faith and doubt at ground zero

Faith After Sept. 11 By Karen Armstrong

The Francis Greenwood Peabody Lecture
Memorial Church, Harvard University
April 13, 2002

In this lecture Karen Armstrong, a celebrated writer on the world's religions, argues that what is needed after Sept. 11 is a "spiritual revolution," a "new faith," and that most crises in the modern world can be traced to the loss of a sense of sacredness. In an erudite, wide-ranging account of the spiritual reckoning after Sept. 11, Armstrong draws on texts and anecdotes from ancient literature and from several of the world's major religious traditions -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, and Confucianism.

Ever since Sept. 11, I remembered a scene in that really rather wonderful film of my youth, A Man For All Seasons. It was Robert Bolt's play about Thomas More. There's a powerful moment when Thomas, played by Paul Scofield, is explaining to his daughter, Margaret, why he cannot take Henry VIII's Oath of Supremacy, even though [his refusal] means his own death. ... And he says to her, "There comes a time in a man's life when he holds himself like water cupped in his hands, and if he lets his hands part and the water falls out, he will never get himself back again."

And I feel that we are -- all of us -- at one of those junctions in history when we are holding ourselves, our past, our future, and our integrity in the palm of our own hands. And this is a moment when if we allow that integrity to fall out, we might never recover it in the same way.

I believe that we need a spiritual revolution. We need a new faith. Why? First, because religion has been implicated in our present crisis; some would say discredited by it. We see religion at its absolute worst: religion and God dedicated to hatred, murder, and violence. But also, we need faith. We need a new faith because we are human beings that fall very easily into despair. While other animals seem to be able to cope with their mortality -- dogs, for example, don't spend a great deal of time agonizing the plight of dogs in other parts of the world -- we human beings do. And we have from the very beginning of our existence as a species created works of art and created religions to give us the sense, against all the aggressive and the spirited evidence to the contrary, that life really does have some ultimate meaning, value, and sacredness.

Karen Armstrong has written several books on religion and culture, including the best-selling A History of God and The Battle for God, as well as Islam: A Short History, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, and most recently, Buddha, a biography in the Penguin Lives series. She teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism in London.

And we need faith more than ever now, because every time we open the newspaper, we have the temptation to despair and we are filled with fear. Perhaps not have Western people felt so fearful since the Second World War; perhaps America was never so fearful as it is now.

We know that despair can be lethal. That's what happens when you reduce people to a sense of hopelessness. You get the kind of suicide bombings, suicide hijacking catastrophes, that they say [happen] when people feel that they have nothing to lose. This is a very dangerous state. But we ourselves must not despair. And that means that we need to create new faith for ourselves here and now in our very, very difficult circumstances.

What we need is a spiritual genius. We need a charismatic soul in the Middle East right now.

Now, does that mean that we're actually saying that we need a new faith? That we're going to revise all our beliefs, throw out the old theology, get rid of God, tinker with the ideas of redemption and resurrection? No, I mean nothing of the sort. Because faith is not belief. This is something I learned from the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith whom I met at Harvard College. [He explained] that [it was] only since the 18th century and only in the West [that] we were equating faith with accepting certain propositions about God. ...

The word "credo" ... seems to have been derived from the Latin credere, to give your heart. ... So maybe somebody [who] would like some answer said, "Credo ut intelligam" -- I believe in order that I may understand. It's often been understood that first you have to submit your intellectual balance to the dogmatic teachings of the church. As the theologian, a British theologian, said recently, "Believe six impossible things before breakfast every day." If you do that, if you make that act of real belief, then eventually you will understand ... what these doctrines were about. ...

The great sages of religion have always said that you don't start out deciding metaphysical questions about the existence of God or the viability of the resurrection. You first live in a certain way. You devote yourself to certain practices of meditation, to certain forms of ethical practice, and in the course of that ... you will begin to understand and know in your heart what we mean by God. You will awaken within yourself a sense of the sacred.

