Book review: The Spiral Staircase

by Karen Armstrong

★★★★★

This is a new sequel to Karen’s first book, Through the Narrow Gate, after the first sequel, Beginning the World, flopped. Because, she says, she was “not truthful.”

Perhaps Karen overcompensated on the “truthful” part this time around. The result is a brutally honest autobiography of a repeat failure. At one point, Karen despairs, “I was an ex-nun, a failed academic, mentally unstable, and now I could add epileptic to this dismal list. … Even God, for whom I had searched so long, is simply the product of a faulty brain, a neurological aberration.”

Karen spent seven years as a nun in a Catholic convent, then tried to put God behind her and enter the secular world of London. Yet, God would never quite go away. God hung around in a love-hate relationship until Karen finally faced her demons, and found religion again … this time in writing about God. Faith, Karen learned, is not an intellectual assent but an act of will, a deliberate choice to believe. Believers (among whom Karen confesses multiple times she is no longer) cannot prove or disprove their doctrines, but must consciously decide to take them on trust.

One of Karen’s shortcomings as a nun was that she could never connect with God through prayer. There was simply nobody on the other end. Many years later, she realized she was looking for God where he could not be found. Faith, she came to understand, is not about belief, but about practice. Religion, says Karen, is a “moral aesthetic,” an “ethical alchemy.” If you behave a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. You will not discover them to be true until you put them into practice in your own life, where they compel you to act in such a way as to bring out your own heroic potential. Faith, Karen now believes, should make you more human, not less.

On the very last page, Karen looks down to find that, while she has climbed out of darkness, she has come full circle. The Spiral Staircase. “As I go up, step by step, I am turning, again, round and round, apparently covering little ground, but climbing upward, I hope, toward the light.”

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  1. Acts 10:38, A Good Man | The Dubious Disciple - [...] to steer my blog back toward the straight and narrow. I’d like to quote from Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase where …

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