March 2016By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.
Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery. By Karen Armstrong. St. Martins Griffin. 304 pages. $15.99.
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. By Karen Armstrong. Anchor Books. 305 pages. $14.95.
The Bible: A Biography. By Karen Armstrong. Grove Press. 302 pages. $14.95.
The Case for God. By Karen Armstrong. Anchor Books. 432 pages. $16.95.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. By Karen Armstrong. Anchor Books. 240 pages. $14.
Former nun Karen Armstrong has, in recent years, become an international expert on world religions. Her writings have been translated into forty-five languages, and her 2009 Charter for Compassion, a document that urges the worlds religions to embrace the principle of compassion, has turned into a global movement, garnering over one hundred thousand signatures. In September 2009 The Wall Street Journal published her response, as well as that of Richard Dawkins, to the question, Where does evolution leave God? Dawkins, for once, was right about one thing: Although Karen Armstrong pretended to be speaking for religion, he concluded that she is as much an atheist as he is.
Armstrongs atheism antedates her Wall Street Journal article by more than fifty years. At 17 years of age, when she entered a Catholic convent in England, Armstrong was positive that the Church was wrong about the Resurrection. She was sure there had never been any such historical event even though St. Paul says that without it our faith is in vain. In The Spiral Staircase, her second autobiography (Through the Narrow Gate was her first), Armstrong says that during her first year in the convent she was assigned to write an essay on the historical evidence for the Resurrection. She calls the piece she composed an elaborate lie, one so perverse that it may have done real and lasting damage to her mind.
In her books The Bible and The Case for God she remains dogmatic on this point. She claims to hate certainty in religion, yet is quite certain that Christs divinity is a man-made myth. She asserts that only a few of His followers claimed to have had visions of the Galilean healer and exorcist after His death. Has she forgotten that St. Paul declared that five hundred persons saw the risen Lord with their own eyes, and that most of them were still alive at the time he was writing (1 Cor. 15:3-8)?
She tells us, In theology I am entirely self-taught, but somehow she speaks as if she were a doctor of divinity. Essentially, religion for her is about achieving ecstasy and compassion here and now, and she is proud of her program for achieving religious consciousness by hard work. Pelagian to the core, she announces, I should create my own theophanies, just as I cultivated an aesthetic sense.
During her first year in the convent, Armstrong started smelling sulfur and fainting in church. She also started seeing her fellow nuns as steely and cold, the mistress of novices as a great bat, and Christ crucified as impassive. Why did she stay in the convent for six more years? She does not explain. But since she chose to stay, why does she present herself as a victim in her autobiographies, claiming that her convent damaged her in body and mind?
It gets even more complicated. In The Spiral Staircase Armstrong describes herself as having playacted the part of a nun for seven years: I hugged to myself the shameful secret that unlike the other sisters, I could not pray and, we were told, without prayer our religious lives were a complete sham. This disgrace, she reports, spilled over into everything, poisoning each activity. She found herself allergic to God, unable to focus on Him even for two minutes. Her interior life was such as an atheist might have, with no hint of the supernatural. God was never a reality for me, she writes, never a genuine presence in my life as he was for the other sisters. She says she was proof against religion, closed to the divine in other words, an atheist in the habit of a nun.
Her dissimulation resulted in rising tension and anxiety, anger and irritation. While her parents invited her to return home, she resolved, for unknown reasons, to stay. Yet, as the years passed, she became anorexic, suffered nosebleeds, wept uncontrollably, convulsed more by anger than grief, vomited, and fainted. Finally, in 1968, she had a mental breakdown: What was that strange, keening scream that sounded like an animal caught in a trap?
In neither of her two autobiographies does Armstrong say that she ever prayed for the gift of faith. Instead, she tells us that, like the heroes of myth, she forced herself to go forward ruthlessly toward infinite horizons.
She recounts that in childhood she hit upon a magical way of leaving this frightening world behind by listening to music in a fetal position and rocking back and forth until she emptied her mind of everything but a heightened sense of things. Was she seeking this kind of ecstasy in convent life? She does not say. After losing the hope of discovering eternity, she decided that all we have is now. Four decades later, her ongoing denial of eternity is the premise of The Case for God, in which she explains that what religion amounts to is people having a potential for the divine and realizing it within themselves.
Armstrong left the convent, embraced the sexual revolution, and campaigned against curfews at Oxford University so that students could spend illicit nights together. While other ex-nuns married quickly, she laments that she was so emotionally impaired that she considered herself neither male nor female. She found that the more serious relationships she had with men were nasty, brutish, and not as short as they should have been, and she regarded male supervision and restraint as intolerable.
