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Lions Roar : January 2005
38 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 parodies of each other with their talk of black and white, good and evil. “They’d probably get on pretty well if they could meet,” she says. Our conversation, scheduled for a few minutes, lasts more than an hour, becoming a journey into the history and meaning of religion—and the nature of the sacred. Brushing aside solicitudes for her voice, Armstrong delves enthusiastically into institutional religion’s antag- onism to women, Christianity’s twisted problems with sex, and secular society’s cataclysmic error in consigning religion and spirituality to the trash cans of history. From her wealth of religious knowledge, she flings out nuggets on the Biblical origins of scapegoating, the hys- teria of the early church fathers on sex—“St. Jerome and St. Augustine were scarcely sane on the subject”—and a delicious anecdote about an Anglican bishop of London who proclaimed that he could not see a woman priest at the altar without wanting to embrace her. “How he could even think of making that statement in public just astonishes me,” she says. “Men have hijacked religion. It is rubbish, who can be ordained and what kind of contraception can be used. The churches are doing a marvelous job of putting them- selves out of business. The last time I went to church in Britain there were five of us and a dog.” LISTENING TO ARMSTRONG, the image unavoid- ably creeps into one’s mind of the cartoon figure of a bearded, ragged man standing ignored on a Wall Street sidewalk, holding up a sign saying, “Repent!” But there is a much better image for Armstrong, that of the cerebral, literary, Old Testament prophet Amos who exercised his ministry in Israel between 760 and 750 BCE, in that Axial Age, when the world’s great faiths were born. Amos wags his finger outside the tents of the mighty; he denounces all levels of society for their spiritual apostasy, adherence to false and alien rituals, absence of compassion, oppres- sion of the marginalized, and breach of elementary and unwritten laws of natural humanity. He writes in excel- lent Hebrew. He has a scholarly knowledge of historical traditions and Israelite and regional cult practices. He uses vivid imagery drawn from nature. He is an intelli- gent observer capable of articulating his insights and experiences in powerful, literary language. Armstrong is post-Axial Amos. She is asked, often, “How did you come to this?” Karen Armstrong’s journey into religion began in 1962 when, as a bright, idealistic seventeen-year-old, she entered the Roman Catholic convent of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Britain “to lose my adolescent self in this great fulfilling religious experience and be transformed by God and filled with joy and serenity.” Instead she found herself forced into obedience and senseless rules and taught, above all, never to question. When her order sent her to Oxford to study to become a teacher, she suddenly encountered professors who insist- ed she do quite the opposite: criticize and challenge everything around her. In the convent, she had been shut off from the world, removed from newspapers and tele- vision and outside friendships. At Oxford, she heard for the first time about Vietnam and the Beatles. She saw long hair, short skirts. She found Oxford life impossible to reconcile with the rules of the convent when she returned home. One day she collapsed, weeping uncontrollably. She also had been experiencing blackouts and hallucinations— caused by epilepsy not diagnosed until a decade later— leading her to question her sanity. She quit the order in 1969, depressed and suffering from anorexia. It took her six years to readjust to secular society. She returned to studies in English literature and had her doctoral disser- tation rejected. She taught for a while in a high school but ill-health forced her to quit. Halfhearted attempts at churchgoing soon turned to anger and atheism. She began making television documentaries on reli- gion that were award-winning but highly controversial, and TV executives pulled the plug on her broadcasting career. So she started writing books: first about her experience in the convent and the trauma of leaving it, then about the crusades, English mystics, religion’s treatment of women, Mohammed, and (in 1993) her History of God, the work that brought her to interna- tional attention with its thesis that God has been invented and reinvented through the centuries by the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions of Christian- ity, Judaism and Islam. More books have followed: his- tories of Jerusalem and Islam, a critically acclaimed study of fundamentalism, a life of the Buddha, and another autobiography. “I never would have thought when I started all this,” she told an interviewer, “that it would have brought me so much to the center of public life. I do feel that if peo- ple are asking at this ghastly time in our history for elu- cidation, then this is something I must do.” THE IDEA THAT SHE WOULD findpeaceandfulfill- ment in studying religion—and indeed, rediscover God—took Armstrong by surprise. Human beings, she resolutely believes, are naturally religious. “We are crea- tures who seek transcendence. We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Always her thoughts lead to the essence of religion, its meaning to humankind, and its indomitable signif- icance in human affairs. While Western Europe and a