Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Karen's journey II

We had our book circle discussion yesterday on Karen Armstrong's book. I think we all agreed on many things but the discussion was lively nonetheless as we compared our own spiritual paths/growth with Karen's very tortured trail to much the same conclusions. Not that her ( or our) journey is over- We all look forward to a book on the next 20 years of her life!

Perhaps if we disagreed on anything it was whether Karen at this point believes in God at all but then that depended on how we/she defined God and so we were back at alpha again. There was certainly a point where she didn't at all and that is almost a prerequisite, some of us felt, for a mature faith. In studying other religions - Judaism, Islam, Buddhism- she learned much about her own tradition about which she was largely ignorant.

I feel reading her book that I can say more about what Karen does not believe than what she does believe. She does not believe in certainty in belief. She is certain about that! She does not believe in the virgin birth or the divinity of Jesus ( at least in the normal sense of the word divinity). She knows the gospel stories are largely mythic. She doesn't call herself a Christian- She calls herself a freelance monotheist.

What can I say about the content of what she does believe? She appreciates Paul (hurrah!) She says she believes in compassion for others, although in this book I did not see a lot of action on behalf of other people ( except Jacob) which is not to say she isn't a compassionate person-just that she doesn't show it in this book- this book was about something else. She appears self-centered (another in our group thought this as well) but that is natural I think in a memoir. I think she may feel that profound spiritual experiences have a biological source and are not "God given"; her experience as an epileptic makes her distrust her own senses. I think she thinks the experience of God is identical to aesthetic appreciation.

Karen, if asked directly whether she believed God "exists" might be fuzzy in her answer, although I could be wrong about that. I am not fuzzy about that. God is. That's all. What I am fuzzy about is what God is like, how can I/we define or express God. That is impossible for any human to do but something we all strive or should strive to do. I am fairly sure about certain qualities of God, or certain aspects of God. Truth is one of my big ones. " Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood" Science and God are compatible although sometimes it may look like they aren't - if they seem at odds it is because we don't undertand one or the other, or usually both. "Conclusion of all that is inconclusible" Truth and beauty and goodness which humans can recognise in themselves, in others and the world at large are symptoms of God's action or existence in the universe. Order out of disorder. Life. Light. Creation. All traces of God. Not God but traces of God, left from "his" passing by, so to speak. Yes, language is inadequate. "Speech without word and word of no speech"

How we humans relate to and attempt to understand God is a different question entirely and that involves worship, liturgy , religious forms, different religious traditions. I grew up in one tradition. That is the way I find I can relate to God ( and why I am angered at those in my church who try to destroy that tradition and deny it to me and others) I am interested in other traditions but if I were to give mine up and take up say Zen Buddhism I would have too much catching up to do, a whole lifetime of study to get to where I am in my tradition. The same is true of my Hindu friend who finds she can find some understanding of God in her stories of Krishna and Vishnu. Why should she give that up? We have great discussions comparing stories and the truths they lead one to. These are cultural artifacts but ones with value if they are not perverted.

Humans have a tendency to perversion of religion for their own ends. This of course leads one to a discussion of evil which Karen Armstrong didn't mention once. If she does not believe in God but only an ethic then why is there any imperative or tendency for humans to act in any way which is contrary to their own self interest? All the great philosophers, theologians, thinkers dealt with this question. Maybe she confronts this in her other books? "struggling with the devil of the stairs..."

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Karen's journey

I am amazed by Karen Armstrong's story.

I am shocked that her physical symptoms went so long un-recognised as epilepsy! I read what she described and I, a laymen, knew immediately what she had. I did know as background that she had an illness but what it was I had forgotten by the time I got a hold of the book and when I read her symptoms in the early chapters I said to myself oh yes-epilepsy! Perhaps however I know more about epilepsy than other people as my daughter was tested for it when she was about 3. But could the doctors of that day truly been so stupid? Yes, I guess they could. My mother who had classical symptoms of ulcers went undiagnosed by several doctors for many years until shortly before she died and that/they killed her. I am perhaps also puzzled that Karen herself did not do some research into her symptoms. Even though this was an age before the internet she must have been very comfortable indeed in a library and an adept at research. Perhaps this was an attitude of the times? Taking a Dr's word as gospel?

