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Karen Armstrong

Coming to Terms With God in a Newly Religious Age

December 22, 1996|Steve Proffitt

LONDON — Though this is the era of computers, science and high technology, God and spirituality are proving to be the rage of the late 1990s. Suddenly, it seems, Americans are getting religion. Or at least interested in reading, writing and thinking about matters of the soul. This closely mirrors other fin de siecle spiritualist movements.

News magazines are choosing religious topics for cover stories. Books about God and religion regularly appear on best-seller lists. And America's deepest TV-thinker, Bill Moyers, produces a 10-part series about the first book of the Bible, Genesis.

Among Moyers' guests on that series is a 52-year-old, former Catholic nun who has become a leading, if challenging, voice on religion in her native Britain. Karen Armstrong, a nun for seven years, left the convent in 1969 and abandoned Catholicism. In 1982 she published a scathing, autobiographical critique of modern religious life, "Though the Narrow Gate," which earned her the tabloid title "Runaway Nun" and established her as Britain's best-known atheist.

Still, as Armstrong's belief in God diminished, her interest in God grew. She has now written 10 books about religion--including the 1993 "History of God," a best-selling comparative study of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Her latest work is an analysis of the Bible's chronicle of the creation and the beginning of mankind; "In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis" focuses on the struggles biblical characters such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Noah endured in coming to terms with God. Armstrong finds in these struggles a message for people today who are wrestling with ideas about God and religion. Her conclusion is a paradox: God cannot be known, but the enduring effort to know God is the essence of spirituality.

Armstrong finds beauty in that paradox, and lately she has begun describing herself as a "freelance monotheist" rather than an atheist. Raised in what she describes as a "not-overly pious" Roman-Catholic family in the Midlands of England, she has one younger sister, a practicing Buddhist, who lives in Los Angeles. Armstrong's life cuts across religions--she is a teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism in London, and also an honorary member of the Assn. of Muslim Social Scientists. In a conversation from her London home, she talked about some of our earliest spiritual legends, the human need to understand the meaning of life and her personal struggle to understand her relationship with God.


Question: One of the clear points one takes away from your study of Genesis is that it paints a very confusing picture of God. How would you describe God as depicted in the first book of the Bible?

Answer: There isn't a clear, coherent teaching in Genesis about God and the creation. There are two quite different creation stories put side by side, which show that the editors were not really very concerned with describing the literal events of what happened at the beginning of time. These accounts sort of cancel each other out; they can't both be right. Genesis One begins with what could be seen as a polemic against the prevailing religious teaching about creation. The view of the time was that a band of gods created the world out of a gigantic struggle, fighting other gods in mortal combat to create the world, such as you have in Babylonian and Egyptian mythology. But the God of Genesis is absolutely, effortlessly in control, a single God. And this God is totally good and benevolent, blessing everything that he makes, and totally impartial. But then, in the rest of Genesis, the authors seem to go out of their way to dismantle that notion of God, so that at the end of Genesis it's very difficult to come away with any coherent teaching or theology about the nature of the divine, and his relationship with the world.

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at Hajjar and Partners New Media Lab. He interviewed Karen Armstrong from her home in London.

Q: So, you start out with a God who creates heaven and the Earth and says "This is good," and you end up with a God who is sort of meddling about in individual affairs?

A: That's all right, he can meddle if he wishes. But, at the end of the book, he stops interfering at all, and then disappears, so that at the end of the book, Joseph and his brothers have no divine intervention in their lives. They have to rely on their dreams and insights as we do, with no help from God at all, who seems to have forgotten about the world and retired from it completely. And earlier, the God who was the benign creator becomes God the destroyer of the world at the time of the floods. The God who's impartial, and totally fair in Chapter One, becomes a totally unfair God at the time of Cain and Abel, and throughout the story of the chosen family of Abraham, God is continually, rather arbitrarily choosing one person over another.

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