Karen Armstrong On Letting Go Of The Desire To Know It All

09/12/2013 10:23 am ET
Michael Lionstar

So many of us are terrified of what will happen if we don't have all the answers. Find out how to surrender to faith -- and happiness -- from the author of The Spiral Staircase.

By Karen Armstrong

I never intended to be a historian of religion or a freelance writer. I dreamed of being a university professor and spending my life teaching English literature. And for about 13 years, the very thought of religion filled me with weariness and a sense of failure. I had entered a convent when I was 17 years old and struggled in vain for seven years to become a good nun. For one thing, I was completely unable to pray. Every morning I would go into the chapel to make my meditate, and struggled with boredom, sleepiness and endless distractions. The heavens remained closed and God seemed distant and unreal. I also began to have grave doubts about some of the doctrines of the Church. How could anybody possibly know for certain that the man Jesus had been God incarnate and what did such a belief mean? Had God really created the world? Or had human beings created God? Eventually, with regret, I left my convent and, once freed of this burden of depression, doubt and inadequacy, I felt my belief in God slip quietly away.

I do not think my experience is unusual. Most of us first hear about God at about the same time as we are told about Santa Claus. Over the years, our ideas of Santa change, mature and develop, yet our idea of God can get stuck at an infantile level. We are not encouraged to develop it in the same way. But everything changed for me when I sat down to write a book called A History of God. I had expected it to follow the same line as my previous, somewhat skeptical books: I thought I would show how the concept of God had been constantly rejigged by theologians to answer current perplexities and needs. But this time, my circumstances were different. I had just suffered a major career disaster: my television career had folded in ignominy, I was very hard up; my friends had all disappeared, and I was living in a remote (cheap) part of London. All day and every day, I was alone -- and in silence. Theology is poetry, and you cannot read a complex poem in a noisy nightclub; you need to have a quiet, receptive mind. Further, there was now no television crew to urge me on to be clever and provocative. There was just me and the text, and gradually, the words began to take on a new significance.

I suddenly found that I was learning a great deal from other religious traditions. From Judaism, I learned to never stop asking questions -- about anything! -- and never to imagine that I had come to the end of what I could know and say about God. Jews even refuse to speak God’s name, as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous. From the Eastern and the Russian Orthodox Christians, I learned that Jesus was the first human being to be totally possessed by God -- just as Buddha was the first enlightened human being in our historical era -- and that we can all be like him, even in this life. From the Quran, I learned that all religious traditions that teach justice, compassion and respect for all others have come from God. And I was enthralled to find this quotation from the great 13th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi:

Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; if you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will fail to realise the real truth of the matter. God the omnipresent and omniscient cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says in the Quran: "Wheresover ye turn, there is the face of Allah."

I discovered that it was common for a Sufi to claim that she was equally at home in a synagogue, mosque, temple or a church, and was neither a Jew, not Christian nor Muslim, because once you have glimpsed the divine, you have left these limited human distinctions behind.

While I was sitting at my desk, I would find that I had moments when I felt deeply touched within and lifted momentarily beyond myself. I felt that I inhabited my humanity more fully than usual. Was this God? If so, what was God? But then I remembered that if I thought I could answer this question, I would miss the whole point. So, my study has become my prayer. It is similar to the "divine study" that Benedictine monks do each day; they immerse themselves in a text and get a mini-second of oratio or "prayer."

It seems odd to finish my quest by realizing how little I know. But that is the way human beings experience the world. No matter how much we know, something always eludes us. If we can just let go of our desire to know it all and be in control -- which brings us so much anxiety -- we experience great freedom. The world is no longer cut down to suit our tiny minds; instead, we see fresh possibility and mystery in every thing and everybody around us. Unknowing is built into the human condition. At the beginning of the 20th century, people thought that there were just a few outstanding questions left in the system discovered in the 17th century by Isaac Newton, and that soon our understanding of the universe would be complete. Then, 20 years later, Albert Einstein brought us quantum physics and presented us with an indeterminate, incomprehensible universe. Yet this was not frustrating, but a source of great joy. This is how Einstein explained the experience:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger...is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms -- this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.

How To Let Go

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