Bill Moyer’s words about theologian Karen Armstrong are: “(Her) great passion, as a self-described ‘monotheistic free-lancer’, is to get the world’s three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity-to unite in practicing faith, hope, and charity, especially charity.”* Armstrong is author of A History of God, Islam, The Bible: A Biography, Buddha, and The Case for God. I haven’t read any of these, but I have seen them on the shelves in book stores and was intrigued by her titles. I love having my brain stretched, but sometimes I get tired of sitting with a heavy dictionary in my lap. After reading Moyer’s interview of Armstrong, I think I might have to dive in.
During his interview of her, Moyers brought up to Armstrong the challenging passages of the scriptures from the three traditions that drip with blood and violence, even using words calling followers to violent action. I know the passages well. It has resulted in my setting the Bible aside for many years. Such passages are present in both Testaments as well as the Koran. Armstrong related the work of early rabbis who insisted that “any interpretation of scripture that read hatred or contempt for any single human being was illegitimate.” I had actually come to this conclusion myself. I took a woman by surprise one day when she cited a passage from the Bible that encouraged discrimination and I responded, “Oh, I don’t pay attention to those passages.”
According to Armstrong, the one thing these three monotheistic religions have in common is the Golden Rule. It is in each of the scriptures and in the teachings of other religions, such as Buddhism, as well. She tells the story of Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus. When asked to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching, he replied with the Golden Rule. “That which is hateful to you,” he said, “do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah.” She cited St. Augustine who said that scripture teaches nothing but charity. And if you come to a passage that seems to preach hatred, you’ve got to give it an allegorical or metaphorical interpretation…and make it speak of charity.
Armstrong had made some pretty strong statements about the way the three religions operate in the world today: “(They) have a besetting tendency,” she said. “That is, idolatry…taking a human idea, a human idea of god, a human doctrine, and making it absolute, putting it in the place of God.” She added to this, “Of course, there have been secular idolatries, too. Nationalism was a great idolatry.” She goes on to show the danger of this kind of idolatry: “Once you’ve (taken) something (that is) essentially finite (and) made it absolute, it is then (necessary) to destroy any other rival claimants. Because there can only be one absolute.”
I love what Armstrong attributed to Confusius: “If you don’t like hearing your own traditions traduced, then have the discipline not to traduce the traditions of others.” “It’s hard,” she said. “People who say it’s a simplistic idea, obviously, never tried to practice the Golden Rule, as Confucius (suggested) – all day and every day.”
Armstrong is working toward bringing together world and religious leaders to make a statement to the world about this common thread of the Golden Rule as well as one that addresses the harm done by those who would take and apply scriptures that call people to do violence toward others. I look forward to this statement and, if asked, I will add my name to it.
*From Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues