Reading Karen Armstrong

Another comment from Eric.

Based on the linked interview, it seems pretty clear that Karen Armstrong never really left the convent. The mind has mountains, frightful, sheer, no man fathomed, as Hopkins said.

It also has walls. Take her claim that “The golden rule is that you treat everyone with absolute respect and you don’t exclude any creature, even a mosquito, from your radius of concern.” You have to have put up a wall somewhere to be able to say this. These are just empty words, and they reveal something about her use of language. Laurie Taylor says that he noticed “how carefully Karen constructs her sentences, her care with words, her capacity to alight on a perfect phrase with all the effortless delicacy of a sparrow on a washing line.” Well, but that’s not what she does. She sermonises. She uses empty words that “sound good”, that seem to be moved by something deep, but really they skate over the surface of things. I don’t know about you, but I swat mosquitoes! So much for radius of concern.

She sermonises. Every clergyperson has a stock of words and catch phrases that they can use ad libitum whenever the need arises. Listen to a long Baptist prayer, and you’ll hear all the stock phrases making an appearance, and everytime that minister or pastor is asked to say a prayer, the stock phrases are repeated over and over again, through dozens of prayers.

Or take the idea of the Hindus who bow to each other, and thereby acknowledge the divine in each person. It’s like everything that is done by religious people. Whether it has significance or not, it will be given it. Take the use of the word ‘thou’, used traditionally in direct address to God. During the time when liturgies were being modernised, ‘thou’ gave way to ‘you’. People objected, because ‘thou’ speaks of respectful distance. But of course that’s exactly the opposite of what was intended, because ‘thou’ in English is like ‘Du’ in German, used only with your closest friends, and in prayer. It communicated informality and intimacy. But that was only a rationalisation too.

Or take the claim that religious rituals are meant “to remind you that the world is not yours to do with as you choose.” No. The rituals developed because they were believed to be commanded by God. They were acts of obedience. However, environment is in, so it’s in in religion as well. The rituals only make sense in terms of some absolute command. Why would anyone do silly, ritual things otherwise? To remind you that you can’t do whatever you want with the world?

Nonsense. Listen to what she says: “Writing and study are my prayers.” It’s a way of “going beyond” and bringing “about a state of ecstasy.” She’s now like the Jews, because this is what they do when they study. No, it isn’t, because Jews do it because they are studying the words and thoughts of God, and this brings on ecstasy. The recitation of the Koran, says Hitchens, seems able to bring on exalted spiritual states. Yes, not because of the Arabic, though, however beautiful and mellifluous, but because it is thought to speak the words of a god.

“Karen Armstrong is a persuasive talker and writer.” Yes, she means to be. She’s a preacher. She’s picked up the smooth effortlessness of the born preacher, the cadence, the repeated catch phrases, the platitudes. She picked it up in the church. And yes. Of course she’s persuasive. But it doesn’t take us beyond, because it is focused on itself. Going beyond is the illusion of all effective preaching, an illusion of all effective religious language. That’s why changing it is so challenging to the religious. It bursts the bubble of illusion. Karen Armstrong knows the secret.

You can even square the circle and seem to be making sense. Consider her claim that “doctrines are a peculiar disease of western Christianity.” First, this makes a nonsense of her claim that religious beliefs are the effect of modernity. But, second, trinitarianism, christology, and the relationship of the persons of the Trinity were thrashed out in the east, with people like Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, Arius, etc.., in an argument that was scarcely understood in the west. How christology was understood did derive in large part from the way that Christ was adored in popular devotion and liturgy. But the heart of the argument was ontological, and how the being of God and the being of Christ and the being of the Spirit were understood. It is ridiculous to suppose otherwise, and to say that doctrine was a particular concern of the west is nonsense (as Bentham might say) on stilts!

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