Karen Armstrong

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Karen Armstrong (born 1944) is a liberal British comparative religion writer. Her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, describes her seven years as a nun in a Roman Catholic convent. After leaving she pursed studying the world's monotheistic religions, beginning with Islam. Armstrong is a popular voice for liberal Christianity and who promotes Islam and anti-Christian (in the Biblical theological sense) sentiment. She is a member of the historical revisionist Jesus Seminar and has written more than 20 book including A History of God, Islam: A Short History, Buddha, The Spiral Staircase, The Great Transformation, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time and most recently The Case for God ; also numerous articles for The Guardian and other publications.

The austere Ignatian regimen which Armstrong was part of for years a nun was designed to bring its subjects to be filled with God, yet like many others in institutionalized programs, Armstrong found only silence from God and evidences no indication that she ever experienced becoming truly born again through personal repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to save her from her sins, with its resultant Scriptural relationship with God.

Her conclusions regarding God conform to her experience, or lack thereof, and the faith that Armstrong promotes is seen by some as being closer to atheism than that of the Bible. She rejects the Biblical revelation of God as a literal benign creator, and is akin to atheists and evolutionists in imagining that there is "no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection." In an interview with the Wall Street Journal,[1] the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, who himself wars against a god of his own imagination, responded to Armstrong's arguments in her book A Case for God by stating, "Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right."

In contrast to the consistent references in the Bible to God as the literal Creator of the Universe, and who does reveal Himself through what He has made and has worked in literal events, Armstrong subscribes to the discredited[2][3] Documentary Hypothesis Theory, and also asserts that the literalistic reading of Scripture, when contrary to what science may say, was a development that began in the 17th century. She contrasts this to the "a good myth" of paganism, which she sees as "an early form of psychology," and which she advocates as showing"how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity." Rather than being a literal reality one can experience, the "God" Armstrong advocates "is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enables cultivating new capacities of mind and heart."[4]

In another statement which further defines this she states,

"I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness."[5]

Rather than affirming the God of the Bible, or merely acknowledging that the fullness of God goes beyond the comprehension of man, (Romans 11:33-36) Armstrong denies Him as the literal Creator who literally spoke to such men as Moses, and was revealed in flesh by the Lord Jesus, as held in New Testament Christianity, and who is known by man in a real relationship through saving faith in Him. (Acts 10:43-47; 15:7-19; Gal. 4:6; Ps. 34:18) She therefore seems to render all who testify of a transformative evangelical-type Christian conversion out of a broken and contrite heart, and its resultant relationship with God, with the thousands of Christian hymns expressing such, to basically having expanded powers of imagination


  • On Islam and its violence:

"...there is nothing aggressively oriental or anti-Western about it."

"Mohammad would be appalled if he knew that September 11th was done in the name of Islam."

“these acts may be committed by people who call themselves Muslims, but they violate essential Islamic principles."

"The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations."

"I don't think people sit at home and read the Qur'an and say, yes, I must go and bomb Israel."

  • On Israel:

"The problem with Israel now is that it cannot believe that it is not 1939 any more; the Israeli people are emotionally stuck in the horrors of the Nazi era."

"The West has to share a responsibility for what is happening in the Middle East. If it had not persecuted the Jews, there would not have been the need for the creation of the State of Israel."

"Muslims should try to use the media; they have got to learn to lobby like the Jews, and they have got to have a Muslim lobby...Have a march down the street at Ground Zero in New York, call it 'Muslims against Terror'. They need to learn how to manage the media and how to conduct themselves in the media."

On the reception of her book "Muhammad: a Biography of the Prophet" which is very popular among Muslims and liberals: "It is very nice that people think that the book was written by a Muslim..."

  • On 911:

"We were posing as a tolerant society, yet passing judgment from a position of extremes and irrationality." But as is typical with liberals, she is antagonistic toward historical Christianity, while promoting Islam.

  • On the Bible:

We can misunderstand it. We can use it to create mayhem because of our own horrible sort of murderous tendencies. And there are no clear answers, no clear theology in the Bible.

"The Qur'an strictly forbids any coercion in religion and regards all rightly guided religion as coming from God; and despite the western belief to the contrary, Muslims did not impose their faith by the sword."

"The Qur’an prohibits aggressive warfare, permits war only in self-defence and insists that the true Islamic values are peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.”

"The bedrock message of the Qur'an is not a doctrine but a summons to build a just and decent society where there is a fair distribution of wealth and vulnerable people are treated with absolute respect."

  • On Christianity versus Islam in history:

"Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death. The cross, crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammed was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength.