The Buddha had a monk who was philosophically inclined and he was always pestering the Buddha about such questions as, Is there a God or isn't there? Who created the world? Was the world created in time or has it always been there? The Buddha said, "Look, you're like a man who's been shot with an arrow who refuses to get any medical help until he's found out the name of his assailant and what village he comes from." He said, "The man will die before he gets this perfectly useless information. First, live in a certain way. Do your meditation. Practice the truths of Buddhism and then you will know about nirvana. You will understand at a deeper level." ...

Just as we have to cultivate a certain sense so that we can develop our appreciation of art or music, so too do we have to cultivate a sense of sacredness. And the way of doing that is by the disciplines of prayer and ethics. So we need to cultivate within ourselves a new sense of the absolute sanctity of every single being, every single person. We've lost the sense, for example, of the sacredness of the earth, which we have ransacked and exploited for our own purposes instead of seeing it as something separate ... and to be treated with the greatest reverence. ... It seems to me that all our present problems as we look at the world today scream from such a loss of the sense of sacredness, even in the people we regard as our enemies.

One of the things we look for in religion is transformation. First of all, we look for ecstasy. That means not freaking out into an alternative state of consciousness, but it means to go outside the self, to lose the confines of our own selfishness and our own limitations for a moment and to look for it in this kind of ecstasis in church, but also in art, in music, in dance, in sex, in thought, in looking at nature. This is the way we are so constituted. As human beings, we constantly seek to have experiences that we cannot satisfactorily conceptualize only within our heads. We have the experiences and seek out experiences that transcend the limitations of our lives.

But we also want to be better people. We have a feeling that there's some better way of being human. We're not supposed to be such fragmentary, limited, frightened beings. We have all kinds of desires for transformation. Every time we go to the hairdresser, we come out with sort of a hope that we'll be different. We want to be thinner, kinder, better, because we have within ourselves an ideal of what we could be -- what we could be only if circumstances were right for us, if only we could just get to that point where we would fulfill all our potential and be thought of as complete human beings.

Certainly, we have ... looked up to various paragons, various people who in the past, perhaps, or in the present, have epitomized to us what a human being could be. And these charismatic figures, as they have been called, fill us with great emotion and touch us very deeply because you recognize them at some very, very profound level. I'm thinking of people such as the Buddha, for example. ... [People] admire the Buddha because when you can see that icon of a man in contemplation, ... at peace, ... we have a sense of, "Yes, that is what I would like to become."

There's a story in the early Buddhist scriptures whereby a Brahmin priest passed the Buddha one day, and he saw him sitting in contemplation like that. He'd never seen anything like it, and he said to the Buddha, "Are you an angel, sir?" "No," says the Buddha. "Are you an ordinary human being?" "No," said the Buddha. "Are you a spirit?" "No," said the Buddha. "Well, what are you?" said the Brahmin priest, and the Buddha said, "I am awake." ... That's what enlightenment means. It means to wake up, to wake up to every part of yourself. ... All those parts of ourselves which are so often lying dormant and undeveloped have to open up. ...

Jesus, too, is one of these ... figures who fill us with a profound emotion. I like to dwell on the Greek Orthodox image of Jesus. The Greek Orthodox have a rather different view of Jesus and the incarnation from us. They came to the conclusion that Jesus didn't come to die on the cross to save us from our sins. ... Jesus is the first fully deified human being, the first person to be absolutely imbued with God and divinity. And they [the Greek Orthodox] like to dwell particularly on that image of Jesus on Mount Tabor, which is not unlike the icons of the Buddha. Remember, when Jesus went up a very high mountain with three of his disciples and was transfigured with water so that his face and garment shone? ... And [they] cried, "Lord, it is good for us to hear."

What I think the Greeks are trying to say is that God and humanity are now inseparable. We can't think God without thinking human now. We can't think human without thinking God. Because God is not just something tacked on to our natural existence. God is necessary for us. It is to what we all aspire. It is, in the best possible sense, deeply natural to us. It will fulfill our being so that we, said the Greek Orthodox, can all be like Jesus even in this life if we live right in this certain way.

