The Spiral Staircase


I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, and have found it absorbing. It’s the second book by Armstrong that I’ve read, the first being Buddha, and I so far I find myself feeling a strong connection to Armstrong, of course, not because I was in a religious order: I feel the connection because religion and faith always seem a part of my life–if there are constants in it, religion is high on the list–and yet I feel no connection to God or faith at all. Even as a child, I didn’t feel this connection, no sense at all that God was a presence in my life or looked after my well being (if there is a God, and that God has been looking after me, he’s been pretty cruddy); and yet I’ve yearned for an understanding, for a real answer as to whether that God is real or not. (And no Bible quotes from anyone commenting on this blog entry, especially from fundies–you’re a big problem in my loss of faith, and not a solution; if there is a God, he ought to smite you.)

God’s general cruddy behavior toward me–it’s a big issue. As Armstrong progresses in her autobiography, she finds herself helping take care of an austistic child, Jacob, and at one point she suddenly has to face Jacob having an epileptic seizure: “It seemed unfair. Jacob had only recently started to have seizures. Did he not have enough to deal with? 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.”

There’s the rub: An “overseeing deity…apportioning trials and rewards according to some inscrutable program of his own….”–that’s the bit that gets me. If I’ve felt any sense of connection to God, it’s only through trials, with few rewards (if any), that I seem to experience God, this supposing loving God, who has puzzled me for most of my life. In adolescence, for instance, I yearned to have sex, was aroused as naturally and normally as any teenaged boy, and yet God said it was wrong to fornicate, and in one extreme Jesus suggests self-mutilation for simply thinking about something sinful. And then to discover a love object and get rejected by that person, and fear asking her out, and feel a sense that God is punishing you for even desiring her–the virginal one who follows Him and seems always rewarded by Him–and that combination becomes self-hatred and bewilderment that in some way lasts a lifetime. And this is divine love? How can I love a God, or conceive of such a Being who has created such a torment of trials?

Bewilderment with the secular world is another connection I find reading Armstrong, especially her sense of lack of self confidence. In the sixties, after she left convent life, and while at Oxford University, she saw students all around her who had such confidence in themselves, where she hardly had a sense of self, of who she was or what she could make of herself. (So far, as I read, she has come to the point in which she is trying to destroy that sense of self through annorexia.) To this day, I experience a sense of bewilderment, even as I try to pour myself deeper into the secular world, to understand it, I can’t seem to find my place in it. I see and hear and read writers in their 20s and 30s–my contemporaries–and what do they have that I don’t? I seem to have an innate ability to write. Armstrong sought to become a scholar; and yet somehow, despite getting her doctorate, is at first rejected–the Oxford dons can’t imagine her as a prof within the groves of academe, nor can she imagine herself there. I try so hard at writing and so far I feel rejected. My own alma mater rejected me last year in its creative writing program. I must have some kind of talent, some ability with words. What makes me different from my contemporaries? One thing I see: Religion seems inconsequential in their lives, even if they are believers. Has religion stunted me? Can I see beyond God and find myself and write?

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One thought on “The Spiral Staircase

  1. Pingback: Karen Armstrong on Fresh Air « Exile on Ninth Street

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