الكتابة والفلسفة والرحمةWriter and thinker Karen Armstrong engaged in a conversation with scholar and teacher Abbas Husain at the recent Karachi Literature Festival. They discussed Armstrong’s role as a writer, the lack of genuine dialogue in the modern world and the need to cultivate compassion
Do you see yourself as a writer? Or is writing merely a medium to get your message across?
I see myself as a writer. I only get the message from my long, long hours of study. And the process of writing actually clarifies things and as you are writing a book, things change all the time. It’s all part of the process where I get the message. Without it, I wouldn’t have this message at all.
What you are saying is in sync with what a good many creative writers have said, that the book got itself written.
Yes, but I would probably put it less mystically, though. I would say that in a sense, it seems as though the books talk back to you.
Hans Kung has said in his book, Islam: Past, present and future, that there will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions and no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. And that dialogue must investigate the foundations of the religions. Do you see your work as an application of this formulation?
I would say that there would be no peace in the world unless there is peace among the nations first. I think it is not religions that make these problems. Of course, once a political conflict has got started, religion, like everything else in the society, gets sucked up into it. Our modernity has been especially violent, and it is not surprising that religion has soaked up some of that modern intransigence. But certainly, we need to have openness about the foundations of religions, all of them.
Hence in the charter of compassion you say that children of all ages have a right to accurate and correct and respectful information, rather than demeaning and hostile stereotypes?
With what we know now about other religions in depth, which we didn’t know two or three hundred years ago because communications weren’t so good, it is impossible to say that only one faith has value.
One thing that resonates with me, among many others, is your statements on dialogue. Debate, discussion, dialogue, are three modes of conversation. Debate is when we talk about something we disagree about, discussion is when we disagree on some things but put them aside and talk about what is common. [see Quran3:64] But the point of the dialogue is deeper, the willingness to see the other also as a representation of the divine. How would you respond to that the fact that a good many times the word dialogue is abused in modern parlance?
Well, there isn’t much genuine dialogue going on right now, not in the Socratic way, whereby you enter the dialogue prepared to be changed by the encounter. Socratic dialogue, as Socrates himself understood it, meant that everybody ended up realising the depth of their ignorance. That is one thing. But in religious terms there are various doctrines that take us beyond what we know, into the great unknown. Because the divine, or what we call the divine, or the Brahman, or nirvana, sacred, is illimit-able and beyond words, it is not surprising that there are many different formulations and many different religions and we should expect that. And it is very enriching I think, if you open your mind.
I think the point of the dialogue is not to make you convert to a single faith, but it helps you to understand your own faith, by seeing its reflection in the Other. And you learn about yourself and you should deepen your understanding of faith, of your own tradition, rather than diminish that in any way.
I felt alienated from religion, for many, many years. I left my convent as a young girl and I wanted nothing to do with religion, ever again. Over the years, I started studying other traditions, Islam, Judaism, Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity initially. Then Chinese and Indian religions, Buddhism. The more I studied I began to see that there was much in my own tradition that I hadn’t understood. I saw what my own tradition was trying to do at its best and where it had fallen short perhaps.
In this conversation, I am noticing consistency in your use of the word depth. When I get to know the other, I learn the depth of my own tradition. When I enter in genuine dialogue, I am willing to change, but that change happens at a deep level. I feel that modernity has a freeze frame, a TV image, a one liner, that is endemic to our times and fatal to anything depth would bring us.
It can be. But the best of modernity, in its novels, poetry, science, physics for instance, could teach us how little we know, and take us to the end of what we know. There is certainly the soundbite, the superficial, and also we often have information rather than wisdom. We often don’t know how to access the facts we have easily available on our laptops. The stress on empirical, rational knowledge, that happened since the scientific revolution, has made it difficult for us to appreciate forms of knowledge that come from other sources, that come from the intuitive, the imaginative, and from quietness and contemplation.
There is always something that eludes us, that we never really grasp. That is part of our experience. And that is true about other people. We know other people so little. And yet we make these generalised remarks about them and make superficial assessments of whole cultures, not realising the depth and intricacy of each culture, each tradition. A half remembered article here, a television programme there, congeals our perceived ideas, our opinions.
Pakistan is a country of young people. Sixty three per cent of the people are twenty four and younger. That’s a lot of energy, a lot of passion. Based on the charter of compassion, what is that the young can do for the world, for the decade?
Do better than us. But we have got to help them do that, by teaching them of the compassionate nature of all spirituality or of all morality or of all ethics. That requires training. Compassion is rooted in our minds; it is natural to humanity. And when we meet a compassionate person, we recognise this. I mean, people flock literally, in tens of thousands, to listen to the Dalai Lama. They are pulled like a magnet to that. But there is not much education for us, to help us to acquire passion. Like any natural ability, compassion needs to be cultivated.