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Pressing for a New Vision of God : Authors: Karen Armstrong left the convent, doubting her faith. Now she writes to answer her own spiritual questions.

October 12, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the convent, the pale nun from the English countryside suffered blackouts, crying spells and hallucinations.

When she left in 1969, she felt like Rip van Winkle, a stranger to the world of Vietnam and the Beatles. Finally, she lost her belief in God.

Today, living in a Victorian cottage in London, she is the controversial author of 10 books, the most recent--"A History of God"--an account of the Lord that has ruffled a few of the faithful with its unorthodox look at Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Karen Armstrong, 49, pours herself a glass of mineral water during a recent book-tour visit to Los Angeles and begins expounding on everything from a mystical encounter with God at the library to theologian Martin Luther's remark that women should be "kept at home like a nail driven into the wall."

Armstrong, who argues that men have "hijacked" and distorted the idea of God, says the purpose of her books is to answer her own spiritual questions and to "break barriers of hostility and misunderstanding" between Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Her odyssey began in 1962, at age 17, when she entered a Catholic convent and sank into an emotional and spiritual abyss. "What I wanted to do was sort of lose my adolescent self in this great, fulfilling religious experience, and be transformed ... by God and filled with joy and serenity."

Instead, she started doubting her faith and bristling at her religious vows ("It's very hard to live an entirely celibate life, a life without any possessions at all, and to give up your will," she says). She also struggled with an uneasy sense of aloneness.

"In religious life, you don't lose yourself, you find yourself," Armstrong says. "Outside, you can turn on the television or go out for a drink... to take your mind off yourself. (In the convent), you're stuck with yourself 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ... (and) it's quite a salutary experience to learn what you're like."

The break came after the order enrolled her at Oxford University to prepare her for a teaching post. There, in contrast to her pre-Vatican II nunnery, where unquestioning obedience was a watch phrase, professors insisted she criticize and challenge things.

"I found it difficult to switch that off when I went home," Armstrong recalls.

One day, she simply collapsed, weeping uncontrollably. Adding to the strain, Armstrong also had been experiencing blackouts and hallucinations (caused by epilepsy that wasn't diagnosed for another decade). In 1969, she quit the order.

Secular life wasn't much easier.

As a nun, she had essentially been shut off from the world--avoiding newspapers and outside friendships--so when she re-emerged, "everything had changed." At Oxford she had seen long hair and short skirts, but "I'd never heard of Vietnam (and) I'd never heard of the Beatles."

Indeed, one of the few times Armstrong's superiors broke their embargo on world news was during the Cuban missile crisis.

"They told us the situation was dire," she says, "but they forgot to tell us (when it) was over ... and you weren't supposed to ask for news of the world.... (So) we went on (for two weeks) sort of scanning the horizon for mushroom clouds, (until) one of us plucked up the courage to (inquire)."

Armstrong says it took her six years to readjust to secular society. She finished Oxford with a doctorate in English literature, started teaching at London University and, several years after leaving the convent, became an atheist.

She also began writing books--first about her experience in the convent, then about the trauma of leaving it and finally about such non-autobiographical topics as the Crusades, English mystics, the ordination of women, and Mohammed. (The latter won her honorary membership in the Assn. of Muslim Social Scientists.)

Most recently, she spent four years assembling "A History of God" (Ballantine, 1994)--and, in the process, rediscovered her own faith.

Armstrong now calls herself a "free-lance monotheist." But her deity is unlike any conceived of in traditional spiritual circles.

She finds God in the library. While poring over religious texts, Armstrong says, "I get glimmers of transcendence and wonder--lasting just a fraction of a second--not dissimilar to the delight or awe you feel when listening to a great piece of music."

If it sounds a little unconventional, well, that's precisely the point.

Western religions, Armstrong argues, are too hung up on describing and defining a reality that defies all explanation. God exists, she says, but doctrines, Scriptures and other concepts about him are all man-made.

Her book sets out to document that the idea of God has been invented and reinvented through the centuries in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In so doing, she offers some controversial--and sometimes contradictory--propositions.

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