure to unveil Karen Armstrong‘s responses to the top 10 questions asked and voted on by the TED and Reddit community. (See all the questions users asked.) She covers the nature of compassion, the history of the conflict in the Middle East, and tough questions such as these:

  • Religion seems to cause racism, extremism — why not get rid of it?
  • What’s the point of a God that doesn’t intervene?
  • Why not discard religion and just teach the Golden Rule?

A Q&A that rewards deep reading. Enjoy!

Capitol62 asks: It seems that the nexus of modern religious conflict is in the Middle East. If that is correct, for your ideas about bringing faiths together with compassion and understanding to be successful you will need a strong commitment from religious leaders there. I was wondering if you’ve made any progress getting the Charter for Compassion together and how it has been received by Muslim leaders in the Middle East.

Actually the Middle East conflict is secular in origin. It began as a conventional political dispute about a land. Zionism was originally a rebellion against religious Judaism and the PLO Charter was essentially secularist. But because the conflict was allowed to fester without a resolution, religion got sucked into the escalating cycle of violence and became part of the problem. Violence and warfare affect everything that we do: they affect our dreams, aspirations, fantasies, relationships — and our religion. Most of the religiously-articulated terrorism that troubles us today arose in regions where an originally secular armed conflict has become chronic. It is patently the case in Afghanistan. The root of the problem is political and unless there is a just, political solution to these problems in the Middle East, no amount of inter-faith understanding will be effective.

But you are right that the Middle East conflict is a “nexus.” It has become a symbolic issue which stands for more than itself in the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For many Muslims, the plight of the Palestinians has become emblematic of the apparent defeat of their religious, cultural and political aspirations in the modern period; the State of Israel has inspired most Jewish fundamentalist movements — some passionately for the secular state of Israel and others vehemently either against it or adopting a deliberate and defiant neutrality towards it; and the State of Israel also figures prominently in the End Time scenario of the Christian Right in the United States.

All this has certainly muddied the waters, because once a conflict becomes sacralised, issues become absolute and compromise is far ore difficult.

But by no means all Jews, Christians or Muslims adopt these extreme positions. Many are eager, even desperate to achieve a peaceful solution in the Middle East and these are the voices that we need to amplify. On our Council of Conscience, we have a Palestinian peace activist and the Grand Mufti of Egypt, one of the most senior clerics in the Middle East. As I write this, we are reaching out to political and religious leaders in the Gulf States. But there can be no quick fix. Decades of warfare and destruction have made people on all sides suspicious and wary. The political problems remain; they are formidable and until a solution is found that satisfies all parties, there is no hope of either a secular or a religious settlement. The Golden Rule could certainly be a useful yardstick: if we always treated others as we expect to be treated ourselves, many of the heinous actions that are the cause of such suffering to people on both sides of this conflict would be impossible. If we would not like to suffer dispossession and exile, suicide bombing, oppression and terrorism, we should not inflict these on others. But alas, that is not the way politicians think. And when violence has become endemic, some religious people will, not surprisingly, become fearful, angry and, losing hope in the possibility of a conventional political settlement, some will turn to extremism. Charismatic individuals can work wonders. It is a pity that there is no politician or religious leader on either side of this conflict of the moral and spiritual stature of Gandhi, Mandela and Tutu.

renderedit asks: Why did the Buddha teach that the existence of God (that is, whether God exists or not) is irrelevant?

Before we get to the Buddha, I want to describe a spiritual exercise that developed in India in the 10th century BCE, four hundred years before his lifetime and which is a model of authentic religious discourse. Other traditions have developed their own versions of this sacred contest and the principle it embodies underlies the Buddha’s apparent insouciance about the ultimate reality.

It was called the Brahmodya Competition and its aim was to find a verbal formula that defined the Brahman, the ultimate reality that lies beyond the gods and is indefinable because it is the inmost essence of all things, the force that pulls the disparate parts of the universe together. First, the Brahmin priests would go out into the jungle to make a retreat. They fasted and practised breathing exercises that induced a different form of consciousness. This is an important point. You cannot talk about God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao in the same way as you might discuss a business deal or argue an academic point. You have to put yourself into the receptive frame of mind that is similar to the way we listen to music or poetry.

After their retreat, the priests returned to the compound to begin the competition. The challenger issued his own elliptical and paradoxical description of the Brahman, one that embodied all his learning and insight. Then his opponents had to respond, building on the challenger’s formula and taking the description a step further. But the winner was the priest who reduced everybody to silence — and in that silence the Brahman was present. It was not present in the brilliant verbal conundrums but in the stunning realization of the impotence of speech.

Other traditions have called this transcendence God, Nirvana, or Dao and have also insisted that it lies beyond the reach of words. It is not easy for us to appreciate this reticence. We are used to getting instant information at the click of a mouse and can feel frustrated by the experience of unknowing. We talk, I think, far too glibly about God, asking “him” (ridiculous pronoun!) to bless our nation, save our queen, and support our side in a war or an election, even though our opponents must also be the objects of God’s concern. We have domesticated God’s transcendence. We often learn about God at about the same time as we are learning about Santa Claus; but our ideas about Santa Claus change, mature and become more nuanced, whereas our ideas of God can remain at a rather infantile level.

