My chat with Karen Armstrong about the sacred texts of scripture begins with Lion Man – Löwenmensch, in German – on display in the Ulm Museum on the River Danube: 31.1 centimetres high, 5.6 centimetres wide, and somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 years old. Her new book begins, stealthily on little cat feet, but abruptly, with a description of the lion-headed figure.
The former British nun and world-renowned scholar of comparative religion is the author of almost 30 books, winner of academic prizes around the world and likely today’s outstanding Western writer on Islam.
As book has followed book, she has made it increasingly clear that her mission is to liberate God and spirituality from the rules of religion. She refers to herself as an advocate for apophatic theology: the argument that nothing can be said about God because God is beyond the ability of human reasoning to define, too vast to be labelled as a being and only knowable as Being. Or as she put it in a 2006 interview: “We’ve always been a bit too talky about God.”
Her most recent book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, talks in breathtaking depth about the origins of the divine accounts from the monotheistic, Greek, Indian and Chinese religions. They were presented as performances, she says. They were sung, recited, acted out. They were intended to transport audiences into a transcendent spiritual dimension. They were not meant to be history. They were intended to exemplify a way of life, and what they all hit on, she says, is compassion, the Golden Rule, replacing “self” with the “other.”
“They taught that compassion brings you into the presence of God.” But the Divine with a capital D, the spiritual Absolute – God – simply could not be talked about because it was beyond definition and description.
Which brings us to Lion Man, the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art.
According to Ms. Armstrong, Lion Man is also the oldest expression of religious activity. And it belongs to the field of the imagination because we imagine something that is not immediately present. And, as such, the imagination is the ability to think of something that does not exist. God also does not exist in any way that we can conceive. God is not a being – like a table or a human being. God, as [Doctor of the Church) Thomas Aquinas says, is esse subsistem, “being itself.”
It’s not the big man with the long white beard in the sky.
No, it isn’t.
You write that scriptures say each one of us can become god.
Divine rather than god … become divinized here and now, the Greeks would say. Just as anybody can, if they go through the correct disciplines, become a Buddha.
And what’s the message there? What are the scriptures trying to say by saying each one of us is capable of divination?
Basically that we can transform ourselves, that we are not stuck in a sort of temporal mode, that there is a dimension of ourselves that we can cultivate. But it requires a discipline. It requires that we abandon an egotism that holds us back from our best selves and especially in the exercise of compassion for others. The scriptures are not telling us what God is because God cannot be defined.
So, this is like the dao?
Yes, exactly like the dao or like nirvana, where the Buddha always refused to define nirvana because he said you need to experience it, it cannot be put into words. And like the Brahman, which is the all and therefore not definable. Define means to set limits upon something, the words come from de finis, to limit something, so a definition of God is to fit God into limited conceptual expression, whereas God is transcendent. We experience transcendence – that’s something human beings do, we’ve all had moments of transcendence when we feel deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond ourselves.
So when we read in the scriptures of a bossy God, of an ordering God, a God that’s commanding that we go out and do in enemies, what are we misinterpreting?
Basically, I think the scriptures do a very good job of telling us that we don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about God. If you look at the Book of Genesis, for example, in the first chapter you’ve got a picture of God as everything a god should be. God is totally in control of his creation. He is totally powerful, he simply has to speak and everything comes into being, he has to make no effort.
But in other texts of the Bible, he’s described as having to fight a monster to bring the world into being. That doesn’t occur in Chapter 1. And this God is very benign. He blesses everything he has made, even his old enemy Leviathan. And he’s totally impartial. He sees that everything that he has made is good. But the rest of the Book of Genesis completely deconstructs that.
By the end of Chapter 3, God has lost control of his creation. He can’t control what human beings are doing. The benign God becomes a cruel destroyer at the time of the flood. The impartial God shows monstrous favouritism and we are made to feel the pain of the rejected ones, Cain and Esau, and Hagar, who is left in the wilderness by Abraham, left to die with her son, Ishmael.
The God who was totally present and continually butting into human affairs in the early chapter of Genesis by the end has completely sort of vanished from human life, and Jacob and his brothers have to find their own insights and work out their own destinies, deconstructing their own dreams, et cetera, just as we do.
Did the writers of the scriptures know what they were doing?
I think the editors of the scriptures knew what they were doing.
What’s the distinction?
Well, an editor is someone who puts various texts together or who works on the texts. They haven’t written it themselves, but they help to shape the books. And the editors, particularly as I explain during the exile to Babylon [when the elites from the Jewish Kingdom of Judah were held in captivity during the sixth century BC], they started to put together the Bible in a completely different way that very much reflected their own condition as exiles and deportees.
Who is the Jesus of the scriptures?
Very good question, because each one of the Gospels has a totally different picture of Jesus and again the editors put these different versions side by side. They could have amalgamated them all and made a nice consistent picture, but they chose not to because they wanted to express the fact that to define Jesus in any definite way is almost impossible because people have very different ideas of how they experienced Jesus. And Paul has a completely different take on Jesus again.
You write that scripture is a work in progress.
In the Indian scriptures, they have one creation story after another, each one of which has a particular take on the divine and on our relationship with the world. They don’t give us clear answers. And you have that in the Bible, too.
One Muslim put it this way: He said every time you read the Koran, it should mean something different to you. And similarly the Midrash, the form of exegesis developed by the rabbis after the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE – they couldn’t read the scriptures in the same way any more without the temple, which had been at the heart of their faith. So they took the scriptures and made them say something different. If you asked a rabbi a question, he would quote to you a verse from the Book of Psalms, a book from one of the prophets and perhaps a sentence from the Book of Genesis, and put these three quite disparate texts together and make them speak to the current question here and now.
The subtitle of your book is “Rescuing the Sacred Texts.” How you think that’s to be accomplished?
Yes. What I found is that all these scriptural texts, whether we’re talking about the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or the texts of India or the texts of the Buddhists or the Daoists or the Confucians, they all have similar aims in mind.
First of all, that the scriptures are not telling us what we have to believe. That whole question of belief is very much an 18th-century concept. We learn by doing things … scripture must have some practical efficacy, it’s not just about hugging our faith to ourselves. It compels us to go forth, as the Buddha said, into the world.
After enlightenment, the Buddha said, you must go back to the marketplace and there practise compassion for all living beings, helping them to deal with their pain.
Jesus makes it clear, too, that it’s not enough to say Lord, Lord [“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”]. He says: I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink.
All the scriptures [talk about this], including the Chinese, who were very concerned about inequity and injustice. The prophets of Israel had no time for people who said their prayers nicely in the temple, but neglected the plight of the poor and the oppressed. And the Koran is fundamentally a cry for a just and decent society, where the poor and vulnerable are treated with respect and compassion.
How do you research a book like this?
I read a lot of books. I usually start with one idea and it inevitably changes.
What was the idea you started with?
I started with the idea that scripture was a performative art. Until the 18th century, most people listened to their scriptures. It was sung or performed. Because most people couldn’t read and before the invention of printing it was impossible to own a copy of the Bible. So you listened to your scripture and it was sung, and that was certainly the case when I was a nun – we sang our scriptures with the Gregorian chant. And music adds a completely different dimension. So reading the text is rather like reading the libretto of an opera without the music. So I was interested in that, in the music. But then the more I started researching, these other themes … innovative nature of scriptural interpretation in every single tradition and the concern to deny that we could ever define what we mean by the divine. This was central to all the scriptures.
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