|Genre:||Religion & Spirituality|
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.