Author Armstrong on Religious 'Transformation'

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, is the author of several major books on religion. hide caption

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A bit over 2,000 years ago, human civilization was in the midst of what's called the Axial Age, a critical moment when the world's greatest religions shaped themselves. Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation examines the subject. She speaks with Neal Conan.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In her latest book, historian Karen Armstrong describes a critical period when people in very different parts of the world arrived at strikingly similar conclusions about some of the most fundamental issues of human existence and how the world's great religions emerged along the way.

In THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS, Armstrong traces the origins of Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Confucianism and Daoism in China, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece, how the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah and many other mystics and philosophers created a spiritual revolution well before the rise of Rome and the birth of Jesus Christ and established principles of empathy, introspection, tolerance, and self-sacrifice, teachings that Karen Armstrong believes offer us valuable guidance today.

Later in the program, we'll talk with journalist and author Lou Cannon about the life of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and your letters, but first, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION.

If you have questions about the birth of these religions, how they arose, what they have in common, and how they differ, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Karen Armstrong joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION): Nice to be here.

CONAN: You borrow a term for this period in history from another writer. You call it the Axial Age from about 900 to 200 B.C., and the great transformation you describe emerges in different places but in response, in a way, to very similar challenges.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, the, this new kind of spirituality was a revolution in consciousness. There was, there'd been nothing similar until our own scientific revolution, which began in the 16th century and is still continuing, which completely transformed again our way of looking at the world.

And in China, in Israel, in the Middle East, and in India and in Greece, the element that they had in common was an increase in violence. Violence, as in our own time, had reached unprecedented levels. Of course, in many ways, the violence and dangers that they were facing were puny in comparison with what we look to today, but nevertheless, it was shocking.

Iron weaponry had been discovered, for example, which made wars much more lethal and deadly, and in every single case, the catalysts for this major religious change was a revulsion from that violence, a turning away from that violence, in the course of which, as people began to look for the causes of violence and hatred and greed in the human psyche, they began to discover the internal world and began discipline practices of introspection.

CONAN: History, in some of these cases, is pretty murky. A lot of this happened before...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CONAN: ...things like writing were invented, and you point out scholars have recently come to the conclusion that a key figure in this story, Zoroaster, for example...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

CONAN: ...lived a few hundred years before they thought he did.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I mean, it was always thought when this idea of the Axial Age was mooted that Zoroaster was a contemporary of the Buddha and Confucius and Jeremiah, that he lived in about the sixth century. In fact, the consensus is now that he lived a lot earlier in about 1200 B.C. and that his religion, Zoroastrianism, is really a kind of dress rehearsal for the Axial Age. He's trying it out, and he gets some of it, especially its ethical component. He's very concerned about ethics, but it's a very violent vision and, in that respect, doesn't mesh with the Axial Age religions proper which were principally nonviolent.

CONAN: One of the things that Zoroaster did was divide, for the first time as far as anybody knows, divide the deities into good versus evil.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And he, yeah, human beings, the whole world was divided into two camps, good people and evildoers, and this suggests that he was also responding to an increase of violence in his society, and this reminds us that an increase of violence doesn't necessarily lead to spiritualities like that of the Buddha who preached compassion, but it can lead to a polarized vision. And Zoroaster's terrible image of the last days are something entirely new, where they would be a final judgment and where the wicked would be finally incinerated, had a major impact on the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

CONAN: At what point does a set of beliefs emerge into a religion?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, that world belief is really rather alien to the Axial Age. None of these major sages were at all interested in belief or doctrine or metaphysics. In fact, they regarded this kind of thinking as a distraction from the religious quest. Religion was about behaving in a way that changed you at a profound level, that emptied you of your egotism. It was about practicing yoga, for example, which emptied the self of selfishness and certain rituals in China, which encouraged the habit of altruism, which people believed led people to transcendence. A transcendence, sometimes called God or Nirvana, Brahman or the Dao, which nobody could define or categorize but which they experienced within themselves, in the depths of the self.

