Confucianism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism—the world’s scriptural belief systems take many different forms but all tend toward ‘kenosis’—self-transcendence for the benefit of others. And all have been used and abused for less spiritual ends. Former nun and renowned theologian Karen Armstrong on the lost art of scripture.
I’ve spent more of my life than most people I know immersed by choice in what my guest today would call “scripture”. I was never much of a Roman Catholic, in spite of being dragged weekly to church until I was about 13 and could no longer be dragged, and, in my boredom, sometimes believing I saw the statue of Jesus moving on the cross. But in late adulthood, the need for spiritual meaning gripped me tight and wouldn’t let go. It led first into Judaism and Jerusalem, and then, for the past couple decades, mostly to Buddhist study and practice.
But I’m as troubled as all the Enlightenment thinkers I know by scripture-thumping orthodoxy and intolerance of any kind. Troubled watching my wife Demet’s country, Turkey, split between retrograde, homophobic and misogynistic Islamism on the one hand and intractable secular nationalism on the other. Moses and I don’t have much in common, but like him, I get tongue-tied talking about these things. Religious, or spiritual, or scriptural ideas and practices can be so essential and become so problematic at the same time.
My guest today is Karen Armstrong. On these subjects, she doesn’t get tongue-tied. She’s one of the clearest and most nuanced thinkers I know of on god, religion, and scripture. Author of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE and THE CASE FOR GOD, recipient of the TED Prize, and a co-creator of the interfaith Charter for Compassion. Her new book is called THE LOST ART OF SCRIPTURE and I’m so happy it brings her to Think Again.