Karen Armstrong (b. November 14, 1944 in Wildmoor, Worcestershire, England) is an author who writes on Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. Armstrong is a former nun, now a "freelance monotheist" . She has advanced the theory that fundamentalist religion is a response to and product of modern culture. She was born into a family with Irish roots who after her birth moved to Bromsgrove and later to Birmingham. According to professor Juan Eduardo Campo, Karen Armstrong has been influential in conveying the more objective post-19th-century scholarship of Islam to a wide reading in Europe and North America. .
From 1962 to 1969, Karen Armstrong was a nun in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. This was a teaching order, and once she had advanced from postulant and novice to professed nun, she was sent to St Anne's College, Oxford University, where she studied English. Armstrong left the order during her course of study. After graduating, she embarked on a Ph.D. (still at Oxford) on Alfred, Lord Tennyson. She continued to work on it while later teaching at the University of London, but her thesis was rejected by an external examiner. She eventually left academia without completing her doctorate.
This period was marked by ill-health (Armstrong's life-long, but at that time undiagnosed, epilepsy as described in The Spiral Staircase (2004)) and her readjustment to outside life. In 1976, she became an English teacher at a girls' school in Dulwich, but her epilepsy caused her to miss too many school days, and she was asked to leave in 1981.
Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate in 1982, which described the restricted and narrow life she experienced in the convent (and earned her the enmity of many British Catholics). In 1984 she was asked to write and present a documentary on the life of St. Paul. The research for the documentary made Armstrong look again at religion, despite having abandoned religious worship after she left the convent. She has since become a prolific writer on subjects touching on all of the three major monotheistic religions.
She is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar.
Armstrong has written a number of articles for The Guardian. Her latest book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, was published in March 2006; a revision of her biography of Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, was published in October of 2006 by Harper Collins.
In 2006, she appeared on BBC Radio 4's "Desert Island Discs". She also made commentaries on the documentary, "The Fundamentalists".
Armstrong has advanced a counter-intuitive theory of religious fundamentalism , key to understanding the movements as they emerged in the late fifteenth and twentieth centuries:
Central to her reading of history is the notion that premodern cultures possessed two complementary and indispensable ways of thinking, speaking and knowing: mythos and logos. Mythos was concerned with meaning; it "provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal" . Logos, on the other hand, dealt with practical matters. It forged ahead, elaborating on old insights, mastering the environment, and creating fresh and new things. Armstrong argues that modern Western society has lost the sense of mythos and enshrined logos as its foundation. Mythical narratives and the rituals and meanings attached to them have ceded authority to that which is rational, pragmatic and scientific - but which does not assuage human pain or sorrow, and cannot answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. However, far from embarking on a wholesale rejection of the modern emphasis in favour of the old balance, the author contends, religious fundamentalists unwittingly turn the mythos of their faith into logos. Fundamentalism is a child of modernity, and fundamentalists are fundamentally modern.
Armstrong is a prolific scholar of religions and has written on a multitude of faiths. She described her personal religious beliefs in a C-Span interview in 2000:
|I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist. I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can't see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles' heels. But recently, I've just written a short life [story] of the Buddha, and I've been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.