by Richard Holloway
The Observer, Sunday 19, December 2010
It feels irreverent, if not actually blasphemous, to question a work by Karen Armstrong. Since her book A History of God was published in 1993, she has established herself as a historian of religion of magisterial authority. A one-woman industry on the subject, she has produced a string of texts that have been marked not only by their depth of research and understanding, but by their wisdom and sanity.
This has been particularly important at a time when religious warfare has broken out with all the old bitterness but is being waged with new and more destructive weapons. She has positioned herself as an independent mediator who interprets religion with considerable intelligence to its cultured despisers, while at the same time taking on religion’s angry warriors, who often appear to be ignorant of the theological subtleties of the faiths they claim to be championing.
If we can talk about an Armstrong project, there seem to be two main planks in its platform, both of them built solidly into her new book. The first is her concept of mythos as opposed to logos as the language of religion. Logos is factual, scientific knowledge, whereas mythos is “an attempt to express some of the more elusive aspects of life that cannot easily be expressed in logical, discursive speech”. For instance, she discusses the Greek myth of Demeter, goddess of harvest and grain, and her daughter, Persephone. She says that to ask the Greeks whether there was any historical basis to the myth would be obtuse. The evidence for the truth of the myth was the way the world came to birth in the spring after the death of winter. I agree that the Demeter story is a proper myth, one that uses narrative to express a timeless truth.
The same would be true of the myth of the Garden of Eden, a story not about an aboriginal couple who pinched an apple, but about the enduring existence of human discontent. Any intelligent reader gets a myth, the way they get a Steve Bell cartoon in the Guardian.
But what about the resurrection? Christians think that this is not a myth in the Armstrong sense of a timeless truth encapsulated in a story, but is an actual event – Jesus got up and got out of the tomb – one of whose purposes is to assure us of our own life after death. Whatever you make of the Christian claim, it resists any attempt to turn the resurrection into a myth in the sense of that word as used by Armstrong. I think it’s a myth in the way she describes, but the church does not.
This is why I think Armstrong’s myth project has about it a whiff of the disingenuous. It is the way she and I and many others hold on to the great scriptural tropes, but it is not how the church’s official teachers hold them: the Pope, for example, would clearly dismiss it as an error or a heresy. I don’t fault her for holding out this lifeline for people who want to hold on to Christianity without buying its awkward supernatural claims, but it is not how the church understands things.
The second plank in her platform is that compassion is, as it were, the distilled essence of the world’s great religions. She is an immensely compassionate human being and has recently initiated a charter for compassion in order, as she puts it in the preface to this book, to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life … At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that … on this we are all in agreement …”. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is both a manifesto and a self-help manual. As a manifesto, it promotes her campaign to place compassion at the heart of religion; as a manual modelled on the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers exercises aimed at increasing our own compassion. It would make a brilliant guide for leaders of retreats and workshops on the compassionate life, and as a repository of digested wisdom from the world’s religions I cannot recommend it too highly.
But is she correct in suggesting that, au fond, the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion? It is probably correct where Buddhism is concerned and it is from Buddhism that her best insights and examples come. I think she is on shakier ground when she applies it to Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.
This radically compromises the purity of their compassion agenda. Let me offer one example to prove my point. At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.
I can think of other examples from other moral spheres where an attempt to act compassionately towards certain categories of sufferers runs counter to Christianity’s doctrinal certainties. The point at issue here is whether Christianity, as it presently understands itself, is a religion whose central value is compassion. If the answer is yes, it can only be what we might describe as eschatological compassion, because the church’s doctrinal certainties and their corresponding prohibitions do not feel like compassion to those who are on their receiving end down here. They say justice delayed is justice denied. The same must be true of compassion.
Richard Holloway was bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000 and is the author of Between the Monster and the Saint (Canongate)