But against the West, it's been able to make no headway, and this is as disturbing for Muslims as the discoveries of Darwin have been to some Christians. The Quran says that if you live according to the Quranic ideal, implementing justice in your society, then your society will prosper, because this is the way human beings are supposed to live. But whatever they do, they cannot seem to get Muslim history back on track, and this has led some, and only a minority, it must be said, to desperate conclusions."

  • On Roman Catholicism:

"Jesus would be horrified by the practices of the church today. I would love to show him around the Vatican, when Christians cannot even share a church together."

"Islam was everything that the West thought it was not, and it was at the time of the Crusades that the idea that Islam was essentially a violent religion took hold in the West. "Europe was projecting anxiety about its own behaviour onto Islam, and it did the same thing too with the Jewish people."[6][7][8][9][10]

Critical analysis

Armstrong presents the Qur'an as saying "that every rightly guided religion comes from God. And there must be no compulsion in religion," while failing to see clear answers or theology in the Bible. However, the reality is that the Qur'an is hardly a cohesive, progressively comprehensive revelation, while what is expressed in its disjointed suras is an exclusive and elite view of Islam, and that unbelievers are worthy of repression, such as is seen in the Pact of Umar.[11] Moreover, anything close to a "New Testament," with its rejection of physical religious violence and retaliation, was part of Muhammad's earlier preMedenic "revelations" (when he was a minority, and militarily weak), in which there is one verse (2:256) clearly stating there should be "no compulsion in religion," while it is well evident in many other places that the Qur'an clearly exhorts retaliation and religious violence.

The Qur'an is far more restrictive in its scope of communication than the Bible,[12][13] lacking the manner of context and clarity of theology which the Bible provides in this area, with its extensive historical narratives and theological treatises. If this was the case in the Qur'an then it might enable restricting its religious violence to simply being sanctioned in a truly defensive context or offensively in a limited geographical area, versus commands such as to fight until the only worship be of Allah (2:193; 8:39) being used to justify worldwide physical Jihad. In addition, oppressing or making war against Islam can easily be understood to include ideological opposition.[14] It is also evidenced that the teaching of the Hadith promotes physical violence.[15]

In contrast to the Qur'an, the New Testament is clearly and consistently contrary to the use of violence by the church, either in retaliation, church discipline or ruling over those without (1Cor. 5:12,13; 2Cor. 6:1-10; 12:3; Eph. 6:12) in contrast to the State, (Romans 13:1-7; 1Pet. 13,14) with the violence of the Crusades and Inquisitions being accompanied by widespread ignorance of the Bible.[16]

For more information see The Bible versus the Qur'an

While it is evident that perhaps the majority of Muslims, especially in the West, seek to live in peace with their neighbors and uphold traditional moral values and understand the Qur'anic suras exhorting violence in a much more limited or spiritual sense, yet in contrast to Armstrong, it is understand by many that the fundamentalists such as Osama Bin Laden have a strong case, partly based upon the manner of their leader in regard to the use of the sword.

Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, and a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law, criticizes Armstrong for spending a great deal of time propagating "a highly tendentious version of Islam, as benign as Quakerism and as expansive as the most liberal form of Anglicanism." In regards to her tendency to emphasize pacifist texts, and to see exhortations to violence as defensive, Spencer responds,

The Muslim terrorists are committing acts of terrorism, by their own account, because of core Islamic teachings. Saying that we are supposed to ignore that is tantamount to saying that we must ignore what the enemy tells us about himself, who he is, what he wants, and why he is fighting. Which is tantamount to saying that we should surrender. We cannot defeat an enemy we are afraid to name.

The jihadists have again and again characterized their struggle as defensive. Let Ms. Armstrong demonstrate, if she can, from the Qur’an or Islamic tradition, why their characterization is in this case inaccurate, and how moderate Muslims today can refute it. If she cannot, then moderate Muslim leaders should do so, or risk giving their very professions of moderation a hollow ring....In the Bible there are indeed aggressive texts, but there is no open-ended and universal command to all believers to make war against unbelievers

Also, look closely at Armstrong’s wording: “Islamic law outlaws war against any country in which Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely.” This is similar to a fatwa of Mufti Ebrahim Desai of South Africa: “if a country doesn’t allow the propagation of Islam to its inhabitants in a suitable manner or creates hindrances to this, then the Muslim ruler would be justifying in waging Jihad against this country, so that the message of Islam can reach its inhabitants, thus saving them from the Fire of Jahannum [hell]. If the Kuffaar [unbelievers] allow us to spread Islam peacefully, then we would not wage Jihad against them.”

