NOTE crossposted from dailykos here  — if you are able, recommendations there are also appreciated

is entitled The Spiral Staircase:  My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong, who (a) does not have a doctorate, and (b) is not formally trained in religion, but (c) has displayed a remarkable ability to help others understand about religion and major religious figures such as Paul and Muhammed.

The title of the book is derived from an image in a poem by T.S. Eliot, his “Ash  Wednesday.” Armstrong, while she was a nun, began a program of studies in literature at St Anne’s Oxford, where she received First as an undergraduate, but where her dissertation was rejected.

I will below the fold offer a couple of selections and some comments about the book.  Obviously, my reaction is shaped by my experience, so I may offer a few remarks about that as well.  Even if you do not consider yourself religious (and I do not so define myself at this point), the book is well worth the read.  I hope to convince you of that fact.
This book is an exploration of Armstrong’s life, but it is also much more.  It is her second attempt at describing the periods of her life after she left the convent.  She had previously described her monastic experiences in Through the Narrow Gate, although she revisits with new eyes that period as well.  In the years after leaving the convent she had become something of a literary and television celebrity, become more than a little hostile towards religion.  In the years since, she has found the more she learned about a variety of religions in the studies she undertook to do her writings (and to some degree for her television work), she found herself spiraling around some issues (hence the title) so that her response to “God” and “religion” is not quite as simple as she might once have written.

One person who had a profound affect on Armstrong was the British Jewish scholar Haym Maccoby (whose best known work is The Mythmaker:  Paul and the Invention of Christianity).   Let me offer two paragraphs from near the end of Armstrong’s book (pp270-271) which I found provocative:

    Haym Maccoby had given me a clue when we sat together, six years earlier, eating egg-and-tomato sandwiches in the little cafe near Finchley Central tube station.  He had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice.  Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you.  It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy.  If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed.  The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing.  They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your onw life and put them into practice.  The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles — or for that matter, about Jesus or the Buddha.  Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential.

     In the course of my studies, I have discovered that the religious quest is not about discovering”the truth” or “the meaning of life” but about living as intensely as possible here and now.  The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to “get to heaven” but to discover how to be fully human — hence the images of the perfect or enlightened man, or deified human being.  Archetypal figures such as Muhammed, the Buddha, and Jesus become icons of fulfilled humanity.  God or Nirvana is not an optional extra, tacked on to our human nature.  Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves.  A passing Brahman priest once asked the Buddha whether he was a god, a spirit, or an angel.  None of these, the Buddha replied; “I am awake!”  By activating a capacity that lay dormant in undeveloped men and women, he seemed to belong to a new species.  In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before.”

Let me note that I have done my own exensive wanderings.  At some point perhaps I will  record them in a detailed fashion, and then  provide a link, but this is neither the time nor the place for it.  What I respond to in the material above is the focus on the here and now, this life, the reality of ourselves and of other human beings, about which more in a moment.  I could go through and provide many proof texts, from sources Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc, to show that — independent of the “theological” content  — there is something of a universal element here.  It is perhaps one reason I have so often been drawn to the study — and teaching  — of comparative religion.  I see the religious impulse as a basic part of humanity.   That does not mean that one must hold a belief in a supernatural being.  I’m not sure that I do.  But to some degree it is what draws beyond ourselves.  We see it explicitly expressed in Jewish and Christian writings, both in scriptural and non-scriptural material.  Arnstrong explores this a bit, again referring to Maccoby, who had exposed her to one famous example, that of Hillel.  The story from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31:

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”  

Here is how Armstrong approaches the subject (p.272):

    All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly.  But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others.  Eevery single one of the major traditions — Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms — teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others.  Hyam had quoted Hillel’s Golden Rule, which tells you to look into your own heart, find out what distresses you, and then refrain from inflicting similar pain on other people.  That, Hillel, had insisted, was the Torah, and everything else was commentary.  This, I was to discover, was the essence pf the religious life.