CONAN: Yoga, it's interesting, you write how these Aryan tribes that started moving into northwest India in, I guess, the ninth century or so, that was originally the term for yoking up the horses to the chariots for the purposes of making raids.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, it's one of those interesting transformations of a violent institution into something nonviolent and spiritual. A man of yoga was a violent man, a warrior, who yoked up his animals and went and raided his neighbor's cattle and rustled cattle, carried off goods and property and women.

Then, in the Axial Age, a man of yoga became a man who was dedicated to nonviolence and in yoga, he tethered together, yoked together the powers of his mind to induce a disciplined concentration, and before he, but before he could begin a single yogic exercise, he had to establish a nonviolent mentality that was second nature. He had not only, not to kill anybody or raid anybody, he wasn't even allowed to speak a cross word, make an irritable gesture, or swat a mosquito. He had, and had to express serenity and calm before he could even learn to sit in the yogic position. So this spiritual journey of yoga was based on nonviolence.

CONAN: And it seemed that in several of the circumstances, a lot of the theological questions, if you will, arose as a result of political change. One set of rulers was overthrown in China and the next set of rulers needed to explain why they now had suddenly the mandate of heaven, as opposed to the previous set of rulers.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and they had to justify their rule, and they introduced an ethical vision for, that was new to China. They said that the previous rulers had not judged, ruled the people with justice. The poor people had cried aloud to heaven, the high god, and heaven had taken pity on them and chosen another dynasty to rule instead. But that if this dynasty failed to rule with justice and compassion, they, too, would lose the mandate.

This was a new ethical vision. Until this time, most religion had been essentially ritualistic in character, sort of magical, rather than that your behavior actually had moral qualities that affected your ultimate goal.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest is Karen Armstrong, the author of, among many other books, A HISTORY OF GOD and most recently, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. Maybe she'll get ambitious for her next book. Anyway --

If you'd like to join us, it's 800-989-8255, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Mazzine (ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in San Jose, California.

MAZZINE (Caller): Yes, my question is, would you consider love to be the commonality between all of the three major religions today and also be the connection to the previous historical religions?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: There are more than three major religions, of course, but I would say, love or compassion, the ability to feel with the other, to empathize with the other, is the common thread. People felt that by dethroning yourself from the center of your world and putting another there, you achieved transcendence. You denied yourself and went out from that part of you which is greedy and grasping and insecure and entered another state. And if you made that habitual, that attitude of love, then you could, then you would experience transcendence.

That's essentially the message of Jesus, too. And it was also important that you did not confine your love or your compassion to your own group, your own nation, your own people, congenial people. One of the Chinese sages, Motzi (ph) put it this way, you had to have genuine concern for everybody.

And the Buddha insisted that his monks had a form of meditation whereby they sent out waves of benevolence to all four corners of the earth, not omitting a single creature from this radius of concern, even a mosquito. And in the biblical lore in Leviticus, Israelites are told that they must love the stranger, and if a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him as one of your own people, and love him as yourselves, for you were slaves in Egypt.

And the word love did not mean that we were supposed to be filled with warm affection for others. It was a legal term used in treaties that meant that you had to give people practical support. You had to be loyal to them, look out for their interests in all kinds of ways. And that's within our grasp, it wasn't emotional.

And Jesus also said love your enemies. That is, put your concern where you have no hope of getting anything back really. You're not in it just for a selfish reason. It's about emptying yourself of yourself, of greed and ego.

CONAN: Mazzine, thanks very much for the phone call.

When we come back from a short break, which we have to go to, we'll continue our conversation with Karen Armstrong. And again, if you'd like to join us, just give us a phone call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. The book is THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest today is Historian Karen Armstrong, author most recently of THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. If you have questions about how the Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and many other philosophers helped to create a spiritual revolution before the founding of Rome, or before the rise of Rome, anyway, you're invited to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK; e-mail is talk@npr.org.

