Karen Armstrong takes an active approach to Scripture I see Scripture more as an activity than a text, says Karen Armstrong, the foremost historian of religion in our time, whose new book The Bible: A Biography is being published this month. It’s a bit like using weights in the gym to enhance your physique. You work with Scripture to enhance your spirit. This vision of how to read the Bible how to activate Scripture in our lives exemplifies the dynamic character of Armstrong’s work as a whole, which ranges across the entire world of comparative religion. Armstrong spoke with BookPage from her London home, frankly acknowledging her urgent sense of purpose in composing this richly interwoven and often surprising history of Biblical interpretation for the Atlantic Monthly Press series, Books That Changed the World.
Scripture is now being used not just by Jews and Christians, but by many others in a very unhelpful spirit, a belligerent spirit, Armstrong says. There’s a growing dogmatism in our world: One must be right at all costs. Each party believes that it alone has the truth, often citing religious truths’ as an archetype for absolute, diehard certainty. All of this is pure misreading, Armstrong explains, and a breach of faith with the long life of biblical interpretation (i.e., its biography). Not until the modern period did people start looking at Scripture in a literal-minded way. People had been originally far more inventive with the truth. The Bible was not meant to endorse your prejudices but to lead you out of them to something greater. Among the historical strands of ingenious biblical interpretation, Armstrong is particularly keen to celebrate the interpretive inventiveness of the rabbis and the church fathers. The rabbis have a great deal to tell us about the importance of truth, but not in any literal sense. They make the Bible speak to our condition, always stressing the primacy of charity, compassion, loving-kindness. Rabbi Akiva says that love of neighbor is the only principle of Torah. Similarly, Augustine, the founder of Western Christianity, says that religion teaches nothing but charity. Armstrong swiftly turns to the potential usefulness of these ancient insights for us, here and now. This effort of finding charity in the Biblical text is a training for us to find a charitable interpretation of events in our own world, she says. But in order to grasp this radical rabbinical and Augustinian outlook, we must relinquish our misguided and historically aberrant preoccupation with the Bible as a record of actual events.
I don’t think the Bible is writing history in the modern sense. Once you examine the history of Palestine in the 18th century B.C.
E., for instance, Abraham becomes an impossibility. The archaeologists have found nothing to support the biblical narrative. In a way, that’s reassuring, because it’s wonderful to think that those horrible massacres described in the book of Joshua probably never happened. For Armstrong, the Bible gives us something much more far-reaching than historical fact, which it was never meant to provide. She reflects generously on what it has given her: Here I am in my study, day by day, hour by hour, immersing myself in these great texts and being inspired and nourished by them all. I see my study as a form of prayer and contemplation. I write about that in the last chapter of my memoir, The Spiral Staircase. It’s part of a quest for me, a quest for spiritual rehabilitation. You can see me, if you like, as spiritually convalescent after a bad experience in my youth, and these texts are healing me. Furthermore, I would say, very strongly, that studying these other traditions Judaism, Islam and more recently those of China and India, has helped me to see my own original Christian tradition in a fuller light. This global perspective serves as the foundation for Armstrong’s previous book, The Great Transformation, a vast and thrilling account of the spiritual breakthroughs which took place concurrently and independently in Greece, Israel, India and China two-and-a-half millennia ago. This is a great spiritual opportunity for us, unparalleled in previous world history, because we now have the linguistic and communicative skills to find out the great similarity that lies at the heart of all these major traditions. And we have the ability to learn from each other, Armstrong says. All of these traditions have their own particular and distinctive genius, and all of them have their own peculiar failings or limitations. We can learn from other people how to do things better. For example, we can learn from the Buddhists, from their reticence about describing the Ultimate. Too often, we in the West degrade God to the status of idol made in our own image and likeness. When asked about certain characterizations of her work from the religious right as being anti-traditional, she strongly demurs. I’m not trying to undermine anybody’s commitment to their own tradition. In our global world, it is imperative that we learn to live together, to learn about the highest and deepest aspirations of our neighbors in our drastically shrunk world. Comparative religion can really help us in that. Other people may express these truths differently, but they have so much in common with us. With characteristic clarity and drama, Armstrong closes the interview with an anecdote. I was with the Dalai Lama two years ago on September 11, moderating an interfaith session he was giving on that day. He told a young girl who had converted from Christianity to Buddhism that there was no need for her to have done so. You needn’t have bothered to convert, he said, because all religions teach the same thing. They all teach compassion. And so you learn that your own faith isn’t a lonely little idiosyncratic quest for truth, but part of a giant quest for meaning, part of who we are as human beings. Michael Alec Rose is composer and a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.