A Historian's Faithful Account

"When I write my books, I find out what I think of religion," author Karen Armstrong says. She tackles the Axial Age, a time of great philosophical transformation, in her latest. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006

NEW YORK -- After she left the convent, Karen Armstrong called herself an atheist. "I used to hate religion," she says. "I loathed it in my angry days."

Seventeen books later, she is recognized as one of the great religious historians, and she has reconsidered her label. She regards herself to be deeply religious but with no denomination. "Sometimes I call myself a freelance," she says in her melodious English accent. "I can't see any one of the great religions as superior to others. . . . I'm seeking to make sense of life, looking for its meaning and how we can have a better humanity."

Borrowing for the moment from Buddhism, she explains, "Nirvana is something within you. It is not an external reality. No god thunders down from the mountaintop. Just as the great mystics in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths all discovered, God is within the self. God is virtually inseparable from ourselves."

"Religion," she says, "is very complicated. Some do it very well. Some do it badly. It's an art form. Not everyone who plays the piano plays like Vladimir Ashkenazy."

* * *

Karen Armstrong is sitting in a restaurant in Manhattan sipping white wine and musing over her beliefs, her life, her work. Her new book, "The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions," is the second in a two-book deal, the first being "The Spiral Staircase," her enthralling account of her Catholic upbringing and her falling away from the church after leaving the convent in England. Knopf, her publisher, is so confident of its success that it has printed 100,000 copies.

At 61, she is short and light-haired with a spiffy new haircut she has just gotten for her book tour. Candid and self-assured, she has a pronounced sense of humor about herself and her work. She is quick to admit that her own religious beliefs are a work in progress.

"When I write my books, I find out what I think of religion," she says. And it is in her study that she feels the most spiritual. "I do nothing but my work for days. That's when things start growing, when connections are made. It's what the Jews do when they study the Torah."

Her new book is about the Axial Age, from 900 to 200 B.C., a time of ferment when four different philosophies took shape in four distinct cultures -- Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in the vicinity of Israel and philosophical rationalism in Greece. She describes the era as "one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history," and when she talks about it, she makes it sound totally relevant to today's world.

"I was intrigued," says Armstrong, "with the similarities of the traditions that evolved even though the four cultures didn't have much contact with each other. For one, they did not seek to impose their own views on others. For another, what mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved.

"These guys worked hard at it," she says, "to find a solution to the spiritual and political ills of humanity. The Axial Age people seem to be talking to us."

The sages of today's Western world, Armstrong says, "have been scientists -- people like Freud, Newton, Einstein, Bill Gates. They've done wonderful things for the world, cured many diseases. But all this has made the inner world difficult for us. It's made religion more problematic. We don't know where to stop. We've created weapons that can wipe out the world; we're destroying our environment. We can't seem to call a halt to it."

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