Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What We Heard from Karen Armstrong Last Night

"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 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.


J. L. Watts said...

The more I hear about this book, the more I want it. It seems to me that some of the Liberal Christian/Religionists types are seeing new hope in religion after all the years of it being controlled by conservatives/fundamentalists. (The same can be said of Richard Hughes in his latest work).

As one side politically, and another in matters of faith, I am glad to see this new hope in religion expressed.

Anonymous said...

Religion is not the hope for the world,nor is charity-or acts of love towards others. No amount of good deeds, aka "good works" can save anyone. Lives are changed for eternity/forever and ever,through faith in Jesus Christ as LORD and Savior! Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace are ye saved through faith,and that not of yourselves,it is the gift of God, Not of works lest any man should boast." boast-to brag,claim they did on their own account, on way
Jesus Christ is the only true source of hope,joy,and peace for all eternity! Only those who Admit they do wrong by God (sin),Believe Jesus died on the Cross to pay the sin debt for all people,that he was buried,and rose again from the tomb,and confess their sin-repent-tell him they are sorry for what they have done wrong
and pray- talk to him like they would a friend-ask him to come into their heart and save them-forgive him,or her,will go to heaven when they die,or when the rapture takes place depending on God's timing.

J. K. Gayle said...

>Anon, You sound very religious, even quoting Paul. But doesn't he contradict your first three sentences here when he simply, profoundly, says: "if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing"? Funny thing, Armstrong helps us be very aware of such rhetoric (and she even brought up Paul's stated priorities of faith and love first).

>J.L., Thanks for your comment and for posting the bit from the NYT on Armstrong's book.

J. L. Watts said...

I do not seek to establish a religious debate on this blog, however, I must say, that before Christ preached Lord, He preached works.

I believe that the eternality of good works surpasses any faith group and Tradition and is a common string which chains us together. Political Liberals do see merit in good works, and if they can connect this to religious undertones, perhaps we can find common ground between Liberal and Conservative.

J.K., it seems that with the book review this week, my topics have centered on civil religion. I am glad that Liberals, and Moderates, etc... are joining in.

J. K. Gayle said...

J.L., Thanks for encouraging dialogue among those of us who don't always see things (especially religion) in the same ways all the time.