And Muhammad, too. The Muslims don't see Muhammad as divine in any sense, but they do call him the perfect man, because his act of perfect surrender -- the word "Islam," of course, means "surrender to God" -- freed him up so that he was this extraordinary human being who was a spiritual genius. You can call him a poetic genius and a political genius. He was stating all this potential at once. And then if you surrender yourself and your ego entirely to the divine, you will be an enhanced, a complete -- "perfect" simply means complete -- you'll be a complete and whole individual.

We, alas, haven't got anybody like that today. What we need is a spiritual genius. We need a charismatic soul in the Middle East right now, someone perhaps like Nelson Mandela. ... But we haven't got one. Our geniuses have, for the most part, been scientific or technological geniuses, or perhaps geniuses of poetry or something, but not spiritual geniuses. ... So we're going to have to renew ourselves.

We could all initiate our own spiritual revolution without moving from our congregations, from our denominations, from the faith where we worship, but we could transform ourselves right now because religion should not only transform us, but it should also transform the world. Religion should not just do harm in the world, religion should make a difference. We should be really working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world, frightening world. ... But first before we can make a proper difference, we must transform ourselves. There's a very good verse in the Quran where God says, "Therein God will not change the state of the people unless they change the state of their own selves." And that's what we must do now.

Now you can say, "Look. Give us a break. This is hardly the time to start a new spiritual revolution. At this juncture, we've got war. We've got the prospect of terrorism. The economy is bad. Let's have a bit of peace and quiet so that we can go up a mountain, collect ourselves, and then begin this spiritual effort." But this ... time of suffering, fear, violence and despair, [these] are the prime conditions for such a renewal.

I am at present working on a book about the Axial Age. That is the period that goes from 800 to 200 BCE, when all the great world religions came into being at roughly the same time, all showing a profound family resemblance, so that you have Confucianism and Taoism in China; Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism in the Indian subcontinent; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in Greece. These ideologies, these spiritualities, have continued to the present day to nourish human beings. One of the things that is very striking is that every single one of the great sages was living at a time like our own -- a time full of fear, violence, and horror.

China, for example, the China of Confucius and Lao-Tsu, was [in] a period ... where for centuries, literally centuries, Chinese were engaged in one war after another so that the whole of the very ancient civilization of China seemed to be being lost. And you have that very strongly in Confucius as he looks out on the world and laments loudly, while at the same time trying to rebuild it. ...

The Greeks, in the 5th century -- a terrifying, terrifying century; it was wonderful in many respects, a time of great artistic creativity, but also a time of huge violence -- the Greeks were in some senses a terrible people, and during that 5th century, every year they mounted over in Athens the political events of the year in their great tragedies, which were written as ways of looking at their time together as a citizenry, and looking at the tragic implications of what was going on in their midst, and calling everything into question. The tragedies take the great heroes, people like Oedipus or Agamemnon who had almost divine status among the Greeks, and showed them as profoundly flawed and fallible human beings, and could really plumb the human experience of suffering. That suffering seems to be a sine qua non of a spiritual quantum leap forward. ...

[On the Indian subcontinent at this time] there was a major turnaround, economic as well as political. Suddenly powerful kingdoms and empires were being created, and they were much more efficient than before in that they relied on force. ... And people all over India were equating horror from the new violence in their society and the new violence of the marketplace where merchants were preying aggressively upon one another. And very many of these philosophies developed a doctrine of nonviolence, a way to counter violence by refusing any form of violence whatever.

Now, the Buddha ... I always think of [him] almost as the star of the Axial Age. ... Things suddenly take on new meaning [for him]. I'm talking about the famous story about the Buddha's decision to leave home and become a monk and seek enlightenment. ... It is a myth which expresses the deeper dynamics of the spiritual life. The story goes that when little Siddhartha Gautama was just a few days old, his father gave a great feast to which he invited all the local Brahmins to foretell his son's future. One of them said, "This boy will become a monk. He will see all things -- a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and a monk. He will see all disturbing sights that will inspire him to leave the comforts of the world behind and become an ascetic wandering monk."

