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)

It’s not hard to understand how this made her impervious to the appeal of religion. 

Attending church services at the request of a friend, she found the recitation of the Nicene Creed absurd.

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . . in Jesus Christ . . . begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father. . . .”  The congregation repeated these extraordinary propositions without surprise, as I had done so often in the past. (p 118)

Where she goes wrong

As she will come to realize, Armstrong made the mistake of so many Christians.  She approached the creed as a set of propositions.  It’s a myth, it’s a way of saying the unsayable, talking about a God who cannot be framed or captured in words, but only in stories like this.  It’s not a question of God’s existence; it’s a question of how best to experience it. 

Around the time she had this experience, Armstrong was caring for a boy with autism.  In many ways he was normal, in many others not.  One day, at the request of his atheist mother, Armstrong took Jacob to the church she irregularly attended.  Jacob didn’t understand the words, but he was entranced by the ritual, the music, and particularly the incense.  Perhaps Jacob had grasped the essence of religion, not in spite of being autistic, but because of it.  For it left him open to the more sensory and emotive language of true religion.  “His face was clear and peaceful; he was enjoying a little respite from the demons that plagued us both.” (p 187)  Jacob’s mother was right.  He hungered for something he could never put into words.  Are we so different?

Beginning to come to terms

“Time is always time and place is always and only place.”  (T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday I)

My hope of discovering eternity had died, she says.  Eliot was a comfort, for he seemed to be saying that there was nothing depressing about accepting the reality of reduced possibilities.  It was precisely because Eliot had learned the limitations of the real that he could say “I rejoice in things that they are.” (p 142) 

I wouldn’t go so far.  I don’t rejoice in many things, including malaria, cancer, and the mass murder of the Rohingya.   I get pleasure in being as creative as my talents allow, being with my wife, talking with friends, watching good television, and sometimes just being alive.  People who abandon great dreams often seem to go to the other extreme.  We must accept everything that we must accept, but we need not deem it good. 

Perhaps this is what Eliot meant when he continued “Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice.”?  Rejoice is a grand word, and I’m hesitant to use it about my own life, but I think I’m on the right track.  

The transformation

After graduate school, Armstrong began to travel and explore other religions.  Speaking to a rabbi in Jerusalem, she was dumbstruck.

“No official theology” I repeated stupidly. “None at all?  How can you be religious without a set of ideas — about God, salvation, and so on — as a basis?” “We have orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy,” Hyam replied calmly, wiping his mouth and brushing a few crumbs off the table.  “Right practice rather than right belief.  That’s all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it’s not important in the way you think. It’s just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don’t bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead.” (p 236)

This is the single most transformative moment in the book, and she was finally ready for it.  Theology is the myth of the inexpressible. Orthopraxy, ritual, is what holds and binds us. Religion is not about accepting twenty implausible doctrines, but about doing things that change you.  The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some transcendent reality but because they are life enhancing. 

I’ve misunderstood this in several of my posts, writing about Christianity as if it is defined by its beliefs.  Religion is about myths that enrich our lives and practices that join us to something larger.  This “something larger” may exist, or it may not.  I’d say it exists if we believe it exists.  The more we try to define it, the further away it gets. 

Any statement about God must be paradoxical

Any statement about God, says Armstrong must be paradoxical, in order to remind us that God cannot be contained in a coherent system of thought.  Any statement about God must also lead us to an experience of silent wonder or awe, or at least put us on the doorstep of that experience. 

I add the last phrase because I think the experience of wonder cannot be forced, certainly not into a statement about anything.  “When speaking about God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can do.” (p 292)   Is it ironic that Armstrong has just spent several hundred pages writing about God in mostly clear and coherent sentences?  I would reply that the intimate experience of God is beyond words, and books are at best a doorway.  That’s good enough. 

It’s a modern Western fallacy, dating only from the eighteenth century, to transform faith into a set of intellectual propositions about God.  Faith is better seen as the belief that life has meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence of history (p 292).  Armstrong believes that this attitude is best evoked by great art. 

I want to add a postscript.  In the midst of horror, whether it is the Holocaust or the massacre of the Rohingya, it is an insult to take refuge in art, or almost anything else for that matter.  Here is a real paradox.  One must affirm life, including its transcendent value, in the midst of experiences which not only deny this affirmation, but mock it.  


Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.  Anchor Books, 2005.


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

  1. Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.
    Emmanuel Levinas

    I had this printed on the leaflet for a special occasion
    although sometimes I doubt it but atheists were present as well as Christians and a Muslim and a Jew.

  2. I imagined it could be meaningful for any people coming whatever their belief.I had failed to understand much of his writing but got a feeling of sympathy towards it.

  3. “She approached the creed as a set of propositions.”
    Though I’ve read anf written alot I had not been able to express what you have written in words myself.
    Thinking anything is a set of propositions leads only to arguments and what is called heresy being condemned.Meanwhile there is less time for practising our Faith
    Although politics is not religion some people treat it as one and condemn people who have a different political belief.
    In fact,I think some enjoy taunting others more than thinking about
    how they can make society better, whatever better is for them
    Better is not killing all your opponents hoping to produce Utopia.
    I suppose some people enjoy arguing for its own sake.I don’t myself
    but I can see if done respectfully it could be useful

  4. I think it’s an excellent post and I’m glad in a way that I’d have gotten about it because it was a pleasure to re-discover it and to find what you thought about someone whose writing I found excellent in many ways possibly her suffering opened her heart and m8nf

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