Armstrong Continues to Build on Her Ideas about Religion
Colleen Scheck, Producer

We interviewed Karen Armstrong in 2004 and were gripped by her intellectual, passionate, and singular insight into religion in our world. This week we are repeating that program. It is among the many engaging shows from our archives worth hearing again.

In preparing for this rebroadcast, I listened to Armstrong’s recent talk at the 2008 TED conference. While her speech echoed many of the themes she and Krista spoke about four years ago, she shared some new ideas that keep me interested in continuing to follow her broad perspective. Here’s an excerpt (or watch the entire 20-minute talk above):

"I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days that when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely incredible. These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract, and, to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief, which we make such a fuss about today, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word ‘belief’ itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century it narrowed its focus, for reasons that I’m exploring in a book I’m writing at the moment, to mean an intellectual ascent to a set of propositions — a credo. ‘I believe’ did not mean ‘I accept certain creedal articles of faith.’ It meant, ‘I commit myself. I engage myself.’ Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Qur’an, religious opinion — religious orthodoxy — is dismissed as zanna — self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

So, if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found is that, across the board, religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something, you behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action: you only understand them when you put them into practice.”

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