Well, the Buddha's father was not exactly thrilled by this career option for his son. So to prevent anything like this happening, he built up some pleasure palace for the little boy. Siddhartha grew up in a sort of false paradise, really. There were guards posted all the way around the grounds to keep out any disturbing sight. And for 29 years, he existed in this way. Now, I think this is a very powerful image of the mind in denial -- the way that we often hold suffering at bay, saying it doesn't really touch us, it's "out there." Suffering is for other people, other parts of the world. When I was last here, I commented perhaps not very kindly about how perplexed we British are when we are constantly [told] in this country to have a nice day. I've noticed since Sept. 11, people have stopped saying it so frequently. And they say more things now like "Be safe," "Travel carefully," "Look out for yourself," because suffering has broken in. This is what this story is all about. Suffering always breaks in. It's futile to try to keep it out.

Because the gods were looking down on the Buddha, they knew that he was destined to become a Buddha, an enlightened human being. And in the Indian vision, the gods need the enlightenment of the enlightened man, as much as he reveals. So the gods decided to take a hand, and they sent four of their number disguised as a sick man, a corpse, a poor man, and a monk. This sight so impressed the young man that he forthwith left home and became a monk. The story tells us that until we let our guard down and let suffering into our lives ... we cannot begin our religious quest. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is duka ... where duka has been translated as "suffering." It means it is unsatisfactory or rather difficult. So unless we realize that and let that uncomfortable truth reverberate through our whole being, we cannot really begin our quest in earnest.

This is what has happened in the United States. Suffering in a terrible way has broken in. For the first time, Americans have been attacked on their own soil. The great oceans no longer perform the kind of protection that we always thought. But now, the thing to do is ... to see this as the beginning of an opportunity. America could come out of this better transformed and stronger.

There's another experience of suffering and transformation in the Axial Age that I also want to look at because, again, it's acquired a poignancy [after Sept. 11] because it is involved with the loss and the destruction of a beloved building. I'm talking about in the 6th century, when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Now, it's very hard for us today to imagine what a religious catastrophe this was. We might say, "Well, this is very sad. ... This beautiful building. [But] you can build a new one." ...

But that's not how temples worked in antiquity. You didn't in those days talk to God wherever you happened to be. You approached Him in his own temple, which housed the presence of the God. Throughout the ancient world, religion was characterized chiefly by the practice of animal sacrifice. It was [through] the sacrifice of animals in a temple liturgy that you made contact with the gods. It's very difficult for us to understand how crucial this was. But religion without a temple was ... difficult for people in antiquity to conceive. ... And so when the exiles in Babylon said, "How could we sing the songs of the Lord in an alien land?," they weren't just being nostalgic and homesick. This was a real theological difficulty. How did you worship your god if you experienced, in terms of antiquity, such a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Babylonian gods, and had [your god's] temple destroyed? The answer was the Jewish Axial Age, where Jews created a whole new religion based upon the book, which became the new shrine. ... All the leading Jewish sages of the Axial Age came from Babylonia ... where the difficulties of this location of exile meant suffering. There had come a new vision, which we are still feeding from today, in all the three monotheistic religions.

So suffering has given us a start. It can shake us up, make us rethink our paradoxes. But, of course ... suffering can make us hard. ... The Jewish prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah were deeply hated often by their own people. They said Israel is going to be destroyed. ... They weren't just being dreary pessimists. They were right. ... Judah was destroyed. The temple was destroyed. The god was no longer reflexively on the side of Israel as he was at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Isaiah says, "Now because of your injustice, O Israelites, God is siding with Syria and with Babylonia. Egypt is using these as his instruments."

This is one of the ways in which they began to develop an idea of monotheism: "Look at your own sins. Look at your own faults. Don't think that all the fault is with the other side. Look at yourselves." This is something that we must do, too. But also, we have to see, too, that in the religions, when people like Muhammad and Jesus achieve perfect humanity as it were, that enhanced humanity of which we were speaking earlier, they have done it by giving themselves away. ...

