Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong: one of the best books on religion I’ve read

Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong: one of the best books on religion I’ve read. 

Karen Armstrong was a nun for seven years.  She left the convent, partly because its discipline was harsh and inhuman, but primarily because she was unable to pray, and never even came close to the complete self-surrender which was the only path to God (p 9).

She had begun Oxford University in England while still a nun.  She did well, but soon realized that she had no ideas of her own.  On the contrary, she had been trained not to have them.  A clever woman, she could put together the ideas of others, even use one criticize another, but that’s as far as she could go.  This reminds me so much of graduate school, where I spent almost ten years of my life (I was a slow learner).  At least in the social science and humanities, students are trained to put the ideas of others together in new ways, but rarely encouraged to think on their own.

While at Oxford, she began to experience panic attacks during which she would hallucinate, the world seeming to melt and fragment, faces around her dripping like wax (p 141).  Years of psychoanalysis were useless, and eventually she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy.  Proper medication stopped the seizures and the hallucinations.  But the experience of the hallucinations stayed with her.

It is as though a comforting veil of illusion had been ripped away and you see the world without form, without significance, purposeless, blind, trivial, spiteful, and ugly to the core. (p 55)

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Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato

Why the Bible is subtler than Homer or Plato.  I taught ancient political theory for 38 years.  More than any single thing I learned, what remains  is the insight (hardly mine alone) that Western civilization is the conjunction of Athens and Jerusalem.  The way we think even today is a combination of the rationality of the Greeks with the transcendent vision of The Bible. 

Now this isn’t quite right, for Plato certainly had a transcendent vision of what he called the forms (eidos).  The forms exist in a world beyond time and space; they represent standards of perfection in almost everything and every virtue.  Plato has been called a pagan saint, and it’s easy to see why.  It was not difficult to Christianize Plato.

On the other hand, there are fundamental differences between the Platonic and Judaeo-Christian worlds.  The most important difference is their table of the virtues.  For Plato, and the ancient Greeks in general, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice are the highest virtues.  Lacking are the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (caritas).  Charity is the unselfish love of others, especially those in need.  Plato wrote for fellow aristocrats.  The Judeao-Christian tradition speaks for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  Today the stranger is likely to be an immigrant, refugee, or displaced person.

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Genesis: the snake had a point

Genesis: the snake had a point.  There is more than one way to read Genesis.  One is to read it as an account by God dictated to Moses.  That seems unlikely, but it’s a view widely held among the very religious.  Certain problems, like the earth being created in 7 days, are dealt with by transforming days in eons.  Some small amount of metaphor allowed. 

Another way is to focus on the structure of Genesis, the way in which it combines different sources and traditions, edited, sometimes clumsily, to tell an epic myth of origins.  A myth that’s at its heart is true, not to history, but to human nature.  I agree with the second way, but I think one learns much by the first approach for what it says about man and God.  I am going to take seriously an author who employs it.  “Take seriously” means worthy of criticism.

Garden of Eden.  The snake had a point.

The story of the Garden of Eden is familiar.  God creates Adam and Eve, telling them they can eat the fruit from any tree, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But the sneaky snake comes along, tells them that if they eat from this tree they can become like God, knowing good and evil.  So, Eve takes a bite, and offers the fruit to Adam.  He takes a bite, and an angry God kicks them out of Eden, telling them that they and their descendants will have to work hard for a living, and women will bear their children in pain and travail (Genesis 2-3).*

Recently I reread Genesis, and it seems to me that the snake had a point.  Adam and Eve became fully human only by defying God and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Good and evil, says Bruce Waltke, are intended to encompass all moral knowledge,

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