And, let's get another listener on the line. This is Charlie. Charlie's with us from West Orange, New Jersey.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi, I was wondering, I mean, you had sort of simultaneously the proliferation of different philosophies in, you know, in Greece and the West and in the warring states of China. Not all of them were altruistic, you know there's a chapter in the Taoist Chuang-tzu that says, you know, I wouldn't sacrifice a hair on my own head to save the whole universe. You've got Epicurus sort of talking about pleasure as the highest good. I'm just wondering, why do you think altruism caught on? Why did it become, I don't know, the driving force?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well Charlie, I think you've got some of those quotes wrong. I think that bit about not saving your hair of your head was actually used by another school, the Jingoists who didn't believe that you should be altruistic. And they were rather sidelined by the other sages. Why did this work? Because people found that it worked. And that tells us something, I think, important about the structure of our humanity.

People came to the idea of compassion and empathy not because it sounded edifying, but because they found that it did bring them to a state of peace and tranquility in the midst of suffering and brought them into contact with what we call God. And it's something that I think you have to put into practice in order to test it out, as it were.

And, indeed people like the Buddhists said, don't take my word for this. Never take anything on faith. Never take anything secondhand. Never accept an authoritarian figure telling you, you must love one another. Test my teachings against your own experience and if they don't work for you, if they don't bring you to Nirvana, then go to another teacher, that's just fine.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Charlie.

CHARLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: I wanted to ask, you could see that there might be some elements of cross fertilization of some of these ideas and of eastern part of the Mediterranean, Greece and the Middle East, maybe even to some degree into India, but not into China.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No.

CONAN: And dose that suggest that maybe some of these are universal values?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think they are universal values. Now you mentioned Greece. Now Greece, I agree with Charlie here, they were not altruistic people. They gave. They had a wonderful, led a wonderful march into compassion in their tragic drama, which was a religious festival, where they expected the audience to weep copiously for people such as Oedipus, a man who was guilty of incest and who had killed his father, a man who would be shunned --

CONAN: By mistake, you know.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Indeed, but in terms of Greeks or Heracles, who had murdered his mother and his children, but you, but forced to do so by the gods. And that human beings are often forced, tricked into things that we don't know properly. And yet we suffer for them, we suffer social ostracism, and the Greeks were told, the Athenians, weep for these people.

But in general, they did not get rid of violence. And Charlie's right there, that they institutionalized violence in the policy and they didn't have a religious Axial Age. They had a philosophical and mathematical and scientific Axial Age, but no religious. The religious, the pagan religion remained in place until the fifth century after Christ.

But no, these are universal values, I think, because it's been found that this is what works for human beings.

CONAN: You also point out that the Greek's had the abilities, somehow, to take a spring wine festival and make it pretty depressing.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes indeed. I mean, they saw a spring wine fest, tasting of the new wine, you'd imagine a very joyful occasion, but they made it into a remembrance of horrific crimes in the past, of the crime of Orestes, who had murdered his mother to avenge his father. A sense of pollution and death, and they all sat around in silence drinking, in absolute silence and solitude, because the Greeks had a huge sense of life's tragedy. And indeed this was crucial to the Axial Age.

Don't, we tend to sort of have a great tendency to be positive in our society. Look on the bright side, be positive. But in fact the Axial Age, it states, look at things as they are, life is full of sorrow. Life is full of mortality and sickness and old age and, you know, nothing is ever quite satisfactory. Accept it and then you can have compassion, feel you own pain, because if you don't feel your own pain, it's very easy to dismiss the pain of others.

So suffering was put right up there. It's a, you know, in our world, this is a, we should see when we are deluged with images of suffering on our television screen every night. We should allow this to break our hearts because it is a spiritual opportunity. The Axial Age sages would say that by letting the suffering into your life, letting it smash down our defensive barricades, we can learn a new empathy, a new sense of going beyond ourselves.

CONAN: Let's talk with Edwin, Edwin's giving us a call from Houston, Delaware.

EDWIN (Caller): Yes, as a doctor who has studied human behavior, excuse me, both pro-social and antisocial behavior for years, and as someone interested in religion, I wonder if, Dr. Armstrong, you have a thought relative to, what would have been the genesis in the human animal from a biological perspective of, let's say, altruism or love? Is there a part of the brain, whether it's a prefrontal cortex or amygdala or neocortex, that might universally, around the world as humans evolved, account for the idea of the great religions coming out of this background in horrific human history of violence?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Listen, Edwin, I think on neurological grounds you're probably more of an expert on it than I. But I do think, the Chinese Sages pointed out that compassion is natural to us. When you, when a woman gives birth to a child she has to go through hideous pain to do so, and then she has ultimately to put herself up, sacrifice herself to that baby, to that demanding little bundle of child. And she feels that altruism all her life. Somebody's said, and somebody said, one of the Sages said that if you see a child about to fall into a well, you don't, sort of just wander by, and let it fall in and think what a pity, you lunge forward instinctively to grab it.

