Ex-nun embraces religion though skeptical of God

Circling spiritual issues

The Spiral Staircase
My Climb out of Darkness
By Karen Armstrong
KNOPF; 306 Pages; $24

How is a writer made? Because professional writers are so much more likely than anyone else to write autobiographies, we seem to know more about their lives than we do of any other profession. And yet so many of those books concentrate almost exclusively on the outward life and circumstances — stories of publishers and fellow writers, of conferences and retreats, of paperback deals and media appearances — and say almost nothing of substance about the actual person, the one who stands (or hides) behind the public figure, the one who writes.

Karen Armstrong’s enjoyable and deeply interesting autobiography, “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness,” stands in opposition to this trend. Here we will find no name-dropping, no writers’ conferences and barely a mention of the publishing business; the book is, rather, the story of the making of a writer.

“The Spiral Staircase” picks up where her first book, “Through the Narrow Gate,” leaves off: in 1969, when Armstrong ended her seven-year stint as a nun and attempted to re-enter the secular world. It is the story of her struggle to find a place in that world, to come to terms with the damages inflicted by seven years in an oppressively structured environment, to deal with illnesses and disabilities including eating disorders, depression and epilepsy-induced blackouts, and to sort out her religious views.

Of course, the struggle with personal demons — whether addiction, abuse or, as here, depression — has become a memoirist’s cliche; but “The Spiral Staircase” is not a typical entry in this genre, either. Unlike those memoirists who want to make as much as possible of their illnesses and disabilities, Armstrong, admirably, wants to make as little of them as possible. When she is diagnosed with epilepsy (an event much delayed not only on account of the nuns’ insistence that her problems were all in her mind but by her psychiatrists’ similar assumption) her reaction is one of simple relief, even elation: “I knew now that my mind was neither broken nor irretrievably flawed [...] perhaps for the first time ever, I felt that I could take charge of my life.”

What interests her, ultimately, is her mind’s capacities, not its incapacities. The world, for her, is a philosophical problem; if she is unhappy, she assumes that it is because she has not yet figured things out.

Indeed, the book’s primary achievement is that it manages to dramatize the writer’s process of intellectual development and to find in it genuine interest and, indeed, suspense.

As such, this is a deeply personal book. But “personal” books usually concern relationships, particularly love affairs, and these are almost entirely absent. Armstrong is, by her own account, exceedingly solitary. The one relationship that matters is her relationship with God. What is particularly fascinating — and, for this reader, problematic — is that this is a relationship with someone who, in Armstrong’s view, probably does not exist.

Armstrong strikes the note of religious skepticism early on. In the convent, she found herself unable to experience the presence of God as one was supposed to. Later, assigned to take care of an epileptic child, she is struck by the apparent injustice of things:

“I wanted to blame somebody, and God was the obvious target, but somehow I could not get into this. Did I really believe that there was a Being up there somehow responsible for everything that happens on Earth, including Jacob’s disabilities? No, I did not. Not only did it seem highly unlikely that there was an overseeing deity supervising earthly events, apportioning trials and rewards according to some inscrutable program of his own, but the idea was also grotesque. If there was a loving providence, it bore no relation to any kind of love that I could conceive.”

Reasonable thoughts, given the circumstances.

What is odd, though, is that Armstrong never really retreats from this skepticism, even when, near the end, it becomes apparent that her “climb out of darkness” is not, as early chapters might suggest, a journey away from religion’s irrationalism and toward a clear-sighted secularism, but rather a return from what Armstrong regards as an existentially bleak and shallow secularism to a religious life she describes as “more intense [and] shot through with transcendent meaning.” This raises an obvious question: How can a person who does not believe in God find meaning in a religious existence? Armstrong invokes a kind of pragmatism: We should be religious not because we really believe it, but because it makes us better, more compassionate, more fulfilled. “[F]aith was not about belief but about practice. … The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing.” Elsewhere she describes how eminent theologians have “insisted that God was not an objective fact, was not another being, and was not an unseen reality like the atom, whose existence could be empirically demonstrated.” Therefore, the existence or nonexistence of God can be rejected as irrelevant to religion.

Ours is a pragmatic age, and many may find this pragmatic approach to religion attractive. But I find it profoundly unconvincing and deeply puzzling, and I think it ought to be rejected by people on both sides of the religious- secular divide. Believers should complain (and many will) that Armstrong’s way of being religious is fundamentally shallow, allowing people to avoid genuine commitment and reject God in their hearts while merely going through the motions in order to reap certain psychological benefits.

Secularists should challenge Armstrong’s assumption that there is an essential link between religion and compassion, which suggests both that atheists and agnostics cannot be genuinely compassionate (obviously false) and that religion tends to make people more compassionate (at the very least, not clearly true, particularly in light of recent events).

They will also want to ask how Armstrong deals with the problem of evil – - the fact that, in light of the world’s rampant injustice, the idea of God is not just implausible but “grotesque” — which troubles Armstrong in the early chapters but seems to evaporate later on.

Finally, people on both sides of the fence should be quick to point out that the mere fact that a belief has beneficial effects of some sort does not mean that it is true and should ask Armstrong just what the word “objective” is supposed to mean in the phrase “objective fact.” (Existing as an “objective fact” is not a special way of existing; something exists or it doesn’t — which is not to say that we cannot wonder whether it exists, only that we cannot brush aside the issue as irrelevant.)

These are reservations about the position espoused in the final chapter, not about the book as a whole. If “The Spiral Staircase” were a novel, I would say that I enjoyed it most of the way through but did not buy the ending. As a memoir, my response is only slightly different. It is regrettable that what begins as, and purports to be, a journey out of darkness, ends up looking like a journey into a philosophical muddle.

Nonetheless, as an account of the intellectual journey of an intelligent and unique individual, the book is often gripping, sometimes moving and ultimately very rewarding.

Troy Jollimore teaches philosophy at California State University at Chico.

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