One of the most striking instances of this is what happened after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. This is important to recall, that in Spain, for centuries under Islam, Jews, Christians, Muslims had lived together in harmony. But when Christian crusaders started their wars of re-conquest, they started to expel Muslims from Europe. They wanted Europe to be Muslim-free and they also brought their European anti-Semitism with them, so that in 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain and were given a home in the new Ottoman Empire. Suleyman the Magnificent settled many of them in Jerusalem. In this moment of absolute catastrophe, which Jews saw as the greatest tragedy to have befallen their people since the loss of the temple, there was a spiritual renewal in the Holy Land ... [and there] developed a new form of Kabbalah Jewish mysticism which developed a whole new creation myth. Instead of seeing God effortlessly creating the world in ... the Book of Genesis, the earth had developed a much more dramatic and catastrophic creative process, because this was more reflective of this terrible world in which the Jews felt that they were living.

But it's interesting that nobody said, "I'm sorry. You can't say that. This is not in the Bible. This is contradicting the Bible." People knew that they were talking about God's creation. ... But in this new spirituality, Uriel said, "You've got to face up to what's happened as we devise special rituals to help people stare into their tragedy and suffering." ...

Given that the whole of creation begins with a very important moment, in order to create the world, God has to give up part of himself. The reasoning behind this is that God is everywhere, God is ubiquitous. So there isn't room for the world. So in order to make room for the world, God withdraws as it were from his own territory. He makes Himself less, He makes Himself smaller, and creates a space, a vacuum, into which the world comes. Creation begins with an act of divine violence towards itself. And when we are creative, we are most creative when we don't hold on to power, but let power go. ...

[There are] lots more stories I could tell you of this. One I like is the Sufi philosopher ... who imagined God before the creation of the world longing to be known, feeling huge pity for all the beings not yet in existence who didn't know Him. One of the Sufi parables says, "I was a hidden treasure, and I was longing to be known." In his pity, God gives a great sigh of compassion, and following that sigh, that exhalation, comes the world.

And compassion is the key, because when we give ourselves up -- believe me, I'm not thinking of all those negative types of spirituality where you're endlessly denying yourself, giving up this and giving up that, and castigating yourself and beating yourself up and telling yourself what an awful person you are; I've done that for years and it's a complete waste of my time -- what the religions are telling us is that we give ourselves away in compassion. That we pour ourselves out on other people, put other people in the center of our world instead of enthroning ourselves as the center of the universe. And every single religion developed in the Axial Age came to the conclusion that compassion and reconciliation were the only ways to find what is sacred or divine. It was the only value that worked.

Even as early as the Iliad, in that great and terrible holy war filled with images of violence and horror, Homer ends this with a scene of impossible reconciliation when Priam, the doomed King of Troy, sits down and weeps with Achilles, the great Greek hero. ... [Priam's] son has been killed by Achilles, and the son's body ... is cruelly lacerated and mutilated by Achilles. And Achilles sits down and weeps with the man whose son killed his best friend, his beloved Patroclus. The two men embrace and weep and that is how Homer ends the Iliad, with this image of impossible reconciliation whereby you give up your anger and your suffering makes you reach out towards the other.

This is what we must do now. ...

And I know I quoted this before on this very spot, but I don't think you can hear it too often, especially at this juncture: Rabbi Hillel's golden rule. You know the story. He was asked by some passing pagans who said they would convert to Judaism if Hillel could sum up the whole Torah, the whole Jewish teaching, while he stood on one leg. So Hillel stood on one leg and he said, "Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the Torah. The rest is poetry." ... And it's an extraordinary statement. There's so many things in Judaism that you think would be essential, not poetry -- like God, the existence of God, or the exodus or theology or all the other commandments of the Lord. ... We put ourselves in the position of the other, use that active imagination and say, "Do I like it when people traduce me or injure me or attack me or denigrate all my values and traditions? Then I must not do it to the other. I understand now how the other feels." ... What we are doing then is dethroning the self. And the great sages all tell us that when we get rid of that selfishness, that greed, that obsession with ourselves that makes us so unhappy, you will make space for God. I'm thinking of the late Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who said that when we put ourselves at the opposite pole of ego, we are in a place where God is ... bringing us into nirvana -- or as monotheists would say, "into the presence of God."

