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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 39 handful of other odd countries like Japan, Canada and Argentina remain in a religious cold belt—“locked,” as Armstrong puts it, “in the good old world of the mid- twentieth century when it was assumed that secular- ism was the commanding ideology and religion would never again play a major role in world events—aha! we got that wrong”—the rest of the world increasingly demands the presence of religion in public life. It is a statement echoed by one of America’s most respected public research organizations, the Washington- based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Its forty- four-nation survey shows that no fewer than eight in ten Africans see religion as very important personally, and that similar or greater majorities exist in the Middle East, most of Asia and in every Latin American country except Argentina. And that, significantly, the importance of reli- gion to Americans mirrors far more closely the develop- ing than the developed world. Indeed, the United States stands virtually alone among the world’s wealthiest nations in the value its people place on religion in both their private lives and the public square. What becomes clear in conversation with Armstrong is that she is embarked not on one mission but two. The second is to proclaim that human religiosity is not dead but that good religion is in danger of being engulfed by bad. It is this second mission, as much as the first—her warning that fundamentalism must be acknowledged and addressed—that underscores Armstrong’s impor- tance. She quotes Jung’s observation that so much reli- gious practice seems designed precisely to prevent peo- ple from having a truly religious experience. One of the disorders of our time, she says, is the breakdown of the sacred. She quotes the Buddha: “Existence has gone awry.” She says, “Religion is like any other human activ- ity. Like cooking, it can be disgusting.” Bad religion, she says, is the suffocation of the sacred by dogma, by man- made rules, by the arrogant idolatry of investing human values in an ineffable deity. “Idolatry,” she has written, “is not simply the worship of a false god; it occurs whenever a purely human value becomes the chief focus of religious aspiration.” Bad religion, Armstrong says, is the stifling of the individual’s anarchistic search for transcendent mean- ing and absolute truth beyond ego. Good religion is the embrace of compassion and confrontation with the “other,” which are the matrix teachings of all the great spiritual movements. “Compassion is the key to religion, the key to spiri- tuality. It is the litmus test of religiosity in all the major world religions. It is the key to the experience of what we call God—that when you dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there, you achieve extasis, you go beyond yourself.” She quotes the Buddha again: “First, live in a compassionate way, and then you will know.” The Buddha, she says, like Mohammed, Jesus, Socrates and the Hebrew prophets, taught humankind how to reach beyond pettiness to absolute value. Enlightenment was the discovery of a sacred realm of peace in the depths of one’s own self and thus the finding of strength to live creatively in this world of pain and sorrow. She has written, “One of the reasons why people have problems with religion today is that they assess it rationally, and expect to comprehend its insights imme- diately. But theology is—or should be—poetry, an attempt to express the inexpressible.” Logos—reason, the belief in obligatory doctrine as the word of God— has replaced mythos, the mythical consciousness that informed pre-modern Christianity and the world’s other great religions, the belief that God cannot be known but thatnthe enduring effort to find God is the essence of spirituality. “Yet it seems,” says Armstrong, “that we find it almost impossible to think symbolically. An object has no meaning unless we can prove that it once existed Human beings, she resolutely believes, are naturally religious. “We are creatures who seek transcendence. We’re meaning- seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” PHOTOBYJERRYBAUER