Sizing up Karen Armstrong’s Spiral Staircase

September 11, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

A friend recently handed me a copy of Karen Armstrong’s 2005 Bestseller, The Spiral Staircase

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Armstrong entered the convent in 1962 at the age of 17.  These were very difficult years for her, due to the rigid religious dogma that permeated her training.  She ultimately renounced her vows at the age of 24.  Armstrong has written numerous books on religion since that time, focusing on all of the major monotheistic religions.  She makes regular appearances on NPR. The Spiral Staircase was Armstrong’s account of her own struggles with regard to her personal beliefs. 

As I read passages of The Spiral Staircase, I was intrigued by my own difficulty of categorizing Armstrong. I wondered why she would cling to traditional notions of worship at the point when, intellectually, she had already reduced “God” to a all-but-abstract principle.  Though she seems to be a fence sitter, she’s firmly there.  She refuses to allow any atheist or theist knock her off.  See, again, how should one describe her? Is she a Christian, a sympathizer of Islam, an agnostic, an atheist, a Buddhist or something else?  She admits that she was, at one time in “an agnostic, perhaps an atheist.”  (Page 272).  Is she now really a freelance monotheist?: 

I 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.

Through her many works, Armstrong strives to put the best foot forward for each of the religions she explores (she reminds me of Joseph Campbell in this way).  Her tone is sensitive yet probing; she is an earnest thinker and writer.  She doesn’t just serve as anthropologist of the world’s religions; she celebrates a wide variety of religions.  In doing this, however, she sets herself up to be a huge target for all of the world’s fundamentalists.  Even if you celebrate my religion, you better not go off to celebrate anyone else’s.  If you check some of the comments to her book on, you’ll see that there is no worse thing for a person to do in America today than to put Islam’s best foot forward.  Armstrong invited that type of abuse by writing things like this:

Mohammed emerges from the sources as far more human than either Jesus or the Buddha.  We see him laughing, carrying his grandchildren on the shoulders and weeping over the death of his friends.  Above all, we see him struggling, sometimes literally sweating with the effort of bringing his people out of an apparently hopeless situation.

(Page 277). But, once again, how should one describe someone like Armstrong, theologically speaking? It is not clear that it matters to Armstrong, certainly not as much said it matters to her many critics (and her many admirers).  Armstrong strives to bring forth what she sees as worthy regarding each of the major religions.  In doing so, she seeks the common denominator of all religions, that which makes all religions important to their adherents.  Her writings reveal the common benefits and common problems with all major belief systems.  The problems she points out have infuriated fundamentalists of all stripes.  Her common denominator approach leaves only an abstract version of God that many traditional religious believers will find unsatisfying–the theological version of Jello.  She admits that God is there but it is not at all clear what He does.  I can imagine many non-believers wondering why she doesn’t just finish off her entire project by becoming a secular humanist or, at least, a Unitarian.  Case in point: she writes that “the greatest spiritual masters insist that God is not an actual being–there is actually nothing out there.”

Here are some of Armstrong’s other points from The Spiral Staircase:
“The great myths show that when you follow somebody else’s path you go astray.” 

A believer “must fight his own monsters, not somebody else’s . . .”

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you . . . The myths of the hero. for example, are not meant to give us historical information [about Jesus or the Buddha].  Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential . . . the idea is not to latch onto some superhuman personality or two get to heaven but to discover how to be fully human.” (270)

“Blind obedience and unthinking acceptance of authority figures may make an institution work more smoothly, but the people who live under such a regime will remain in an infantile, dependent state.  It is a great pity that religious institutions often insist on this type of conformity, which is far from the spirit of their founders, who all, in one way or another rebelled against the status quo.”  (Page 271).

Armstrong recognizes that every one of the major religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism and all the monotheism’s) teach “a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others.” (272).

