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I saw a fascinating discussion on agnosticism between theologian Karen Armstrong and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger this evening, held in the wonderfully atmospheric crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral (check out my low-fi photo). It was one of those great London evenings – brilliant minds, in an amazing location…and free!

Armstrong gave a fluent and erudite talk – she’s obviously very familiar with her subject matter, and she weaves together ideas from a multitude of spiritual traditions like a magician spinning plates. Her thesis, which I think comes from her latest book, The Case For God, is that the New Atheists have got religion all wrong. True religion is not about beliefs, nor about facts. That’s a distortion which she traces to the 17th century. Instead, “religious knowledge is a form of practical knowledge, like swimming or driving. You can’t learn how to swim by sitting on the side of the pool theorising. You have to get in. Religions are programmes for action. They’re about changing your behaviour at a profound level.”
So, Rusbridger asked her, what would this practice consist of? She said: “The greatest religious sages all say, the heart of the practice should be compassion. It’s the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated. It’s a question of constantly stepping out of your ego and putting yourself in another person’s shoes. And it doing it all day and every day. You can’t just say ‘that’s my good deed for the day’.”
Rusbridger said: “I thought you meant something else by practice, rather than compassion, which seems like something different.” He returned to the comparison of religion with musical practice: “I play the piano, and I’m actually writing a book about practicing the piano – I’m practicing the same piece every day, and there are moments where all the practice pays off and I’m not thinking but just playing, maybe that’s something like it.”
As I was listening, it struck me that the two were talking about different forms of practice. Armstrong was talking about Christian practice, which is really about the practice of charity, compassion, good works, self-abnegation and so on. And Rusbridger was talking about practice in the Greek or Aristotelian sense: you practice something over and over until you become a virtuoso at it, and it becomes ‘second nature’. One path is about abnegation and humility, and the other is about achieving excellence at something – it’s not really self-denial at all, it’s self-development.
John Stuart Mill wrote about these two different concepts of practice in On Liberty. He wrote: “There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic: a conception of humanity having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is one of the elements of human worth, as well as ‘Christian self-denial’.” The Pagans were into the practice of self-denial as well, of course, but they practiced it for the sake of self-mastery, autonomy and moral excellence – not for the sake of others, exactly, though perhaps for the sake of achieving harmony with God.
In fact, there’s a suspicion of charity in Greek philosophy, which I have some sympathy with. The idea is that nobody can put you on your feet except you. Nobody can love you back to health when you’re broken. You have to put yourself back together. ‘Don’t smother me with charity. Show me how to stand on my own feet and then let me be my own boss’. Such is the spirit of pagan practice. It’s a kind of proud self-sufficiency, summed up in the philosopher-hobo Diogenes’ response to Alexander the Great, when the dictator asked him if there was anything he wanted from him. He replied ‘Only that you stop standing between me and the sun’.
I personally found that path helpful, when I was coming out of mental illness and emotional turmoil in my early twenties. I didn’t try to get rid of my ego through selfless love and charitable works for my fellow man. Well, actually, I did, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t bury my own problems beneath a forced love for my fellow man. I had to learn how to stand on my own two feet, which in my case meant learning not to need other people’s approval. I needed more autonomy and self-possession, not less.
Karen Armstrong also spoke about her own tough times, and how she’d suffered a breakdown after leaving the Catholic nunnery where she enrolled as a teenager. She said: “When I left the convent, I was broken. I had tried and failed to be a good nun. I would try to meditate on the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, but my mind would race off down every conceivable alley. God was not there. And I hated the idea of this god who was always peering over our shoulder, totting up our sins, marking down our faults. That god felt prurient and intrusive. I decided it was all nonsense. I even felt ill when I saw people reading religious books. But then, when I left the convent, I lived in depression for six years, I suffered from anorexia, I was suicidal. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I didn’t know how to live.”
So I asked her: what got her through that dark time? She replied: “What got me through was study.” She wrote a book on her experience as a nun. It did well. Then she made some documentaries about religion. She was good at it and her scholarly curiosity was excited. Then, when the TV company she worked for went bankrupt, she lived alone in a small flat in East Finchley, read a lot, and wrote some other books, which became very successful, and established her as a world-renowned scholar and religious expert.
Armstrong described her scholarly practice as a form of compassion – she was practicing compassion and understanding towards other people’s spiritual practices. Maybe. But perhaps, I suggested to her, what really got her through her dark times was not so much that she felt compassionate towards others – though that may have been a part of it – but that she became a really good writer, and a really good expert on the world’s religions, with something important to say to the world, to whom the world eventually listened. She got her shit together. She got good at something, having ‘failed’, as she put it, at being a nun. And being good at it gave her a reason for living.
Nobody was with her in that lonely flat in East Finchley. Nobody loved her back to wholeness. She did it for herself. So, really, that could be more like the pagan idea of arete, or excellence. You practice something, you stick to a discipline, you train yourself, and eventually perhaps you achieve excellence in it, as Armstrong achieved excellence at being a writer.
Armstrong replied: “It’s not like I sat there thinking how great my books were. I always want to get better. Any practice involves going beyond your ego, going beyond the rat-race of worrying about yourself, waking up at 3am feeling insecure. Your practice could be athletics, it could be music, it could be study, but it involves that going beyond yourself.”
Now, this may be true for the practice of being a Christian, but it clearly isn’t true for the other sorts of practice she mentioned. Great athletes tend to have big egos. They tend to wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about the big game the next day. Think of Jonny Wilkinson, practicing and practicing and practicing because it’s the only way he knows to stop himself worrying. Think of the big egos of the great musicians, or writers, or film-makers, who dare to break the rules, to flout tradition, to re-invent their form – and of their moments of profound self-doubt and insecurity.
Of course, as Aristotle knew, becoming excellent at a practice involves the virtues: discipline, self-control, detachment, the ability to cope with setbacks and defeats. It also involves discernment: the practical knowledge of when to follow the tradition and when to go beyond it. And I guess there are also those precious moments when you become so at one with the practice that you experience something like ego-lessness. But you wouldn’t say that compassion is at the heart of the pagan idea of practice. At the heart of it is the effort to be the best you can be.
Perhaps you need both kinds of practice. I’m reminded of Jean Vanier, who I interviewed earlier this year, who talked wisely about what is missing in the pagan path, which he studied as a young philosopher. He says, rightly I think, that it focuses too much on the idea of self-actualization, self-perfection, self-containment and the self-sufficiency of our reason. You follow it too far, you end up a perfectly self-sufficient island, cut off from others, because you won’t admit your need of others, or your inevitable weakness and frailties as a human being.
What I love in Vanier’s teaching is the idea of the encounter with others, the idea of meeting the other person, learning from them, opening up to their weaknesses, and accepting your own weakness in return. There’s an idea of giving and receiving in his philosophy which is absent in Greek philosophy. Vanier is what I would call a virtuoso in humility and compassion. Or is that a contradiction?