Theology should be poetry

I was doing some research for an article earlier and found an interview of Karen Armstrong from a few years ago.

“I’m off to America tomorrow. I have a little book on the Buddha coming out in paperback, so I’m going to a literary festival to talk about it. Which is a nice rest from Islamic fundamentalism.” Was she regarded as an expert on Islam in the States? “Well, it has turned out a bit like that. I was supposed to be flying to America to take up a post at Harvard on September 12 in 2001 and was actually packing when the terrible news came through. So, when I got to Harvard I never even had a chance to set foot in the library. I was continually on the radio and writing articles. Vanity Fair and GQ and Time wanted huge articles on fundamentalism. I had to give two talks to the American Congress, to Senate and to the UN. Suddenly people wanted to know what Islam was.”

And the only person who could tell them was Karen Armstrong? Because Karen Armstrong is the only English-speaker in the world who knows anything about Islam, and there is no English-speaker in the world who knows more about Islam than Karen Armstrong? No, and no. Why was everyone demanding her then? Who knows – number of sales, name recognition, the thing where if you talk on the radio once then you become the person who talks on the radio every time after that – something along those lines. Whatever it is, it’s irritating. It’s especially irritating that even the US Congress and the UN couldn’t do better.

But that’s just a warm-up – the really irritating part comes later.

I don’t, though, think of myself as an ambassador for Islam. What I really want to do is make a plea to my own culture. And that began a long time ago during the Rushdie affair when I noticed that some of the liberal defenders of Rushdie segued very easily from a denunciation of the Ayatollah to an out-and-out denunciation of Islam. I began to think that we had learned nothing from the 20th century because it was that sort of cultivated inaccuracy that led to the death camps.

Notice the way she simply assumes (and assumes that Laurie Taylor will also assume) that ‘denunciation’ (which being interpreted means criticism) of Islam is bad and wrong and illegitimate. Then notice that she compares rabid loathing of Jews to criticism/’denunciation’ of Islam – as if they were exactly the same kind of thing and led in exactly the same direction. On the one hand a group of people, on the other hand a religion with its attendant ideas and rules and taboos.

But the tendency to read the Bible or the Koran as though they were literal texts, holy encyclopaedias where you look up information about God is an unfortunate offshoot of modernity…Religion is an art form. And it has always turned to art when it wants to express its truths, to architecture and music and poetry and dance. Theology should be poetry…[I]t should also fill you with the same sense of wonder and the same intimations of transcendence as when you read a great poem. Like poetry, religion is an attempt to express the inexpressible.

Yes, in Armstrong-land, but in the real world, that’s not what most believers mean by religion, to put it mildly.

Laurie Taylor suggests that that is a brand of self-serving nonsense that clerics and apologists fall back on when talking to skeptics. Armstrong is unmoved.

But religion was not about beliefs until the 18th century. That was the time when faith started to be equated with believing things instead of putting your trust in something. Until then religion had always been about doing things rather than believing things.

Really – then what was the Inquisition all about? What were the wars of religion about? What was Luther so agitated about? What were the post-Luther popes so worked up about? Why was there an Albigensian crusade? Why was there an Index?

Laurie Taylor asks related questions, but he claims to find Armstrong persuasive anyway. Well not me.

31 Responses to “Theology should be poetry”