How Karen Armstrong became a ‘freelance monotheist’

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong speaks inside of the Leffler Chapel at Elizabethtown College. Shot on April 11, 2018.

Source: Lancaster Online

By Diane Bitting

The religious scholar and author sat down to talk about other issues following her April 11 talk at Elizabethtown College.

Following her talk “Leading a Compassionate Life,” at Elizabethtown College on April 11, religion scholar and author Karen Armstrong spoke with me on a few issues she did not cover in her speech.

A former Catholic nun who has written numerous books on world religions, Armstrong has long maintained that compassion lies at the heart of all faiths and that each has developed a version of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself or, as also stated: Do not treat others as you would not like to be treated.

Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

More on the Charter for Compassion: When Armstrong won the TED Prize, she knew immediately what she wanted to do. “They rang me up, and I said I’d like to get religious leaders together … and say compassion is what it’s all about, not all this other stuff, doctrines and that kind of thing. … I kept coming to it in all my books, and yet when you saw religious leaders coming together, they were either banging on about homosexuality or being unkind about one another, and you weren’t hearing this.”

On Pope Francis: “I never thought I’d hear myself say these words, but the pope is doing a good job. We need a few more people like that. And I think one of the ways they (religious leaders) could do it is more by gesture, which he’s very good at, instead of a lot of words.”

Being discouraged by these polarized, troubled times: “It doesn’t matter if I feel discouraged. It’s not important. You just have to try to do what you can. You can’t do more. … It’s very hard to keep bright and breezy, but perhaps we should feel discouraged.”

In her talk, she spoke of why feeling discomfort over the plight of the unfortunate is a key to being compassionate. During the audience Q&A, she suggested taking a heartbreaking news image of one suffering person, say in Syria, and “instead of shutting your eyes or switching channels, let that person stay in your mind during the day. … Keep that picture of absolute, abject sorrow and despair in your mind, and it starts a spark.”

On human nature: While compassion is part of human nature, why are people so awful to each other? “Because we’ve got also very strong aggressive impulses in our brain that are much stronger than that,” namely fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing, she said. “They are very strong instinctual drives. We developed the compassion because we had to look after our young.”

Trips to Pakistan: During the audience Q&A, Armstrong mentioned traveling frequently to Pakistan. “I speak to them about Islam, and they tell me, don’t be polite. You tell us where we’re going wrong,” Armstrong said afterward. One man told her, “This is what we used to hear in the mosque and we don’t hear it anymore.”

Her writings include a biography of the Prophet Mohammad and a history of Islam. Following 9/11, she was a sought-after speaker here in better understanding the religion, addressing members of Congress, the State Department and the United Nations.

“What’s happened, again with Western connivance, is that we’ve allowed people like the Saudis and the Deobandis (those who adhere to conservative Islamic orthodoxy) to export their very limited view of Islam all around the world. It’s as though a tiny Christian sect in the Bible belt had petrol dollars and international support, (and) they could change the face of Christianity.”

On being a “freelance monotheist”: Armstrong left religious belief behind after leaving the convent. But later, after immersing herself in the study of religions, she referred to herself as a “freelance monotheist.

“I said it in a carefree, jolly moment and it’s now dogged my ears. And I wouldn’t even call myself a monotheist anymore. … If anything, I’m a Confucian, I think. … What I meant was I can’t see any of those faces better than any of the others. Each one has its own genius, and each its own particular flaws or failings.”


2 replies

  1. Actually it is difficult for me to understand how one can study Islam as deeply as Karen Armstrong did, without actually becoming a Muslim. What is missing here?

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