Saw Karen Armstrong speak at the Royal Institution last night at an event organised by Intelligence Squared and hosted by BBC Radio journalist & presenter Tom Sutcliffe.
It’s a “book tour” speaking and signing in support of her Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, and the formal part of the evening was in 3 parts. Roughly a 20 minute talk, a 30 minute interview and about 30 minutes of Q&A. Clearly Karen has done plenty of speaking on her topic recently, and in fact it was Tom Sutcliffe who hosted Start The Week this Monday on BBC R4 with Karen as the main guest. There were a couple of occasions when both speaker and host had to apologise for “stop me if I’ve said this already”.
In her opening talk, 20 minutes on her latest 600 page tome (25% of which is notes, bibliography and index), she clearly needed to be selective and I believe she chose to go deliberately off-script to talk in immediate terms of the current ISIL situation. Sadly I felt this was a little incoherent, too much easy conflation of ISIL with Islam and Muslim males with the idea that “men are from Mars” generally. A little like the Quilliam Foundation, the main message is that radicalisation arises from dissatisfaction, boredom, frustration and humiliation wherever “my people suffer”, whether the “other” is sectarian, ethnic, national or simply imperial oppression. Her main point being that this was pretty much true of historical conflict generally. Her other historical point is that religion as we now know it, the kind we (including she) would like to keep separate from the politics of states, is a recent, post-early-modern, understanding that would simply not be recognised by the ancients. Then religion was simply the belief system embodied in the actions of everyday life, not a thing or “it” to be viewed objectively separate from “us”. Suffering, and the compassionate personal human reaction to it, is of course a feature emphasised by the main religions.
In putting questions to her of the kind, “but you would agree that … , you even say in your book that …” Tom actually struggled to get Karen to concede any point he put to her – perhaps familiarity had bred contempt? But gradually, the flow of her arguments became clearer, and fortunately that positive trajectory continued through the Q&A. None of the questions proved a problem to her, and in pretty much all cases she agreed with the rhetorical points being made, even by the pointedly atheist / anti-religionist questioners. For example, sure, belief in “a god” is not very important to religion, the idea is really just a placeholder for the idea of good in the individual human. Much of the problem in the violent and aggressive frustration in how to respond to perceived suffering, was the ego’s focus on being “right” and rationalisations religious or otherwise to support that, rather the person’s focus on active “good”.
It was, she said, important to understand the value of mythology and the non-literal narratives of the scriptures. Previously they would never have been read by individuals, but told and interpreted as part of wider living narratives. Clearly myths always contain some general underlying or essential truths about human life, but the point is not the intellectual understanding of the specific myth to the general message, but much more important the living essence of the myth in one’s own life. To fail to personally enact it was to “not get” the mythology. She also emphasised the distinction between idols and icons in the objects of mythology. Both are clearly metaphorical but idols become objective substitutes for the points represented, even words to name them, opaquely obscuring the point – “we” become idolatrous – whereas icons no less represent them but remain metaphorical and transparently reveal the true objects of the myth – “they” remain iconic.
Karen is one of those of whom I’ve said before, that a sophisticated theologian typically talks a great deal more sense than the average scientistic (objectively reductionist) atheist, and I didn’t come away feeling any different, despite a shaky and somewhat disappointing start to the evening.
[Post Note : topical from HuffPo via Sayeeda Warsi on ISIL ignorance of Islam according to Islamic theologians. Armstrong made her remark about Islam for Dummies and The Idiots Guide to the Quran, much tweeted about in previous weeks.]