Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006)

Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Author:Karen Armstrong
"Centuries of institutional, political, and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion. All too often the religion that dominates the public discourse seems to express an institutional egotism: my faith is better than yours! As Zhuangzi noted, once people interject themselves into their beliefs, they can become quarrelsome, officious, or even unkind. Compassion is not a popular virtue, because it demands laying aside of the ego that we identify with our deepest self: so people often prefer being right to being compassionate."

Karen Armstrong is a well-known popular historian who has written a couple dozen books on religious matters. She herself is not affiliated with any one spiritual faith, but began her adult life as a nun in a convent in England from 1962 to 1969. (A time she recalls in her memoir, "The Spiral Staircase"). She found out she was more motivated to be a scholar then to be in holy orders and so she left the convent to devote herself full-time to her studies. She had a career as a writer and a television host where she explored religious and political events in the Middle East and modern Europe. She initial books were more negative toward religion and spirituality, but her current life has led her to work for international entities that try to bring people of different faiths to conferences and other projects to achieve greater understanding.

This book goes through a period that philosopher Karl Jaspers called The Axial Age, a period modernists date from roughly 900 to 200 BCE. It was in this span of time that the foundation of four great religious, social and political traditions developed that is the bedrock of much of the major cultures of the globe: Greek rationalism, Jewish monotheism, Indian religion and philosophy, and the development of the Confusion and Taoist traditions that helped united China from a group of warring states to an single unified empire.

Armstrong focuses on a great span of history and to try and cover all points of development would be a small book in itself. Suffice to say it is a great "refresher course" in ancient history. It highlights the rise (and fall) of Representative government in 5th Century Athens; the struggles and eventual loss of the Jewish independence to a variety of greta empires, the most traumatic of which was the 60-70 year Babylonian exile; the development of the Vedic religion in Indian history that , after urbanization, led to a movement away from blood rituals and into groups of "renounce-rs" and monks t leaving these environments toward an inner-self (Atman) and to a strong effort at tranquility of the soul, symbolized by Gautama (The Buddha) approaches toward an inner tranquility beyond all suffering and life vicissitudes to something called "nirvana" where ego is gone and the spirit is at rest from the struggles of rebirths and suffering. She also traces the rise of Sages like Confucius, a 6th Century sage who sought to create inner peace within society itself through a search for something called "ren", a transcendent and sacred reality that could only be achieved by discipline and renouncement of self.

Many others spiritual paths are discussed in being the historical background. Some are directed toward a universal love and acceptance of others without any recourse to a God or gods. Others paved the way for a greater emphasis on monotheism. Schools of divinity and skepticism, or idealism and idealism competed for adherents in places like the Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

This western tradition of philosophic friction had to give way with the rise of institutionalized Christian power from Rome and Byzantium. But after rediscovery of Greek traditions (much of which came from Islamic scholarship during the later Crusades, ironically) in the 12th Century the ancient learning in astronomy and physics and engineering eventually became the catalyst for the scientific movements that led to the Second Axial Age of Newton, Freud, Darwin and Einstein.

Not all religious movements were involved in imposing a faith on others---the Buddhism of the 2nd Century Emperor Ashoka of India and the early Islamic Empire are examples of a power without cohering of spirituality. It is this freedom that I believe is the greatest gift of the Axial Age-the freedom to choose from all the great sages of the past and draw what is unique and similar to find a greater inner peace and hopefully a better external life.


  1. I will be back and try and add something to the conversation. Right now I have tired head

  2. I know the feeling, Fred. See you on the 'flip side', friend.

  3. Once open to the idea that the various religions are all attempts to explain the same thing or imagery and icons to answer identical questions, then the rightness of the particulars or details are not issues. I look for patterns of understandings when I think through the explanation of a tradition.

  4. The video was interesting in that she indicated compassion to be the way to the rise of a social conscious. I think compassion could be one tool to accomplish that. Nevertheless, one has to be willing to accept responsibility in order to move from suffering to action.

  5. There is a lot of sense in what she says. I'm the eternal optimist, that is until it comes to health. Compassion without action is useless. I suppose in this age of the internet it is easier to get involved. I sometimes look at petition sites and lend my support if I think the cause has a valid reason for it.

    And yes, the woman in the video is right, we see more images of disasters coming into our homes these days, leaving us so often feeling helpless. Of course, many of us don't feel we need religion to help us, where others may do so. I think we need to be tolerant of each other's view. Even villains, who seem to have no heart or morals support their own kind and feel compassion for each other. I think one of the main things, is TIME, we need to spare time to listen, time to look into where people are hurting, show each other we are there to listen, write letters of support, above all, care about what is going on...

    I really agree with the statement that we can get compassion fatigue, because we can get so use to the images in our sitting room through television. The only way around that, is to think how you would feel if you were in that situation, not to look at any given disaster on mass, where the mind simply can't take the magnitude of the situation.

  6. I think you're right Mary Ellen. One has to try to move beyond compassion to action. This includes not only those you are compassionate observers becoming actors, but the victims themselves if at all possible.

