Dr. Karen Armstrong - UK
Karen Armstrong FRSL is a British author and commentator known for her books on comparative religion. A former Roman Catholic nun, she went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical Christian faith. She first rose to prominence in 1993 with her book A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, an international bestseller that is now required reading in many theology courses. Her work focuses on commonalities of the major religions, such as the importance of compassion or "The Golden Rule".
Armstrong received the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008. She used that occasion to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year.
In 1976, Armstrong took a job as teaching English at a girls' school in Dulwich while working on a memoir of her convent experiences. This was published in 1982 as Through the Narrow Gate to excellent reviews. That year she embarked on a new career as an independent writer and broadcasting presenter. In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present a TV documentary on the life of St. Paul, The First Christian, a project that involved traveling to the Holy Land to retrace the steps of the saint. Armstrong described this visit as a "breakthrough experience" that defied her prior assumptions and was the inspiration for virtually all her subsequent work. In A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993), she traces the evolution of the three major monotheistic traditions from their beginnings in the Middle East up to the present day and also discusses Hinduism and Buddhism. As guiding "luminaries" in her approach, Armstrong acknowledges (in The Spiral Staircase and elsewhere) the late Canadian theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Protestant minister, and the Jesuit father Bernard Lonergan. In 1996, she published Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) continues the themes covered in A History of God and examines the emergence and codification of the world's great religions during the so-called Axial age, identified by Karl Jaspers. In the year of its publication Armstrong achieved the distinction of being invited to choose her eight favourite records for BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs programme. She has made considerable appearances on television, including appearances on Rageh Omaar's programme on The Life of Muhammad. She was also an advisor for the award-winning, PBS-broadcast documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet (2002), produced by Unity Productions Foundation.
In 2007, Armstrong was invited by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore to deliver the "2007 MUIS Lecture".
Armstrong is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars and laypeople which attempts to investigate the historical foundations of Christianity. She has written numerous articles for The Guardian and other publications. She was a key advisor on Bill Moyers' popular PBS series on religion, has addressed members of the US Congress, and was one of three scholars to speak at the UN's first ever session on religion. She is a vice-president of the British Epilepsy Association, otherwise known as Epilepsy Action.
Armstrong, who has taught courses at Leo Baeck College, a rabbinical college and centre for Jewish education located in north London, says she has been particularly inspired by the Jewish tradition's emphasis on practice as well as faith: "I say that religion isn't about believing things. It's about what you do. It's ethical alchemy. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." She maintains that religious fundamentalism is not just a response to, but is a product of contemporary culture and for this reason concludes that, "We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community."
Awarded the $100,000 TED Prize in February 2008, Armstrong called for drawing up a Charter for Compassion, in the spirit of the Golden Rule, to identify shared moral priorities across religious traditions, in order to foster global understanding and a peaceful world.