She oughtta know: Salon’s Interview with Karen Armstrong

May 31, 2006

I had never heard of Karen Armstrong until I read her interview with Steven Paulson on Salon today. Her new book is The Great Transformation, examining the period in history in which the founding sages of the world's major religions lived. What really turned my head about this interview was her fierce intellect and the fact that she's pretty much lived the struggle to find God as deeply as one can. She joined a convent when she was 17, started a degree in English literature as Oxford as part of her training, and received a dispensation of her vows (ending the process of becoming a nun) seven years after joining. She finished the degree and made several stabs at various secular careers before returning to religious study, this time as an eyes wide open scholar and, as she terms it, freelance monotheist. Her attitude is basically that we should all cut the crap about laying out our beliefs and fencing ourselves off into groups of the likeminded and start reflecting about how we are going to put faith into our lives through ethical living and reflection. Somehow I find it encouraging that someone who has pretty much done it all when it comes to religion will straight up tell you that it's a struggle that never ends, and that you can and should bring all your questions with you as you seek.

A couple of thoughts that are going to stick with me:

"Sometimes a poem can live in your head for a long time until its meaning is finally revealed. And if you try and grasp that meaning prematurely, you can distort the poem for yourself."

"Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well."

I know Armstrong is not speaking for anyone but herself, but this really resonates with me. Perhaps because I also have a literary bent, I understand that idea of texts as fixed points that you change around, the words never moving but the meaning endlessly evolving as deeper parts of your self are revealed through them. I checked out one of her autobiographical books today after reading this interview, The Spiral Staircase, and she begins it with the first section of a wonderful T. S. Eliot poem that I had never read before but that seems custom made for times when whatever is going on just won't yield to cheery thoughts and regular exercise. Enjoy.

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One Response to “She oughtta know: Salon’s Interview with Karen Armstrong”

  1. Moe Says:

    Liz, I red this aticle, too, and I was similarly taken with Ms. Armstrong. You’re great! Keep writing in your blog! šŸ™‚ Obviously, I desperately need to start one.


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