EDWIN: Yes.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: There would be something wrong with a human being that didn't do that. Plus from the very early age, hunters had to leave the relative safety of the cave and go out into the forest or whatever, and risk their lives in pitting themselves against animals that were greater and stronger, and laying down their lives, in a sense, for the sake of the group.

And I think one of the things that was happening in the Axial Age, was that the old group mentality, where in order to survive, the group had to subordinate the desires of individuals and the needs to the tribe as a whole, this was being replaced by individualism. People were feeling, experiencing a new autonomy that was essential in the (unintelligible) market economy.

And the Axial sages just were trying to counter the clash of warring egos there. So I think there is something about us that has to look after others, otherwise we'd walk away from these babies. And we wouldn't look after our young or sacrifice ourselves for people.

EDWIN: Sure.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And what the Axial sages were saying, now take that family bond and enlarge it, so that you don't, you learn how to feel altruistic towards your immediate family. And then you expand it to everybody on the planet. That was their ambitious goal in the hope of creating a new more compassionate humanity, by bent of hard work. This wasn't grace being beamed down supernaturally from on high. People such as the Buddha thought of these states that they were obtaining, this transcendence, this Nirvana indeed, the sacred realm of peace within, as entirely natural to humanity, nothing supernatural or godly about it at all.

EDWIN: Most insightful, thank you kindly.

CONAN: Thanks for calling, Edwin.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Edwin.

EDWIN: Surely.

CONAN: Lets go to, this is Mary Helen, from Surprise, Arizona.

MARY HELEN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MARY HELEN: Ms. Armstrong, I have read everything that you've written, and I'm moved by your compassion and your logic. On a personal level, you know, I struggle as probably a lot of people, on how to implement this to make a change in our world, so people will quit killing each other.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I know, because you see, I think, Mary Helen, I think we've got to do this. Some, sorry was I interrupting you?

MARY HELEN: No.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, when Mo-Ti, the Chinese sage, who introduced the idea of jen-I (ph), concern for everybody, he pointed out that this was all to our benefit. If we treated others as we would like to be treated ourselves, this would benefit us. There would be no war, because it would be impossible to invade another state if we thought of how we'd like this state to sort of invade us.

Now, I think this is no longer just a nice option now, I think it's essential. We are now not -- we've got a cult of individualism in our society. We're still highly me, me, me individuals. But we're also drawn together as the human race, electronically, politically, globally. We live in a global village. What happens in one part of the world will have immediate repercussions in what happens in another part of the world. We saw it, what happens in Iraq today will have repercussions tomorrow in Washington and New York tomorrow.

MARY HELEN: Right.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And now it -- the only way we can survive, it seems to me, now that increasingly small groups are going to have the powers of destruction that were previously the preserve only of the nation state, unless we learn to practice the golden rule to all internationally and not -- and treat other nations, even those far away, as important as ourselves, we're not going to come through this trial.

So they were saying, look, it's self-interest. It's not just we're asking you to be totally altruistic, you know, it also makes good sense. And I think, when I was researching this book, these people seemed to be speaking directly to us, to our own circumstances.

CONAN: Interesting. You raise the point of, I guess, religious nationalism, if I'm not misusing those words. In the case of Israel, who regarded Yahweh as their god and that he would protect them against the Assyrians and suddenly they began to realize that, well, if he's everybody's god then he's using the Assyrians to punish us.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and one of the great things that the prophets did, the prophets of Israel, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, they said don't just whine about what the bad guys are doing or don't just whine about what Assyria is doing, look to your own behavior, begin with self-criticism. Because Yahweh is using Assyria to punish you, the god is the god of the whole world. And so -- and I think that too is an important lesson.