So how does one find a religious experience? Editing out the ego is “an essential prerequisite for religious experience.”  “Transcendence” means “climbing above or beyond.”  According to Armstrong, all of the major religious traditions tell us to “leave behind our inbuilt selfishness with its greedy fears and cravings.”  The great spiritual writers insist that we are most of fully ourselves “when we give ourselves away, and it is egoism that holds us back from that transcendent experience that has been called God, nirvana, Brahman or the Tao.”  This disciplined attempt to go beyond one’s ego even brings about a “state of ecstasy.” (Page 278). 

She suggests that there might even be a biological reason for our common urge to go beyond our own ego.  “This is the way that human nature seems to work.”  Communities experience transcendence when they “develop the kind of lifestyle that restrains greed and selfishness.”  She describes this as a “leap of sympathy.”  (279).

According to Armstrong, it is always a bad theology if one’s notion of God makes one “unkind, belligerent, cool or self-righteous, or if it lets you to kill in God’s name.”  (293).   She has found compassion to be the “safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment.  It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there…” (296)

Armstrong has certainly encountered many people who reject her out of hand.  After all, “where is the fun of religion, if you can’t disapprove of other people!  There are some people, I suspect, it would be outraged if, when they finally arrived in heaven and found everybody else there as well.  Heaven would not be heaven unless you could hear over the celestial parapets and watch the unfortunates roasting below.”  (297).

Recounting some earlier periods she went through, Amstrong writes, “Yet for all this, at some level I had not relinquished the old ideas.  I was still seduced by the realistic supernatural theism that I thought I had left behind, still childishly waiting for that clap of thunder, that streak of lightning, and the still small voice of calm whispering in my ear.”  (301). 

Perhaps, Armstrong suggests, we can only really hope for an experience of “absence and emptiness.  We have seen too much religious certainty recently.”  Instead of certainty, the world needs compassionate action and respect for the sacredness of a teaching human being, including our enemies.  (304).

Armstrong implores that the study of other people’s religion is not any longer optional.  It is “necessary for our very survival.”  It breaks her heart to see members of the world’s major religions hating each other.

Certainly, many of the fervent believers world’s major religions would each find Armstrong’s writings reprehensible.  Why is that?  Because she has taken away from them the acceptability of all notions of aggression and intolerance.  The system in which Armstrong believes must be based upon empathy; to the extent a moral system is not based upon empathy and respect for individuals, it is not a moral system at all.

I found Armstrong to be a compelling, introspective and passionate writer well worth exploring . . . however you might ultimately describe her theologically.


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Category: American Culture, Meaning of Life, Reading - Books and Magazines, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Karen Armstrong argues that there is a "transcendent reality" that we access in the process of acting compassionately. By this, she means at least that we transcend our mundane egoistic perspective. There are many ways to do this, she states, including yoga. But Robert Wright (the interviewer) never really succeeds in getting Armstrong to further define this "transcendence." Here's the short video:

  2. jim says:

    Mr. Vieth, you make a good point in noting that Wright ran into a wall when he attempted to describe his own transcendent experiences or have Armstrong describe her's or others.' Armstrong responds that this transcedent perspective is not "truer" than one's usual perspective on life, but it is more "sacred." Necessary to this "sacred" perspective is the detachment from one's self or ego. Are we to conclude that once we stop perceiving the world egotistically, that we are enjoying a sacred experience? What we may have to accept in the end is that sacredness and trancedence (as Armstrong teaches them) are common experiences completely unlinked to traditional Western notions of God, religion and the like. Just imagine, if no one had first foisted on us these encumbrances of religious convention, would Armstrong's positions really be that hard to understand? Isn't the difficulty in achieving definition, really more a problem of expectation (on our part)?

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: You teach well through your questions. I think you're on to something because I struggle with the notion of a person detached from one's own "ego." I don't know if there can meaninfully be such a human animal (and we are human animals!). But Armstrong has something to teach even me, because egoism does seem to occur in degrees, if not in binary fashion. And I do know some people I admire tremendously who have their egoism thermostats set low enough to allow in more of that other stuff in which Armstrong exults (whether or not she or anyone else insists on calling it divine). When people are tuned to that dimension Armstrong describes, they do seem more at peace and they do seem to be at one with other humans. I would also agree that expectations can poison this possibility.  How Buddhist of you to bring this up!

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