Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Muslim prophet born in Bethlehem

By Karen Armstrong

The Guardian

December 23, 2006

In 632, after five years of fearful warfare, the city of Mecca in the Arabian Hijaz voluntarily opened its gates to the Muslim army. No blood was shed and nobody was forced to convert to Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad ordered the destruction of all idols and icons of the Divine. There were a number of frescoes painted on the inner walls of the Kabah, the ancient granite shrine in the centre of Mecca, and one of them, it is said, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus. Immediately Muhammad covered it reverently with his cloak, ordering all the other pictures to be destroyed except that one.

This story may surprise people in the west, who have regarded Islam as the implacable enemy of Christianity ever since the crusades, but it is salutary to recall it during the Christmas season when we are surrounded by similar images of the Virgin and Child. It reminds us that the so-called clash of civilisations was by no means inevitable. For centuries Muslims cherished the figure of Jesus, who is honoured in the Qur'an as one of the greatest of the prophets and, in the formative years of Islam, became a constituent part of the emergent Muslim identity.

There are important lessons here for both Christians and Muslims - especially, perhaps, at Christmas. The Qur'an does not believe that Jesus is divine but it devotes more space to the story of his virginal conception and birth than does the New Testament, presenting it as richly symbolic of the birth of the Spirit in all human beings (Qur'an 19:17-29; 21:91). Like the great prophets, Mary receives this Spirit and bears Jesus, who will, in his turn, become an ayah, a revelation of peace, gentleness and compassion to the world.

The Qur'an is horrified by Christian claims that Jesus was the "son of God", and depicts Jesus ardently denying his divinity in an attempt to "cleanse" himself of these blasphemous projections. Time and again the Qur'an insists that, like Muhammad himself, Jesus was a perfectly ordinary human being and that the Christians have entirely misunderstood their own scriptures. But it concedes that the most learned and faithful Christians - especially monks and priests - did not believe that Jesus was divine; of all God's worshippers, they were closest to the Muslims (5:85-86).

It has to be said that some Christians have a very simplistic understanding of what is meant by the incarnation. When the New Testament writers - Paul, Matthew, Mark and Luke - call Jesus the "Son of God", they do not mean that he was God. They use the term in its Jewish sense: in the Hebrew Bible, this title was bestowed upon an ordinary mortal - a king, a priest or a prophet - who had been given a special task by God and enjoyed unusual intimacy with him. Throughout his gospel, Luke is in tune with the Qur'an, because he consistently calls Jesus a prophet. Even John, who saw Jesus as God's incarnate Word, usually made a distinction, albeit a very fine one, between the eternal Word and God himself - just as our own words are separate from the essence of our being.

The Qur'an insists that all rightly guided religions come from God, and Muslims are required to believe in the revelations of every single one of God's messengers: "Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob ... and all the other prophets: we make no distinction between any of them" (3:84). But Jesus - also called the Messiah, the Word and the Spirit - had special status.

Jesus, it was felt, had an affinity with Muhammad, and had predicted his coming (61:6), just as the Hebrew prophets were believed by Christians to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Qur'an, possibly influenced by Docetic Christianity, denied that Jesus had been crucified, but saw his ascension into heaven as the triumphant affirmation of his prophethood. In a similar way, Muhammad had once mystically ascended to the Throne of God. Jesus would also play a prominent role beside Muhammad in the eschatological drama of the last days.

During the first three centuries of Islam, Muslims came into close contact with Christians in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and began to amass a collection of hundreds of stories and sayings attributed to Jesus; there is nothing comparable in any other non-Christian religion. Some of these teachings were clearly derived from the gospel - the Sermon on the Mount was particularly popular - but were given a distinctively Muslim flavour. Jesus is depicted making the hajj, reading the Qur'an, and prostrating himself in prayer.

In other stories, Jesus articulated specifically Muslim concerns. He was a great model for Muslim ascetics, preaching poverty, humility and patience. Sometimes he took sides in a political or theological dispute: aligning himself with those who advocated free will in the debate about predestination; praising Muslims who retired on principle from politics ("Just as kings have left wisdom to you, so you should leave the world to them"); or condemning scholars who prostituted their learning for political advancement ("Do not make your living from the Book of God").

Jesus was becoming internalised by Muslims as an exemplar and inspiration in their own spiritual quest. Shias felt that there was a strong connection between Jesus and their inspired imams, who had also had miraculous births and inherited prophetic knowledge from their mothers. The Sufis were especially devoted to Jesus and called him the prophet of love. The 12th-century mystic Ibn al-Arabi called him "the seal of the saints" - deliberately pairing him with Muhammad, the "seal of the prophets". Some Sufis went so far as to alter the shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith, so that it became: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Jesus [not Muhammad] is his prophet."

