I just finished Karen Armstrong’s memoir, The Spiral Staircase. (By coincidence, the book section in today’s Guardian has an excellent biographical piece about her. And Powell’s has an interview here.) Armstrong is a British woman who left the convent after seven years and the book details her struggles in coming to terms with a society she thought she rejected and a religiosity she thought she embraced. While the book itself is well-written, the final chapter, “To Turn Again,” may be the best and most meaningful explication of religion I’ve ever read — and I’m about as irreligious as you can get. While it could probably stand alone as an essay, the preceding chapters truly help bring better understanding of what she says in the final chapter.
While only part of the theme of the chapter, I found the following particularly relevant in light of what has happened over the last couple years and what is currently going on in Iraq:
What is vital to all of the [religious] traditions, however, is that we have a duty to make the best of the only thing that remains to us — ourselves. Our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies.
*** The September  apocalypse was a revelation — an “unveiling” of a reality that had been there all the time but which we had not seen clearly enough before: we live in one world. What happens in Gaza or Afghanistan today will have repercussions in New York or London tomorrow. We in the First World cannot continue to isolate ourselves in our wealth and good fortune. If we do that, those who feel dispossessed or excluded will come to us, in a terrible form. The study of other people’s religious beliefs is now no longer merely desirable, but necessary for our very survival. . . . . Nothing excuses the atrocities of that fateful day, but the Buddhists are right to remind us that the laws of karma are always a factor in human life: our deeds have consequences that we could never have predicted at the time.
Although I’ve read parts of her other work, this book will send me back to her prior books. While probably unachievable at any time in the foreseeable future (if ever), the ideas and concepts Karen Armstrong expresses in the final chapter of this book serve as worthy goals for all. Karen Armstrong has taken a significant place on my list of “heroes.”