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.