The Muslim devotion to Jesus is a remarkable example of the way in which one tradition can be enriched by another. It cannot be said that Christians returned the compliment. While the Muslims were amassing their Jesus-traditions, Christian scholars in Europe were denouncing Muhammad as a lecher and charlatan, viciously addicted to violence. But today both Muslims and Christians are guilty of this kind of bigotry and often seem eager to see only the worst in each other.

The Muslim devotion to Jesus shows that this was not always the case. In the past, before the political dislocations of modernity, Muslims were always able to engage in fruitful and stringent self-criticism. This year, on the birthday of the Prophet Jesus, they might ask themselves how they can revive their long tradition of pluralism and appreciation of other religions. For their part, meditating on the affinity that Muslims once felt for their faith, Christians might look into their own past and consider what they might have done to forfeit this respect.

No one can have the last word on God

By Karen Armstrong

In ancient India, the priests used to hold a contest called the Brahmodya to find a verbal formula that expressed the mystery of the Brahman, the ultimate reality. Each contestant would ask an enigmatic question, and his opponent answered in an equally elusive manner.

The match continued until one of the contestants was unable to respond and was reduced to silence ~ and in that moment of silence, the Brahman was present. It was only when the competitors understood that their words or concepts could never express the ultimate reality that they were able to apprehend the sacred.

The reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience. Nobody can have the last word on God. That should be the principle that underlies religious dialogue. Throughout history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have all insisted that the ideas we have about the divine can never measure up to the reality itself. The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic ~ it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music. Sometimes at the end of a symphony, there is a beat of silence in the concert hall before applause starts. That is what every theological statement should do. In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

So when we are engaged in religious dialogue, we should remember that the realities we are addressing are truly transcendent. If we make our limited ideas about God absolute, we are creating an idol --a human expression of the divine that is raised to an inappropriately high level. The Qur’an calls this type of dogmatism zannah, self- indulgent guess work about matters that nobody can prove, one way or the other, but which make people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

Worse, if we imprison ourselves in our dogmatic ideas, we are closing our minds to the divine. The Taoists used to say that it was nonsense to argue about religious truth, insisting aggressively that this could not mean that. What holds us back from an experience of God or the Sacred is our egotism. When we interject ourselves too much into our opinions, we are simply imprisoning ourselves in the ego we are supposed to transcend and making it impossible to have a truly transcendent experience.

Finally, here is a wise remark by Ibn al-Arabi, a 13th-century Muslim mystic and philosopher:

“Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss the truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omniscient, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says: Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature and in praising it, he praises himself, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.”

The fantasy of an all-male enclave

The Eve Of Destruction

By Karen Armstrong

The Guardian

February 14, 2004

Still reeling from last year's virulent dispute about the foiled appointment of its first gay bishop, the Anglican community is now faced with another potentially irreversible split. Forward in Faith, a group opposed to women priests, has proposed the idea of a province separate from but parallel to Canterbury and York, with its own exclusively male hierarchy. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has apparently hinted that he would be prepared to consider this suggestion, designed to prevent a mass exodus from the church when women are consecrated as bishops. More liberal Anglicans condemn the plan as a form of sexual apartheid, even though Forward in Faith has 4,000 women members. Nevertheless, the new province would represent a male bastion in a world in which women are increasingly entering spheres that were formerly the preserve of men. The fantasy of an all-male enclave is not new in the history of religion. In the ancient world, women often served alongside men as priests. This did not affect their inferior social status, but they were regarded as worthy representatives of the divine. That changed during the axial age, from circa 800BCE to 200BCE, when all the world faiths that have continued to nourish humanity came into being at roughly the same time.

These axial religions hold many values in common, but they all share a fateful flaw. Wherever an axial faith took root, the position of women underwent a downward turn. Most of these religions had an egalitarian ethos, but they were and have remained essentially male spiritualities. Confucius, for example, seemed entirely indifferent to women; Socrates was not a family man. In India, the Jain and Buddhist orders were irenic forms of the ancient Aryan military brotherhoods, and though nuns were permitted to join, in a second-class capacity, many felt that the presence of women was inappropriate. Even the Buddha, who did not usually succumb to this type of prejudice, declared that women would fall upon his order like mildew on a field of rice.

Such misogyny damages the integrity of faiths that insist that male and female are both created in God's image and that all human beings are capable of attaining nirvana, knowledge of Brahman or the Tao. Yeshivas, madrasahs, seminaries, monastic orders and colleges of cardinals are all-male clubs that rigorously exclude women. This chauvinism infects the spirituality of the faithful, male and female alike. Male Jews are supposed to thank God daily for not creating them women; every Christmas, Christians sing "Lo! He abhors not the Virgin's womb", as though Jesus's tolerance of the female body was an act of extraordinary condescension on his part.