When Ezekiel, he was writing in exile. The people of Israel had just suffered massive Imperial state violence. Babylonia was destroying their land, would destroy their temple and had carted off thousands of them to Babylonia. But when he talks about violence and decries violence he's not talking about Babylonian violence, but about the violence that Judeans are inflicting upon one another.

So, again, the buck stops here, the Axial sages, don't just pass the buck, take responsibility for your own actions. And I think this is something we need to do in our increasingly dangerous world.

CONAN: Thanks very much Mary Helen.

MARY HELEN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Karen Armstrong and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Scott on the line. Scott's with us from Cincinnati.

SCOTT (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Scott.

SCOTT: Yes. Am I on the air.

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

SCOTT: Ok, my question, I'm an atheist and so I look at, you know, life a little bit differently than the religious folk and I see a secular humanistic way of life that would be much more efficient for all races, all classes of people, and I was just wondering to the guest if she sees, you know, in the future, countries and nations going to a more secular humanistic way of life instead of the ten commandments and what the Koran says and all the other religions.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much, Scott, for that interesting question. Just remember that not all these religions believed in a god at all or were theistic. In the Axial Age the gods, actually in India particularly, tended to fade away out of the human consciousness and were not really considered very important, the Buddha was not interested in gods. He made them -- he saw them as kind of aspects of his own personality.

And in China, Confucius used to say why bother about gods and spirits, talking about them, when we can't even talk about what happens on earth. So, it's a mistake to associate religion solely with theism, with gods, and with the supernatural. That's a very Western way of looking at things.

CONAN: Well, in a way, I thought that was why you got the Greeks in there too.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: The Greeks, well the Greeks are, they were very theistic. And they, and instead of having one god they introduced a sort of polytheism that was beautifully structured and organized up to the Nth degree and stuck with those old gods. And those old gods remained in place together with all their rights until the Christian emperors in the 5th century after Christ forcibly replaced the old paganism with Christianity.

SCOTT: Well, 80 percent of every human being on planet earth, according to the Wes Harris poll, believes in a higher power. So, although my question may not, you know, I may be blanketing a lot of people, I'm certainly not blanketing the vast, vast majority of people.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm not -- yes, yes this may be true Scott, but I think that for some people, and certainly this applies in my country in Britain and in Europe generally, where religion is on the decline, people can be compassionate and altruistic without believing in a god. And forms of secular humanism, I think, can be just as inspiring, provided it's not a weary, lazy, let's get rid of religion kind of atheism.

So, but on the -- it has to be said that religion outside Europe is on the increase. You in America are getting more religious all the time and so is much of the rest of the world. In the middle of the 20th century we considered secularism and secular humanism the coming ideology and thought that never again would religion play a role in world events. Well, we got that wrong.

We're seeing a kind of, and people are trying to find new ways of being religious. One of these new ways of being religious is the fundamentalist way, the militant way. But that's only one way, there are all kinds of other sort of forms of religiosity, many pluralistic, many looking at how other, looking with admiration and respect at other traditions while remaining within their own but having their vision enhanced.

That is very much on the uprise in this country. So, I think, who knows what will happen in the future. But I think we are heading for a new way of looking at religion in new ways. That's nothing new because we always have to revise our traditions and make them speak to our own personal and unique circumstances.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much. When we come back from a break, more conversation with Karen Armstrong, plus a remembrance of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who died earlier today. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Right now we're talking about world religions and philosophical traditions behind them. Our guest is Karen Armstrong, historian and author, most recently of THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Erik. Erik's with us from San Antonio.

ERIK (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ERIK: Hi. I have a question. At the beginning of the show, Ms. Armstrong mentioned the rise of religion in response to violence. Today we sometimes hear the charge that religion causes violence, for example, in the case of militant Islamists. And I wonder if she could address the role of religion in violence today.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. Erik, this is a tremendously important question. There's a lot of bad religion around. Not all religion is good. You can have bad religion as you have bad cooking and bad art. And you can -- so, a lot of people don't want to be compassionate, they want to be right and so in many of the world religions, people have erected secondary goals. In -- to shield them from this demand to get rid of ego and pour yourself out in love for others.