This experience of numinous unknowing seems to be part of the way we human beings experience. It lay at the heart of the Socratic dialogue, which can be seen as a rational version of the Brahmodya: it did not conclude with one of the participants defeating the arguments of the others but in a profound realization of the profundity of human ignorance. When he contemplated the indeterminate universe of modern physics, Einstein said: “To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of all true religiousness.” This is the kind of knowing that we derive from poetry — it can take a lifetime for a complex poem to declare its full meaning to us. Music also, a highly rational art intimately related into mathematics, segues naturally into transcendence. Good theology is also an attempt to express the inexpressible. A modern theologian has described theological discourse as speech that segues into silence. At the end of the symphony, when the last notes die away, there is often a pregnant, eloquent beat of silence before the applause begins. Instead of giving us precise information about God, theology — at its best — should hold us in that beat of silence — just as the Brahmodya did.

In the past some of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, such as Maimonides, Aquinas and Ibn Sina, made it clear that it was very difficult to speak about God, because when we confront the ultimate, we are at the end of what words or thoughts can do. They insisted that we really do not know what we mean when we say that God is “good,” “wise” or “intelligent;” they devised spiritual exercises, like the Brahmodya, that made us realize the inadequacy of all God-talk. Some pointed out that we could not even say that God “existed,” because our concept of existence was too limited. Some even preferred to call God “Nothing” because God was not another being.

So, if we cannot know what God is, what is the point of religion? The traditions have found that, even though God is not a metaphysical fact that we can know in the same way as we know the beings of our experience, we can gain some intimation of the divine by means of disciplined spiritual exercises — like the Brahmodya Competition — and a compassionate lifestyle. All the traditions have discovered that the chief obstacle to this insight and enlightenment is egotism — selfishness, greed, envy, self-preoccupation and our engrained tendency to make ourselves the centre of the universe. Yoga, for example, was a systematic dismantling of ego and an attempt to remove the “I” from our thinking. In compassion, which all the traditions say brings us into relation with the transcendence we seek, we learn to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.

That is why the Buddha always refused to define the ultimate. He had a monk, who was a philosopher manqué. Neglecting his yoga and ethical practice, he kept pestering the Buddha about such questions as the existence of God and the creation of the world. The Buddha told him that he was like a man who had been shot with a poisoned arrow but refused to have any medical treatment until he had discovered the name of his assailant and what village he came from: he would die before he received this perfectly useless information. One could, the Buddha said, spend many pleasant hours discussing these fascinating topics but this would distract a monk from his main objective: “Because, my disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness; they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of Nirvana.”

In the oriental traditions, especially in India and China, the emphasis is not on what we are transcending to (God, Nirvana, Brahman, Dao) but on what we must transcend from, tamping out the “unhelpful states of mind” arising from egotism that hold us back from the perception of this transcendent reality that we can glimpse, but never rationally define.

blackstar9000 asks: What one aspect of religion would you say is least understood by the general population, how can it be addressed, and what do you think would be the result if more people understood it?

I think that the Western world — and particularly, perhaps, the Western Christian world — has lost sight of the fact that religion is a practical rather than a notional discipline. It is not a question of thinking or “believing” things but of behaving consistently in a way that changes you at a profound level. This is one of the principal themes of my book The Case for God. Religious knowledge has to be acquired by dedicated practice — like driving, swimming or cooking. You cannot learn dancing or gymnastics by reading a book. You have to devote hours and years of time to practising this skill; you do not necessarily understand how your body achieves these amazing feats, but if you persevere you may learn to move with an unearthly grace and reveal a physical potential that is impossible for an untrained body.

The myths of religion are essentially programmes for action. Many of the most ancient myths are overtly about the gods but are actually about humanity. These stories about gods descending into the underworld and fighting with monsters were not meant to be factual or historical; they were telling you how to enter into the labyrinthine world of the psyche and fight your own demons. Unless a myth is put into practice, it remains as opaque and abstract as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until it is “incarnated” instrumentally. It is only when you apply it practically to your own life — either ritually or ethically — that it reveals its truth, in rather the same way as the instructions of a board game, which seem incomprehensible, complicated and boring until you pick up the dice and begin to play when everything falls into place. Such a myth is not providing us with factual information about the universe but telling you something profoundly true about our humanity, the way our minds and hearts work, and how we can live more richly and intensely, beyond the reach of fear, hatred, and envy.

This is very clear in Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism and Islam, which are all essentially religions of practice and have little or no obligatory dogma. The “five pillars” of Islam, for example, are activities (pilgrimage, almsgiving, fasting) rather than doctrines requiring belief. But it was also true of such Christian doctrines as Trinity (originally a meditative exercise) and Incarnation (a call to lay aside the ego; see Philippians 2:1-11). A myth has been defined as something that — in some sense — happened once but which also happens all the time. It is only when you activate a myth, making it a reality in your own life, that you recognize its truth.