[The Buddha] used to make monks and laypeople alike practice a certain discipline called the "immeasurables," because it made you bigger, and you sat and you sent out waves of benevolence and good wishes to the whole world, not excluding anyone from your radius of benevolence.

It's a radius. You have to start off when you're totally thinking soupy, wonderful things about people far off in Africa, for example, if you're not getting on with your colleagues or your ex-wife or various other difficulties, you've got to think well of them. As you do so, the Buddha said, as you move out and beyond, you will find an enlargement, a transcendence. They will find that they were imbued with abundant, exalted, measureless loving kindness. And they would for a moment experience an ecstasy that took them out of themselves above, below, around, and everywhere.

Jesus said, "Love your enemies." Again, [it's] one of those sayings that has acquired a new relevance in these terrible times. That doesn't mean that you have to feel all kinds of soupy, romantic feelings about our enemies, but it does mean that we do have to practice the golden rule: "Love our neighbor as we love ourselves." Who is my neighbor? The Samaritan who is regarded as the enemy, as the infidel, as the outcast. And scholars who know about these things have told me that "love your enemies" is one of the few words which we're pretty sure Jesus actually said himself. ...

Now of course, other action is necessary, but we cannot transform the world and make our religions work for us unless we are ourselves a haven of loving kindness in the world. That is what the religious person should be. Very often, when you see religious people on TV or something ... they're protesting about something or complaining about something or ... being horrified about something, being full of rage. A religious person should be a haven in a violent, fearful world.

And there's a story of the Buddha that I'd like to close with. ... It's a story of one of the kings of India at that time who was undergoing an acute clinical depression after the death of his wife, and he took to taking long, aimless drives around the country with his retinue. Once he stopped in a ... tropical park, and he saw some wonderful tropical trees whose roots were higher than those of a normal man, and he looked at those trees and he said, "They look so safe." They looked [like] a place where you could take refuge in the world. They've always been there. You could crawl in there and feel that you had a haven in this awful, grim, suffering world.

And as soon as he looked at those trees, he thought immediately of the Buddha. ... That image of serenity, of calmness, accessibility, and openness immediately made him think of the Buddha and jump straight into his carriage and drive many miles until he came to a place where the Buddha was. And they spent some time together, two old men. By that time, the Buddha was old. We are told that this story goes on, that while he was with the Buddha, his son -- the king's son -- initiated a palace coup, took his father's throne, [and] exiled his father, who died the following night in a cheap lodging house, worn out, exhausted, sick with dysentery.

The violence of the world goes on. The Buddha couldn't stop it, but who do you remember now? These kings who only a few learned [historians] remember at all? Or the Buddha? What has lasted are not these empires and kingdoms, but the Buddhist order of monks, which is one of the oldest institutions in the world. It's lasted 2,500 years. And that again tells us something about humanity. ...

I'd like to finish really now with this prayer, a very early Buddhist prayer which may go back to the time of the Buddha. If we could all say this prayer every day, if our governments would say this prayer, if our rulers would say this prayer every day, the world would be a better place. ... And notice that anybody can say this prayer. It makes no doctrinal statements whatsoever, but it will cause that [opening] of the heart and mind in the way meditation does and introduce us into the presence of God. ...

"Let all peoples be happy, weak or strong, of high, middle, low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born. May they all be entirely happy. Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere. May no one wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred. Let us cherish all creatures as a mother her only child. May our loving thoughts fill the whole world above, below, across without limit of boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity."

Transcribed from an audio recording courtesy of Memorial Church, Harvard University.

Copyright 2002 by Karen Armstrong. Used by permission.

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