Karen Armstrong is on a rather estimable rescue mission: to restore the world’s great sacred testaments to their original purpose. These writings, she argues in her new book “The Lost Art of Scripture,” have become proof texts in battles of intellectual certainty, rather than portals into transcendence.
“Religion — like painting, music or poetry — is an art form,” said Armstrong, the former nun whose own writings have investigated, exposed and defended the meaning of religion.
It is not intended to compete with the sciences, she contends. Quite the opposite, religion goes deeper than the testable world can ever reach.
“If we rely on reason alone, life seems pointless,” she said by phone from her London home. “Religion, like art, helps us to assuage this lack of meaning and it does so not by rational arguments but by reaching our emotions and the deeper parts of our unconscious minds.”
A prophet for a new understanding of religion and religious practice, Armstrong brings her cause to the Fitzgerald Theater Nov. 7 as part of the Talking Volumes literary series.
In “The Lost Art of Scripture,” she wends her way through the scriptural histories of Western monotheism and Eastern disciplines and comes to the conclusion that we need to read these books in a new way.
“Lost Art” joins her rather amazing body of work — which includes “A History of God,” “Faith After 11 September” and “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” which brought her to Talking Volumes in 2015.
Armstrong’s greatest strength in her dozen or so books is an intellectual ferocity and a cool distance from her subjects. She isn’t here to prove a point. Her indefatigable research yields simple yet profound conclusions that stimulate the mind, even as her target aims deeper into the human psyche.
Scriptures meant to be art
“The Lost Art” is not as readily accessible as previous Armstrong books. Its long historical narratives, which she believes are necessary to demonstrate the context in which religious scriptures were formed, can be overwhelming. A casual reader may find excuses to set the book aside.
Her essential argument, though, is urgent and compelling. The scriptures are not meant to prove ancient faith traditions any more than a novel is meant to convey clinical information on the period in which it was written. These holy texts are to be approached like music or painting — arts that convey emotional rather than intellectual information.
In fact, she points out that scriptures were intended to be sung, recited aloud — even danced. The act of performing scripture.
As one example, she writes that the Qur’an united the Semitic tradition of a “Heavenly Book” and the eastern tradition of “sacred sound.” It was designed to be performed, rather than read for information.
Buddhist spirituality, she writes, “was rooted in bodily practices that formed new rituals. A monk must move always with the grace and harmony that expressed the tranquillity of nirvana.”
In all the traditions, Armstrong argues, the “aim of scriptural study was personal transformation.” In the Christian world, she cites the medieval pope, Gregory the Great, who wrote, “We ought to transform what we read within our very selves, so that when our mind is stirred by what it hears, our life may concur by practicing what has been heard.”
In this sense, every time scriptures are read, meanings and interpretations can strike the individual with new insight.
Pro-religion, not anti-science
Armstrong’s book challenges both the secular and religious worlds — which is nothing new for her.
Atheist critics who decry religion’s role in warfare, for example, have dismissed her arguments that conflict results more from cultural, geographic, political and ethnic enmity. Conservatives don’t like her rejection of exclusivity in faith.
“It’s the ego,” she says, when asked why religions that hold common truths choose to clash with one another. “We want to create a God that is in our own image and likeness. But you see, the whole point of religion is to get beyond the ego, beyond the instinct to put ourselves first.”
Somewhere along the line, the scriptures became more about testable truth — proof that “we” are right — than artistic inspiration. In the West, the seminal moment was the Enlightenment, which began to explain the world’s mysteries through science and rationality.
As people began to understand disease, famine, natural disasters, the workings of the solar system, it no longer became tenable to suggest that unseen deities were manipulating human existence. Yet, religious advocates feared that as people began to trust scientific explanations, they would turn away from the “truth” of scripture.
The problem, Armstrong contends, is that these apologists picked a fight on the wrong battleground. Religion was never intended to be a scientific or even historical record. To reckon truth on the terms of science was a losing proposition.
That doesn’t mean religion should be discarded. And as much as Armstrong defends the sciences, she worries that we have pushed the humanities aside. Yes, rationality helps explain the world, she says, but we need art and religion to make us human and feel compassion for others.
“Reason has done wonderful things,” she said, “but it doesn’t help us in despair, in sorrow, wrongdoing and injustice. For that we need to turn to art and religion.”
The wrong kind of religion
Sadly, she feels, religion is being practiced without skill or intelligence. A primary resource in that “lazy and sloppy religion,” as she calls it, is a scripture defined as an arbiter to resolve feuds, to discriminate, exclude and oppress.
“Religion is at its best when it makes us ask questions and it is at its worst when we answer them with simplicity,” she said. “When we talk about God, we don’t know what we’re talking about, yet we act as if we do. It should always escape our grasp.”
Just as the mystery of art is never fully grasped. We cannot know the mind of Beethoven, or Georgia O’Keeffe, or the Islamic poet Rumi, or Confucius, or the Indian philosopher Aruni. We can only sit in their presence and allow ourselves to be moved.
“Scripture was not teaching us objective truths in which we must believe; it does not provide certainty,” Armstrong says. “Instead it makes us see that when we are speaking of the divine or the sacred we encounter transcendence — God, Brahman, Dao or Nirvana — that which lies beyond what we can know.”
Graydon Royce, a former Star Tribune critic, now serves as Director of Worship Arts at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.