We lost this understanding of religion during the early modern period, when our conception of truth, became more notional, mythos was discredited, and practical knowledge downgraded. At this time, the English word belief changed its meaning: beliven used to mean “love, loyalty, commitment, engagement;” it was related to the German liebe (“beloved”) and the Latin libido (“desire”). Only in the late 17th century did it come to mean: “an intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition.” In the New Testament, when Jesus was asking for “faith” (Greek: pistis, “trust, involvement, commitment”) he was not asking for a credulous acceptance of a set of doctrines. He was calling for action, seeking disciples who would give what they had to the poor, live rough, behave compassionately even to social outcasts, and devote their lives to the coming Kingdom when rich and poor, weak and powerful would live together in harmony. When the early Christians recited “creeds” they were not expressing “belief” so much as making this kind of commitment; the Latin credo derives from cor do: “I give my heart.”

By making “belief” in the modern sense so essential to religion, we have distorted our understanding of faith and placed far too much emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy. Nobody, after all, can have the last word on what we call “God.” We now call religious people “believers” as though accepting certain dogmas was the most important thing that they did. People like the rabbis, the fathers of the church, the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishads and Confucius would have found this very strange, because the teachings of religion make no sense until and unless they are translated into action.

Today we often think that before we start living a religious life we have first to accept the creedal doctrines and that before one can have any comprehension of the loyalty and trust of faith, one must first force one’s mind to accept a host of incomprehensible doctrines. But this is to put the cart before the horse. First you change your behaviour — and only then do you begin to understand the truth that lies behind the dogma.

In his famous prayer, St Anselm, the 11th century archbishop of Canterbury, says: credo ut intelligam, which is usually translated: “I believe in order that I may understand.” As a child, I always thought this meant that first I had to force my mind to “believe” the articles of the creed and then, as a reward, God would give me understanding. But Anselm’s words are more accurately translated: “I involve/commit myself in order that I may understand.” It is only when you involve yourself in the ritual and ethical practices of religion that you achieve understanding. That is why Anselm goes on to say: “And unless I so involve myself, I will not understand.”

The person who asked me this question also asked a series of questions about the Golden Rule (“Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you” or “Always treat all others as you would wish to be treated yourself”). Why the emphasis on the Golden Rule? Why is it universal? Does it tell us anything substantial about religion, since it is also fundamental to secular ideologies? Because religion is essentially a practical activity, religious people are very pragmatic. They do not usually adopt an ideology because it sounds good but because it has been found to work. When people have practised the Golden Rule “all day and every day” as Confucius (the first person to formulate it in the sixth century BCE) prescribed, you find that you lay aside the ego, because the Golden Rule requires you to overcome selfishness and put yourself, consistently, kindly, and intelligently, all day and every day, in somebody else’s shoes.

People have discovered that if they practice the Golden Rule faithfully, it slowly, incrementally, changes them. They achieve what the Greeks called ekstasis, which is not an exotic trance but a disciplined, habitual “stepping outside” of the prism of selfishness. This practice is fundamental to the enlightenment that we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Dao. As a dancer reveals the full potential of the human body, people find that living beyond the confines of self helps them to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart; they discover a transcendent peace within themselves, which enables them to live serenely and creatively in the midst of the suffering that is an ineradicable part of the human condition. The Golden Rule is the basis of religion and morality because this is the way our humanity works; this tells us something profoundly true about the human condition.

But it is no use either “believing” or “dis-believing” in the efficacy of the Golden Rule. You only discover its truth and effectiveness if you put it into practice “all day and every day.”

Read the rest of Karen Armstrong’s answers, after the jump >>
(Continued)

rakv1971 asks: What is the role of God in a world where neuroscience is peeling away at the subjective?

I am afraid I am not up at the cutting edge of neuroscience, so I am not sure what you mean by “peeling away at the subjective?” Do you mean that our subjective impressions are unreliable representations of objective reality? If so, the mystics and sages of religion, especially in the eastern traditions, have long been aware of this. They have all insisted that the ultimate (God, Nirvana, Brahman, Dao) lies beyond our normal psycho-mental states. You could not think about Brahman; nor could you experience God emotionally. For the sages of the Upanishads (c. 7th century BCE), In the seventh century BCE, Yajnavalkya, one of the great teachers in the Upanishads, the Brahman is identical with the innermost core (atman) of each human being, but it lay far deeper than our normal thoughts, sensations and experiences:

You can’t see the Seer who does the seeing; you can’t hear the Hearer who does the hearing; you can’t think with the Thinker who does the thinking; you can’t perceive the Perceiver who does the Perceiving.

In the same way, the Buddha emphasized the ephemeral nature of our perceptions: to achieve enlightenment one had to go deeper. And until the fourteenth century, when a fervid emotional piety began to surface in Europe, most of the Christian masters of the spiritual life insisted that you could not feel God any more than you could know what God is. “Blessed is he who is without sensations during prayer,” said Evagrius of Pontus, one of the monks who lived a contemplative life in the Egyptian desert.

