Mar 30, 2012

Karen Armstrong on Religion as Unknowing

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

In this wonderful lecture, Karen Armstrong tackles the big questions and determines that there are no answers -- not if you're doing it right. As I wrote yesterday, embracing unknowing is a key to dismantling oppressive hierarchy and abuses of power. And willingness to embrace mystery is the pathway to God.

What is God? The former nun recalls the answer she learnt in catechism: "God is the supreme spirit who alone exists of himself and is infinite in all perfections." That answer, while far too heady for an eight year old, is still too limiting to be meaningful. Instead Armstrong turns to the teachings of Maimonides, Avicenna, and Thomas Aquinas whose thoughts on the matter she paraphrases.

God is not the supreme spirit. God is not the supreme being. God is not a being at all. God is being itself.

What is religion? Again, there is no simple answer according to Armstrong. Religious experience shouldn't be definable. It should defy explanation.

In the pre-modern world, good theology was meant to tip you into a moment of transcendence and silence where you realized that you'd gone beyond the reach of words and concepts. Because our minds are tuned to transcendence.

In the modern world, she argues, we've turned religion into a "head trip" rather than the experience of living myth and mystery. Scripture can't be read as literal truth. But myth does not mean falsehood. It is, she says, "more than history." When we enact myth in ritual and ceremony we internalize the power of those myths and are fundamentally changed by them.

Armstrong's lecture was part of a program on the compassion initiative she spearheaded in 2009. I'll be the first to admit that I when I first learned of the Charter for Compassion I thought the idea might be too abstract to have any practical impact. But according to Armstrong the project has exceeded expectations in numerous arenas around the globe.

One of my personal favorites is the prison reform project that trains prison officers to treat inmates with more respect and care. When it was put into practice in a jail in Washington State, the goal was to decrease violence by 2.5 percent; in fact the project was so successful that violence was decreased by 100 percent. Now the creators are evaluating just what the federal government could save by implementing this program across the United States. Additionally, Louisville Kentucky and Berkeley California are just two of the cities exploring restorative justice programs as part of their cities' compassionate programs.

Among our partners are both scientific and medical researchers. Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is conducting research into mapping compassion in the brain and developing compassion training programs; for adults. In Holland, an impassioned group of medical students have written a charter focused on medical ethics and compassion in healthcare. They are working to make compassion training a required part of the medical school curriculum.

We are connected by the Internet in a fashion as never before. To take advantage of that opportunity we have launched a new website. It will provide practical tools and a meeting place for people from all over the world who are interested in creating and sustaining a more compassionate world. If we all became active upholders of the Golden Rule in our daily lives, in our political lives, in our cities, we could combat the voices the extremisms and hatred that are tearing us apart and endangering us all. We could create a better, more just, more respectful society and world. We can do it and we must do it.

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