Now, a lot, however, of the violence that we're seeing around the world I don't think is caused by religion. I think these, most of the trouble spots where religion has suddenly become violent has occurred in regions where warfare has become endemic and chronic. In the Middle East, for example, where there has been conflict, the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts, originally a secular conflict on both sides, has festered on and on and now religion's got sucked into it and become part of the problem. You can see the same thing in Afghanistan, for example. Another war torn region.

And I think, of course, there are, and we have to admit this, in our monotheistic scriptures, whether we're talking about the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament or the Koran, there are passages that people have quoted to justify an act of violence. Now, I think, again, on the principle of the Axial Age let's look at our own texts. All of us, Jews, Christians and Muslims, look and have a serious study of these difficult texts. Look at the circumstances in which these texts arose. See the context in which they were risen and have some serious discussion about how we present these to our children and how we try to mitigate the use of these in inflammatory situations.

Frankly, I think if someone's decided to blow up a London bus, they don't read it in the Koran and then say I must go and -- they have determined to blow up a London bus. And then if you look in any scripture you can usually find, especially in the Bible as well as the Koran, some kind of text to back you up there.

CONAN: Erik, thanks very much for the call.

ERIK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's turn now to Paul. Paul's with us from Phoenix, Arizona. He's been very patient on the line.

PAUL (Caller): Yes. Thank you for the opportunity to ask Karen and yourself a question. One of the things I see in the discussion is we shift from philosophies or theisms that are about self-emptying and shalom and peace to other belief systems that don't necessarily contradict that directly, but don't help the situation. You mentioned earlier the era of the enlightenment, where people turned to science to answer all their questions.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

PAUL: And I think that now that that is breaking down as well, because as we see people refer to the Post-Modern Era. I wondered what Karen's opinion was on the Post-Modern Era and what it may bring.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think we are obviously in a dangerous world. A lot of the promises of modernity have not been fulfilled. You know, we, and the enlightenment in Europe, we think that the enlightenment died in Auschwitz. We thought that education would bring the end of bigotry, but during the Holocaust we found that it was possible for a great university to exist in the same vicinity as a concentration camp.

So, but, I think in the, a lot of modernity was quite hostile to religion. They, you know, there was this tendency to decry it and to promote reason at all costs. I think part of the Post-Modern world is returning again to this. And there is a return to religion, but it's got to be intelligent. Just rationality, science can't answer all our questions. It can't answer our emotional needs, our yearning for meaning, and pattern, or, you know, that kind of, what is the ultimate meaning of life?

But we must be informed and intelligent as in our seeking for and in our cultivation of the more intuitive parts of the mind. I think, for example, in the 20th century, for example, Freud was the great philosopher. Freud who was very bitterly against religion. I think more and more people are coming around to Jung, who had a, very much a strong place in his scheme of things for the religious life.

But, a religious life that is changed and informed by some of the best insights of modernity. And this has got to be worked at. We sometimes forget that we've got to work at religion as we work at science.

Yes, Paul?

PAUL (Caller): And it seems that science is, I'm sorry, it seems that science is becoming philosophical.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. Absolutely.

PAUL: When you look at the great cosmologists of our era, they get to a point and they say, my gosh, you know, we can't explain the most basic things like gravity and electromagnetic force.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And I think that sometimes if you can follow it, I can't really, but if you can follow it, some sciences are introducing a new kind of religious discourse, which like the mystics, pit you against the dark world of uncreated reality. Which show that you can't talk about creation in a simplistic way. It shows that we're up against huge imponderable mysteries and that the more we think we learn about the world, the more we learn we don't know. There's always something that transcends our grasp, that goes beyond our grasp.

That's part of the human experience, and it's one of the reasons why we have always had religions to hold us in that attitude of awe and wonder and remind us that we are not entirely the masters of our fate.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

PAUL: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: And Karen Armstrong, wonderful. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much, Neal, it's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Karen Armstrong's most recent book is THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. She joined us today from our bureau in New York. Coming up, we'll remember Caspar Weinberger.

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Books Featured In This Story

The Great Transformation
The Great Transformation

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

by Karen Armstrong

Hardcover, 469 pages | purchase

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The Great Transformation
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The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
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