Even when there was an initial attempt to introduce greater sexual equality, men hijacked the faith and dragged it back to the old patriarchy. This happened in both Christianity and Islam, latter-day reassertions of axial age monotheism. The Prophet Mohammed, for example, was anxious to emancipate women and they were among his first converts. The Koran teaches that men and women have exactly the same responsibilities and duties, and gives women rights of inheritance and divorce that we would not enjoy in the west until the 19th century. There is nothing in the Koran about the veiling of all women or their confinement in harems. This practice came into Islam some three or four generations after the Prophet, under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long covered and secluded their women in this way.

Jesus would have been surprised by the confinement of women. Both he and St Paul had women disciples. They did not ordain them as priests, because there was no Christian priesthood until the third century. The early Christians espoused a revolutionary egalitarianism; a priestly hierarchy was too reminiscent of Judaism and paganism, which they were beginning to leave behind. Those who today condemn women's ordination as a break with tradition should be aware that priesthood and episcopacy are themselves innovations that depart from the practice of the primitive church.

The gospels give women a good press: it is the women who stand by Jesus throughout the crucifixion, while his male disciples are skulking in hiding, and it is women who receive the first news of the resurrection and bring it to the men. They were, it is often said, "apostles to the apostles". St Paul proclaimed that in Christ there was neither male nor female. Most of the misogynist passages attributed to Paul are taken from epistles written decades after his death, when Christianity was beginning to retreat from its early radicalism.

Once this had happened, Christianity found issues of sex and gender more difficult than any other faith. Some of the fathers of the church seemed totally unable to deal with women, and attacked them in vicious, immoderate and, indeed, unchristian language. Because they believed that celibacy was the prime Christian vocation, they projected their own frustration on to women, whom they castigated as evil temptresses. Tertullian told women to shroud their bodies in veils and make themselves as unattractive as possible. He blamed them for the sin of Eve: "You are the devil's gateway ... because of you the Son of God had to die!"

Many of the fathers wanted to make the church a male enclave. St Augustine told his priests to shun the company of women, even if they were sick or in trouble. Even mothers were not safe: "It is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in every woman." The fathers' ideal woman was a virgin, who had renounced her sexuality and thereby become an honorary male. Some women, such as Joan of Arc or Catherine of Siena, exploited this symbolism and used their virginity as an entrée into the male spheres of war and politics, but in general virgins were supposed to retreat from the world and leave it to men. They would eventually be locked away in enclosed convents.

Later St Thomas Aquinas saw women as biologically flawed, "defective and misbegotten", and thus inherently inferior to the male sex, to whom it was their duty to submit. Even Luther, who left his monastery to marry, believed that, as a punishment for the sin of Eve, women must be driven from the world of men and confined in the home "as a nail is driven into the wall". Protestantism made Christianity more male than ever; by abolishing the cults of the Virgin Mary and the women saints, it banished all female imagery from the Christian consciousness.

Forward in Faith's dream of an exclusively male preserve draws its strength from a Christian tradition of denial, frustration and disgust that can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as spiritually wholesome. In all the world faiths, women are trying to redress the pernicious chauvinism that has tainted their traditions. We are now living in a world that is perilously torn apart by religious extremism. We can no longer afford faith that feeds in any way upon hatred, exclusion and disdain. Before we condemn the bigotry of other traditions, we should try to heal the prejudice that has damaged our own.

Bad religion

Interview with Bill Moyers

BILL MOYERS: She was a spark plug in my PBS series on Genesis, her books are best sellers, "The History of God", "The Battle for God", "Jerusalem". She's written a biography of Buddha, and a short history of Islam. Soon we'll have her new memoir of her life after the convent where she spent seven years as a nun. Joining me now is one of the world's foremost students of religion, Karen Armstrong. Thank you.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you Bill.

BILL MOYERS: If you were God, would you do away with religion?

ARMSTRONG: Well, there are some forms of religion that must make God weep. There are some forms of religion that are bad, just as there's bad cooking or bad art or bad sex, you have bad religion too. Religion that has concentrated on egotism, that's concentrated on belligerence rather than compassion.

MOYERS: And so much of religion has been the experience of atrocity.

ARMSTRONG: But then you have to remember that this is what human beings do. Secularism has shown that it can be just as murderous, just as lethal, uh, as religion. Now I think one of the reasons why religion developed in the way that it did over the centuries was precisely to curb this murderous bent that we have as human beings.

MOYERS: You get September 11th ... you get the Crusades, you get ... do you remember the young Orthodox Jew who assassinated Itzhak Rabin? I can see him right now, looking into the camera, and he says, everything I did, I did for ...


MOYERS: ... for the glory of God.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. Yes. Well, this is ... this is bad religion. Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it's the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people? And sometimes we use religion just to back up these unworthy hatreds, because we're frightened too.


ARMSTRONG: There's great fear. We fear that if we're not in control, other people will cut us down to size, and so we hit out first.
From the beginning, violence was associated with religion, but the advanced religions, and I'm talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, monotheism, the Hebrew prophets, they insisted that you must transcend this violence, you must not give in to this violence, but you must learn to recognize that every single other human being is sacred.

