sphamilton's Reviews > The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong
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Apr 29, 07

Recommended for: anybody interested in religion, whether a believer or not
Read in January, 2007

Karen Armstrong started off as a nun, and now - long after she left the convent and rejected her Catholic faith - she is a theologian who still doesn't go to church. What she's interested in is human beings' conception of God, how they use it, and what the common points are in the major world religions. She writes about her life, but above all she writes about her passion for scholarship and discovery.

A couple of bits from the book that really struck me, and made me think a lot about popular conceptions of religion:

"To my very great surprise I was discovering that some of the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians and mystics insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated. Some went so far as to say that it was better that God did not exist, because our notion of existence was too limited to apply to God. Many of them preferred to say that God was Nothing, because this was not the kind of reality we normally encountered. It was even misleading to call God the Supreme Being, because that simply suggested a being like us, but bigger and better, with likes and dislikes similar to our own."

And, talking about the fact that an obsession with theological orthodoxy seems to be confined to Christianity:

"Hyam Maccoby had given me a clue six years earlier... He had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed." Orthopraxy, not orthodoxy, in other words.

In all the religions she has studied, she points out, the core activity which changes you and (in however small a way) changes the world is the practice of compassion. And it's the acid test of theology - a theology which causes you to act with compassion is an effective theology. A theology which causes you to act with hatred or anger is bad theology.

Lots more to think about apart from this: whether you're interested in religion or not, it's a central human activity that can't be dismissed out of hand.
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