karen armstrong
Photo: Michael Lionstar
I never intended to be a historian of religion or a freelance writer. I dreamed of being a university professor and spending my life teaching English literature. And for about 13 years, the very thought of religion filled me with weariness and a sense of failure. I had entered a convent when I was 17 years old and struggled in vain for seven years to become a good nun. For one thing, I was completely unable to pray. Every morning I would go into the chapel to make my meditate, and struggled with boredom, sleepiness and endless distractions. The heavens remained closed and God seemed distant and unreal. I also began to have grave doubts about some of the doctrines of the Church. How could anybody possibly know for certain that the man Jesus had been God incarnate and what did such a belief mean? Had God really created the world? Or had human beings created God? Eventually, with regret, I left my convent and, once freed of this burden of depression, doubt and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away.

I do not think my experience is unusual. Most of us first hear about God at about the same time as we are told about Santa Claus. Over the years, our ideas of Santa change, mature and develop, yet our idea of God can get stuck at an infantile level. We are not encouraged to develop it in the same way. But everything changed for me when I sat down to write a book called A History of God. I had expected it to follow the same line as my previous, somewhat skeptical books: I thought I would show how the concept of God had been constantly rejigged by theologians to answer current perplexities and needs. But this time, my circumstances were different. I had just suffered a major career disaster: my television career had folded in ignominy, I was very hard up; my friends had all disappeared, and I was living in a remote (cheap) part of London. All day and every day, I was alone—and in silence. Theology is poetry, and you cannot read a complex poem in a noisy nightclub; you need to have a quiet, receptive mind. Further, there was now no television crew to urge me on to be clever and provocative. There was just me and the text, and gradually, the words began to take on a new significance.

I suddenly found that I was learning a great deal from other religious traditions. From Judaism, I learned to never stop asking questions—about anything!—and never to imagine that I had come to the end of what I could know and say about God. Jews even refuse to speak God’s name, as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous. From the Eastern and the Russian Orthodox Christians, I learned that Jesus was the first human being to be totally possessed by God—just as Buddha was the first enlightened human being in our historical era—and that we can all be like him, even in this life. From the Quran, I learned that all religious traditions that teach justice, compassion and respect for all others have come from God. And I was enthralled to find this quotation from the great 13th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi:

Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; if you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will fail to realise the real truth of the matter. God the omnipresent and omniscient cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says in the Quran: "Wheresover ye turn, there is the face of Allah."

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