My Climb out of Darkness
by: Karen Armstrong
Excerpt:A very limited, especially selected quotes (from one sentence to a page or page- and- a- half) in no particular order of appearance or importance------picked solely by random sequence on the second reading of the material.
They will, if successfully done by me, interest or excite you sufficiently that you
will buy, beg or steal a copy to read yourself in its grand entirety. That is, if you
don’t already realize the great opportunity your local library affords you to borrow
their copy for a short time
T he reality that we call God is transcendent—that is, it goes beyond any human orthodoxy and yet God is also the ground of all being and can be experienced almost as a presence in the depths of the psyche. All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do.
Cantwell Smith was one of the first theologians to make all this clear to me, in such books as Faith and Belief and Belief in History. I remember the extraordinary sense of relief I felt when I read in his somewhat dry, scholarly prose that our ideas of God were man-made; that they could be nothing else; that it was a modern Western fallacy, dating only from the eighteenth century, to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God. Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary—an attitude also evoked by great art. The Middle English word beleven originally meant “to love”; and the Latin credo (“I believe”) probably derived from the phrase cor do: “I give my heart.” Saint Anselm of Canterbury had written, “Credo ut intellegam,” usually translated “I believe in order that I may understand.” I had always assumed that this meant that I had to discipline my rebellious mind and force it to bow to the official orthodoxy, and that as a result of this submission, I would learn to understand a higher truth. This had been the foundation of my training in the convent. But no, Cantwell Smith explained, “Credo ut intellegam” should be translated “I commit myself in order that I may understand.” You must first live in a certain way, and then you would encounter within a sacred presence that which monotheists call God, but which others have called the Tao, Brahman, or Nirvana.
All the world faiths put suffering at the very tiop of their agenda, because it is an escapable 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. Every single one of the major tradition------Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as the monotheism-----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: 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 of the religious life.
Jerusalem where Jews studied Torah and Talmud, but Joel had some film of these noisy, lively sessions, which we were going to use in our series. I watched the men bent over the scrolls, swaying rhythmically in prayer, as they spoke the sacred words aloud and argued passionately with one another. Those gospel scenes suddenly sprang into new life.
Those “scribes and Pharisees” excoriated by the evangelists were not simply trying to trap Jesus when they questioned him about the greatest commandment of the Torah, about what Moses would say about paying tribute to the Romans, or about Sabbath observance. They were like these modern Jews in the yeshivas. This argumentation was a form of worship.
Certainly the rabbis who compiled the Talmud, some of whom were Jesus’ contemporaries, insisted over and over again that “when two or three study the Torah together, the Divine Presence is in their midst”—words that were strangely echoed in one of Jesus’ own maxims. Study of the Law was not a barren, cerebral exercise. It brought Jews into the presence of God. I might have liked that, I reflected as I watched those films. Studying in that intense way might have suited me a great deal better than Ignatian meditation.
It seemed suddenly shameful to me that I had grown up in such ignorance of Judaism, the parent faith of Christianity. The more I read about first-century Judaism, the more intensely Jewish Jesus appeared; and even Saint Paul, who was such a rebel, was really arguing about a New Israel, a fresh way of being Jewish in the modern world of his day. I knew that because of this project, I would never again be able to think about Christianity as a separate religion. I would have to develop a form of double vision. Increasingly, Judaism and Christianity seemed to be one faith tradition which had gone in two different directions.
This was startling information, but once I had been introduced to these ideas, I read the gospels and epistles with new eyes. All kinds of anomalies and contradict-ions in the text, which were easily overlooked when you read it piecemeal or heard it recited in a liturgical setting, now made sense. I could see why this had not been included in my diploma course, however. This was dynamite.
It gravely undermined many of the theological assumptions of my Catholic years. I had realized that much Christian theology was man-made, but I had not appreciated how shaky were its very foundations. All my original ideas for the television series had to be revised. It was Saint Paul, not Jesus, who was the founder of Christianity and even he would have been dismayed by some of the theological conclusions that were later drawn from his letters. I now discovered that Paul’s epistles are the earliest extant Christian documents and that the gospels, all written years after Paul’s own death, were penned by men who had adopted Paul’s version of Christianity. Far from Paul perverting the gospels, the gospels, it seemed, owed their vision to Paul. The only Jesus we knew was the Jesus bequeathed to us by Paul. Further, it appeared that not all the epistles attributed to Paul in the New Testament were actually written by him. And this radically altered my view of Paul himself..