MOYERS: That's what we're taught when ... growing up, you know, Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. But as soon as they grow up, they go for each other's throats.

ARMSTRONG: Yes. And a lot of this talk about love and compassion can be on the rather sloppy level. Or rather easy, facile level, where compassion is hard. It's nothing to do with feeling. It's about feeling with others. Learning to put yourself in the position of another person. There were years in my life when I was eaten up with misery and anger, I was sick of religion but when I got to understand what religion was really about, uh, not about dogmas, not about propping up the church, not about converting other people to your particular wavelength, but about getting rid of ego and approaching others in reverence, I became much happier.

But you have to go a long journey, a journey that takes you away from selfishness, from greed. And that leads you to value the sacredness in all others. I'm thinking of Abraham in Genesis — there's a wonderful story, where Abraham is sitting outside his tent and it's the hottest part of a Middle Eastern afternoon, and he sees three strangers on the horizon.

And now most of us would never dream of bringing a total stranger from the streets into our own homes, strangers are potentially lethal people. But that's exactly what Abraham does. He runs out, he bows down before them, as though they were kings, and brings them into his encampment, and makes his wife prepare an elaborate meal. And in the course of the ensuing conversation, it transpires quite naturally that one of those strangers is Abraham's God, that the act of practical compassion led to a divine encounter.

In Hebrew, the word for holy, kadosh, means separate, other. And sometimes it's the very otherness of a stranger, someone who doesn't belong to our ethnic or ideological or religious group, an otherness that can repel us initially, but which can jerk us out of our habitual selfishness, and give us intonations of that sacred otherness, which is God.

MOYERS: What happened in your case? You said that you came to this insight that you weren't a good person.

ARMSTRONG: After I left the convent, for 15 years I was worn out with religion, I wanted nothing whatever to do with it. I felt disgusted with it. If I saw someone reading a religious book on a train, I'd think, how awful.

I had no job at all, and I was asked to do a television series on Saint Paul, and I was working with an Israeli film company ...I went to Jerusalem. And there, very importantly, I encountered Judaism and Islam. And up until that point, my religious life had been very parochial, been very Catholic, and I'd never thought of Judaism as anything but the kind of prelude to Christianity, and I'd never thought about Islam at all. But in Jerusalem, where you see these three religions jostling together, often very uneasily, even violently, you become aware of the profound connections between them and it was the study of these other faiths that led me back to an appreciation of what religion was trying to do.

MOYERS: What appealed to you about Islam? Because in the context of 9/11 ... there's so much talk about Islam as a violent religion. We saw those suicide bombers, heard those suicide bombers invoking the name of Allah, saying they were doing this in the name of ... of God, and the name of their own faith. So you're saying, there are good things about this religion, that helped you rediscover your own spiritual journey.

ARMSTRONG: Ironically, the first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Koran praises all the great prophets of the past. That Mohammed didn't believe he had come to found a new religion to which everybody had to convert, but he was just the prophet sent to the Arabs, who hadn't had a prophet before, and left out of the divine plan. There's a story where Mohammed makes a sacred flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. And there he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past. And he ascends to the divine throne, speaking to the prophets like Jesus and Aaron, Moses, he takes advice from Moses, and finally encounters Abraham at the threshold of the divine sphere. This story of the flight of Mohammed and the ascent to the divine throne is the paradigm, the archetype of Muslim spirituality. It reflects the ascent that every Muslim must make to God and the Sufis, when I started talking ...

MOYERS: The mystical sect.

ARMSTRONG: The mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.

MOYERS: How do you explain the hatred in the world of Islam toward the west, toward America in particular?

ARMSTRONG: Well, uh, all fundamentalist movements, that's whether they're Jewish, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, all begin as an intra-religious debate, an intra-religious struggle.

Then, at a later stage, fundamentalists sometimes reach out towards a foreign foe and hence the Muslim feeling that American foreign policy is ... is holding them back.

MOYERS: Why do they think American foreign policy is the root of their ills?

ARMSTRONG: This was very much an Arab feeling. They feel that they are fighting a holy war ... that America fights Muslims, has killed Muslims, in Iraq, that America is still continuing to bomb Iraq ...

MOYERS: And yet in Bosnia, we went to the defense of Muslims there.

ARMSTRONG: Exactly, exactly. There's a running sore of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been festering for so long, and has become symbolic of everything that Muslims feel that is wrong with the modern world. Just as here, in the United States, fundamentalists have symbolic issues, abortion, uh, and evolution, which they can't see rationally, but they've become symbolic of ... of the evils of modernity. The state of Israel, which meant that Palestinians lost their home, has become for Muslims a symbol of their impotence in the modern world.

