Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Karen Armstrong Reprise



First, I need to ask the Internet for forgiveness. I should never assert that I am right and Karen Armstrong is wrong. Hubris of the highest degree and I felt the point of the knife against my chest last night as she spoke. So, please forgive me for that lapse into angry arrogance.

I get stirred up over Islam. I want to believe that it is in fact a beautiful religion of peace and social conscience and yet am instead confronted with my experiences that say the contrary. I am so befuddled and perplexed by it. Reminds me of this dialog between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice:
Darcy: May I ask to what these questions tend?

Lizzie: Merely to the illustration of your character.... I am trying to make it out.

Darcy: And what is your success?

Lizzie: I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.

And that is precisely how I feel about Islam. I am puzzled by the varieties of accounts that don't match up. So it was with this inner conflict that I returned last night to Xavier to hear Karen speak again, this time about Islam.

As it turned out, Karen spoke from her new book The Great Transformation which examines the spiritual developments of the Axial Age (the era of ancient history that is seen as the hub on a wheel wrt spiritual insight). In this age, the prophets and spiritual leaders came to similar insights through varieties of practices around the globe in roughly the same time period. The "universality" of the compassion principle that erupted at this time is the more remarkable because it was a time when international travel and communication were not achieved with ease and therefore it appears that this particular insight was in fact spontaneously discovered almost silmultaneously around the world.

She did address Islam (which is not from the Axial Age) toward the end of her presentation and joined her comments to the thrust of these Axial Age prophets and gurus. She sees Islam as tending in the same direction. Ironically, she sees Christianity (as observed after Christ) as not following this same kind of pattern.

The core of her message, then, was that the west has a peculiar, eccentric obsession: we want right belief more than we want to be people of sacred practice. She said this orientation is an anomoly as far as religions around the world. Most religions focus on spiritual disciplines that require altered behavior that is intended to reshape our very selves, how we experience living and how we orient ourselves to the other—in short, how we grow in compassion.

Beliefs don't do that as effectively and often become weapons or shields rather than soul-shapers (my word, not hers). She provoked lots of reflection when she said that Jesus (Axial Age prophet) focused on knowing the other, being compassionate, divesting self of ego etc. and not once did Jesus expound on the Trinity, the Incarnation or original sin (all HUGE theological threads that have pre-occupied theologians for centuries and thousands of pages).

She went on to explain that for Jews, keeping Kosher was one way of learning to honor and respect the earth and its produce, training yourself every day not to take its produce for granted, not to assume that you may do whatever you like with animals and grains and so on. Yoga was a daily practice of hours where you learned to empty the self of the ego and become patient and peaceful and to have an outlook not achieved through belief, but through painful body manipulations. She moved forward in time to talk about Mohamed requiring Arabs (whose pride is perhaps among the most pronounced culturally of anywhere in the world) to bow down to the ground five times a day touching the foreheads to the ground...

Karen explained that the content of belief doesn't concern her very much any more. She wouldn't mind someone being a 6 Day Creationist if that belief was in a constellation of beliefs and practice that led that person to being compassionate.

Of course, the question begging to be asked is if in fact the word compassion itself is defined differently for each group. As a missionary, I fully believed that the most compassionate thing I could do for Muslims was to convince them that their faith would send them to hell and that Jesus was the only answer for happiness/salvation/forgiveness here and in the hereafter. Yet we know that is not what she would call "compassionate" behavior.

I know this is getting long and I want to share some insights I gleaned from a Pakistani Professor from Xavier who stood with Jon and me after the talk while we sipped on lemonade and snacked on cheese and crackers (no wine that night since Muslims were in attendance). I'll do that in a comment.

On the whole, I found the evening stimulating for more reflection how practice (actual use of one's body) shapes a person's soul and outlook and orientation to the other. That little soundbite alone has left me wondering if that's why I sound like Jack Twist when he turns to Ennis Del Mar at their final meeting:

"I wish I knew how to quit you."

I don't know how to quit religion so I'm trying to figure out how to live with it.

4 comments:

julieunplugged said...

When we had our cheese and crackers, I wondered aloud to our professor friend how it is that a billion Muslims don't "get it" about Islam while the professors and academic community of the west seem to see it in a much more favorable light.

He said what I've heard others say - that reformation of Islam will come from the west, not from the east. There is a famous quote (I forget by whom) that says that you will find Islam in Paris but no Muslims while you will find Muslims in Cairo but no Islam.

The point is that practice of the faith in the host countries where faith is the institutionalized law of the land seems to be less accurately perceived and practiced than it is in the west where it is a minority faith.

This begs the question: what about the west fosters a truer version of Islam? And of course we can see immediately that part of it is being in countries where there is freedom of religion, freedom of the press, speech, widespread education (of men and women) as well as freedom from privation (being poor undermines much in life and creates a hardship mentality in relation to the powers of the country - so if religion and state are married, it's easier to see both as at fault).

