Karen Armstrong

Karen
Armstrong
1944

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

Author Quotes

There is a danger in monotheism, and it's called idolatry. And we know the prophets of Israel were very, very concerned about idolatry, the worship of a human expression of the divine. Not just a statue, but simply even an idea or a thought about God. And there's always a danger that we will mistake this symbol for the absolute, for the reality to which it's supposed to point.

What seems wrong to you is right for him. What is poison to one is honey to someone else. Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship, these mean nothing to Me. I am apart from all that. Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better or worse than one another. Hindus do Hindu things. The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do. It's all praise, and it's all right. It's not I that's glorified in acts of worship. It's the worshippers! I don't hear the words they say. I look inside at the humility. That broken-open lowliness is the Reality, not the language! Forget phraseology. I want burning, burning. Be Friends with your burning. Burn up your thinking and your forms of expression!

People worship different things; there must be 'no coercion in matters of faith!

The causes of warfare and violence, often hatred and greed and fear, all too often it's true. These self-serving emotions have often been given a religious justification. And yet, each one of the major faiths, I discovered, has at its core the ethic of compassion. Every single one of them has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself, and has said that this is the test of spirituality; that it is this which takes us beyond the prism of ego and selfishness and greed, that enables us to enter into our best selves and into the presence of what some have called God, others Nirvana, Brahmin or Dao. And yet, so often you don't hear about it. Often when religious leaders come together they talk about a particular sexual ethic or an abstrused doctrine, as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of spiritual life. And yet it seems to me, quite clear, that unless we now learn to implement the Golden Rule globally so that we treat all peoples, all nations, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we're not going to have a viable world. This is the task of our time, to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in harmony and respect.

There is no ascent to the heights without prior descent into darkness, no new life without some form of death.

When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quiet lost with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn?t necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality that could not be defined in words. Buddhists talk about nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God.

The constant reprimands made me hyperconscious of my own performance, and so instead of getting rid of self, I had become embedded in the egoism I was supposed to transcend. Now I was beginning to understand that a silence that is not clamorous with vexation and worried self-regard can become part of the texture of your mind, can seep into you, moment by moment, and gradually change you.

There is something wrong with any spirituality that does not inspire selfless concern for others.

When the horror recedes and the world resumes its normal shape, you cannot forget it. You have seen what is really there, the empty horror that exists when the consoling illusion of our mundane experience is stripped away, so you can never respond to the world in quite the same way again. from Coleridge: Like one, that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows, a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread

Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.

The endless speculation about the next world is depriving you of a great experience in this one.

This was the scientific age, and people wanted to believe that their traditions were in line with the new era, but this was impossible if you thought that these myths should be understood literally. Hence the furor occasioned by The Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin. The book was not intended as an attack on religion, but was a sober exploration of a scientific hypothesis. But because by this time people were reading the cosmogonies of Genesis as though they were factual, many Christians felt--and still feel--that the whole edifice of faith was in jeopardy. Creation stories had never been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.

When violence becomes imbedded in a region, then this affects everything. It affects your dreams, your fantasies and relationships, and your religion becomes violent, too.

Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.

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.

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

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