Karen Armstrong Rocks the JCC

Between the end of the craziest week and the start of the nuttiest weekend in my recent history (Expo for Independent Arts, the kickoff for KFJC’s fundraiser, and my post-Expo house party were all Saturday), I insanely decided to squeeze in a lunchtime lecture at SF’s Jewish Community Center. It turned out to be one of the most sensible things I’ve done all year.

Karen Armstrong isn’t just another take-it-or-leave-it, “Jesus is groovy, if you feel like it” modern theologian, pathetically tailoring the age-old rigors of spiritual practice to a noncommittal, consumerist public who can’t be bothered to pencil the transcendent into their busy schedules.

Nor is she by any means a church authoritarian. As a young girl I read her autobiographical “Through the Narrow Gate,” chronicling her seven brutal years as a nun in a spartan, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic order in the early 1960s. The church’s refusal to accommodate her epilepsy and severe food allergies (she was supposed to Learn from the Suffering) shattered any delusions she might have had about the virtues of blind obedience.

Ensconced in a religious institution myself at the time, I admired the honesty of her questioning: not hostile to the church’s stated values of faith, hope, and charity – but not willing to put up with their strong-arm crap, either.

Imagine the smile on my face when, some 20 years after reading the book, I heard her strong, calm, scholarly voice on the radio shortly after 9/11, explaining the finer points of Islam to an under-informed public. She had become a sought-after authority on the subject of world religion.

Having won the prestigious TED Prize in 2008 (recipients are asked to unveil “One Idea to Change the World”), she’s now at work with religious leaders and followers on the Charter for Compassion , a credo uniting the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic principles of “universal justice and respect.”

Some highlights from Armstrong’s talk on September 25:

— The word “belief” originally meant “to love.” It was only in the 17th century that the word attained its modern meaning of holding to a particular idea. The Greek credo – “I believe” – meant more a state of engagement and active investigation, a commitment to finding truth rather than allegiance to a foregone conclusion.

— Religion is about practice and dedication to behaving a certain way. Intellectual understanding or enlightenment is meant to follow the hard work of practice.

— “Love” as it’s used in the book of Leviticus (a legal text) didn’t demand that you had a personal liking or affection for someone; it meant more a simple sense of respect and looking out for the other’s interests.

— Religions are full of metaphors and paradoxes. The verses of the Koran are all metaphoric; the paradox of the Christian trinity is meant to be a meditative exercise; the Jewish tradition of the Midrash (inventive commentaries on Hebrew scripture) provoke investigation on the part of the student. All of this communicates the need for contemplation and intellectual questioning as a component of spiritual practice.

— True compassion requires risk and research. We have a moral obligation to understand the other’s mindset.

— On public dialogue: The classic definition of Socratic “dialogue” didn’t mean a fight in which one side won. In true Socratic dialogue, both sides end up admitting they know nothing! You must go into dialogue prepared to be changed.

— Ensuring the well-being of others is our best security.

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