Karen Armstrong

Karen
Armstrong
1944

British Author and Commentator on Comparative Religion, formerly Roman Catholic Sister

Author Quotes

The experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aisle. It is an exercise of make-believe that, like yoga or a religious festival, breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies, so that we are able to empathize with others? lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to 'feel with' others. And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.

Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective.

Why, then, do we hear so little about compassion from the religious? Because whether they are religious or secular, people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Certainly the religious traditions have a deeply intransigent strain. But we have a choice. We can either emphasize this intolerance, as extremists and fundamentalists do, or we can make a concerted effort to make the compassionate voice of religion audible in our troubled world. Do we need God and/or religion to be compassionate? Of course not. That is why we hope that atheists and agnostics, instead of berating religion (a policy that, as history shows, tends to make religious movements more extreme), will also sign up to the charter, working alongside the religious for a more compassionate world.

Religion isn?t about believing things. It's ethical alchemy. It?s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.

The family is a school of compassion because it is here that we learn to live with other people.

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.

Wordsworth had discerned a 'spirit' which was at one and the same time immanent in and distinct from natural phenomena: 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought and rolls through all things.

Religions don't own compassion; it is a human virtue.

The first person to promulgate the Golden Rule, which was the bedrock of this empathic spirituality, was Confucius 500 years before Christ.

We are addicted to our egotism, our likes and dislikes and prejudices, and depend upon them for our own sense of identity.

World religions too often seem predicated on prejudice, when their true roots lie in compassion.

Religions have always stressed that compassion is not only central to religious life, it is the key to enlightenment and it the true test of spirituality. But there have always have been those who'd rather put easier goals, like doctrine conformity, in place.

The hajj is one of the five essential practices of Islam; when they make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims ritually act out the central principles of their faith.

We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value

Yes, all fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.

Religions should be making a major contribution to what must be the chief task of our day: to build a global community where all peoples can live together in mutual respect and where the powerful do not treat other nations as they would not wish to be treated themselves. If we do not achieve this, it is unlikely that we will have a viable world to hand on to the next generation. Any ideology ? religious or secular ? that breeds hatred and disdain for others is failing the test of our time.

The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding of or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms. Religious fundamentalists also develop an exaggerated view of their enemy as the epitome of evil. This tendency makes critique of the new atheists too easy. They never discuss the work of such theologians as Bultmann or Tillich, who offer a very different view of religion and are closer to mainstream tradition than any fundamentalist. Unlike Feurerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate. As one of their critics has remarked, in any military strategy it is essential to confront the enemy at its strongest point; failure to do so means that their polemic remains shallow and lacks intellectual depth. It is also morally and intellectually conservative. Unlike Feurerback, Marx, Ingersoll or Mill, these new Atheists show little concern about the poverty, injustice and humiliation that has inspired many of the atrocities they deplore; they show no yearning for a better world. Nor, like Nietzsche , Sartre or Camus, do they compel their readers to face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the resources to create a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.

We are what we are because of the hard work, insights and achievements of countless others.

Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs. Fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them.

Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. The story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event. People were not expected to believe it in the abstract; like any mythos, it depended upon the rituals associated with the cult of a particular holy place to make what it signified a reality in the lives of participants. The same applies to the creation myth that was central to ancient religion and has now become controversial in the Western world because the Genesis story seems to clash with modern science. But until the early modern period, nobody read a cosmology as a literal account of the origins of life. In the ancient world, it was inspired by an acute sense of the contingency and frailty of existence. Why had anything come into being at all, when there could so easily have been nothing? There has never been a simple or even a possible answer to this question, but people continue to ask it, pushing their minds to the limit of what we can know.

The only way to show a true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God?s existence.

We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious or secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion or work with those that stress the interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is yours.

Yet while nature is in constant flux, we always go against the grain and try to freeze our ideas and experiences and make them absolute. It is egotism that makes us identify with one opinion rather than another, become quarrelsome and unkind, say *this* could not mean *that*, and think we have a duty to change others to suit ourselves.

Religious ideas and practices take root not because they are promoted by forceful theologians, nor because they can be shown to have a sound historical or rational basis, but because they are found in practice to give the faithful a sense of sacred transcendence.

The practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions ? but sometimes you would never know it. Instead, religion is associated with violence, intolerance and seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy. People don't even seem to know what compassion is; they imagine that it means to feel pity for somebody, whereas the root meaning of this Greco-Latin world is "to feel with" the other, realizing at a profound level that we share the same human predicament. This is crucial at a time when we are bound together ? politically, economically, and electronically ? as never before but have rarely been more perilously divided.

Author Picture
First Name
Karen
Last Name
Armstrong
Birth Date
1944
Bio

British Author and Commentator on Comparative Religion, formerly Roman Catholic Sister