Arguably the world’s greatest writer on comparative religion, Karen Armstrong OBE, talks to Oxford Today

Karen Armstrong

Arriving at Karen Armstrong’s (St Anne’s, 1967) Islington, North London home is disconcerting – it’s a superb late 18th century tall and narrow townhouse, but in a state of disarray owing entirely to a burst main care of Thames Water last winter. She explains that she got off lightly with seven inches of water on the ground floor, compared to catastrophic flooding in neighbouring properties. ‘The insurance people have been snails…Thames Water offered me alternative accommodation but I said no. I couldn’t work without my books.’

An hour later, after a lively chat, Armstrong shows me her writing room, two floors up, painted in a rich Mediterranean blue, not un-Catholic to my mind, while I spy her next manuscript-in-making, an A4 foolscap pad covered in neat, forward-slanting hand writing. She says, ‘the first draft is long-hand, the second gets typed into the computer…’ 

To any casual bystander, let alone other professional writers, this room would strike them as exceedingly tidy. It informs Armstrong’s love of a well-ordered sanctuary where she can think. At the end of her third memoir The Spiral Staircase, she notes how a cloistered life often leads to its opposite, and that she has been in constant demand for public duty since the fateful events of 9/11, when suddenly the West was confronted by radical Islam and didn’t know what to do.

One reason for our meeting is further evidence for her importance as a public intellectual – on October 21st she receives the Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences (including €50,000), attending a ceremony in Oviedo and meeting the King and Queen of Spain. This is merely one of a string of recognitions and engagements. Who else can say that they have addressed Congress on the subject of Islam?

She notes that crowds of people descended on Saint Antony, the 4th century ascetic who lived in the deserts of Egypt; ditto Thomas Merton, the twentieth century Trappist monk. The more you focus on being a hermit, the more it seems that people beat a path to your door. Admitting that she cannot isolate herself from the problems of the world, nonetheless she concludes, ‘I miss my study and silence as others might miss a beloved person.’ 

Almost inevitably, I have my cue to ask what Armstrong remembers of her time at Oxford, mindful as I am that it was far from plain sailing, so much so that I am honour-bound to say even now, almost exactly half a century since her matriculation to St Anne’s College to read English Literature in 1967, that we, meaning the University, are very grateful for the interview. 

But she laughs, and I am relieved. 

The story goes like this. She determinedly entered a convent age 17, brilliantly aced her entrance exams to Oxford and then took up her station at St Anne’s but as a nun based at Cherwell Edge on the elbow of South Parks Road, where it becomes St Cross Road. Without fully realizing it (but fully intuiting it, as she saw later), Armstrong was sitting atop an explosive combination of cultural and theological forces that were about to blow up.

She remembers how ludicrous many aspects of her training were. ‘I broke a sewing machine,’ she recalls gaily. ‘I was told to sit and practice sewing. I noted that there was no needle. ‘you’ll do it with or without a needle!’ I was told. But later, when I was observed doing this [‘sewing’ with no needle], I was screamed at for doing it without a needle.’ Her summary memory is also a judgment. ‘It wasn’t compassionate; it was cold.’

The incalculable value of a good education then swims into view. 

‘It was Oxford that did it,’ she says. ‘That broke me down. One of the things you weren’t meant to do much [in the convent] was think. I was being asked to criticise Milton and Shakespeare and then go back to this convent – I was being torn in two directions.

I was also completely unable to pray. We had to do a meditation every morning for an hour. It just did not work for me. I would say ‘I can’t do this,’ they would say ‘go away it’s normal’. Make the meditation then examine it over cornflakes. Asked to score how well I had done I’d zero it every time.’

Linacre College

Linacre2.jpg

Linacre College, formerly Cherwell Edge, St Cross Road (continues from South Parks Road)

Armstrong left the order in January 1969, without realizing that she stood at the head of a great exodus, a great dissolution of Catholic orders in the face of a world they couldn’t make sense of. Within a couple of years Cherwell Edge had closed down and the buildings incorporated into graduate-only Linacre College, founded a few years earlier in October 1962.

In the midst of this Armstrong was afflicted with temporal epilepsy, then undiagnosed, which added greatly to her misery. 

The DPhil (on Tennyson) that followed the BA was where Oxford lost its halo. Armstrong was failed by one of her examiners, recently at Oxford but by then at another university. Far from his familiarity with Oxford helping Armstrong, this examiner disliked, according to Armstrong, that her female supervisor Avril Bruton had a degree from Birmingham, and declaimed (one can imagine the setting on one of those parquet floors underneath a Cedar of Lebanon tree inside St Anne’s) that she was a ‘Clever young woman but not PHD material’.

Six months of silence followed before the University authorities sided with the examiner, Professor Dame Helen Gardner insisting that an injustice had been done but ‘the sanctity of the Oxford degree could not admit reexamination.‘ 

The matter is still a stain on the University’s reputation, but Armstrong insists that it was –unexpectedly and in the manner of these things- actually the making of her. ‘Instead of thinking up clever things to say at High Table, a weight was lifted and I focused on the books, on reading.’ This was at Bedford college, followed by a school teaching role that she did not much enjoy, but which allowed her to write her first memoir Through the Narrow Gate: A memoir of life in and out of the Convent. 

The acclaim from this memoir proved a springboard into TV, and Armstrong found herself making a TV series about Palestine, with an Israeli TV company in Jerusalem. This proved to be a light bulb moment, both about the role of religion and the secular state in these sorts of dispute. She recalls, ‘I became acquainted with Judaism and Islam – from a very narrow background. I began to find things in the Eastern religion that I related to. I also saw what Roman Catholicism had tried to do, but by now I had turned against Roman Catholicism.’ 