It wasn't always like this. At the beginning of the twentieth century, every single leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the west, and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. Some of them even said that the Europeans, they didn't know about America yet, that the Europeans, uh, were better Muslims than they themselves, because their modern society had enabled them to create a fairer and more just distribution of wealth, than was possible in their pre-modern climates, and that accorded more perfectly with the vision of the Quran.

Then there was the experience of colonialism under Britain and France, experiences like Suez, the Iranian revolution, Israel, and some people, not all by any means, uh, some people have allowed this ... these series of disasters to corrode into hatred. Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death.

MOYERS: On a cross, crucified.

ARMSTRONG: The cross, crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammed was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength. But against the West, it's been able to make no headway, and this is as disturbing for Muslims as the discoveries of Darwin have been to some Christians. The Quran says that if you live according to the Quranic ideal, implementing justice in your society, then your society will prosper, because this is the way human beings are supposed to live. But whatever they do, they cannot seem to get Muslim history back on track, and this has led some, and only a minority, it must be said, to desperate conclusions.

MOYERS: You said once that you felt the fundamentalists were trying to restore God to the world.

ARMSTRONG: Yes, all fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.

MOYERS: They drag God back into the political world by denying democratic aspirations.


MOYERS: I mean, do you think democracy and fundamentalism are, uh, can co-exist?

ARMSTRONG:Fundamentalists are not friends of democracy. And that includes your fundamentalists in the United States.

Every fundamentalist movement I've studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced at some gut, visceral level that secular liberal society wants to wipe out religion. Wants to wipe them out. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, came into being ... came really to the fore in a new way after the Nazi Holocaust ...

And some fundamentalists in the Muslim world have experienced secularism, not as we have, as a liberating process, but so rapid and accelerated that it's often been an assault.The Shahs of Iran used to have their soldiers go out with their bayonets out, taking the womens' veils off, and ripping them to pieces in front of them, because they wanted their society to look modern, never mind the fact that the vast majority of the people had not had a western education, and didn't know what was going on. On one occasion in 1935, Shah Reza Pahlevi, gave his soldiers orders to shoot at hundreds of unarmed demonstrators in one of the holiest shrines of Iran, who were peacefully protesting against western dress, uh, obligatory western dress, and hundreds of Iranians died that day. Now, in a climate like this, secularism is not experienced as something benign, it's experienced as a deadly assault.

MOYERS: When fundamentalism experienced its rebirth in this country, a quarter of a century ago, political rebirth, it was because the federal government, the Internal Revenue Service, had, uh, denied their parochial religious schools tax-exempt status ...


MOYERS: ... if they segregated.

ARMSTRONG: That's right.

MOYERS: And the fundamentalists became alarmed at that, and fearing that they were going to be annihilated.

ARMSTRONG: Exactly so. And similarly, in the famous Scopes Trial, which I think tells us a lot about the fundamentalist process in 1925, you'll remember, fundamentalists tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and there was a celebrated trial, in which the fundamentalists were really ridiculed in the secular press. After the Scopes Trial, after the ridicule, they swung to the extreme right, and there they've remained.

MOYERS: The inequality gap in this country is larger, I believe, than in any other industrial society.


MOYERS: What does that say about the most religious country in the world? And that's your definition. America's the most religious country in the world, and yet it's the most unequal economically.

ARMSTRONG: It's ... and this should trouble us all. It should trouble us all. Religious people should join hands, and fight for ... for greater equality. Try and see if you can introduce Christian, Jewish or true Muslims values into society. Not trying to force other people, but bringing to bear that respect for the sacred rights of others that all religions, at their best, three very important words, at their best, are trying to promote.

MOYERS: Where are you in your own journey? You're not a practicing Catholic, are you?

ARMSTRONG: No. I usually call myself these days a freelance monotheist. I draw nourishment from all three of the religions of Abraham, uh, I spend my life studying these faiths, in a sense I'm still a nun. I live alone, and I've never married, and I spend my life writing and talking and reading and studying spirituality and God. And I can not see in essence any one of these three faiths as superior to any of the others. I suppose one of my hopes in life is to try to get Jews, Christians and Muslims to realize the profound unanimity, the unanimous vision that they share, and to join hands together to stop the kind of cruelty, violence and obscenity, moral obscenity that we saw on September the 11th.

MOYERS:Thank you, Sister Karen.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Bill.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Religious conflict today

Interview with David Miller

Trinity News

June 2, 2006

You've often written about the fact that the world's major religions share a great deal in common, despite their differences. Why then do you think that Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- to name three of them -- have become so polarized?

There are several layers to that question. One of them is that this has less to do with religion than politics. For centuries, the Muslims were able to co-exist perfectly well with Jews and Christians in the Middle East. Spain is another obvious example of this co-existence. So it's not that there is an inherent tension between the faiths.

