karen-armstrongOne of the authors who has advanced the cause of interfaith understanding through their works is Karen Armstrong.  She has written scholarly books in such a readable way that a broader public can access them.

Armstrong’s journey took her from the convent to the university to global media, and from faith to unbelief to a renewed faith that she calls “freelance monotheism.” Born in Britain, Armstrong joined the Society of the Holy Child Jesus as a teenager, eventually becoming a nun. She entered into academic circles both as a student and teacher in English, but severe health problems made that course difficult for her. Her faith had eroded to the point she was actually hostile to religion. Then in 1984 she was sent to Jerusalem to do a religious documentary on St. Paul, partly to debunk religion, but being in Jerusalem transformed her attitude. Her yearning for the transcendent was reawakened in this city holy to the three Abrahamic faiths.

As Armstrong explored Judaism, Christianity and Islam she began to focus on what unites the faiths. She started to write books on comparative religion, including her highly successful A History of God. She saw the key to religion not in belief but in behavior. She writes “The one and only test of a valid religious idea…was that it must lead directly to practical compassion.” For her the Golden Rule as expressed in the various faiths is a common thread that can direct all people.

The challenge of how to live in a constructive relationship with other faiths has been with human societies throughout history. Armstrong analyzes the dynamics of religious fundamentalism in different religions, but calls for something deeper that is in each of them. “We need to create a new narrative, get out of the rat-run of hatred, chauvinism and defensiveness; and make the authentic voice of religion a power in the world that is conducive to peace.”

Armstrong has taught at a rabbinical school, been a speaker in Islamic conferences because of her perceived “more objective” view of Islam as a Westerner, and been a frequent commentator in many religious programs in the media. Though some critics charge her with using different standards to evaluate Judaism and Christianity on the one hand than she does with Islam on the other, her work has made many world religions accessible to people struggling to understand those who are different from them. Her recent works on the Buddha have taken her beyond the Abrahamic faiths, but still with the focus on how to bring compassionate action out of the heart of religion. As the Roosevelt Institute put it when awarding her the Freedom of Worship Award in 2008, Armstrong has become “a significant voice, seeking mutual understanding in times of turbulence, confrontation and violence among religious groups.” The Institute praised her for “her personal dedication to the ideal that peace can be found in religious understanding, for her teachings on compassion , and her appreciation for the positive sources of spirituality.”