by Caspar Henderson
Transformation is a powerful word in the lexicon. Many of us, however diverse our interests and views, are deeply motivated to imagine — and sometimes work towards — transformation in personal relationships, politics, economics or other areas of life. The writer on religion and former nun Karen Armstrong recognises this well.
In conversation with Jonathan Derbyshire of The Financial Times, Armstrong, who has described herself in the past as an “agnostic in the best sense of not knowing, not speaking about things,” suggests that the attraction of transformation, is “…a sense that we can all be divine. All the scriptures make that point. We’re all yearning for transformation.”
Armstrong firstly became widely known for her Short History of Islam. Published in 2000, it became a bestseller after the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Derbyshire writes:
Armstrong thinks that fundamentalism, which she insists is as much a feature of modern Christianity and Judaism as it is of Islam, is a political problem rather than a religious one. There is a structure, she thinks, that fundamentalisms of all varieties share.
She sees Wahhabism and other 20th-century mutations of Islam as corruptions of an original purity. “Until the 19th century, Sufism was the dominant form of Islam,” she argues. “It achieved an unsurpassed appreciation of other faiths. Sufi poets will say when they’ve glimpsed God that they’re neither a Jew, a Christian, nor Muslim.”
So Armstrong is not against religion. Rather, she argues, it is often poorly understood and misrepresented:
In The Case for God (2009), Armstrong writes that in the premodern world religion was “not primarily something that people thought but something they did”. And in her latest book, The Lost Art of Scripture (2019), she deplores the same distorting “modern” emphasis on knowledge over practice. “Rescuing the sacred texts”, as her subtitle has it, means learning to read them afresh as works of the imagination intended to “achieve the moral and spiritual transformation of the individual”.
She contends that scripture in all the traditions she explores converges on the same ethical or moral injunction: “To somehow transcend selfishness. That’s what leads to enlightenment in Buddhism. And it’s what St Paul says Christ did on the cross. You divest yourself of something, then you become larger.”
The interview is behind the FT paywall. It is worth tracking down. Related, and also fascinating and touching, is Transformation as Homecoming by the author, philosopher, vet, animal-shadower, amateur musician and judge Charles Foster, who writes:
there’s a fair amount of agreement amongst the great religions that transformation is about return; about homecoming; about knowing something that has always been there, un or under-recognised…
Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva
Image of Anthony Gormley’s Another Place, by Chris Howells, Creative Commons