The next paragraph I wish to quote is one I think relevant to all, whether or not we consider ourselves religious.  I will offer it (p.279) without further commentary, except to note that the literal meaning of the Greek ekstasis is to stand outside, in this case, of oneself:

    What I now realize, from my study of the different religious traditions, is that a disciplined attempt to go beyond the ego brings about a state of ecstasy.  Indeed, it is in itself ekstasis.  Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this type of kenosis, or self-emptying, is found in the life of God itself.  They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work.  We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.  There may even be a biological reason for this.  The need to protect ourselves and survive has been so strongly implanted in us by millenia of evolution that, if we deliberately flout this instinct, we enter another state of consciousness.  This is a purely personal speculation of my own.  But the history of religion show that when people develop the kind of lifestyle that restrains greed and selfishness, they experience a transcendence that has been interpreted in different ways.  It has sometimes been regarded as supernatural reality, sometimes as a personality, sometimes as wholly impersonal, and sometimes a dimension that is entirely natural to humanity, but however we see it, this ecstasy had been a fact of human life.

Armstrong worries that we have entered into a period she considers one of “great darkness,”  especially as Westerners and Muslims become increasingly unable to understand each other.  She also worries how much fundamentalists and extremists have gained influence in so many religious traditions as positions have hardened.  She notes that there are strands in many traditions which preach tolerance, that theirs is not the only way.  She offers a second hand quote of the 12th Century Muslim mystic/philospher Ibn al-Arabi, which she gets from Nicholson’s Eastern Poetry and Prose, p. 148 and which appears on page 289 of her book:

Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest;  otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter.  God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not confined to any one creed, for he says, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.”  Everyone praises what he believes, his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself.  Consequently he blames the beliefs of others, which he would not if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.

I find the foregoing quote from Ibn al-Arabi very pertinent in our day and age, and most particularly on a blog devoted to political issues.  That quote is part of my justification for posting this diary at dailykos —  I think it important that we keep our minds open, that we understand for some political beliefs can serve as a substitute for the dogmatic assertions of religion upon which others rely, and that often they can, unfortunately, overlap and merge together.

This diary is getting far too long.  I hope I have intrigued you about the book, enough that you might consider reading it.  

I want to close with material from pages 296-297.  It will be the end of one long paragraph, with the following two paragraphs.  Methinks the final paragraph in this section should serve as a cautionary to us all, not only in the religious arena, but also the political.   Or maybe that is just my justification for posting it.  Anyhow, let me end with Armstrong, and not teacherken:

Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment.  It detrhones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from an experience of the sacred.  And it gives us ecstasy, broadening our perspectives and giving us a larger, enhanced vision.  As a very early Buddhist poem puts it:  “May our loving thoughts fill the whole world; above, below, across — without limt; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity.”  We are liberated from personal likes and dislikes that limit our vision, and are able to go beyond ourselves.

     This insight was not confined to Buddhism, however.  The late jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole of ego, we are in the place where God is.  The Golden Rule requires that every time we are tempted to say or do something unpleasant about a rival, an annoying colleague, or a country with which we are at war, we should ask ourselves how we should like this said of or done to ourselves, and refrain.  In that moment we would transcend the frightened egotism that often needs to wound or destroy others in order to shore up the sense of ourselves.  If we lived in such a way on a daily, hourly basis, we would not only have no time to worry overmuch about whether there was a personal God “out there”; we would achieve constant ecstasy, because we would be ceaselessly going beond ourselves, our selfishness and greed.  If our political leaders took the Golden Rule seriously into account, the world would be a safer place.

     I have noticed, however, that compassion is not always a popular virtue.  In my lectures I have sometimes seen members of the audience glaring at me mutinously;  where is the fun of religion, if you can’t disapprove of other people!  There are some people, I suspect, who would be outraged if, when they finally arrive in heaven, they found everybody else there as well.  Heaven would not be heaven unless you could peer over the celestial parapet and watch the unfortunates roasting below.

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