Karen's ignorance of Christianity is equally disturbing. I can believe that, young as she was, she didn't know many things when she entered the convent. What amazes me is that she knew so little about her own faith coming out. She did not realise it was originally a Jewish sect? She did not know that Paul wrote before the gospel writers and that many of the epistles, Acts for example, credited to Paul weren't his? She did not know that much of the supposed events in "life of Jesus" are later accretions? She did not know of the viciousness of the Crusades and of the enlightened years of early Muslim culture? These all came to her as surprises after she left the convent? My, my!!!! It is not her fault. But, I still say, my, my!

Were they not allowed to READ when they were in the convent? I went to a convent school in the 1950's- it was , however, Anglican. Could Catholic nuns be so different? Our nuns read! They read, they read to us and they made us read. Was it the times? There has been an explosion in exposure for these kinds of ideas in the past 2 decades. I have to say also that my father was a priest; he had been through Divinity school in the day when divinity school was a rigourous, almost classical, education so I learned many things from him, and he was perhaps not a theological couch potato. It makes a difference, I guess, because these things that you learn young are taken in, absorbed slowly, woven into your faith so it grows like a garden, from a childhood monoculture until it becomes complex ecosystem of thought, and it is still growing and evolving as plants sown long ago change into maturity. In a slow nurturing one fits contradictions, intitially anti-faith things, into what you believe and in the end what your credo is a rich construct, a personal construct. Poor Karen had a few sad vegetables to tend for 7 years and then left those behind and had to do everything to rebuild, replant I would say her Eden.

I was interested in the people who helped her do this replanting. Michael Goulder particularly. I highly respect the ex-Anglican, atheist Goulder, he whose ideas Spong has popularised, almost bowdlerised, benefitting hugely from Goulder's years of scholarly work. Spong says they are friends and he has Goulder's blessing, well, this says a lot for Goulder but I am not impressed with Spong's self-serving use of Goulder's research. Goulder has done his homework and is truthful about his loss of belief in God. I like his work but it has not destroyed my belief in God, only added to my "what God is like" garden.

It is emphasized throughout the book how smart Karen was considered. I saw none of this intelligence, either in her description of her life in the convent or in her writing in this book. She keeps referring to it and I don't doubt it, although she claims herself to doubt it. She is probably smart indeed. I may have to read her other books to see it at work. This was perhaps too personal and too humble a work for her to display her intellect. I sense that she feels her intellect has not served her well and she is almost loathe to display or use it.

I have many other thoughts about her book, about her conclusions about what God is or isn't. These I will put in my next post.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I'm back

Gosh, I didn't realise it was so long since I last posted. No excuse really, except I've started a new blog on a different area of interest so have been taken up with getting that going I guess.

I have been reading. Finished The Tipping Point which I really liked. A keeper that will bear reading again. It reminded me slightly of the Peter Principle, one of those books that gives you insight into how societies function, how individuals and systems "work". The main idea is that incremental change can happen but radical changes come about with that "last straw" which could be a very little thing but it is the tipping point where things go over the edge. Water could be used as anology: you heat it up slowly but it doesn't change to steam until a certain point...the boiling point. Many things work that way, Gladwell is saying. He also stresses the importance of movers and shakers- he calls them connectors, mavens and salesmen but they are people that make things happen because of the number of people they know, their expertise or knowledge and their persuasiveness. Some people have all three qualities and they are the essential difference between some idea or product "taking off" and becoming popular or successful and not.

I have also been reading (not finished) Dark Matter by Phillip Kerr, a mystery with Isaac Newton as one of the main characters. Very interesting but a bit thick and not a really easy read.

And I have just started The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong our next book circle book which I had trouble finding at a nearby bookstore so I have borrowed it from a friend.
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)