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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The sine qua non

It takes me forever to read a book. I get through about three or four a year. Holy moly, I just finished one. And it was worth lingering over. It was by the British religious writer Karen Armstrong, and it was entitled The Spiral Staircase. It tells of her time as a nun, her painful departure from that life and entry into the real world, and then her evolution as a theological thinker and historian. She keeps her current beliefs in the background, but after the book takes a turn to the present day, she provokes a lot of thought about religion and its role in our lives. No a bad theme for this season, actually:

But did that mean that we could think what we liked about God? No. Here again, the religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead direcrly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology. Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Muhammad, not to mention Confucius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads. In killing Muslims and Jews in the name of God, the Crusaders had simply projected their own fear and loathing onto a deity which they had created in their own image and likeness, thereby giving this hatred a seal of absolute approval. A personalized God can easily lead to this type of idolatry, which is why the more thoughtful Jews, Christians, and Muslims insisted that while you could begin by thinking of God as a person, God transcended personality as "he" went beyond all other human categories.
She's written quite a bit more, and I plan to find some of it. But at the rate I'm going, I'll have another Armstrong book report around Fourth of July.

Comments (4)

This past year, I read Armstrong's Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World.

An excellent read for those of the historical bent. Be ready to give up many of your preconcieved notions about the Crusades.

That's because you spend all your time blogging, Jack.

Karen Armstrong is indeed a treasure. I've read three of her books, including The Spiral Staircase, and I'm working on the fourth. I'm happy that you've discovered
her especially in time for the holidays.

Happy holidays, Jack.

I've got a friend who generally believes in the principles of limited government. He doesn't like taxes much, thinks the government is clumsy and overbearing, etc.

He'd be a Republican, except for this...

In his words, "The problem isn't that they speak to God. It's that they think God speaks back to them."

Armstrong's notion of a "personalized" God as being, well, the root of evil is right on.

I'm the same when it comes to books—no attention span. But for Christmas, Jack, I offer these two recommendations, which I think you'd like.

"The Power Broker" by Robert Caro
"The Tailor of Panama" by John Le Carre

Different genres, different themes, both right up your alley though.

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