Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness
Karen Armstrong (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

I've admired Karen Armstrong's writing on the history of religion, though it would be fair to admit that I found A History of God dauntingly, even overly, comprehensive--it took me a year of occasional bedtime nibbling to get through it. She is broadly knowledgeable, and a skillful writer; and she brings to her study of religion a passion for it as a human enterprise. "...I tried not to dismiss an idea that seemed initially alien, but to ask repeatedly, 'Why' until, finally, the doctrine, the idea, or the practice became transparent and I could see the living kernel of truth within--an insight that quickened my own pulse." The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong's memoir of how she came to work this way.

The book begins with Armstrong renouncing her vows after seven years as a nun, having entered the convent when she was seventeen. (Her earlier memoir, Through a Narrow Gate, describes those years.) She was midway through her courses at Oxford University, studying English literature. Emerging from the cloister in 1969, Armstrong encountered a world vastly different from the one she had left. She also found that the habits of mind formed in the novitiate could not be left behind as easily as the nun's habit. Obedience, in particular, made scholarly life difficult, as when she was called upon to find something original to say about the works she was studying--it took her a long time to get her own voice back.

The book is both frank and compassionate about the twists and turns of Armstrong's subsequent career: academic success and failure; teaching; and a detour into television production, spiraling back to a life of research and writing that bears a distinct resemblance to the solitude and silence of the cloister. The difference is instructive, however: no longer under pressure to believe in anyone else's vision of God, she finds the Holy by following her own path.

Because of her study of the relationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, she is now frequently called out of her solitary studies to help bridge the gaps among them. "Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies."
Hallelujah, Amen.

January 2005

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