One bright spring day, Parabola met with Karen Armstrong in her suite at the Parker Meridian hotel in Manhattan. The petite, friendly 62-year-old British ex-nun, arguably the most influential commentator on religion in the English-speaking world, was on tour to promote her latest bestselling book. Lauded by critics as “magisterial” and “magnificent,” The Great Transformation chronicles the vast movements of history that comprise what philosopher Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age, the period between 900 to 200 B.C.E. when most of the great religions in humanity either came into being or grew their roots. Armstrong traces the arising of Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India; Monotheism in Israel, and the flowering of Philosophical Rationalism in Greece. She tracks this huge swath of history with verve and lucidity, noting that each of these very different traditions arose during periods of political disruption, religious intolerance, and violence.
Armstrong came to international prominence in 1993 with the publication of The History of God, a searching and profound history of the rise of the three major monotheistic faiths. The one-time Roman Catholic nun wrote of the evolution of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in a way the earned her a reputation as a practitioner of “negative capability”—she is at once an iconoclast and a bridge builder between traditions. Her latest book expands and illuminates her message about the dangers of emphasizing an adherence to religious doctrine over the practice of compassion—which she presents as the most profound discovery of the Axial Age sages and the fundamental teaching of all true religions. Armstrong is an inspiring example of one who uses study—and bracingly independent critical thinking–as a way to draw closer to God.
Parabola: Can you describe the Axial Age and the light it might shed on the difference between thinking and knowing? I realize I’m asking you to traffic in huge generalities here, but it seems to be a pivotal distinction.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: You were supposed to get underneath thinking. In India in particular, the concern was that thinking as well as feeling were not what constituted the deepest self of the human being, that it was something other. This didn’t mean that they weren’t interested in being intelligent and rigorous and analytical, but the goal was to go beyond thought. People in the Axial Age were reaching out for an ultimate reality—and it could be called Brahman or God or Nirvana or the Tao—that couldn’t be encapsulated in human thought and language.
P: Why can’t it be encapsulated?
KA: Because human beings experience transcendence. We have ideas and experiences that go beyond our conceptual grasp.
P: Does rational thought blind people to the elusive aspects of our experience?
KA: No. We need rational thought. Plato described the two different ways of approaching truth as mythos and logos. Mythos is a more silent, intuitive way of looking at reality and logos is more of a scientific, discursive, logical way, and we need both. We’ve always needed logistic thought, if only to sharpen an arrow correctly.
P: But we need mythos as well.
KA: Yes. When a child dies, we want a scientific explanation but that’s not all we need. We need some kind of different kind of thinking that helps us deal with the turbulence of our inner world at such a time. Myth is an early form of psychology. There are all these stories about gods going down into the underworld to slaughter demons. We all have to learn how to negotiate our unconscious worlds. We have to go into the labyrinth of our own selves and fight our own monsters. We’ve always been aware that there are two ways of approaching truth, one through reason and science and the other through an intuitive knowing. The word mythos comes from the Greek word which means to close the mouth or close the eyes. Mystery and mysticism come from the same root. So they are associated with a sense of darkness, with going into a realm where you don’t see very clearly, where things are more obscure and will remain obscure. It is also a realm of silence rather than wordy thought. We approach this kind of knowing in art. At the end of a great symphony or when you’ve listened to a great poem there’s often nothing to say. You’re being pushed beyond rational thoughts and distinctions into a silent intuitive space.
P: What is the proper role of thought in religious search?
KA: Well, thinking can only take you so far. Action, behavior, especially compassionate behavior, is more important than thinking. By constantly exercising compassion, the golden rule, you enter a different state of consciousness. This rather than thinking will get you to enlightenment.
P: It’s amazing that all the religious movements came to that same conclusion. But can it be that simple?
KA: Yes. The Buddha said compassion can bring you the release of the mind. This is a synonym in the early Buddhist scriptures for the ultimate enlightenment of nirvana. The New Testament is full of the same wisdom. Charity and loving kindness bring you into the presence of God, not thinking things. In the Western Christian world we’ve come to place too much emphasis on thinking certain beliefs. What the sages in the Axial Age were discovering was second order thinking, where you watch the mind thinking. Socrates, for example could make you realize that you don’t know what you think you know. He demonstrated that thought can do a whole lot of things but that it always finishes with unknowing. Socrates could take a person through a series of questions until he realizes that he hasn’t a clue what, say, courage is, even though he’s been on the battlefield. Often the people who came to Socrates–as far as we can tell from Plato’s accounts–thought they knew their minds. After ten minutes with Socrates they realized they didn’t know anything. In the Axial Age people were testing the limits of what thought can do. It can take us a long way but we keep bumping up against an unknowing. Socrates said that is where you really begin your quest, when you realize you know nothing.
P: You’re talking about a very fertile kind of not knowing, not just obliviousness, not just stone ignorance.
KA: Yes, and it’s a humbling thing. Instead of being full of ourselves, we begin to realize that the world is deeply mysterious and elusive. We realize that we haven’t got the tight grasp on reality that we think.
P: In this book and in all your writing you make a distinction between belief and this more fertile state.
KA: We’ve made a fetish of belief in the Western Christian world, so that we call religious people “believers,” as though accepting certain doctrines is the main thing they do. But this is very eccentric.
P: And dangerous, as you’ve pointed out in your writings, about the way fundamentalism leads to violence.
