Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Religion Helps Us Live In Serenity"

Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III

In his most recent conversation at Washington's National Cathedral about the intersection of faith and public life, the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III interviewed Karen Armstrong, the popular religious historian-philosopher. He called the writing in her most recent book The Case For God "limpidly clear".

This is not a lady shy about taking on today's most vociferous atheists, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and so on, and tackling their arguments head on. She says that quarreling about religion at all is aggressive and counterproductive on both sides because ego comes into play. The entire conversation is available here in a webcast.

Karen Armstrong

Yet she also goes on to claim that they don't know much about religion. If they are saying that all religion is fundamentalist, they're incorrect. She says that fundamentalism is a theology of fear that distorts religion and is aggressive. She says that in all the world except Western Europe, religion is now increasing, although not all religion is good and skillful.

What is God?

She goes on to define God. It's far more than what comes up on Google, in a lighter moment, she says. God is the God of everyone. Our minds can't prove God, she says, because our minds aren't equipped to understand anything more than a limited form of existence. God is all, everything, transcendent.

God is beyond what words can do, that moment of "silent awe" (such as during last week's excellent sermon) and at the end of each of Dr. Lloyd's sermons, in a musical performance, in poetry, that "silent moment" is where God is. Theology at its best should help you enter that moment of silence. She also thinks our notion of existence is far too limited, as it reminds us of the inadequacy of words.

At this point, Dr. Lloyd makes the point that God is outside us, and also comes close to us intimately in a paradoxical way. He says that for everything we say about God, the opposite is true (although I am likely mangling what he is saying.)

The History of Science and Religion

Armstrong says that science and religion used to be best friends, but after Newton, who believed that the solar system proved the existence of God, scientists began to dispense with the idea of God as central to their understanding of the universe. Where people thought of God as a fact rather than a symbol, God was an idol.

Dr. Lloyd says that interpreters were "playful with text" and allowed texts to take them to surprising places back in history.

Armstrong continued with that idea by saying that scripture was incomplete and needs human ingenuity, that we have lost the confidence to interpret it.

Dr. Lloyd says that religion is a practical exercise where we learn the truth.

Armstrong said that religion is like dancing, you have to do dedicated practice, with constant efforts of the mind (all day long) to bring you to a state of transcendence, to develop compassion, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. She says that looking into yourself, your own heart, and never inflicting pain on others is most important.

This theological discussion rambled around many points that I can't begin to do justice to in this short post, but I'll press bravely on anyway...

"Charter for Compassion"

Karen Armstrong and Dr. Lloyd began to discuss beliefs, that Jesus wants commitment and trust in God, the Father. "I believe in order that I may understand" really means, she thinks, that "I engage or involve myself" to understand. First you live, then you encounter transcendence, to try to understand a love that could be more powerful than death. The Golden Rule:"Do not do to others what you would not have done to you" she says, expresses the compassion that runs through world religions.

Armstrong has won a TED award for her work and is committed to restoring compassion to the center of religious and moral life. She says compassion is what all religions need now. She is gathering thousands signing in to her organization "Charter for Compassion", with eighty religious group partners worldwide working together. The organization will have an official opening November 12 in Washington, D.C.

Armstrong was asked about the future of religious pluralism, and she is optimistic that religions are reaching out to each other, but will retain their own identity as people cling to the familiar. It is useful for religions to learn the best of other religions and see how others have done better.

She was also asked about the role of technology in religion, a question already asked earlier participants in this series, and she believes that it can bring us together, as she is with her new organization. We can use technology to support our work for a more compassionate world.

She also mentioned that we are at our best selves when we give our selves away, and that we fear not just death but total extinction. We are creatures that crave meaning when we look at pain, cruelty and disasters. She says that religion helps us live in serenity if we work at it, but admits "it's hard work."


As a footnote, last but not least, I have to apologize for any inaccuracies I have made. In addition, I have really been enjoying watching video-streaming of the Services of Worship. It's another way to enjoy my lifelong love of God. This new technology is doing what radios and television have been doing for years. It's great for those of us who can't attend, perhaps a few hours away like myself, and don't want to miss the service. For that, I am most grateful to the National Cathedral. Must say the technology, the camera angles and seeing the front of the Cathedral, the choir and the organist up close are thrilling to watch.

Of course, I also wish to thank Dean Lloyd for the warm welcome he extends to all, especially visitors, at the beginning of each and every service, as well as his further welcome to those of us from different faiths and heritages. We appreciate having this opportunity to learn from these Sunday Forums, and for the technology and donations it takes to fund the programs. Please give generously to the National Cathedral at

This post is completely independent of and not sanctioned by the National Cathedral.

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