  7. This is one of the most important points that Armstrong and others can bring out--that we shouldn't be in competition, armed and angry, over icons and prophets. The world is too now too fragile and still too diverse for that. We need understanding that the best minds in a faith are looking toward universal truths.

  8. Certainly some sense of responsibility is needed to make that transition from compassion to action was my thought. The idea that those of us more fortunate were given that status with the responsibility to help those without the same gifts is one that is present in some religions.


  9. Certainly some sense of responsibility is needed to make the transition from compassion to action was my thought. The idea that those of us more fortunate were given that status with the responsibility to help those without the same gifts is one that is present in some religions.

    Sorry that was me that deleted a comment - I tried to quote a portion of your comment and got the entire post quoted so deleted and re-posted my comment with out the quote feature. MP is hiccuping a bit this am.

  10. Well put Cassandra. I agree its only with time that we can develop the right path to an empathic response, Cassandra. It is all too easy to feel overwhelmed with all these images in a world where natural and human disasters are all too prevalent. I feel helped by a focus in a faith that reminds me that I have to move beyond my friends and aquaintances be of some small use to a need greater than my own concerns.

    Perhaps religion, I've often thought, is a remedial program for some of us to do what should come naturally. The magnitude issue is huge, and that's why I feel the need to go back to examine the past and see how organized empathy among groups has been developed as a force in history-alongside the usual cast of warriors and administrators.

  11. It is a Multiply malfunction Thursday :-) Thanks Mary Ellen. I'll have to continue this dialogue later.

  12. Thank you Doug for making an argument for your point of view in an even handed and thought provoking way.

    A search for universal truths eh? Well put like that who can fault them?

    As you probably know I am not a person of faith but I see no reason to pick a fight with those who are. For me, the constant argument between faith groups, that all too often spill over into bloodshed has to be stopped. I don't much care how it's done but done it must be. We've learnt over the last 100 or so years how small our planet actually is and as you say it's fragility. We've also developed ever better ways to communicate yet we don't, well not in a meaningful way in any event.

    Late last year I had the great good fortune to get a challenging and very rewarding job here in the South-East of the UK. Moving here has exposed me to a far greater cultural and ethnic mix than at any time in my life to date. It's great, I get to debate with Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, non-believers and many others as well. Guess what? Every person I've met, no matter what their personal beliefs are, have all of the same concerns that I have. You know the ones, money, kids, promotion, stress, the commute etc. etc. etc..... I've yet to meet anyone who feels the need to be anything other than a human being!

    I feel no need to place my trust in a deity of any sort but that does not mean that I am incapable of feeling compassion or any of the other emotions that seeing suffering of any sort. I'm sick to death of the notion that we can not put aside our differences for our common good. Indeed, should we not celebrate our differences, talk to each other and help our fellow man when he needs it?

  13. Interesting read that I'm sure I'd enjoy reading too. You might also enjoy Herman Hesse's treatise: 'A Bit of Theology' that he wrote in 1932, yet it's still appropriate for today's world. In his notes he discussed, compared and contrasted the 'rationalist' with the 'pious'. It's such a thought-provoking read that, if you can get your hands on it, I'd highly recommend it too.

  14. Thanks for sharing your experiences Jim. I am so glad to hear that you can find a respectful dialouge with others in the London area that is open and non-threatening and ends in some strong commonalities. You hear so much in the media about extremeists that we can sometimes forget these few hard-liners are in the minority of all major faiths.

    The planet is indeed too small for all the conflicts, both clerical-based and secular, that have plauged this ever shrinking world since the horrors that began in WWI. I too am sick and tired of these fratricidal conflicts and the base impulses that feed our fear of orthers. I hope writers like Armstrong and those who cover topics from a non-faith perspective in a civil manner can continue to lead us away from angry debates and threats that serve no purpose add nothing to an Enlightenment-based society like most of America and Britian .

  15. Thanks for the recommendation Red. I've been thinking about Hesse's book 'Siddhartha' lately, which I read more than a few years ago.

    This treatise sounds like its worth looking into. Thanks again. :-)

  16. I like Huston Smith's body of work. His "World Religions" is a classic. When I read this post yesterday I thought it was interesting to have "Huston" and "Armstrong" - two names associated with the space program - writing about various religions.

  17. I've read a couple of Huston's books, Mary Ellen, though not that one as yet. I was very moved by his PBS interviews with Bill Moyers which were based on the book you mentioned. Our pastor used the DVDs from that series for a church class on the major world religions. Moyers has also interviewed Armstrong and is one of the few commentators who gives a voice to serious scholarship on religion and other matters.

    Hadn't thought about the NASA connection. Ironic and somehow fitting as that is.

  18. I think the problem is, we are so often overwhelmed by catastrophes. In the past people only heard about it on the wireless, now they see graphic images. The ordinarily man on the street can now see what once only trained doctors and ambulance men had to cope with. Many people find their faith gives them the strength to cope and even find compassion at such times. Quite often Christian organisations are first on the scene at areas devastated by mother nature. They can't keep Christ's compassion under the church roof, it's out there on there on the streets that empathy is needed.

