Outside a very broad church

The Spiral Staircase
December 10, 2004

I was recently teaching in Brazil when a professor of political theology gave me a book with the following dedication: "In memory of the Second Vatican Council and the good old times." It was a reminder of what those decades of the Sixties and Seventies meant for Latin America. They were years of a new theology (theology of liberation) and a new way of being a church (basic ecclesial communities).

The Spiral Staircase is a book of personal memoirs from a woman who experienced those years of the church with different yearnings. She left her convent and tried to adapt to life, struggling courageously to make sense of life and faith and to survive illnesses. She uses fictionalised dialogues to give a sense of intimacy to her narrative, engaging her reader in her struggles, from anorexia to depression, and her triumph as a survivor.

Still, it seems paradoxical that while Karen Armstrong recognises how much Christianity has to say about her sufferings, she offers no serious reflection on them. The Second Vatican Council is reduced to derogatory comments about playing the guitar at worship or nuns shortening their skirts. But wasn't the council intended precisely to stop the idiocy of the religious life she escaped, where nuns were asked to sew with machines lacking needles for the sake of obedience? I wonder why Armstrong so lightly judges such reform on aesthetic and not political grounds.

Even if she was politically ignorant at the time, she should be able to reflect in a memoir on how political circumstances informed her world, made it narrowly parochial or, on the contrary, expanded it. This is especially so when the author makes, towards the end of her book, some attempt to produce a critical (apolitical) stance on Christianity. When Armstrong reflects on crimes such as the Crusades but not on the murder of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken advocate of peace who was shot in 1980, she continues church self-centrism. When her criticism of Christianity needs substance, she instead resorts to issues pertaining to the historical Jesus. But we have had 30 years of liberation, post-colonial, black and feminist theologies: why does she need to go back to 19th-century theology? It is a missed opportunity.

One begins to wonder whether these memoirs reflect an individualistic and self-centred attitude because Armstrong is a product of an individualistic, self-centred church. Her lack of knowledge of the Latin American churches equals her ignorance of contextual theologies. It is surprising that she discovers the concept of orthopraxis (right action, in contrast to orthodoxy, or right belief) only in a conversation with a Jewish friend.

Orthopraxis is the key concept of contextual theologies used since the Sixties, and much theology done in Britain today has orthopraxis as its starting point.

The key to this book is its title. The spiral staircase is a motif from T. S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday , a symbol of a religious quest that is intimate and metaphysically detached, a lonely path. In this book, it comes to mean a lack of dialogue with current Christianity.

Every year, the British and Irish School of Feminist Theology gathers in conference to discuss issues of women's lives and theology. Many women attending are not theologians, yet they read contemporary radical theologians from Britain, such as Graham Ward, Tim Gorringe, Elaine Graham, Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart, none of whom is discussed by Armstrong. They may find that her personal nostalgia is no basis for any critical reappraisal of Christian faith and women's lives.

Marcella María Althaus-Reid is senior lecturer in divinity, Edinburgh University.

The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir

Author - Karen Armstrong
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 342
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 00 712228 4

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