Karen Armstrong: Who cares about Heaven?

heavenIt’s difficult to decide who is more insufferable when Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine interviews former nun Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God and, most recently, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.

Consider this sample:

You spent seven years in a convent, but in your new memoirs, “The Spiral Staircase,” you describe yourself as a failed nun.

I was a lousy nun. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find God. It wasn’t suitable for me. It is suitable for very few people.

In the decades since, you have become a distinguished scholar of Islam, but I get the impression that you don’t believe in God.

It depends on what you mean by God. I believe in holiness and sacredness in other people. It doesn’t mean that the clouds part and I see God. That’s a juvenile way of thinking about it.

Do you believe in the afterlife?

I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.

Solomon turns philosophical:

If there’s so much similarity among world religions, why have wars been fought for centuries?

Because of egotism. Compassion is not a popular virtue. A lot of people see God as a sacred seal of approval on some of their worst fantasies about other people. With the election coming up in the United States, we’ll be hearing a lot about God being either a Democrat or a Republican.

Then she’s discussing a painful bit of personal history with the all the subtlety of Dr. Phil:

You had a nervous breakdown before you left the convent. I wonder how you feel about the current widespread use of antidepressants.

We live in a culture where we think we shouldn’t be depressed and we demand things, including good moods. But you should be depressed if, say, your child dies. It’s a shame to miss it by blocking yourself off.

Oh, that’s so Catholic of you to ennoble suffering.

No. It’s a very Buddhist idea. Suffering in itself can be really bad.

For better examples of the brief Q&A form, consult Time‘s weekly 10 Questions feature, Entertainment Weekly‘s 10 Stupid Questions (not available online from EW, sadly, but here’s a sample chat with actor David Morse) or even James Lipton’s widely lampooned delivery of the Bernard Pivot Questionnaire on Inside the Actor’s Studio.

And when reading Deborah Solomon hold forth on theology, it helps to remember that another of her questions once described Mary Magdalene as “Christ’s girlfriend.” Consider it the Jesus Christ Superstar Canon.

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  • melissa

    Karen Armstrong has described her religious beliefs as ‘free-lance monotheism.’

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/home1.html Dan Berger

    I have two reactions. One is to Deborah Solomon, who is simply being an ignorant jerk. The other is the fact that the blog entry mocks Karen Armstrong rather more strongly than is justified by the content of the interview.

    Granted, Armstrong’s thought is too often stuffed with clichés–who was it that said clichés become so because they contain important bits of truth? But in the interview, Ms. Armstrong comes off rather well compared to Ms. Solomon!

    (Yes, I know, that’s a bit like saying that the White Knight came off rather well compared to Tweedledum and Tweedledee.)

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    I certainly agree that Karen Armstrong comes off rather well compared to Ms. Solomon. She handled flippant, intrusive questions with grace. I do believe, however, that she’s too glib in characterizing what people expect in Heaven, or why they want to be there.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/home1.html Dan Berger

    “I believe that [Armstrong]‘s too glib in characterizing what people expect in Heaven, or why they want to be there.”

    Granted that her comment about an “afterlife” is not exactly orthodox–”afterlife” is such a pagan notion compared to the Resurrection!–”Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions” may perhaps capture what most people expect or desire after death. I am convinced that the majority of Americans, who say they believe in heaven, believe in something a lot more like Mark Twain’s vision (Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven) than like, say, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

  • http:titusonenine.classicalanglican.net Kendall Harmon

    The most alarming comment by Ms. Armstrong was about God.

    “It depends on what you mean by God. I believe in holiness and sacredness in other people. It doesn’t mean that the clouds part and I see God. That’s a juvenile way of thinking about it.”

    Talk about a rejection of the transcendent; she quickly changes the subject to people, and notice there is no reference to God as a person. This is the direction of much mainline religion in North America, alas.

  • http://catholicsensibility.blogspot.com Todd

    Peace, all.

    Hmm. Not looking for God in parting clouds sounds good enough to me. The transcendent doesn’t always have a physical manifestation. Unless you’re witnessing a live, un-cut interview, it’s hard to say for sure what the subject is saying. Pretty much the only thing you can rely on is that the interviewer got it the way she wanted to say it. I say cut Armstrong some slack.

  • http://www.unc.edu/~schaefer/ Earl Schaefer

    Karen Armstrong’s emphasis on compassion as a religious message echos the Sermon on the Mount and the Second Great Commandment. Yet in an anonymous internet survey on perceptions of God (www.unc.edu/~schaefer/), theists do not describe themselves as altruistic, merciful, forgiving, charitable, and accepting. Being religious–church member and attending services–is less related to altruism, mercy, forgiveness…than being spiritual, prayerful, and reverent. Yet self-identification as a theist, both religious and spiritual, is substantially correlated with hopefulness, trustfulness, and thankfulness in the uncertainties of life and death. If American religion emphasized love of neighbor as well as love of God, it would be more true to its origin.

  • Jared Hager

    I can really relate to Karen Armstrongs reasoning for leaving her convent. I, too, have decided to leave my puritanical hell-hole of a school to embrace what the secular world has to offer. Karen Armstrong seems to be brilliant and ahead of our time. She is just the kind of person that we needed to hear. We are expecting too much from God. After reading her book “A History of God,” I came to understand that we can’t personalize God to fit our own needs, which is what many people in America are doing today. Thus God “can hate what we hate and love what we love, becoming an advocate for our prejudice.” Perhaps Americans today should demand more of themselves than from other people and from God.


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