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We have only one WORLD yet! If we destroy it, where else will we go?

Karen ARMSTRONG - Page: II
Religion in Our Time
Will Our Faith Help us to Unite or Will It Continue to Divide?

Text and Illustrations
by Julie MARDIN

To hear a scientist talking about the inadequacies of language to understand the new discoveries, one almost thinks one is listening to a religious sage talking of the impossibility of ever being able to grasp God.  In fact God has always been treated and described as a higher dimensional being, even before the scientific concept of higher dimensions was introduced.  A scientist may be able to describe higher dimensions or the nature of the subatomic world in mathematical terms, but when one tries to do so in ordinary language, through ordinary logic, one is stumped.  The same frustrations are true of the spiritual quest.  Religious approaches have often spoken about the transcendent in the negative, or used silence, poetry, or unanswerable riddles or koans, as a means to get beyond our human mind.  It seems as though science once again is beginning to take on the nature of the mystical experience, and that our spirituality once again might be strengthened rather than countered by science.  In any case, both endeavors do share certain qualities, as Ms. Armstrong points out.  They both involve a leap of faith, a creative act of imagination, to envision something that is not there.  And this might be an appropriate way to describe all vocations.  If we take a step back, maybe we can see that all paths are part of the same human quest to get some kind of divine or transcendent understanding of our existence.

"Atheism has often been a transitional state: thus Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called "atheists" by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence.  Is modern atheism a similar denial of "god" which is no longer adequate to the problems of our time?" (5)

Ms. Armstrong points out that all the great confessional faiths, the idea of "God," as well as the philosophical rationalism in Greece, were a product of the city and of the market place.  They developed in a time of growing economic activity and a spirit of aggressive capitalism, as a counter to the loss of the earlier communal values, as in Islam, and because of the growing consciousness of problems of social inequity.  One cannot help but question, now that we are in this globalized, ever-expanding marketplace, are we in need of some new outlook, a more expansive vision, in order to balance what seems to be an ever-growing self-interest?  We are so busy struggling to get ahead, or simply to make ends meet, we cannot see beyond our own concern for our pocketbook at the gas pump, at the supermarket, or in the clothing store.  Since the Industrial Revolution the nature of our work has become one of increasing specialization, which leaves us with even less a sense of the overall picture, and of the ultimate interconnectedness of things. 

Furthermore it seems so much of our scientific resources and research goes into how to make a profit, rather than to find what will be of most benefit for the overall good.  How to make a seed that will not regenerate, or how to build more and more effective weapons of destruction.  The government, and consumers as well, dismiss industries that do not appear profitable, or thrifty enough, but which would have obvious long-term benefit, such as alternative, sustainable forms of energy.  It seems our spirituality, or our sense of morality, is in dire need of catching up with our scientific progress.

"Fundamentalism exists in a symbiotic relationship with a coercive secularism." (6)

Fundamentalism, though claiming to be about a return to the old ways, is in actuality a purely modern phenomenon, modernity's dark side, as Ms. Armstrong calls it, which exists within all the world religions.  Ms. Armstrong is careful to state that fundamentalism is not simply a way for using religion for political ends.  A purely political historian might give more weight to this aspect of its existence, but she stresses that these are a genuine reaction to the exclusion of the divine from secularist public life, and frequently a desperate attempt to reintroduce spirituality into the modern world.  In the case of Islam, up until the 1920s she says there had been a real enthusiasm for Western culture, but by the 1930s, this began to sour as they saw Britain and France setting up protectorates, and the dismissive manner in which they treated the native populations.  The rushed and superficial attempt to catch up with the West left their countries divided between an elite and the vast majority who had no understanding of the changes that were quickly making their society unrecognizable.  She also cites the 1967 war as a major turning point, where there was a major disillusionment with Nasser and his secular policies, and a growth in fundamentalism on all sides. 

In an interview that aired on public radio's "Fresh Air," Ms. Armstrong rather chillingly expresses her puzzlement over the reports on the terrorists involved in 9/11, that one of the pilots had been known to be a frequenter of nightclubs, and Muhammed Ata was drinking vodka before he got on the plane.  This was quite unlike any of the classic fundamentalists she had ever known.  She comments that all fundamentalism is getting more extreme and wonders whether we haven't entered a post-fundamentalism, into a sort of nihilism, or an antinomian phase.  She says there have been various moments throughout history, when people are feeling extremely desperate, that this religious extremism can tip over into nihilism, where all law, even your own sacred one, is trampled on in your desire to get to the next phase. (7)

Ms. Armstrong offers no conclusion, but just wishes to state her deep puzzlement.  In her articles she cites the urgent need for the Muslim people to reclaim their religion from those who have hijacked it, as well as for those in the more developed countries not to isolate themselves, but to inform themselves as much as they can of the conditions in other parts of the world.  What she seems to be saying is that the qualities that have over the years defined religion at its best are as vitally important today: compassion, curiosity, and imagination.