Still the main point my professor friend made was that Islam is beautiful when practiced correctly and that it is very difficult to imagine what it would take for the entire Muslims world to be transformed.

The first night of the series, Farroq Kathwari (CEO Ethan Allen) said that the first task of the Muslim world is to re-educate its own people. While the west is culpable in creating social and economic conditions that have made these countries continue to be "one down" in their global status, the onus for reshaping how Islam is understood and practiced is on Muslims. Additionally, the stereotypes that the Muslims have of the west are just as inaccurate as ours are of them. I appreciated his saying this outright.

Karen did not say outright that we are responsible for the problems of interpretation of the faith among Muslims, but she did make a strong connection between our history of colonialism and economic exploitation of the region that have created corrupt governments that have then perpetuated wrong thinking about the faith itself, which then is reinforced by western prejudice and foreign policy that causes fundamentalism or militantism to be attractive interpretations of the faith. This nuance made some sense to me and I'm glad she gave it.

Finally (wow, this is getting too long), I think what came home to me last night was that perhaps what precedes real change is changed expectations. If we begin with the idea that Islam is not a religion of violence and we stop fighting a "war on Islam" itself, perhaps we will begin to foster and support those expressioins that are more moderate and that can have some kind of ripple effect.

I'm more convinced than ever, though, that I'll be long dead before we see a drastic change in how the faith is understood and applied around the globe.

But change can begin with me, as they said in the sixties. :)

Chuck said...

Thanks, Julie, for the details of Armstrong's presentation. I wish I could have been there. I really enjoyed reading "The History of God" a few years back. I need to dig in to some of her other books. Is there a Xavier web site that posts info on such events? I already had Tuesday night booked by the time I heard about the talk.

Her observations about using rituals and disciplines for maintaining health is interesting - I've heard some similar angles regarding the detailed regulations in the Torah. One person went as far as to say that with mankind in a "young" stage, God needed to provide these rules and regulations for their own protection. Not sure I buy that one :-) Also, it seems that at some stage the original reasons for a particular practice may no longer be valid, and it is time for a faith to reshape it's traditions.

I know what you mean about trying to quit religion/spirituality and not being able to - kind of like flypaper sometimes.

Sounds like the issue of transformation within Islam has some parallels with the need for transformation within Christianity. And I agree that religious and personal freedoms and freedom from privation play huge roles in the shape that faith takes on.

Any idea what characterizes your professor friend's "truer version of Islam".

Christine said...

Hello, Julie, a fellow Cincy-ite here, I found your blog by link hopping.

I belong to a contemplative prayer group that is largely nuns, and a few of them went to hear Karen speak (I was at Bart Campolo's discussion group, if this occurred on Tuesday night).

The nuns talked in our prayer group about the similarities between religions, but in illustrating this with the use of prayer beads in Catholism and other religions, I feel they hit on a chink in the theory ~ I'm Protestant, and do not use beads when I pray. Nor do the Jews that I know.

What about us? Are we to be left out of the world's religions unifying, if we don't buckle down and produce beads for prayer?

It tends to be a trait among religions and religious thought to segregate and divide without perhaps realizing they're doing so. Which is what Jesus meant, I suppose, when he mentioned that he would end up pitching brother against brother.

Anyway, good blog. Thanks for sharing.

australisa said...

Speaking for the Internet (because I love it so!), we forgive you. :-)

<<< When we had our cheese and crackers, I wondered aloud to our professor friend how it is that a billion Muslims don't "get it" about Islam while the professors and academic community of the west seem to see it in a much more favorable light. >>>

Could it be similar to why the majority of Christians in the west didn't/don't get it from Constantine to the present day?

<<< He said what I've heard others say - that reformation of Islam will come from the west, not from the east. There is a famous quote (I forget by whom) that says that you will find Islam in Paris but no Muslims while you will find Muslims in Cairo but no Islam. >>>

Does Christianity need the east, too? I don't mean to divert attention from Islam but I see a connection here.

Do Christians need to look to the east to find these sorts of practices that shape the soul? Is there a balance that is missing in both the east and the west?

<<< The point is that practice of the faith in the host countries where faith is the institutionalized law of the land seems to be less accurately perceived and practiced than it is in the west where it is a minority faith. >>>

Hmmmm, why does being the majority (power) become the death of true religion?

<<< This begs the question: what about the west fosters a truer version of Islam? And of course we can see immediately that part of it is being in countries where there is freedom of religion, freedom of the press, speech, widespread education (of men and women) as well as freedom from privation (being poor undermines much in life and creates a hardship mentality in relation to the powers of the country - so if religion and state are married, it's easier to see both as at fault).

Still the main point my professor friend made was that Islam is beautiful when practiced correctly >>>

Where is Islam most beautiful? Where is Christianity most beautiful? What circumstances nourish this true beauty?

Forgive me if I am taking this in a different direction than you were intending...