Monday, March 16, 2009

Karen Armstrong on Sympathetic Imagination

On Bill Moyer's Journal last week Karen Armstrong gave one of the best explanations of a historian's use of sympathetic imagination that I've ever heard. Here's what she said:

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. and also, from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, "I would really hate to be your enemy," because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.

I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the "science of compassion." There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.

And Latin--the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of "The Cloud of Unknowing," a 14th century text as, poor soul. You know?

And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.

And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn't any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations-

BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I've heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, "I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?"

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, "This is all rubbish." You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn't know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.

It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It's a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn't mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means-- ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it's ego that hold us back from what we call God.

1 comment:

Ms Achy said...

"Hi guys! This Conference sounds to be great! They have very interesting panels on identity and a featured panel on Barak Obama and you can also make a real African Safari...."


The Institute of Identity Research (IDmap) announces an international conference
on Identity Politics on the Internet to be held in Kenya on the 27th to 29th of
August 2009. The aim of the Conference is to create discourse in the area of
Identity politics on the Internet and other related topics.

The Conference will be graced by several leading scholars who have written and
researched extensively on issues of Identity. We hope that this conference will
result in solutions and better understanding of the problems facing issues of
identity in the contemporary context.

AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE

IDENTITY POLITICS ON THE INTERNET

August 27-29, 2009

Organized by Institute of Identity Research (IDmap)

http://www.idmap-conferences.net/site/detail/detail/detailDetail.asp?pageNameTXT=Conference-2009&depart_id=106967

Will be held in Amboseli Wildlife National Park, Kenya

Featured panel: Barack Obama' Election and Kenyan politics of Identity:
Will he identify himself with the World or with his People?


• The Dead line for submission of the Abstracts is 01.05.2009 (200-500 words)
in Word or PDF formats
• The Dead line for submission of full-text papers is 01.07.2009

Preliminary program of the Conference includes the following panels:
• Kenyan 2007 Presidential elections and the Internet
• Traditions and Identity in Kenyan politics: Barak Obama as a Luo
representative of Kenyan identity politics
• Facebook and Identity: do old ethnicity definitions still matter?
• World Identity politics: Case-studies and Comparative Analysis
• Parties and recruitment in the digital world
• Gender, ethnicity and empowerment: what is better to be a white man or a
black woman?
• When religion comes to the Internet: the new ways to build and reinforce
religious identity
• Government on the Internet: new ways to preserve Nation-state and its
identity on the Net
• New English and E-Linguistic: jargon and vocabulary of Internet campaigns

Participants are welcomed to join the following working groups:
• Computers and identity
• Culture and identity
• Mathematical expressions of identity
• Internet and Politics
• Internet Vocabulary

Best Identity MA/PhD Thesis work award:
During the conference the Institute will award the best MA/PhD work submitted
for the evaluation. The work should reveal an original and innovative approach
in the field of Identity with its expression on the Internet. Information
regarding submission procedure can be found on our site or through direct
contact of the Administrators.