Some of the most misogynist passages, for example, were almost certainly written by Christians some sixty years after Paul’s death. Perhaps, maybe, he really wasn’t the monster I had always imagined.
HYAM MACCOBY HAD GIVEN ME A CLUE when we sat together, six years earlier, eating egg-and-tomato sandwiches in the little café 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 own 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 the deified human being. Archetypal figures such as Muhammad, 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 Brahmin priest once asked the Buddha whether he was a god, a spirit, or an angel. “None of these,” the Buddha replied; “1 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, 1 now believe, should make you more human than before.
Thus, the myth of the hero shows that it is psychologically damaging to live in the wasteland. If you slavishly follow somebody else’s ideas, you will be impoverished and impaired. I had certainly found this to be the case in my own life. Blind obedience and unthinking acceptance of authority figures may make an institution work more smoothly, but the people who live under such a regime will remain in an infantile, dependent state. it is a great pity that religious institutions often insist on this type of conformity, which is far from the spirit of their founders, who all, in one way or another, rebelled against the status quo. The heroes of myth and religion do not preach unbridled individualism, of course. There are, as I would discover, checks and restraints. But unless you act upon this heroic myth and allow it to change your behavior, it will and incredible.
And so, I have decided to try again.
We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter. Reviewing my own story has made me marvel at the way it has turned out.
An initiation is supposed to make you self-reliant, but mine had made me dependent. As I struggled to fill the requisite number of pages for my essay, I had to face the grim fact that I no longer had ideas of my own. Indeed, I had been carefully trained not to have them. There had been a moment early in the postulantship when I had heard a warning bell. We were doing a little course in apologetics, which explained the rational grounds for faith. I was set an essay: “Assess the historical evidence for the Resurrection.” I had read the requisite textbooks, could see what was required, and duly produced a discussion of the events of the first Easter Sunday that made Jesus’ rising from the tomb as uncontroversial and unproblematic historically as the Battle of Waterloo. This was nonsense, of course, but that did not seem to matter in apologetics.
“Yes, Sister, very nice.” Mother Greta, the pale, delicate nun who was supervising our studies, smiled at me as she handed back my essay. “This is a very good piece of work.”
“But Mother,” I suddenly found myself saying, “it isn’t true, is it?”
Mother Greta sighed, pushing her hand under her tightly fitting cap and rubbing her forehead as if to erase unwelcome thoughts. “No, Sister,” she said wearily, “It isn’t true. But please don’t tell the others.”
Prayer, Ignatius taught, was an act of will. It had nothing to do with pious thoughts or feelings; these were simply a preparation for the moment of decision. Ignatian spirituality was never an end in itself. but was directed toward action and efficiency He wanted his Jesuits to be effective in the world, and their daily meditation ensured that their activities would proceed from God.
And God had gone too. True, I had never known “the blessed face,” but (I had now concluded) that was because there was nothing to know When I had embarked upon the religious life, I had been certain that if only I tried hard enough, I would see the world transfigured by the presence of God and that I would, as the Bible promised, soar like an eagle. But now the world had shrunk, and I found that such wings as I had hoped to possess were “merely fans to beat the air,” which had become “small and dry.” My hope of discovering eternity had died, and instead I knew that all we have is now; that “time is always time” and place “is always and only place.” What Wordsworth had called “the glory and the dream” had faded, and the only joy to which I could aspire lay “in what remains behind.”
“No official theology?” I repeated stupidly. “None at all? How can you be religious without a set of ideas—about God, salvation, and so on—as a basis?”
“We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy,” Hyam replied calmly, wiping his mouth and brushing a few crumbs off the table. “‘Right practice’ rather than ‘right belief’’ That’s all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it’s not important in the way you think. It’s just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don’t bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead.” “Or not do it if you follow Hillel,” I quipped, and we were laughing as we left the café and headed home. I hadn’t wanted to pursue the discussion any further. It was too big an idea and still made little sense to me. How could you live your faith unless you were convinced that God existed? How could you live a Christian life if you could not accept the official doctrines about Jesus? And yet I had to accept Hyam’s description of the role of belief in the religious life of Jews. I needed to think about all this by myself, later. Right now I had scripts to write.
And write she did!
THIS BOOK and 14 more.
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY:
ALFRED A. KNOPF and ALFRED A. KNOPF - - CANADA
“THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE”
Copyright @ 2004, by: Karen Armstrong
Random House, New York N.Y.
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