It's amazing to me how adding that last sentence changes the way I read this passage. Her testimony about the discipline required to practice compassion and its capacity to change a person is powerful. There is really no more important spiritual practice than learning to be compassionate.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: ... I used, you know, to be a really spiteful human being.
BILL MOYERS: No.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. and also, from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, "I would really hate to be your enemy," because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.
I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the "science of compassion." There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.
And Latin--the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century text as, poor soul. You know?
And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.
And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn't any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations-
BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I've heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, "I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?"
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, "This is all rubbish." You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn't know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.
It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It's a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn't mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means-- ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it's ego that hold us back from what we call God.
BILL MOYERS: You speak of the change in you. You're talking about a personal transformation. But take the next step. What would bring about the kind of real change in society and in politics that would be an extrapolation of or a continuation in community of what you're talking about?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Okay. Not to treat other nations or other... in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: Unless they've attacked you.KAREN ARMSTRONG: Even so, I mean, there was a chance after 9/11, you know, when something different would have been done....
Then I read that last sentence and I think about the opportunity squandered by Bush after 9/11 to really unite the country and the world and begin to address some of our deep problems, and I must confess that I find it difficult to feel compassion for him. He made such a mess of the world and he was so arrogant about it right up to the end. The best I can do at this point is to say that in terms of both intellectual and emotional intelligence he was in way over his head. I can't imagine being him and being President.
I have some more work to do.