God, rid me of God [Meister Eckhart]

Former nun, lapsed Catholic, unsuccessful academic, undiagnosed epileptic, fired schoolteacher, failed heterosexual, cultural ignoramus, unlucky in love, ex-Christian, post-atheist, faded TV personality, turned author, sage and freelance monotheist: these are some of the milestones on Karen Armstrong’s long, hard road.

Very rarely does an autobiography remain a gripping tale throughout, without succumbing to egoism. But Karen Armstrong manages this admirably in “The Spiral Staircase” (2005) in a litany of misadventures starting out at age 17 when she excitedly decided to enter a cloistered lifestyle in the hope of finding transcendence and happiness.

I identify with Armstrong in 2 main ways. Firstly, her frankness about her failure to find her place in the world. I feel her pain at being dismissed from a job, having her doctoral thesis rejected outright, being patronised and misunderstood by psychiatrists, doctors and Mothers Superior alike, her confusion about her calling and gifting, and her ongoing reinventions of God.

Secondly, her torturous, spiralling emergence from innocent to penitent to confused to exhausted to renuncient and beyond, remains a deeply poignant illustration of the “via negativa”, the road of suffering and unknowing, and of constant struggle to find or create meaning.

But now, or rather since her magisterial “A History of God” (1993), it appears she has finally found her place. One of her key assets (besides longsuffering) is her ability to learn and to learn quickly. While in Jerusalem making a television series, she became aware of just how ignorant of Judaism and Islam she was. She tells of literally having a crash course in the “sister faiths” of Christianity.

As a novice, she has been submerged into Catholic exclusivism, and it is my hunch that her salvation has been not in the object of the narrowed Christian conception, but in its opposite, the broad, inclusive, loving perspective gained by accepting the “other”. Not just in a liberal pluralistic sense, but in terms of the deep centre of her spirituality, namely compassion. For the mature Armstrong, compassion, the ability to feel with the other, is at the centre of all faiths. Of belief, she observes:

“Belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm… what I found, across the board, was that religion was about behaving in a certain way.”

Karen Armstrong launched the Charter for Compassion in 2008. It starts

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

This, she claims, is based the Golden Rule, found through the great religions, and was framed by the Pharisee Hillel the Elder.

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

Jesus, she suggests, might even have been a follower of his school, and notes him saying in Matthew 7:

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Her story is indeed one for these times, so sick of modernistic “belief”. After an agonising spiritual death lasting almost 3 decades, she accepts the reality of “being finally done with God”. From this place of Nothingness, she is forced to create meaning, an in the process of deconstructing monotheistic faith, rediscovers both Paul and Mohammed as astonishing religious figures quite unlike the religions they founded.

In 2001, someone told her “You always claim that you have not had a religious experience. But I disagree. I think you are constantly living in the dimension of the sacred.” The outside observer saw the fruit she had come to believe was an impossibility. As she herself explains, “The very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life.”

This can only, to my mind, speak of the mystery that is Spirit, lying beyond our narrow, timebound conceptions.

See her TED talk on the charter for compassion.

Hear the superb interview on Speaking of Faith.