In the past, the most thoughtful spiritual advisers in all the major traditions have distrusted visions, exotic feelings or heavenly voices; they claimed that they were the product of a fevered imagination and a distraction from the transcendence we seek. Buddhists say that this type of experience is like so much electronic “noise,” a natural effect of the yogic disciplines, which have little significance in themselves. They certainly have no supernatural origin. Many of the meditative exercises developed in the traditions were designed precisely to wean people away from this type of emotional excess. To cultivate extraordinary feelings and sensations and luxuriate in a warm glow meant that the contemplative or yogin would remain trapped in the ego that s/he was supposed to transcend. Once religious experience is equated with fervid enthusiasm, people are in danger of losing touch with the psychological rhythms and realities of the interior life.

sweetbldnjesus asks: What do you think accounts for today’s strong disconnect between logos and mythos?

In most premodern cultures, there were two generally recognized ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world, so it had to correspond accurately to external reality. Logos was essential to the survival of our species, but it had its limitations. It could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people have turned to mythos, which focused on the more elusive, puzzling and tragic aspects of the human predicament that lay outside the remit of logos.

Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. We fall very easily into despair if we do not find some significance in our lives. Myth helps us to achieve this. If your child dies or you witness a terrible natural disaster, you want a scientific, rational explanation but you also need help in coping with the turbulence of your grief and despair. Science can diagnose your cancer and can even cure it; but it cannot assuage the disappointment, terror and dismay that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help you to die well. That is the role of myth. But a myth was not just a pretty story that provided you with a facile answer to the problems of mortality, pain, and sorrow. It was, as I said above, a programme for action. It could put you in the correct psychological or spiritual posture, but it was up to you to do the hard spiritual and psychological work with yourself and take the next step, making the “truth” of the myth a reality in your own life.

The modern disjunction between mythos and logos was one of the effects of the 17th century scientific revolution in the West. At this time, logos began to achieve such spectacular results that myth became discredited. So much so that in popular parlance today a “myth” often simply refers to something that is not true. If accused of a peccadillo in his past life, a politician is likely to say “It is a myth”; i.e., it didn’t happen. During the modern period in the West, the scientific methodology of logos was widely regarded as the only reliable means of attaining truth and this would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to it. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, so religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. Because we started to read our scriptures as though they were factual logos, we lost the art of interpreting the old stories of gods walking the earth, dead men rising from tombs or seas parting miraculously. We also began to understand such concepts as faith, revelation, myth and mystery in ways that would have been very surprising to our ancestors.

This questioner also asks: If so much evil has been perpetuated in the name of religion, is it not better to avoid organized religion altogether?

There is no denying that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. As a species, we have a genius for fouling things up. Atrocities have also been committed in the name of secular ideologies: one need think only of Stalin. I have had several threatening letters from fervent atheists, who tell me that if they find out where I live they will burn my house down. We are a cruel species. At its best, religion, like the best secular ideologies, was designed to curb our tendency to destroy anything or anyone that appears to threaten us.

I used to think that it would be better if religion had never been invented because religious people have done such harm in the world. But after twenty-five years of studying the major world faiths, I have had to change my mind. When I was researching The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, for example, I was surprised to learn that each one of what we call the great world faiths originally developed in a revulsion from contemporary violence; each one — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Daoism and the three monotheisms — began at a time when violence had reached an unprecedented crescendo, and in each case, the catalyst for religious change was a principled rejection of aggression and a deliberate cultivation of a compassionate ethic. It is not “religion” that is responsible for evil; it is the greed, selfishness, and violence of humanity. We often call evil acts “inhuman” but this is inaccurate: these acts are all too human. We are capable of heroism and generosity; but aggression is also something that comes naturally to us.

Some forms of religion are, as the Buddhists say, more “skilful” or “helpful” than others. A great deal of harm has been done when people have cultivated an idolatrous conception of God, thinking of “him” as a powerful being, like ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. This imaginary deity is simply an idol, which we have created in our own image; it gives a sacred seal of absolute approval to some of our worst prejudices and impulses. That is why some of the greatest Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians fought against this idolatrous tendency by emphasizing the transcendence of God — as I explained in my answer to the second question.

And this reminds us that organized religion has its uses. It preserves wisdom like that of such theologians as Hillel, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the great Kabbalists, Isaac Luria, Martin Buber, Ibn Sina, Avicenna, Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, Mulla Sadra, Mir Dimad, the Cappadocian Fathers, Denys, Duns Scotus Erigena, Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Karl Rahner, Paul Tillich, and Bernard Lonergan. Of course organized religion can become idolatrous; many church leaders are simply religious politicians, and politicians, as a breed, are not famous for their lack of ego. Any institution, be it secular or religious, has a tendency to become an end in itself — or, in religious terms, an idol.

Human beings are chronically predisposed towards idolatry. We constantly give absolute value to purely temporal, limited realities, such as a god, a nation, or an ideology. When something inherently finite is invested with ultimate value, its devotees feel obliged to eliminate any rival claimant because there can only be one absolute. We find this kind of idolatry in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible; but it also characterised some of the worst political and moral disasters of the twentieth century.

enlashok asks: How bad does an idea have to be before the appropriate reaction is to discard it?

