Thursday 1st December - Karen Armstrong on "The Point of Religion"

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by Karen Armstrong called "The Point of Religion," as part of the University of St Andrews 600 Lecture Series.

[Click here for a shorter version of my piece on Independent Catholic News.]

I had initially planned to leave early to attend a meeting, but after she mentioned the need to recognise our "impotence of speech" and "finding meaning in the silence," I thought it might be worth staying.

Introduced by the Principal as a voice on ecumenical understanding who wants to make religion accessible, I was interested to see exactly what her point would be on religion. She began with how we talk about God / Nirvana / Dao, saying that St Thomas Aquinas would disagree with the definition that God is a supreme being, and went on to talk about how all religious language is symbolic (analogy etc.).

Following from this she spoke about the need for something more than what life can offer, she called it a "transcendence". (I should have stressed that the lecture was very much on religion and not theology. She quoted the Qur'an, spoke about Buddhism, and even told a short story about Brahman to illustrate her point about silence.) She was saying that if people don't believe in God / transcendence, they end up looking for meaning elsewhere, like in sex, music, drugs etc. They yearn for this transcendence but look for it in all the wrong places.

The best model for religion, according to Armstrong, is the Brahmodya competition. Practised by Brahmin priests in the 10th century, it involved spiritual exercises like fasting and meditative breathing, with questions afterwards. The goal of these questions was to come up with formulations to describe Brahman. One priest would come up with a definition and another would try and build on it. The one who won though was the priest who reduced the others to silence, emphasising the "impotence of speech". Referring back to transcendence, she said that religion should push us forward towards it. However this is not accomplished through attempts to explain the mysterious, but through the silence. "Like the end of a symphony when the last notes die out ... the silence that is very full and pregnant before the applause." For Armstrong, "Very good theology wants to live in the silence."

She went on to say that we in the West had lost our sense of "myth," defining it as "essentially a program of action." Reiterating her point, Armstrong stressed that religion is a practical discipline, but sadly it has evolved into something else: a watered down version of what it means to be religious. She said, "religious people find that rituals or mythoi give them a reach that those sitting in the pews do not understand." In other words, for Armstrong, to be religious is very much about practicing what you believe. Though even the term belief has lost its meaning today.

"We have a fetish about belief in the West," she said. Today it has become a philosophical term of simply accepting a set of propositions, rather than it's original meaning in Greek πιστις or the word credo in Latin. It is about act and commitment, not just "intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition." Coming back to the importance of myth, Armstrong says that no one reads Genesis as a literal account of life, but as "mythos," that is, allegorically. She then briefly talked the audience through the Senses of Scripture as found in the Catholic Church, going on to mention St Thomas Aquinas and his Five Ways. Her point was to show that even the Church Fathers did not believe that they were trying to prove or explain God in their theological writings. In the case of St Thomas Aquinas, she says he did not think he had proved God, but that he "proved the existence of a mystery." Once again, we come back to her previous statement about being silent and not being able to truly speak about God with our limited and inadequate language and knowledge.

Talking about her past as a former nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, she said she never associated religion with compassion, but grace and kindness. Though later in her life, even after she vowed never to return to religion after leaving the community, she kept being pushed towards compassion - something she believes the world religions have developed. This sense of compassion is ultimately found in the Golden Rule found earliest in Confucius' writings: "Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state." 

An interesting point she made was that we cannot "confine benevolence to our own group, but to everyone, to all people." If it is confined to just one's own group, it becomes "group egotism." It is about stepping out of oneself and leaving the ego behind (εκστασις). If we do not practice the Golden Rule then "we will not have a viable society in this age." The violence and conflict we know all too well from events of the past, are reflections where the Golden Rule has been lacking. We need to "build a community where people of all persuasions can live in harmony and respect. It's not just a nice thing to do, but is necessary for our existence." I found this point particularly pertinent. Though given her position as someone who speaks for religion, I'm not sure any atheists would disagree with her here. I don't think anyone at all would disagree.

Moving on to love, she says that it is "needed to provide practical support," and that the Greeks knew this well. Referring to Greek tragedies, she spoke about how they put "suffering on stage." By doing this, they showed that "they were not alone in their suffering ... They believed that weeping allowed them to share great pain together." To end her talk, she used the example of "The Persians" written by Aeschylus to reiterate the importance of compassion. True compassion is "putting yourself in the position of another, loving one another ... We become most god-like when we realise others are in pain."

One of the questions asked during the Q&A session was her view on fundamentalism. Armstrong said, "Fundamentalism is founded in profound fear. We need to address the causes of their fears; we cannot just rant on. When they feel their backs are to the wall, they lash out violently ... We must be aware of others' sensitivities." She said that there must be "something wrong with your spirituality if you are showing hatred towards others ... We must act on the Golden Rule rather than just believing it ... Dialogue does happen, but it needs to be more like Socratic dialogue." That is, dialogue that has a purpose, a goal towards truth.

Another question was how Armstrong attempts to place herself in other religions in order to understand them. She replied that, "looking at other world religions saved mine ... It's about making a place for the other in your place and in your heart. With transcendence no one has the last say." The final question was about the dynamics between religious believers and atheists. Armstrong said, "I cannot see compassion in their writings. Why do they have to be so aggressive? We need Socratic dialogue ... Socrates believed that people should be pushed into a place that they don't want to go to (I.e. not made to feel uncomfortable, or cornered during discussion) ... It has happened in the past with the likes of Paul Tillich." Talking about atheists she said, "They don't know very much about religion, which is a bit of a snag *laughter from audience* And also they're very unpleasant. Some of them are nice though, like Julian Baggini." Ending the evening she made one last point, if we're going to have dialogue, "we need dialogue with respect and humour."

To be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, everything she said (bar the bit about Jesus and the Trinity) was nothing new, controversial or groundbreaking. I suppose I was expecting something with more theological substance; although, I do appreciate that it was not aimed at theology academics and students. In general, I had a good evening. If you're interested I've included a photo of my live-tweeting from the talk. Due to the way the twitter webpage works, the tweets start at the bottom, with the latest tweet at the top.

Also, Happy my town St Andrews day for yesterday! Where has this semester gone?...

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