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World-Healing Wisdom: Karen Armstrong’s Vision for a Compassionate Future

Armstrong believes that we can find the wisdom we need by looking to the origins of today’s world religions.
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White dove by Ken Douglas

Could the roots of our religions hold the key to creating a more peaceful and fair world? Religious scholar and historian Karen Armstrong believes that may be the case.

Armstrong’s work gives us hope that our inherent human goodness will win out in the end.

The author of more than 20 books, Armstrong has been called "arguably the most lucid, wide-ranging and consistently interesting religion writer today." Her perspective has been shaped by her life. At the age of 17, she entered a Catholic convent. Six years later, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she left, wanting nothing more to do with religion. She spent the next 13 years absorbed in secular life, first as an academic and then as a secondary school literature teacher in England. Her first book, Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, was first published in 1981 and chronicles her difficult time in the nunnery and her departure from it. The book launched her as a popular critic of established religion.

karen armstrong by Seamus Rainheart

Karen Armstrong at the Compassionate Seattle event April 2010.

But then something interesting happened. By looking at the historical roots of the great religious traditions, Armstrong began to tease the dogma from the core teachings and intentions. From her bestselling, groundbreaking The History of God, to her recent Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong’s later books unraveled static religious doctrine from the common values within traditions.

Armstrong’s work suggests that the core teachings of the major religions provide our best chance to transform the violence and divisiveness that characterize our time. As she writes in The Great Transformation, "In our current predicament, I believe that we can find inspiration in the period that the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity."

The Axial Age lasted roughly from 900 to 200 B.C. and was a period not unlike our own, filled with great change and large-scale violence. Dynasties fell; nations were plundered and their peoples put into exile; people were troubled by war, famine, and massacres. And yet, it was in this period of darkness that the great world religions, each with a radical new spirituality and a core message of peace, were conceived: Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, early forms of monotheism, and philosophical rationalism.

Armstrong argues that it was exactly because people were able to face their suffering—to look deeply into it and meditate on the violence around them—that they were able to transform their spiritual traditions. Spiritual visionaries moved beyond religious systems based on rigid rituals, sacrifice, and tribal affiliations and instead embraced a more humane and peaceful spirituality that looked within to discover the inherent value of all human life: The objective of the Axial Age thinkers, according to Armstrong, was to "create an entirely different kind of human being. … Nearly all the Axial sages realized that you could not confine your benevolence to your own people: your concern must somehow extend to the entire world."

In this pivotal period, in different parts of the world, each of these different traditions developed a philosophy that had at its core a few basic tenets:

  • a reverence for the transcendent and ineffable nature of life and the divine;
  • a rejection of ego-based action and grasping;
  • an acceptance of suffering;
  • an ability to put oneself in another’s position;
  • an ability to see everything as interconnected; and, most importantly:
  • the ultimate value of moral, compassionate action.

"We have never surpassed the insight of the Axial Age," Armstrong writes. "In times of spiritual and social crisis, men and women have constantly turned back to this period for guidance." Indeed, reading about the ancient peoples who independently came up with similar core religious teachings in China, India, Israel, and Greece, we recognize our kindest and most authentic selves.

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When all the doctrine and fanaticism of religion is stripped away, what we are left with, Armstrong demonstrates in The Great Transformation and throughout her later work, is the teaching of compassion. This compassion is not pity; indeed, pity presupposes the kind of hierarchical relationship that true compassion obviates. To illustrate this point, Armstrong tells the story of Hillel, a Torah scholar who lived in the first century, B.C. When asked by a skeptic to prove his knowledge by reciting the entire Torah from memory while standing on one leg, Hillel did not have to balance long. He said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation—go and learn it."

What is essential to religion, then, is not "belief." Indeed, Armstrong demonstrates that the emphasis on belief began only in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. For most of human history, the emphasis within religious traditions was on how we treat others. This instructive gets at the root of human behavior and action—and also at the root of many of the problems in today’s world. If we lived according to the teachings of the Axial Age thinkers, then the inequality that emerges from categories such as class, age, gender, race, strength, and "merit,"—that is, most of the categories that shape our social world—would necessarily shift and we would create a more equitable world.

We already have, then, the teachings and wisdom we need to solve the problems of our age. Armstrong’s books inspire us not only to reinvent ourselves, but to recover who we truly are.

So, are we headed in the right direction? Armstrong would suggest that it’s not that simple because the very idea of a single direction for history is flawed. Throughout her writing, she reveals the inherently dynamic nature of history. Good and bad occur side by side, as do progress and regression, new insights and the recovery of old ones.

We may not know where we are in our current great transformation, but Armstrong’s work gives us hope that our inherent human goodness will win out and reminds us that what is important is how we treat others around us.

The good news is that ideal of treating others as one would wish to be treated is today being put into action in ways that would have been unthinkable for much of the past two thousand years. Our growing awareness of gender equality, of equal rights for people with disabilities, our laws against slavery, and our general ideal of personal freedom—things that many of us take for granted—are important advances of our period.

Other signs of an increased awareness of our shared humanity include:

Armstrong herself was awarded a $100,000 TED Prize in 2008 to establish her Charter For Compassion, an interfaith pledge to live a more compassionate life that is supported by religious leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has been signed by more than 97,000 people around the world. As she travels the world giving lectures, everywhere she goes—from the United States to the Middle East, from Europe to Asia—Armstrong says she meets people hungry for the kind of radical change the Axial Age visionaries imagined and that she talks about.

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Yes, there is great suffering around us. But from that suffering can come great passion, insight, and hope. Our current environmental crisis seems a perfect case in point: on the one hand, humans are now responsible for the destruction of life on Earth in an unprecedented manner, and yet, at the same time, this destruction also opens the door to return to a form of awareness that allows us to see the absolute interconnectedness of all beings—each tree, ant, and person—and encourages us to act with compassion for them.

When we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves, and when we do not treat others as we ourselves would not wish to be treated, we are taking part in a great, ancient, and ongoing tradition. As Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion states, "by thinking and acting compassionately we can create a just world."


Nadia ColburnNadia Colburn wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Nadia lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Mass., where she writes and teaches and studies Buddhism. More about her can be seen at www.nadiacolburn.com

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