This question comes from Enlashok, but he has asked a lot of other questions and makes a lot of other points too, particularly about the harm religion does. I will try to give as comprehensive an argument as possible.

First, I freely admit that a great deal of religion is indeed “unskilful” — there is bad religion just as there is bad art, bad sex, and bad cooking. I have written books about this type of destructive faith. Far too many people, as Enlashok points out, are uncritical of themselves and their tradition; they have indeed “maintained and propagated immoral, racist, sexist and homophobic policies, promoted tribalism, and shielded extremism.” Religion — like any art or science — is very difficult to do well. Religion may, for example, teach compassion, but far too many people — secularists as well as religious — prefer to be right rather than compassionate.

Enlashok says that he realizes he has asked a lot of questions and that he would be content if I would simply answer his first question, which I have cited above. So let me say again: religion is not an “idea.” Its doctrines can only be verified when they are consistently translated into practical action. They are certainly not ideas that can be “factually supported from available evidence,” to quote Enlashok again. As I have tried to explain, the notion that religion is an idea that can be empirically proven is a great fallacy that developed in the Christian West during the early modern period, when theologians tried to force theology into a scientific idiom that was alien to it. As soon as they did this, atheism became inevitable. When you mix mythos with logos, you get bad science and unskilful religion. Unfortunately, as globalization proceeds and more and more people adopt the Western ethos, this unviable, “scientific theology” is spreading to other faiths and other regions.

Instead of seeing religion as a science manqué, I think it is more helpful to regard it as an art form. Like art, religion at its best helps us to find meaning in a tragic world; like art, it holds us in an attitude of wonder and introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is not dependent upon logic or empirical truth. Music, for example, is not about anything and you cannot verify the meaning of a late Beethoven quartet, but it has a powerful and enriching effect upon us. Poetry pushes language to the limits and makes us aware of the difficulty of expressing some of our more profound insights in a purely logical way. Religion has always expressed itself most effectively in terms of art: poetry, music, dance, song, architecture, calligraphy, drama, and sculpture.

Religion differs from art in its summons to practical action. It is not sufficient to have an aesthetic or “spiritual” experience. The Buddha explained that, after achieving enlightenment, a person must come down from the mountain top, return to the market place and there practice compassion for all living beings. A spirituality that focuses only on a numinous warm glow is “unskilful” and selfish. All art is transformative; it is meant to change us. Religion — at its best — is a form of ethical alchemy that helps us to limit the egotism that causes so much human suffering, both to ourselves and to others.

Like art, religion was not meant to provide us with information and explanations that lie within the remit of scientific logos. It helps us to consider problems for which there are no final solutions — mortality, the prospect of our inevitable and painful extinction, sickness, injustice, and cruelty. It does not mean that we will suffer less but, if we work hard enough, we might be able to endure our own pain and to assuage the suffering of others.

Science deals with verifiable ideas; scientists struggle with a problem, and when that is solved move on to the next one. There is continuous improvement, progress and development. But the humanities do not function like that. Philosophers are still meditating on the same issues and problems that preoccupied Plato. Harold Pinter is not necessarily a better playwright than Shakespeare, simply because the sum of human knowledge has advanced since Shakespeare’s time. There are some aspects of life — death, sorrow, the nature of happiness, evil and the nature of goodness — that each generation has to grapple with for itself. And there never seems to be a definitive solution.

SomeKindOfPrimate asks: You often defend religion by arguing that god is a vague numinous force known only through mystical experience. But a god that doesn’t answer prayers and intervene in the world is impotent to most believers. If god doesn’t throw thunderbolts and intervene in the affairs of mankind, what is the point of believing in god and practising religion?

First of all, I personally would not like to worship a god who throws thunderbolts. The Greeks had one, whom they called Zeus; like the other gods, he continually intervened in human affairs in a highly irresponsible way. The kind of god you describe is, surely, undesirable.

In the ancient world, people believed in the existence of gods in a way that was not irrational at a time when there were so many unseen forces — wind, infection, disease, emotion — that had a profound influence on human life. But they were not gods in our sense of the word, because they were not omnipotent or omniscient; they had a fuller share of Being than other creatures because they were immortal, but otherwise they shared the human predicament and had to live according to the natural laws of the cosmos. There was no ontological gulf between the natural world and the gods, no concept of the “supernatural” in our sense: gods, humans, animals, trees, rocks and stars were made up — in varying degrees — of the same divine substance. Homer depicts the gods as more powerful than human beings but basically trivial and lacking in seriousness precisely because they did not have to face the horror of death. In the eastern religions, the gods are lower in status than an enlightened teacher such as the Buddha; they too have to work for their own enlightenment and study such disciplines as yoga under a human guru.

In making a mere god the only symbol of the ultimate transcendence, the people of Israel were doing something highly unusual. And because this god, at the very start of the history of Israel, had all the irresponsible, thunderbolt-hurling defects of many of the other gods, they had to develop their theology, reaching out to what theologians call the ineffable God beyond god. A personalised God can help us to recognize the sacredness of human personality, but there carries an inbuilt danger of idolatry because it is all too easy to make the biblical god an idol, the end of the story. Religious language always points beyond itself; it is and can only be symbolic.