    I agree we have to move out of out of our own comfort zone and get involved in caring about people's suffering in the wider world, while not forgetting the needs of those close to us. I was talking to someone about the recent earthquakes and she said, "but there isn't any way we can help from such a distance". I found this strange because her church helps the congregation do just that, by collecting blankets and funding medical aid. I think she felt she was called to take it on all by herself and that isn't so.

    Maybe the guidance of a priest, with well timed sermons on compassion, gives those who don't think beyond there own needs, a gentle push. My priest said, I'm thrashing about in the dark like the rest of you. I just call on my faith to back me up. Haha, I loved his honesty.

  19. Yes, Cassandra, I agree that behaving as what one church pastor once described as "Undercover Christians" does little good in times of need. And "faith" to me is just that, simple "faith", as in a belief in a Higher Power and a greater good, which will at times be sorely tested in this world, both personally and in matters of human suffering we see all too graphically courtesy of the media.

    Your priest that you mention I feel is a better faith-leader to be so honest with you. I had a similar experience with an assistant pastor who said something out of the blue that indicated she was feeling burned out and doubtdul after a mission trip she had taken to Mexico with some younger church members to build houses for some people in terrible poverty down there. I was surprised. I honestly thought she was a "Super Christian", but she had doubts at times just like me.

    Later talking to her I realized she was like many of us---faith, like love and charity of all types, is not seen of course, yet it certainly exists in our minds and can be made into action for good as you say.

    Sometimes it truly is, as St. Paul wrote, just "seeing through a glass darkly." Honestly between people is something to be treasured; its those who can be honest that provide the strongest encouragement

    A "gentle push" is an apt phrase. I think that's why many go to a religious service in the first place.

  20. I do remember having seen this woman on the tele in the past Doug. She certainly has an eclectic view of spirituality, it appears to have so many different meanings and manifestations that you might say it doesn't have any defining characteristic at all...except those meanings we personally ascribe to the belief systems and philosophical orientations we encounter throughout history.

    It is all very well to feel compassion I think, but in a way the notion of 'compassion' objectifies suffering, as if it is something that happens to others that we must be sensitive to.....but it was equally appropriate for Taoists (for example) to respond to suffering with violence, to express compassion by the perfection of the martial arts and ethical dilemmas resolved in the notion of moral warfare.

    I can't help feeling that the victims of injustice, poverty, oppression, starvation, exploitation and gratuitous violence would much rather have the Taoist form of compassion that the contemplative 'I feel your pain' variety that Ms Armstrong appears to be suggesting here Doug.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that a secular, atheistic morality is so much like its religious counterparts that either religious views are only peripheral to compassion or secular atheistic humanism is i reality a religion itself?

    If the latter case holds.... is it true to say then that Marxism Leninism for example, is merely a way of expressing love and therefore enjoys the same ethical status as Christianity or Buddhism does?

    Thanks for opening up these ethical issues for discussion Doug, very interesting stuff.

  21. The most basic characteristic Armstrong seems to hold to for a religion, other than a faith in a higher power, is the "golden rule" that is expressed in one form or another in various religions and, of course, in secular creeds. It seems most people I've encountered will appeal to a sense of fairness when they are wronged or see wrongs taking place. There are gradations to this--some only see injustice when they are on the short end of matters.

    The "agape" notion of love embraced by many individual Christians does not preclude self-defense of a community or family, only that one does not generate personalize hatred. Also that all must be without fear of food to eat and clothes to wear, etc, etc. This has parallels to Marxism as it was first promogated of course.

    So far as Marxism was after riding Europe and the globe of poverty and giving common stock to all it trended toward this goal of fairness. Yes, there is a love at the core of making the world a place without slums, bad sanitation, satanic mills, war for profits, etc.

    But...what institutionalized entitles representing the teachings of Christ or Marx do with a given society that is another matter. The haggling over money in the capitalist stock exchanges and the base salaries of working people in the USA don't reflect love in any religious sense that I can make out.

    And, conversely, the shortages of food and cramped housing for common people alongside fancy apartments and tony official luxury stores for the party elite in Moscow (in the days of the bonny Red Flag) don't either. Similar deprivations and preferences to a few in other Communist societies hardly do justice to ethical standards, and this may present a problem at the core of political hierarchies in the nation-state system.

    And in any case its the real Christians and Marxists that are often the "heretics", don't you think?

    Bernard Shaw in his introduction to "Androcles and The Lion" was quite right I think when he stated that Jesus was a first-rate political economist. He quite realized, as I'm sure the Taoists did as well, that we cannot connect with The Great Chain of Being or really love a neighbor in the fraternal sense when we ourselves are chained to want and fear, or have these threats to personal and family ruin hanging over us like a sword. Jesus revolution was a call to strive to emulate the Kingdom above; Marx asked for us to emulate his political architecture. They both wanted to see the world transformed.

    Thanks for your provocative input AA. Much food for thought.