"In all cultures, human beings have been driven by the same imperatives: to be intelligent, responsible, reasonable, loving and, if necessary, to change.  The very nature of humanity, therefore, demands that we transcend ourselves and our current perceptions, and this principle indicates the presence of what has been called the divine in the very nature of serious human inquiry." --on the thinking of Bernard Lonergan(8)

After 9/11, not surprisingly, there has been an increase in church attendance in America and a further interest in spirituality.  Like most secular people, I have grown to be suspicious of any kind of organized religion.  Ms. Armstrong also talks of the outdatedness of so many of our notions of God, and of that God-shaped hole in our consciousness that Sartre had described, yet she says people have always come up with new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality.  And it seems important that we continue to do so, to create a new faith in "God" or anything else --it matters little what-- she says. These would be provisional Gods, which can be discarded, or transcended, as they are outgrown, as in Buddhism or Hinduism, but it seems important that we keep creating these ideals to function as a kind of lodestar for our efforts, and it seems perfectly fine to allow ourselves to be conscious of our role as their creator.  She does suggest the God of the Mystics as a viable alternative, which had never got off to much of a start in the West.  This God is "one that is approached through the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form, akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life."  Like all art, however, she says, "mysticism requires intelligence, discipline and self-criticism as a safeguard against indulgent emotionalism and projection."(9)  The God of Rationality has been able to accomplish great things, but perhaps it's time, in fact there seems to be a definite need, that we try to regain some of the old balance in order to get to the next level.

"Today many people in the West would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination.  Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.  Human beings are the only animals who have the capacity to envisage something that is not present or something that does not yet exist but which is merely possible.  The imagination has thus been the cause for major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion.  The idea of God, however it is defined, is perhaps the prime example of an absent reality which, despite its inbuilt problems, has continued to inspire men and women for thousands of years.  As in art, the most effective religious symbols are those informed by an intelligent knowledge and understanding of the human condition." (10)

Ms. Armstrong says that the scientific world might challenge the traditional religious to reinterpret their scriptures in a symbolic rather than a literal way. If this were to take place, perhaps we could perceive even more clearly the similarities between all the different spiritual paths that people have taken, and the unifying principles underlying all of them. Genuine moments of enlightenment seem to be characterized by a sense of the ultimate interconnectedness of all things, a coming together of opposites. And this level of consciousness seems to lead naturally to compassion and the spirit of collaboration, which is so crucial now that we have entered the nuclear age, and are faced everyday with what seem more and more insurmountable problems.

Imagination is vital for us to create our ideals, just as it is to see the connections between what might otherwise appear irreconcilable goals or cultures, and to find compassionate and completely new solutions to the daunting problems we face. While mystics and the Greek rationalists would typically consider politics and current events as unworthy of their speculation, as they were part of the constantly changing ordinary world, this inner journey which they prescribed must inevitably have an effect on the world at large. Will our faith help us to unite or will it continue to divide? More and more this seems to be a question that has to at some level be answered within each one of us alone, and depends on how well we can nourish the faculties of curiosity, compassion and imagination.

But it also becomes evident from reading Ms. Armstrong's work that the progress of human thought is an incredibly intricate collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas and efforts throughout the millennia and across geographical locations and intellectual disciplines. If we are to fashion a vibrant new faith for the 21st century, she says, perhaps we should look to our past for some valuable lessons and warnings. Thankfully we have someone like Karen Armstrong to help us make sense of our rich and diverse heritage.


1. Through the Narrow Gate, Karen Armstrong, St. Martin's
Press, New York:1981, pg. 144
2. From an interview on The Atlantic Online,
3. The History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism,
Christianity and Islam, Karen Armstrong, Ballantine
Books, New York: 1994, pg. 46
4. Ibid., pg 211.
5. Ibid., pg. xxi.
6. Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong, Random House,
New York: 2000, pg. 166.
7. From an interview on Fresh Air, National Public Radio
8. A History of God, pg. 385.
9. Ibid., pg. 396.
10. Ibid., pg. 233.

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