That is why the later prophets and the rabbis of the Talmudic Age had to refine the god depicted in the earliest parts of the Bible, making it clear that God was not yet another being. I have described this long and complex process in A History of God. Jews do not even speak God’s name, a discipline that reminds them that any human expression of the divine is so inadequate that it is potentially blasphemous. In the Talmud, the rabbis make it clear that there is a vast gulf between the human experience of the divine and the divine reality itself (which Jewish mystics called Ein Sof, “Without End”), which would always remain beyond our ken. One rabbi went so far as to say that Ein Sof was not even mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud.

Christians and Muslims made exactly the same distinction. The distinction between the God we somehow experience and the ineffable reality itself lies behind the doctrine of the Trinity, which was meant to remind Christians that it was impossible to think about God as a simple personality. When he was devising the doctrine of the incarnation of God in the man Jesus in the 4th century, St Athanasius explained that we could only make this claim because we did not know what God was. If God were simply a big, almighty Something, like an immense thing in our experience, it would be impossible for God to be present in a human being; it would be like trying to cram a whale into a can of sardines. But in the man Jesus, Christians could glimpse an incomprehensible transcendence that was entirely distinct from anything in our normal experience.

But during the modern period, influenced by scientific logos of modernity, people began to lose the older symbolic habits of thought, started to read their scriptures with a literalism that is without parallel in religious history, and began to envisage God as a fact. They saw their idea of God as identical with the transcendent reality, instead of simply being a symbol. Unlike the theologians of the past, they had no problem thinking that he existed like any other being. As Paul Tillich explained:

We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody, because he will immediately question: “Does God exist?” now the very asking of that question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, in the question, has become one of the innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.

This kind of literal thinking produces a very primitive notion of deity. A God who interferes with human freedom is simply a tyrant; a God who hurls thunderbolts is a liability; a God conceived as living in a world of his own was simply a being; even the Supreme Being was just another Being, the final item in the series. Tillich argued that to deny the reality of the idolatrous, interventionist god was a religious act.

It is just no good thinking that God will answer our prayers, cure our sickness, ensure the success of our nation or give us a fine day for the picnic, because “he” simply doesn’t do it. And if you are convinced that God has cured your cancer and saved your life, then you really do have a problem: why did God not save the lives of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah? Elie Weisel said that this interventionist God died in Auschwitz. But there is an Auschwitz story that I think wonderfully expresses the true purpose of religion. Even in the camps, some inmates continued to study Torah and observe the festivals, not in the hope of placating an angry deity, but because they found that these rituals helped them to endure the horror. One night the Jews put God on trial. In the face of such inconceivable suffering, they found the conventional arguments for his existence utterly unconvincing. If God was omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust; if he could not stop it, he was impotent; and if he could stop it but chose not to, he was a monster. They condemned God to death. The presiding rabbi pronounced the verdict, and then went on calmly to announce that it was time for the evening prayer. Ideas about God come and go, but prayer, the struggle to find meaning even in the darkest circumstances, must continue.

The “God beyond god” is only vague, abstract and difficult to understand if you are not living the mythos of religion. If one just considers God as an abstract idea, without putting into practice the teachings of religion, as I have described above, God becomes as abstract as the rules of a board game.

maxmax asks: John Doe calls himself an atheist. He never goes to a house of worship. He doesn’t look to religious texts for guidance. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a god, at least not in any literal way. Nonetheless, he believes in the Golden Rule (Do unto others…). While logically he realizes that it leads to more happiness for more people, he also personally finds satisfaction in caring for others and treating them with respect. This sense of satisfaction (perhaps even transcendence), in fact, is really where he finds the willpower to keep doing the caring and thoughtful things he does. Would you consider John Doe to be a religious person? If not, what is he lacking?

If John Doe puts the Golden Rule into practice “all day and every day” as Confucius prescribed, not simply doing his “good deed for the day” and then returning to a life of self interest; if he does not confine his benevolence to his own group, tribe or nation or to people he finds congenial, but extends it to all members of the human race — and, indeed, to all species; if every time he is tempted to speak unkindly of an annoying sibling, an ex-wife or a people with whom his country is at war, he refrains; if he never speaks an unkind word, never makes an irritable gesture, but behaves with friendly courtesy to all; if he does not look down, even in his most intimate thoughts, on those who do not share his beliefs; if he does not inveigh impatiently at what he regards as the credulity of the religious; if he works energetically and in practical ways to assuage the suffering and injustice of life, even if this goes against his own interests; if he is open-hearted, generous and kind at every moment of his life, I would not only call him “religious” but I would bow before him as a Sage, a perfected human being.