For three years she went to a psychiatrist because she still smelled sulfur, had recurrent fainting spells, and was gripped with the overwhelming fear of a demonic specter she saw out of the corner of her eye. Although she was sure she did not see Satan during these visitations, and that the evil she sensed was subjective, she took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1971. I had spent years now fighting with demons, she confesses, and the struggle had pushed me to an extreme. After her attempted suicide, she wrote Through the Narrow Gate, which the anti-Catholic British media embraced. The book led to a pilot for a BBC program called This Is My Body, in which Armstrong ridicules the Real Presence and the perpetual virginity of Mary. She says she felt elated afterwards because she had a lot of scores to settle with the church.
After this pilot, the BBC filmed a series designed to explode the Christian myth once and for all, with Armstrong as the chief weapon, a role she found cathartic.
At this time, just hearing the words God and Jesus filled her with something akin to nausea. After her stint with the BBC, she still smelled sulfur and had a seizure, and a doctor diagnosed her as epileptic and put her on medication. Convinced that her troubles had been of a materialist origin all along, she blamed her convent for not discovering this fact sooner: I should not have been abandoned for so long in the Boschlike hell, which has left me with an indelible memory of the darker regions of my mind.
Now, in her latest phase, the media has embraced Armstrong as an authority on world religions. Ironically, she sees religion merely as something to enhance life here and now. She offers us plain materialism cloaked in fake spirituality. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life she claims that bad behavior derives from our old reptilian brain. There is no hint here of free will. She claims that we can become sages if we follow her twelve steps, which require neither supernatural or creedal convictions nor prayer to God. In fact, she says of God that we should think of it as Nothing. (Yes, she uses the pronoun it for God.) Since we cannot see God clearly here and now, she says, it follows that there is Nothing out there. Is this not atheism?
In The Case for God she repeats (without providing names) that some of the best theologians some of the most eminent mystics [and] some of the greatest spiritual masters have taught the same thing she does. Hardly!
Among the major world religions, Armstrong treats only Christianity with ongoing contempt. She claims that the Virgin Birth was fabricated, that Christs miracles were commonplace, and that the early Christians did not have a simplistic notion of his corpse walking out of the tomb. When Christians see the Father as the end of their quest, she sneers, they are on a journey to no place, no thing, and no one, and when they say Christ is the Way to the unknowable Father, they are plunged into an obscurity that is a kind of death.
In Twelve Steps she tries to toss Christianity into the dustbin of history by asserting that its adherents are unable spiritually to go beyond Buddha and Confucius. In The Case for God she tries to cut Jesus down to human size by including Him in a list of exegetes with Hillel, Paul, Akiba, and Augustine, and in a list of icons of fulfilled humanity with Muhammad and Buddha. She compares the Trinity to a mandala, a Hindu religious symbol that represents the universe; she vehemently defends Arius, who denied Christs uncreated divinity; and she grieves that Athanasius managed to impose his views on the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
Considering all this, it is almost inconceivable that a Catholic journalist would praise a book by so profoundly anti-Christian a writer. Yet Ross Douthat, in his review for The New York Times, did just that, writing, The time is ripe for a book like Case for God, which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought.
At least Richard Dawkins is not bamboozled. He knows an atheist when he sees one. In Armstrongs 2009 Wall Street Journal article, she writes that evolution tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, that human beings are not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation, and that God had no direct hand in their making. She then argues fatuously that, until Newton, Christians regarded God as merely a symbol, but afterwards they started believing that God actually exists. Darwin finally came to the rescue and freed Christians to believe once again in a God who is only a symbol. In the same article she defines religion as an art form that leads people to the same kind of attitude of wonder that Dawkins experiences when he contemplates natural selection.
Dawkins, in his Wall Street Journal article, retorts that a religion like the one Armstrong expounds is pure atheism. The mainstream belief of the worlds peoples is very clear, he writes. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If anyone should tell the congregants in a church or a mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, Dawkins adds, they would brand that person as an atheist, and they would be right to do so. In a commentary on the two Wall Street Journal articles, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote, It was a debate between two different species of atheists, and Dawkins, the unbeliever in this exchange, understood God better than Armstrong.
Armstrongs Charter for Compassion is sheer utopianism, a pipe dream. Atheists have tried again and again since the eighteenth century to reform the world, but their godlessness is impotent.
DOSSIER: Wacky Theologians & Theological Wackiness