Armstrong is an author, feminist and writer on Judaism, Christianity,
Islam and Buddhism. She was born into a family with Irish roots
who after her birth moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham.
1962 to 1969, Karen Armstrong was a nun in the Society of the
Holy Child Jesus. During this period she received a leave of absence
from her religious order to study at St Anne's College, Oxford
University, where she read English, but left the order during
her course of study. After graduating, she embarked on a doctorate
(still at Oxford) on Alfred, Lord Tennyson while also teaching
at the University of London. However, her thesis was rejected
by an external examiner and she eventually left academia without
completing her doctorate.
period was marked by ill-health (Armstrong's life-long, but at
that time undiagnosed, epilepsy) and her readjustment to outside
life. In 1976, she became an English teacher at a girls' school
in Dulwich, but her epilepsy caused her to miss too many school
days, and she was asked to leave in 1981.
published Through the Narrow Gate in 1982, which described the
restricted and narrow life she experienced in the convent (and
earned her the enmity of many British Catholics). In 1984 she
was asked to write and present a documentary on the life of St.
Paul. The research for the documentary made Armstrong look again
at religion, despite having abandoned religious worship after
she left the convent. She has since become a prolific and acclaimed
writer on subjects touching on all of the three major monotheistic
religions. In 1999, the Islamic Center of Southern California
honored Armstrong for promoting understanding among faiths.
of Armstrong's articles can be found at The Guardian. Her latest
book, A Short History of Myth, analyzes the role played by myths
in past and present societies. The Great Transformation : The
Beginning of Our Religious Traditions will be published in March
Armstrong is a prolific scholar of religions and she has written
on a multitude of faiths. She described her beliefs in a C-Span
interview in 2000:
usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist.
I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can't
see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of
them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular
genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles' heels.
But recently, I've just written a short life [story] of the Buddha,
and I've been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality,
about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss
of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great
traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the
same way, despite their surface differences.”
is not a nice thing. It is potentially a very dangerous thing
because it involves a heady complex of emotions, desires, yearnings
conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of
this idea must tell us something important about the human mind
and the nature of our aspiration."
mode of knowledge rooted in silence and intuitive insight which
gives meaning to life but which cannot be explained in rational
was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought
to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back
to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to
the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with
practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance
in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair.
The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made
sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to
the eternal and the universal."
idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something
slightly different to each group of people who have used it at
various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation
by one set of humn beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed,
the statement "I believe in God" has no objective meaning,
as such, but like any other statement only means something in
context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently,
there is no one unchanging idea contained in the word "God";
instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of meanings, some
of which are contradictory or even mutally exclusive. Had the
notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived
to become one of the great human ideas. When one conception of
God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly
discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would
deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes
that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their
God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look
at our [three] religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective
view of "God": each generation has to create the image
of God that works for it."