Such a commitment to the Golden Rule produces what the Chinese called a Sage; what the Greek Orthodox called a deified human being; what others have called a Buddha, an enlightened human being, so identified with Nirvana that s/he has become inseparable from it. Such a person has gone beyond ego, because at each moment of the day, s/he has laid selfishness to one side and is living in a state of ekstasis, “standing outside” the prism of selfhood; such a person has broken down the barricades that most of us erect around ourselves to protect the frightened, defensive ego. Such a person is indeed, as you suggest, living in relation to transcendence, because s/he is not focused on what s/he is transcending to, but concentrating on what s/he is transcending from.

I would like to close this question with two quotations. The first is from Confucius’s Analects. These words were spoken by Yan Hui, Confucius’s most talented pupil, and describe a life of constant ren. Later Confucians would define ren as “benevolence, compassion”, but Confucius always refused to define it because he said it a state that was incomprehensible to a person who had not achieved it. It was itself the transcendence one seeks — hence the Chinese often speak of the ultimate reality as the “Way” (dao) and prefer to remain silent about the Terminus of the religious journey. For Yan Hui the practice of ren was an end in itself, but it demanded a lifelong effort which, once undertaken seriously, has its own dynamic, which he described, “with a deep sigh”:

The more I strain towards it, the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front, but suddenly it is behind. Step by step, the Master [Confucius] skilfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing over me sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all. (Analects 9:10)

Ren was not something you “got” but something you gave. It is not something that you could nail down and define. Living a compassionate, empathic life took Yan Hui beyond himself, giving him momentary glimpses of a sacred reality that is not unlike the “God” pursued by monotheists. It was both immanent and transcendent: it welled up from within but was also experienced as an external presence “standing over me sharp and clear.”

The second quotation is a very early Buddhist prayer — attributed to the Buddha himself — which expresses the compassionate attitude. John Doe could certainly use this prayer, because it can be prayed by anybody, whatever her beliefs or lack of them:

Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate,
Small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away,
Alive or still to be born — may they all be perfectly happy!
Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.
May nobody wish harm to any single creature, out of anger or hatred!
Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!
May our compassionate thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across, –
Without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world,
Unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity! (Sutta Nipata 118)

Selph asks: If the Golden Rule is the best and most important part of religion, why should we not discard religion and just teach the Golden Rule?

This overlaps with the last question. And here is probably the place to answer its last query: “What is John Doe missing?”

To practice the Golden Rule in the way that I have described above is very difficult; every day one tends to fail, time and time again, with an impatient word, an angry gesture, a contemptuous glance. So the traditions have devised aids to help us. Classical yoga, for example, of the kind practised by the Buddha, was not an aerobic exercise; nor was it a way of feeling peaceful and happy with our lot. It was a systematic and highly technical way of combating ego. It also rooted the compassionate ethos deeply in the subconscious. Religious art and ritual brought a sense of beauty, joy, wonder and transcendence to the compassionate lifestyle. If, for example, you contemplate Andrey Rublev’s 15th century icon (and in the Orthodox Christian traditions icons have the same kind of authority as scripture) you see, beautifully depicted, what has become an archetypal image of the divine and of the compassionate personality: it is an icon of selflessness and eternal, personal dispossession (I have described it in more detail in The Case for God).

A supportive community can also prevent discouragement; and each tradition has amassed a treasury of wisdom on the “Do’s and Don’t’s” of the compassionate life, pointing out the ever-present danger of segueing into self-congratulation and egotism (it is all too easy to be lethally charitable to others!), so that you don’t have to go it alone. The ideal of community is crucial to all faith traditions and it is an education in compassion. In every community, there are bound to be people we find uncongenial (the same can also be said of family), and by learning to relate empathically to them, we prepare ourselves for the encounter with the more challenging Other outside.

But the faith traditions are not monolithic, unified systems. They are immensely complex and have also amassed a lot of inessential practices, doctrines and rituals over the centuries that are either “unskilful” or outdated. We have seen that institutional religion has a tendency to become egotistic and idolatrous — the same is also true, surely, of secular institutions. What worked beautifully for medievals will not necessarily work for people in the 21st century. So a good deal of weeding out has to be done. The practice of religion is always highly selective. We have a choice: we can either emphasize those aspects of a tradition, secular or religious, that speak of superiority, exclusion or even hatred and disdain; or we can choose those that speak of compassion and learn to look for the compassionate core of what seems, at first glance, an unpromising doctrine or ritual. Religion is hard work; each tradition represents a constant dialogue between transcendence and current conditions; it demands a constant creative effort to speak to the peculiar conditions of the modernity in which we find ourselves. I personally think that we can lay to one side many aspects of a religious tradition if they do not help us to implement the Golden Rule in the way our world needs.

deadlytoque asks: How do you respond to Richard Dawkins’ assertion that religion is corrosive to science, and that it encourages people to be satisfied with “trivial, supernatural non-explanations”?

I would agree that religion can indeed encourage this kind of sloppy, facile thinking. But it need not and should not, as I have tried to show in The Case for God.

