"She was Pollyanna," my 17-year-old daughter told me after listening to Karen Armstrong speak to hundreds of us in a sold-out auditorium on the Texas Christian University campus last evening. "She didn't express any healthy skepticism or cynicism in her realism."
So I wondered how many heard from Armstrong the way my daughter had. Not many, so it seemed. All stood quickly at the ovation at the end. And at the beginning, at the start of her introduction by Dr. C. David Grant, Religion Professor and Chair of the department, we all heard how Armstrong's only-one-week-old book, The Case for God, is in the top 10 of the NY Times nonfiction bestseller list.
Armstrong's message was entitled, “Religion in an Age of Terror: Perils and Possibilities.” She began with the parable of the Buddha who became enlightened when he faced pain in the world. She ended by reminding us how he, as in our real histories, came down from the mountain and lived his eighty some years choosing to walk among people in the marketplaces and jungles of India.
The cause of religious fundamentalism, explained Armstrong, is modernity. Fundamentalism is not conservative, it is instead distortive as it attempts to survive modernity. And modernism with all of its good intentions - and for all the attempts at appropriations of modernism - is like a cake baked with the wrong ingredients. The problem of pain and of terror (especially by fundamentalists of any religion) is not religion but politics, although religion most often gets implicated for the wars of the world and religion often gets sucked in.
The solution is religion. It is the golden rule, first arriving in human history in Confucius but manifesting in Buddha, Leviticus, Jesus, Mohammad, and others. It even shows up in Aeschylus, whose Chorus in the play The Persians calls on everyone in the Greek audience to weep, Weep for Xerxes. And weep for this enemy of theirs they did. God need not figure first, or even last in the Golden Rule, because all religion is good because of this rule. Love is the operative word, Armstrong said. And she explained that love is not the "mishy mushy kumbaya" as she quoted a Nobel Laureate with whom she'd spoken a couple of weeks ago. Love is looking after the other, and kings can love one another in their politics.
Over the course of the hour, Armstrong gave a history of religion and of politics and of modernity and of love. She confessed that she is privileged, a woman of the modern world, and therefore extremely lucky. "I'd be a witch burned at the stake in most any other era," she added. She is clearly not a witch, clearly a proponent of religion for world peace; so Armstrong and hundreds of others around the globe have been actively working. In her talk, Armstrong advised us to learn more at charterforcompassion.org. And her message is clear: the essence of religion is charity, and by this, she noted, "we can save our troubled world. Thank you."
Now my daughter has not yet read and can't possibly yet have experienced The Spiral Staircase. Nor has she read The Case for God. But I've been thinking a lot in the minutes since we heard Armstrong about what she said.