In particular, she became alert to the role of the West in making its own position more difficult through double-dealing and other forms of bad behavior. ‘Here we are giving millions in arms to these countries. We have a nefarious role in all this…’

Armstrong is not the slightest bit bowed by subjects that others would politely duck. In Fields of Blood, Religion and the History of Violence, she commences the chapter titled ‘Global Jihad’ by reminding us that one of the volunteers for the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a young Osama bin Laden. President Reagan thought it was a just and perfectly logical ‘holy war’ against the atheist Communists, and stumped up $600m to help bin Laden and his comrades, annually renewed and matched by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This ‘transformed the Afghan guerrilla forces into a military juggernaut…’ 

I suggest that one of her broader insights has been the silliness of critics who want to make fundamentalism a purely ‘religious’ or primarily ‘theological’ phenomenon. Agreeing, she notes ‘religion is certainly implicated but it has never been the sole cause, never the whole.’

Karen Armstrong at home

The exceedingly neat blue room

She says, ‘It’s our own separation of religion from other activities that has caused trouble – it’s respectable to die for the state, for instance.’ Where religion has felt itself threatened by the secular state, or modernity, it has tended to assert itself, defensively or existentially. It mimics the modern nation state by demanding unswerving loyalty and a willingness to die for an ideology. 

When I ask the cheaply journalistic question, how she’ll spend her €50,000 prize, the answer isn’t on a new car or basement dig-out in North London. ‘I have ear-marked some for Pakistan,’ she says. She explains that together with Amin Hashwani, who heads a powerful family and business empire, she helped to found the India-Pakistan Forum and a network of ‘schools of compassion’, to train the leaders of tomorrow. With 5,000 children enrolled currently, they want a million children in ten years. 

Armstrong was also the primary mover behind the 2009 Charter for Compassion (there’s a TED talk). It begins, The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Armstrong qualifies that ‘there’s an awful lot of slop goes on - if I have a nightmare it’s little groups forgiving themselves and polishing their souls – but not doing anything’! 

She even refers to the ‘morass of mindfulness,’ which is unexpected. When I ask her to clarify this comment she mentions a city event where she was expected to agree that the current trend for mindfulness is marvelous, and instead insisted that it’s much less important than actually doing something that increases compassion and its correlates. She exclaims by summary, ‘Buddhism is about realizing you don’t have a self!’ 

She notes that 60 cities have signed up to the Charter and she wants to link them, except that it’s difficult. She wanted Oman’s capital Muscat to be linked to Louisville in Kentucky. The Omanis were all for it but the Louisville mayor, who she imitates in a lovely southern drawl, said only, ‘I don’t see the return’.

Changing direction, I ask her what she would say about the Reformation celebrating 500 years on October 31st, 2017, the date when Martin Luther may (according to some accounts) have nailed his protest to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. She says that it was almost inevitable, rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as such. The Reformation was an ‘early modern religion.’ 

Raising this subject is also a chance to glimpse Armstrong’s next book, which is to be called ‘The Broken world of Scripture’ and which she notes she has to deliver to her publishers by April 2018. It will cover Chinese and Indian scriptures as well. ‘Sola Scriptura – I see a turning point. They [the Lutheran Reformers] said ‘only scripture’ but couldn’t agree what it said. What I don’t like about the Reformists is the vituperation. There have been others who have argued that Islam needs a Reformation. A reform of Islam? That’s the last thing we need!’

I ask Armstrong if she can pinpoint anything in her upbringing or character that can even begin to explain how she has accomplished so much scholarship, transmitted so accessibly to a mass, global audience across over forty languages. Her 1991 book Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet made her known as a thinker and researcher among the Muslim community – an extraordinary achievement for a former Catholic nun. 

With a great laugh she says only that people with her form of epilepsy – Russian novelist Dostoyevsky is marshalled as an example- ‘tend to write a lot, often not to any great effect, about religion and philosophy!’

Pictures by University of Oxford/Richard Lofthouse 

Biography

Karen Armstrong (1944-) entered the Catholic Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus in 1962 and, as a novice, began her studies at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She left the order in 1969, subsequently earning a degree in Contemporary Literature. From 1973 to 1976, she lectured and carried out research at Bedford College, University of London, and from 1976 to 1981 taught English and was head of department at James Allen Girls’ School (Dulwich, South London). She published her first book in 1982 and a year later wrote and presented a documentary series on the life of St Paul for Channel 4 television, followed by three more. Since 1984, she has devoted herself mainly to writing about religion. She has taught Christianity at Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical college in London. Since 2005, she has been a member of the High Level Group of The Alliance of Civilizations, a UN initiative.

Karen Armstrong is considered a leading international scholar in the comparative study of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Her first book was Through the Narrow Gate (1982), a memoir she continued in The Spiral Staircase (2004). The former was published in the Daily Express, at the same time as Armstrong began to appear on television programmes, one of which was Opinions on Channel Four, taking a polemic stand against the Catholic Church. In 1983, following the experience of her trip to Jerusalem to make the documentary about St Paul, she devoted herself completely to researching and studying religions, especially monotheistic religions. Her books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993) and The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000) became bestsellers. She has also authored 20 other titles on faith, the major religions, the common elements among them, and the role they play in the modern world. Also worth highlighting among her works, which have been translated to numerous languages, are Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (1988), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996), The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (2006) and The Bible: A Biography (2007).

Her studies and books on Islam –Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (1991) was the first– made her known as a thinker and researcher among the Muslim community of the United Kingdom and the United States, where, in addition to being invited to talk about Islam in Congress, some of her books have figured on The New York Times bestseller list. In her works, Armstrong has found compassion to be the common element to all religions, understood as empathy for and interest in one’s neighbour. In order to recover compassion as the core of ethics and religion, in 2009 she launched the Charter for Compassion movement, which became an international organization to promote joint efforts for peace.