First, the distinction between mythos and logos meant that until the 17th century, there was no conflict between science and religion:

  • Until that time, nobody read their scriptures in a wholly literal way. Every single statement of the Qur’an, for example, is called an ayah, a “parable, sign, or symbol.” In their creative midrash (“interpretation, investigation”) of scripture, the Rabbis were highly inventive and felt no qualms about adding to the original revelation or interpreting the sacred texts in a way that the biblical authors would have surprising in order to make them address the current needs of the community. And in the Christian world, until the 16th century, pastors, preachers and monks all interpreted each verse of the Bible in four senses: literal, moral, allegorical and mystical. Nobody stuck with the plain sense. And, as a Catholic child, I was taught to read the Bible in this way: the word “evolution” never cropped up in a religious context during my time at school.
  • So nobody, for example, understood the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life. That was not the purpose of cosmology in the ancient world. Until the 16th century, people felt at liberty to make up entirely new creation myths or to interpret each word of these early chapters of Genesis as an esoteric allegory.
  • In the early fifth century, St Augustine, who can be called the founder of the Western Christian tradition and is revered as a major authority by Catholics and Protestants alike, insisted that if a biblical text contradicted science, that text had to be interpreted differently and given an allegorical significance. The revealed words reflected the world of the biblical authors and were, therefore, “accommodated” to their understanding. The ancients, for example, had thought that a body of water existed above the clouds and was the source of rain. But science, Augustine argued, had moved on and nobody believed that any longer. So when the Bible spoke of the “waters above the earth”, we could not take this literally. Augustine’s “principle of accommodation” was the bedrock of biblical exegesis until the 16th century. (Incidentally, Augustine also insisted that if a biblical text seemed to preach hatred, violence or exclusion, it must also be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity).
  • Many of the people who oppose the teaching of evolution in the public schools would call themselves Calvinists. But Calvin himself would not have approved of their campaign. Writing during the dawn of the scientific revolution, he adhered to Augustine’s “principle of accommodation.” He was not surprised to hear that the biblical description of the cosmos differed from the latest discoveries of the learned philosophers. The Bible, for example, says that the sun and moon were the largest of the heavenly bodies, but now modern astronomers claimed that Saturn was bigger. “Here lies the difference: Moses wrote in a popular style things, which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense are able to understand. But astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.” The Bible had nothing to say about astronomy. “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere,” Calvin instructed emphatically. Science was “very useful” and must not be impeded “because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.”
  • At the time of the disgraceful Galileo crisis, a witty Cardinal in the Vatican made this bon mot: “In scripture, the Holy Spirit is telling us how to go to heaven — not how the heavens go.”
  • The pioneering scientists of the early modern period were all devoutly religious: Newton, Kepler, Mersenne, and Descartes; as were most of the Enlightenment philosophers. In England, the Protestant and Puritan ethos were felt to be congenial to early modern science and helped its advance and acceptance. The Jesuits encouraged the young Descartes to read Galileo and were fascinated by modern science; indeed, it has been argued that the first scientific collective was not the Royal Society but the Society of Jesus.
  • Newton and Descartes both claimed to have proved the existence of God. This claim would have horrified previous theologians, like Thomas Aquinas but the physics of Newton and Descartes would not work without God. But this reduced God to a scientific explanation and to a mere fact; God was assigned a function — and even a location in the universe. This conflation of mythos and logos broke with centuries of tradition and it also made the doctrine of divine creation important in the way it had never been before (it is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament and when theologians first formulated the doctrine of creation “out of nothing”, they concluded that the universe could give us no information at all about the nature of God.)
  • But of course within a few generations, scientists such as Laplace found that they could dispense with the God-hypothesis. But by this time theologians, churchmen and, finally, evangelical Christians had made the scientifically proven God of Newton central to the Western Christian tradition. They had become addicted to the idea of absolute certainty and so lost the older habits of thought that when Darwin came along many seemed without other resource.

The real enmity between science and religion is, therefore, of fairly recent origin. Despite occasional skirmishes, such as the Galileo fiasco, the problem was the religion and science fell in love with one another in a way that proved finally detrimental to religion.

~

Comments (6)

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  • Margaret deMello commented on Aug 15 2011

    This is refreshing dialogue from Karen Armstrong, thank you! How do theodicies of suffering compare with evolutionary theories, such as the ‘selfish’ gene, reciprical altruism and kinship theories. These seem to reduce theodicies of compassion and social justice to adaptive survival behaviours. While on one hand this makes sense, on the other hand it seems to displace a possibly equal and separate human imperative – relational identity and meaning.

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  • Pamela Mitchell commented on Sep 13 2010

    How come nobody asked about suffering and the place it has in our world?

  • John Perez commented on Mar 25 2010

    This is a good article. As I read it I was reminded of Jesus’ words recorded in the gospel of John Ch 8:31-32: To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
    The article by stating that Buddhism, Confucianism Islam and Judaism are primarily religions of practice seems to imply that Christianity isn’t. This is not true. To follow Jesus is to believe and act on his teaching. Intellectual assent to an idea is not really belief in the biblical sense. True belief is revealed in our actions which prove our intellectual assent. In regards to practice, some of the other faiths place emphasis on actions, but not necessarily the heart behind those actions. Jesus emphasised both the actions within (our thoughts, our motives) and the outward actions.