What we are seeing now in the Middle East and elsewhere is the result of politics. It's the result of war becoming endemic in certain regions. An originally secular conflict -- the Arab-Israeli conflict -- festers. It goes on and on, and religion gets sucked into the whole mess. When violence becomes imbedded in a region, then this affects everything. It affects your dreams, your fantasies and relationships, and your religion becomes violent, too.

But as you readily point out, all of the major religions are based on compassion and nonviolence. That's how they began. So what happened?

Of course, compassion is not always a popular virtue. Religious people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Often, they don't want to give up their egotism. They want their religion to endorse their ego, their identity. And that becomes dangerous. Then you get a clash of warring egos.

How can we learn to respect each other's faiths and get along? Do you even think that's possible?

It has to be. Otherwise, we let down our own faith and our own traditions.

We in the West pride ourselves on our freedom and liberality and tolerance. And yet some of the stuff that's being said in the United States about other faith traditions has been a disgrace to Christianity.

You're referring to statements about Muslims?

Yes. I hear these things said about Islam being a wicked and violent religion -- and from people who are not necessarily on the Christian right. I'm embarrassed by those comments because it shows such ignorance.

Those comments are nothing new, of course. Are you saying we should know better by now?

Well, we have to know better! Because the more this rhetoric goes out through the Web, through the news, the more we convince people in the Muslim world that the West is incurably Islamophobic -- that it hates Islam and wants to get rid of it. And this means more people lose faith in [politics] and go towards the extremist groups. We have to prevent that from happening.

We can't convert Osama bin Laden and his henchmen. Our only chance of coming through this is to make sure that they remain a tiny minority. The more people hear this stuff, the more people see pictures like those of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, then people will say: "See, they hate us! They hate Islam." And more young men will turn to extremism.

In recent years, we've seen the ascendance of the religious right in this country. What do you make of that trend?

Well, it's just part of a worldwide trend, actually.

In more and more countries in the world, religion is coming to the fore. In the middle of the 20th century, it was generally assumed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events. But it has. And Europe, which is still very adverse to religion, is beginning to look endearingly old-fashioned in its militant secularism.

More and more people, I think, are getting weary. Secularism has not fulfilled its promises. You know, in its short history it's had some catastrophes: Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. This shows that secularism can be just as lethal as a religiously based tyranny.

I think these faiths -- for want of a better word -- these fundamentalist movements are all, as you say, rooted in fear. But there is also now a growing sense of triumph and power that they can make an impact on the political scene.

Do you think the blue state/red state divide exists in the way that it's often portrayed in the media?

Well, the media plays sort of a mischievous role in all of this. But it is true that -- not just in the United States but throughout the Middle East, and in Israel, too -- you have a huge gulf that exists between the liberal secularist, on the one hand, and the religious conservative on the other.

You have got a clash of two opposing notions of what is sacred. And that's very worrying in a society where you have a divide where people can't really speak to one another.

You're seen by many as a bridge builder. But I wonder if you think the fundamentalists are open to your books?

Oh, surely not. No! But I think the onus lies on us to have a different attitude than they do -- that to go in there with guns blazing and say that these folks are crazy is not the way.

And the contempt that we have expressed for the fundamentalist camp -- and I'm not talking about terrorists -- I'm talking about the rank and file who consider themselves religious -- that gets across, and of course it riles and enrages.

What's the alternative?

I think we've got to decode the fundamentalist imagery so that we learn to read these theologies. We need to see the fear and anxiety that lie behind a theology such as the rapture.

I mean, if you took the rapture scenario to a psychiatrist and said: "I'm having these dreams of the imminent destruction of the world, with huge battles and genocide at the end of time, vast massacres and the final reign of horror and the tribulation," a psychiatrist would say, "This is something deeply wrong here."

The fact that in the richest nation and the most powerful nation in the world, so many people adhere to this extraordinary fear-filled fantasy shows that there are all kinds of anxieties and this inchoate distress that we can't safely ignore.

In your latest book you write about the Axial Age, a time when four different religious traditions grew up in four different parts of the world. What does this period have to teach us about our world today?

Well, I never meant the book to just be an exercise in spiritual archaeology. I wanted it be a critique of the way we're religious today, because in our various institutions we often seem to be producing exactly the kind of religiosity that people like the Buddha wanted to get rid of.

What do you mean?

For example, none of these four religious traditions were interested in belief or metaphysics or questions about who created the world. If they entered into these speculations, they were for spiritual, mystical reasons rather than factual reasons. As a matter of fact, when sages start to propound orthodoxy and declare that their way is the only way, that's a sign that the Axial Age is ending.

The Chinese sages, for example, said that to expect the kind of certainty that people want from religion is immature and unrealistic.

[Certainty] also goes against the notion of the religious quest, because to get in touch with the ultimate -- with God, Brahma or the Tao or Nirvana -- you have to divest yourself of ego, and very often we identify with our opinions too closely.

