Saturday, April 02, 2016


Karen Armstrong

This is a “compare and contrast” exercise between two women who approach “religion” in quite different ways.  One is Karen Armstrong, an Irish woman who began as a nun and through scholarship about the world’s “great” religions has reached “success” as a speaker and historian of religion.  She is explicitly a promoter of compassion and peace who has organized a “non-profit” called “Charter for Compassion” whose symbol is the sign for infinity that is fraying on one end.  I don’t quite get it.

Anyway, this is the definition of a charter:  “a written grant by a country's legislative or sovereign power, by which an institution such as a company, college, or city is created and its rights and privileges defined.  Synonyms:  authority, authorization, sanction, dispensation, consent, permission.”  It looks to me as though you can take the girl out of the convent, but you can’t take the convent out of the girl.  There’s gonna be a pope in here someplace and I can only hope his name is Francis.

There are all kinds of dimensions, meetings, sub-organizations, and even a store where you can buy t-shirts.  To join, one simply signs up, as though for any other non-profit newsletter (which will be the mailing list for request for money, like the Humane Society of the United States, another compassion-based organization) or for a Unitarian Universalist fellowship or church, though that sign-up will be in a book.  Lists are the basis of organizations — even nations.  This is why the churches have always been willing to keep the lists of who’s born, who marries, who dies.  Religious institutions are founded on organization.  They are sales franchises.  The dogma is just a sales pitch.

Ursula LeGuin

If you think religion is organized and structured, justified by theology, kept effective by hierarchical management and money, then you will not think the other woman I want to talk about is even religious.  Her specialty has been iconoclasm.  Ursula LeGuin is a self-described anarchist and pacifist — so the two women both want peace.  But LeGuin plays with structure, knows that it is rooted in the environment’s requirements for survival, and understands that everything is always subject to unpredictable consequences.  She plays with the core ordering concept of sex and gender roles.  Her characters (fiction) change genders, are intra-gender, just as they are flexible about “races”, sometimes treated as almost different species — so what if they were?

Behind the figure of LeGuin is not the Pope, but the phantom of Ishi, the last of his indigenous tribe, who was rescued by LeGuin’s father and written about by her mother.  She herself was born too late to have met him.  I do not travel in the rarefied circles of Karen Armstrong who received a prize for her work — not from Templeton but TED.  But I used to run into LeGuin every now and then when I lived in Portland.  I lived a couple blocks from a feminist bookstore on NE Broadway and she was in and out of there.  She even sold homemade stapled booklets from their shelves, one of which I regret giving away:  it was a gentle mockery of liturgy that included the directions for doing the schottische if you’re a scottie dog, with the usual little diagrams for where to put your paws — er, feet.

When people in general think of “religion” they think of Karen Armstrong’s world.  The anonymous Wikipedia says:  “In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present a television documentary on the life of St. Paul, The First Christian, a project that involved traveling to the Holy Land to retrace the steps of the saint. Armstrong described this visit as a "breakthrough experience" that defied her prior assumptions and provided the inspiration for virtually all her subsequent work. In A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), she traces the evolution of the three major monotheistic traditions from their beginnings in the Middle East up to the present day and also discusses Hinduism and Buddhism.”  They have to be “great” as in “great big” and they have to be bureaucratic.

The contrast in terms of LeGuin is Dao/Tao.  (Do you say “saddle” or “sattle”?)  “Taoism is not a religion, nor a philosophy. It is a "Way" of life. It is a River. The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living and sentient object, as well as through the entire universe.”  (Ellie Crystal)  The most recent scientific work on “deep time” and “big history” is very much along these lines and pulling those who work with the concepts into a kind of mystical regard for existence that will probably form itself into an influence on governance and boundaries.  Not by signing everyone up and making them pay taxes, but from a kind of ethical point of view that understands symbiosis and does not think profit justifies death by neglect — neither humans nor landscapes.

It’s telling that the British Channel Four considers St. Paul the first Christian.  I know what they mean: Jesus was a Jew boy.  Only when there was an organization were there "Christians."  But surely there is something ironic about Jesus Christ not being the first Christian.  Was it Gandhi or some other wry commentator who was asked what he thought of Christianity and said, “It sounds like a good idea.  I think they should try it.”  

Forgiveness, lunching with whores, going fishing with brothers, overturning the tables of money-changers, telling stories.  That’s Jesus.  Writing endless letters to little congregations to get them to grow, that’s Paul.  (The latest thing in seminaries is preparing ministers for a congregationless, denominationless world.  It’s been tried before, usually because the franchises are shrinking and are suddenly inspired to throw in together.)  Paul is a good manager trying to improve performance.  It would be more honest to call Christians “Paulists.”  Of course, real Paulists send women back to the kitchen.

LeGuin writes fiction and poetry, not rules and dogma.  She says, “In my own mind I’ve moved on quite far from the utopia of The Dispossessed to the semi-utopia of Always Coming Home, where I did try to make it simply a lifestyle. There was no political basis at all, in the sense of European or large nation politics, therefore people think that I was trying to idolize the American Indians or something. What I took from the Indians was, essentially, running your lives without a central government and using consensus as the basic mode, which you can’t do in a big society, it’s a matter of numbers. But I wanted to think out what it might be like.”

We need a word for “way of life” that’s not “lifestyle” which implies buying a lot of stuff for your house, clothes closet, and kitchen.  More emphasis on what one does, what one produces, how one relates to everything else.  “Commodification” and national boundaries are about exhausted except in the Third World.  So here’s what LeGuin is thinking about now:

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) founded one of the major philosophies of ancient Greece, helping to lay the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism. Many aspects of his thought are still highly relevant some twenty-three centuries after they were first taught in his school in Athens, called “the Garden.”  “Epicurus's philosophy combines a physics based on an atomistic materialism with a rational hedonistic ethics that emphasizes moderation of desires and cultivation of friendships. His world-view is an optimistic one that stresses that philosophy can liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural, and can teach us how to find happiness in almost any situation. His practical insights into human psychology, as well as his science-friendly world-view, gives Epicureanism great contemporary significance as well as a venerable role in the intellectual development of Western Civilization.”  

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