KA: And dangerous. As the Taoists said way back in the Axial Age, to expect certainty from religion is immature and unrealistic. It was a sign of an undeveloped spirituality, a childish viewpoint. There is no certainty. The Taoists found a great freedom in not being certain about things. They didn’t have to pompously declaim facts and doctrines and truths. Keats spoke of “negative capability,” when the mind is capable of resting in doubts and uncertainty without any irritable straining after facts and reason. It’s quite a trick of the mind to allow yourself to be in that fertile state of unknowing, to just let yourself stay in the darkness.
P: We’re in a frightening place in world history. Your predictions about religious war have come true, and our whole environment is in a perilous shape. From your study of the origin of the great religious traditions, what really matters?
KA: The exercise of compassion is what matters in our world. The Dalai Lama says “my religion is kindness.” Confucious said “religion is altruism” – dethroning yourself from the center of your world and putting another there. Now this requires intelligent thought. You really have to think and practice the golden rule about what the other person really wants rather than what you think he ought to want. When we speak to people we should behave as Buddha or Socrates did. Address them where they really are and not where we think they should be. We have to put ourselves in the place of another, and we have to be able to do this globally.
P: This state of compassion, of engagement, does take thinking.
KA: It does. It takes constant, flexible intelligence. Each case will be different so principles are really not the point. You have to be flexible to respond to each situation that arises especially in a time where everything is changing so fast. We have to investigate. We have to find out more about the world. I’ve had some extraordinary conversations with highly educated Americans who have asked me where the Palestinians have come from, as if they marauded in off the desert. I’ve had to explain Palestine. There is so much ignorance. All the great sages have said that we must see things as they really are. Don’t bury your head in the sand and say that environmental catastrophe isn’t going to happen, for example. In the Axial Age, the prophets of Israel called those positive thinkers who thought that Jerusalem was not going to fall because God was with them “false prophets.” You cannot achieve enlightenment that way. It takes information gathering and that does not mean being content what the little scraps of sound bytes that are handed out by politicians or Fox News.
P: Often, in our culture, people treat yoga and meditation like a kind of spa treatment. Our practice of the precepts doesn’t keep pace with our practice of various techniques.
KA: Absolutely. I saw a place in Toronto called the yoga lounge, next to a nail parlor. You could do a little yoga or meditation and hop in to have your nails done. This is not what yoga is. In the Axial Age, it was based on a five-point moral program. At the top of the list was ahimsa or nonviolence. This did not only mean that you couldn’t kill or maim somebody but that you weren’t to say a cross word or make an impatient gesture or swat an insect. Until your guru was satisfied that this was second nature to you, you couldn’t begin to sit in the yogic position. What religious knowledge was about was not just thinking but behaving. Living a self-effacing, nonviolent life style was just as important as your mastery of sacred texts.
P: In your book you describe an evolution from external blood sacrifice to internal sacrifice–and in the case of Buddhism, to sacrifice of the concept of self. Yet when I think of living this way, completely open, defenseless, radically honest, it’s as if certain primal emotions come alive. The ego doesn’t want to be sacrificed, to be killed.
KA: Yes, but when you’ve mastered this way of life you start to experience incredible joy because you’re training yourself to go beyond the frightened ego, who often needs to destroy other people and bolster itself up. If you let that go, a lot of your fear goes down. We are programmed to defend ourselves, but if we take ourselves out of that mind state, if we start divesting ourselves of ego, we enter a different state of consciousness.
P: What came through your book is the emergence of another way of thinking—with conscience. You cover huge swaths of history in detail. Yet, there’s a beautiful base note of compassion. It comes through as the last word, the ultimate religious act.
KA: The point is that there was no collusion. This is the conclusion reached by these spiritual geniuses who worked as hard at finding a cure for the spiritual ills of society as we are working to find a cure for cancer. This is the conclusion they came to. Not because it sounded nice but because they found it worked. The Buddha always said, “Test my teaching against your experience.” They found that if you did live in this way you experience an enhancement of being. The Chinese Confucians spoke of human heartedness, of becoming more humane.
P: Axial sages thought the heart and mind should work as one.
P: So what happened? How did these wonderful insights of the Axial Age harden into rigid principles and hierarchy?
KA: Well of course not many people actually want to be transformed. They don’t want to lose themselves. Most people expect from religion a little moral uplift once a week.
P: We live in the place and the age when religion has become another consumer item or service.
KA: Yes, it is a commodity. People say wouldn’t it be great if there was another Buddha. But I’m not sure such a great sage could manage today. The media and the exposure could easily destroy them, encouraging narcissism, for example.
P: How do we find our way out of this trap of spiritual materialism? Can we think our way out?
KA: Basically, I don’t think we need any great figure to come along. We know what to do. The golden rule, that’s all it is. All the traditions teach the same. Instead of waiting for some lead, just go on, just start practicing. And perhaps start demanding it from our politicians and religious leaders, too.
P: That is a radical suggestion.
KA: But everybody knows about the golden rule or compassion. “I may have faith that moves mountains,” says St. Paul. “But if I lack charity it’s worth nothing at all.” And then there’s imagination, which is the ability to think yourself into the position of another.
P: We tend to minimize imagination, as if it has to do with fantasy, distraction.
KA: I think it is the religious faculty. The religious imagination is endlessly trying to envisage the eternally absent God, that which always eludes us. I think it’s the moral faculty too, because you have to use it to think yourself into the position of the other.
P: What you’re saying is extraordinary because there is such a strong tendency to go on facts, to stick to life as it is, and yet we really can’t.
KA: We can’t because this is part of the way our minds go. We keep bumping up against mystery. There’s great enlightenment to be had by accepting that, and if everybody did it the world would be a much better place.♦
From Parabola, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 2006: Thinking. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.