We seem to be going in the opposite direction. All you have to do is turn on cable news at any hour of the day to see we're very focused on people's opinions.

Exactly, and it's all about ego. It's unskillful, as the Buddha would say. It will separate you from God. You've got to divest yourself of that kind of egotism.

Which leads us back to violence, doesn't it?

In [the Axial Age], violence had reached a crescendo that was unprecedented. And in every case people turned away from it.

In India, they promoted the doctrine of Ahimsa -- nonviolence, which was absolutely crucial -- and you could not continue in your religious quest until Ahimsa was absolutely second nature. That didn't mean you just couldn't kill somebody. It meant that you couldn't say an unkind word -- that's violent, too -- or make an impatient gesture or swat an insect. You had to have an absolute attitude of serenity and friendliness to everybody.

Similarly, in China the Confucians were aghast at the devastation that was happening, and one of them propounded a principle that would become absolutely key. It was the idea that you should feel concern for everybody. You could not feel compassionate simply towards your own group. You had to extend that compassion and benevolence to everybody.

So these are things you believe we can learn from those societies?

We really must learn from them! Today, we are living in a global society where we are cheek by jowl of each other as never before. We are bound to each other electronically, economically and politically. When something bad happens in Iraq today, there are going to be repercussions in London or Washington tomorrow.

And we are not going to have a viable world to hand on to our children unless we can stop this violence, because historically it has been found that when you attack extremist movements they become more extreme. We must treat people with respect. And that means we have to practice the Golden Rule globally.

It's often difficult to convince people that they are in the same boat. You know, in this country people are building gated communities. They are actively hiding from things they don't want to see.

And that is antireligious. The Axial sages said you must see things as they are, that delusion was one of the major things that hold us back from enlightenment, from God, from Nirvana. So we cannot get trapped in illusion.

Small groups now have powers of destruction that were previously reserved for the nation-state. It is only a matter of time before one of them will get some sort of nuclear device. And a gated community is not going to help at all if that happens. It reminds me of the story of the Buddhist pleasure park. Do you know it?

Tell me the story.

When the Buddha was a little boy, some Brahman priests are called in to tell his fortune, and one of them predicts he will leave home and become a monk because of seeing three disturbing sights -- a sick man, an old man and a corpse -- which will so distress him that he will become a monk. And he will save the world from suffering.

And the Buddha's father is not thrilled with this career option -- he has more ambition, more worldly ambition -- so he creates a sort of pleasure palace and brings his young son up in this. And he plants guards around the grounds to prevent any such disturbing sights coming within a radius of the young man.

So the Buddha grows up in this fool's paradise for a long time, and finally the guards get fed up with this and they send three of their own number disguised as a sick man, an old man and a corpse past the [other] guards. The Buddha sees that, and he leaves that very night.

The point is that the Buddhist pleasure park is an image of the mind in denial. It's the gated community. It's the United States before 9/11, which was retreating into isolationist policies within the Bush government.

Suffering will always break in. And if you turn [away], it's useless. It will somehow break in because suffering is ubiquitous. And it will certainly go past these guards that the Buddha's father erected. It will certainly come through the gates. You can't block it out.


Interview with

Q: Please tell us how you would define religious fundamentalism.

A: The militant religiosity that we call fundamentalism has surfaced in all the major faiths in the twentieth century. It constitutes a reaction against and a rejection of modern Western society, but it is not a monolithic movement. Each fundamentalist movement has emerged independently and is a law unto itself, sometimes differing from (or in violent opposition to) other fundamentalist movements within a single faith tradition. The fact that fundamentalism has erupted in almost all cultures indicates a widespread and worrying disenchantment with modern society, which so many of us experience as liberating, exciting and empowering. Countries such as the United States, Egypt and Israel are deeply polarized, split into two camps, one which feels positive about secular modernity; the other passionately hostile to it. As the century draws to a close, these two camps appear to be in an incipient state of war, as witnessed in such incidents as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma; terrorist attacks on foreign tourists in Egypt, designed to bring down Mubarak's government; and the assassination of President Yitzak Rabin in Israel. One of the most dangerous aspects of the fundamentalist phenomenon is that it seems incomprehensible to the liberal or secular world. The two camps within the same society scarcely speak the same language and have few values in common. Projects that can seem self-evidently good to a liberal -- such as democracy, peace-making, concern for the environment, the liberation of women, or freedom of speech -- can seem evil or even Satanic to a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalism often expresses itself violently, but it springs from deep fear. Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in this book is inspired by a dread of annihilation. Fundamentalists are convinced that the secularist establishment is determined to wipe them out, even in the United States. Hence, it is an embattled form of faith; fundamentalists believe that they are fighting for their own survival, the survival of the religion, and the survival of civilized society. They feel that their backs are to the wall and that they must fight their way out of the impasse in which they find themselves.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