...she is right again when she says that “by making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the seemingly intractable and increasingly perilous problems of our divided world.” Yet ironically enough, it is clear from her own obfuscations and distortions of Islam that she herself has not made this disciplined effort. Her continuing influence, however, is just one indication of why it is so crucial today that other, less-biased analysts do so, and do so quickly.[17]

James Patrick Holding, in his brief critical analysis of Armstrong's The History of God, states,

When reading Armstrong, do not expect any original research or argumentation. The findings of liberal Biblical scholarship and of the likes of the Jesus Seminar are taken as indisputable fact, and the commentary progresses from there. Thus for example Armstrong dates Proverbs to the 3rd century BC without explanation or analysis, much less dealing with of competing views.

It is clear from her introductory words that Armstrong grew up in a religiously strict environment and desired a more personalized religion, but is upset because she didn't experience God the way she wanted. This is hardly a rational basis for analysis.

The Trinity, she says, "only makes sense as a mystical or spiritual experience" [117], which is an "only" only without recorurse to the relevant literature: The Trinity makes sense in light of the Wisdom tradition, and "experience" is unnecessary to understand it...In sum, Armstrong is singularly unimpressive as a source, both in terms of logic and in terms of scholarly acumen.

Awards and commentary

In 2008, Karen Armstrong received the Freedom of Worship Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute which also provides a Freedom of Speech award and a Freedom Medal. Armstrong was rewarded for her personal dedication to the delusion that beneficial lasting peace can be found by not simply tolerating differences but by promoting a pluralism that largely minimizes or excuses negative aspects of such religions as Islam and portraying it as fundamentally tolerant and peaceful, while magnifying the real or imagined faults of Christianity, which is more typically broad brushed and disparaged as being more intolerant.

Previous recipients of the Freedom of Worship reward include homosexual Harvard professor and pastor Peter J. Gomes (2007), who attempts to negate what the Bible clearly teaches in regards to Homosexuality and biblical interpretation; radical professor, socialist and civil rights activist Cornel West (2005), and abortion rights supporter and liberal Catholic priest Robert F. Drinan (2003).

Recent recipients of the Freedom Medal include Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, and wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As is true of liberalism in general, Armstrong opposes "religious certainty," and favors Buddhism, and essentially sees those who hold that truth is exclusive by nature as being the problem - including Christianity which she also accuses of idolatry by making what she sees as a human idea of God to be absolute. Yet she seems certain that the only truth and "god" that should be sanctioned is one that conforms to a rather nebulous idea of what compassion is. She allows traditional faith "as long as it leads you to practical compassion," [18] but which can be subjectively defined. Such objectively baseless human reasoning is advocated by atheism, but such can easily call evil good,[19] as a false religion can, while opposing abortion and the typical homosexual lifestyle would be rejected by Armstrong's religion.

Armstrong often contrasts bigotry and religious wars, primarily the Crusades - by which she too often seems to define Christianity by - with compassion, and is a strong advocate of the Golden Rule, but which requires a foundational guiding morality if everyone doing to others as they would have done to them (Luke 6:21) will be always be beneficial, yet she largely rejects the Scriptures in their totality from providing a clear basic moral theology, with its resultant needful divisive stands, obedience to which prevents the pitiful conditions that need compassionate care.

In 2008 Armstrong's was rewarded with the liberal elite TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) Prize, receiving $100,000, in which she asked for assistance in assembling the Charter for Compassion, a document around which religious leaders can work together for peace, with atheists also being invited. The carefully nuanced document exhorts general values of compassion while disallowing "any interpretation of scripture that breeds...disdain."[20] This document imagines peace though commitment to an amorphous morality, based upon what one understandings to be truly compassionate, and has the effect of marginalizing or fostering disdain towards who take sides on divisive moral such as abortion, and spiritual claims to truth - most principally Biblical ones.

The project overall manifests the superficial view of humanity and morality which is foundational to liberalism, which sees mankind as basically good, not sinful, and that there is no absolute moral truths or ultimate moral authority and judge, which negative claim is elitist itself, and is antagonistic even in its benign forms towards those who think otherwise.

For years Armstrong wanted "wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion," and now sees "quarreling about religion" as being "counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment," [21] but what she is seen quarreling with is religion that enables one to know God in a real and relational, Scripture-based way, and her radical interpretive basis regarding the Bible is understood as an example of what the apostle Paul referred to in warning,

"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away [their] ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." (Titus 1:3,4)[22]

Major Works

Armstrong has written 20 books, including A History of God (1993), an overview of God in the Abrahamic Religions. The concept of God is traced from ancient Israel through the 20th Century. The book covers ancient Jewish views of God and shows how the natural man erroneously deals with the progressive and comprehensive nature of Biblical revelation, by wrongly attributing the writing of the Pentateuch to the Babylonian Captivity, and other erroneous views on early Christianity and the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. It also deals the formation and rise of Islam, the development of Sunni, Shia and Sufi Islam, the split between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and in the modern and post-modern world. Rose colored glasses are employed for the former, while more critical ones for the latter.

See also

External links