Karen Armstrong: Who cares about Heaven?

heavenIt's difficult to decide who is more insufferable when Deborah Solomon of The New York Times Magazine interviews former nun Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God and, most recently, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Consider this sample:

You spent seven years in a convent, but in your new memoirs, "The Spiral Staircase," you describe yourself as a failed nun.

I was a lousy nun. I couldn't do it. I couldn't find God. It wasn't suitable for me. It is suitable for very few people.

In the decades since, you have become a distinguished scholar of Islam, but I get the impression that you don't believe in God.

It depends on what you mean by God. I believe in holiness and sacredness in other people. It doesn't mean that the clouds part and I see God. That's a juvenile way of thinking about it.

Do you believe in the afterlife?

I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.

Solomon turns philosophical:

If there's so much similarity among world religions, why have wars been fought for centuries?

Because of egotism. Compassion is not a popular virtue. A lot of people see God as a sacred seal of approval on some of their worst fantasies about other people. With the election coming up in the United States, we'll be hearing a lot about God being either a Democrat or a Republican.

Then she's discussing a painful bit of personal history with the all the subtlety of Dr. Phil:

You had a nervous breakdown before you left the convent. I wonder how you feel about the current widespread use of antidepressants.

We live in a culture where we think we shouldn't be depressed and we demand things, including good moods. But you should be depressed if, say, your child dies. It's a shame to miss it by blocking yourself off.

Oh, that's so Catholic of you to ennoble suffering.

No. It's a very Buddhist idea. Suffering in itself can be really bad.

For better examples of the brief Q&A form, consult Time's weekly 10 Questions feature, Entertainment Weekly's 10 Stupid Questions (not available online from EW, sadly, but here's a sample chat with actor David Morse) or even James Lipton's widely lampooned delivery of the Bernard Pivot Questionnaire on Inside the Actor's Studio.

And when reading Deborah Solomon hold forth on theology, it helps to remember that another of her questions once described Mary Magdalene as "Christ's girlfriend." Consider it the Jesus Christ Superstar Canon.

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