A: Fundamentalism has erupted in nearly all the major world religions: there is a fundamentalist Buddhism, fundamentalist Sikhism, fundamentalist Hinduism, and even fundamentalist Confucianism. I have chosen to concentrate on fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam because these have so far been easily the most prominent and influential. Fundamentalism as a phenomenon began in the United States in the early twentieth century, so American Protestant fundamentalists were the pioneers of this militant religiosity, and show its problems, pitfalls, dynamics, concerns and dangers. Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists have all experienced modernity as a devastating assault, and their activities often hit the headlines because they pose a grave danger to the Middle East peace process. The Iranian Revolution was one of the most spectacularly successful of all fundamentalist campaigns. Its development since the Muslims brought down the secularist regime of the Shah in 1979 shows that fundamentalism may well be a means of enabling people to make the painful rite of passage to modernity on their own terms and in a religious context that makes it acceptable to the mass of the people. The fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, therefore, are the ones that most crucially affect our own Western society. Before we can hope to understand the fundamentalism of another culture, we must first learn why and how fundamentalism has erupted in our own society.

Q: You state that Western civilization has changed the world -- especially religious traditions. When do you feel that it started to take such a strong effect on all cultures?

A: Western society has changed the world by introducing a new type of civilization, based not (as in the pre-modern period) on a surplus of agricultural produce, but on technology that enables us to reproduce our resources indefinitely. This type of civilization depends upon a scientific and empirical rationalism, which is not constrained, as in the pre-modern world, by spiritual, religious or mythological values. It took the peoples of Western Europe and America almost three hundred years to develop this kind of civilization; it was a highly complex process, that involved advances in several fields and on various fronts at the same time. It did not come fully into its own in the West until the nineteenth century. Once it was up and running in Europe, the need to continually expand the economy and find new markets led to the formation of Eastern colonies in India, the Middle East and Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These colonies then had to be modernized according to Western norms to make them fit in with this new Western-dominated economic network. It was at this point, therefore, that the non-Western nations began the process of modernization; it became apparent to them that the only way to take a full part in the new world and to shake off European hegemony was to Westernize. But modernization took over three hundred years in the West, and it was a painful, violent and dislocating process.

Q: There seems to be a recent interest in fundamentalism in our culture. What do you think accounts for that?

A: After their failure at the Scopes Trial (1925) to prevent the teaching of evolution in the public schools, fundamentalists retired from the public domain and seemed to have disappeared. But they were very much alive, they had simply withdrawn to form their own counter-culture (in their churches, Bible schools, and radio and television empires), which enabled them to stage a counter-offensive in the late 1970s. Again they seemed to have been defeated by the sexual scandals involving prominent televangelists during the 1980s, and the liberal establishment assumed that fundamentalism was a dead letter. But this is to misread the situation. Fundamentalists have not gone away; there are even signs that fundamentalism is becoming more extreme.

Q: Please tell us why you have chosen to begin with Judaism and its relationship to fundamentalism in THE BATTLE FOR GOD.

A: It was important to explain the nature of pre-modern society and spirituality so that the reader could appreciate the magnitude of the changes wrought by modernity. Consequently, I traced the history of Jews, Western Christians and Muslims from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century in the first part of the book, to show the advent of modernity and its impact upon traditional agrarian faith. I began with the Jewish experience not because it has a particular "relationship to fundamentalism" (Jews are no more or less fundamentalist than members of any other faith), but because the Jewish experience tells us something crucial about modernity. First, the experience of the Jewish people makes it clear at the outset that modernity is not always liberal and benign; it has been especially hostile towards Jews and Judaism. Modernity, especially in its early stages, could be cruel, coercive and violent. The Jewish people were the first of many peoples to experience modernity initially not as liberating and enlightening, but as a lethal assault.

Q: How do you feel that people will relate to modernization in the future?

A: The fears aroused by modernization will not go away. The old dream of the Enlightenment was that as people became more educated and rational, the world would become more tolerant, civilized and compassionate. The horrors of the twentieth century, which has ended in the mass graves of Kosovo, has shown that the modern rational and secularized ethos has been just as (if not more) lethal and destructive than the pre-modern religious bigotry. Fundamentalism, as one of the chief protests against this modern ethos, is not likely to disappear.

The United States, which can be seen as the showcase of modernity, shows this clearly. Here modernization is complete; people enjoy a high standard of living and extensive freedom; the nation is the most powerful and successful in the world. But far from vanishing in the liberal light of the modern day, it seems that the old fears have simply been exacerbated in recent years. Only about ten percent of the population would describe themselves as "fundamentalists," but polls show that many fundamentalist attitudes are shared by about fifty percent of the American people. Fundamentalists are becoming more radical. Where the old Moral Majority was essentially law abiding in its campaign against secular society in the late 1970s and early 1980s, new fundamentalist campaigns (such as the anti-abortion crusades of Operation Rescue) are prepared to resort to civil disobedience.