Age of Compassion

Reviewed by Lauren F. Winner
Sunday, May 7, 2006

THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

By Karen Armstrong

Knopf. 469 pp. $30

In 1948, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term "Axial Age" to denote an astonishing era, from roughly 900 B.C. to 200 B.C., in which the foundations of the world's great religions were laid. This was the time of Socrates, Elijah, Siddhartha, Confucius. In her magisterial new exploration of the era, Karen Armstrong argues that all Axial Age traditions emphasized justice and were committed to the practice of "disciplined sympathy" and compassion. The Great Transformation is Armstrong at her best -- translating and distilling complex history into lucid prose that will delight scholars and armchair historians alike, drawing connections between the distant past and our own religious practices, suggesting that the antidotes to some of contemporary religion's excesses lie in the roots of the religious traditions themselves.

The Axial Age was anticipated, Armstrong writes, by the prophetic priest Zoroaster. Outraged at the violence of the Aryan warrior culture, Zoroaster conceived of the cosmos as a battle between the forces of good and evil, and he envisioned a great judgment that would eventually culminate in a world of peace and justice. Zoroastrianism is now known to us largely as a historical relic, but his "passionately ethical vision" and his determination to find a spiritual idiom that promoted peace bore fruit in the religious traditions of the Axial Age.

Other sages also emerged from the conflicts of the era: In India, the Axial Age coincided with the collapse of the Harappan civilization; in Greece, spirituality and philosophy flourished as the Mycenaean kingdom gave way to the Macedonian empire. Socratic philosophy was forged in the brutality of the Peloponnesian War. Breaking sharply from the Greek tradition of vengeance, Socrates argued that retaliation was always unjust and that the key to enlightenment and social virtue was acting with forbearance toward everyone, friend or enemy. The Buddha similarly taught that focusing on the self led to envy, conceit and pride; only a movement into "no self" would lead to "non-distress" and "unhostility."

When the kingdom of Israel, profitably allied with Assyria, failed to care for its poor, the prophet Amos warned that God would turn against his chosen people if they did not clean up their act. Amos, Armstrong writes, exemplified kenosis , or self-emptying: He believed that "his subjectivity had been taken over by God," so it was not Amos offering radical prophecies but God himself. God had experienced the injustices committed by Israel as painful and humiliating acts against him -- so Amos was calling the Israelites to feel, as their God felt, the sufferings of others.

Though this is a study of ancient history, Armstrong has a present-day agenda. We also live in a time of great social transformation and unrest, and, like the Axial sages, we should foster compassion, self-emptying and justice.

She notes that compassionate spirituality leaves room for doctrine: "This is not to say that all theology should be scrapped or that the conventional beliefs about God or the ultimate are 'wrong.' . . . The test is simple: if people's beliefs -- secular or religious -- make them belligerent, intolerant, and unkind about other people's faith, they are not 'skillful.' If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound. This is the test of true religiosity . . . . Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel."

Armstrong's emphasis on the things that unify Hinduism, Socratic philosophy, Judaism and Confucianism has just a whiff of the old colonialist approach to "world religions," reveling in religions' resemblances without sufficiently acknowledging their particularities. (The Brits who "discovered" Hinduism cast it, and every other religion, in terms that looked a lot like Christianity. Armstrong does much the same thing in reverse, casting Judaism and its spiritual descendants in terms that look a lot like Buddhism.) This approach fails to recognize the ways in which Buddhist compassion and Hindu compassion and Christian compassion and Jain compassion may meaningfully differ. Without an honest appraisal of those differences, it is hard to evaluate, say, the difference between the morality of the euthanasia advocate and the radical pro-life Catholic. Whose compassion trumps, that of George W. Bush or of John Paul II?

And yet, Armstrong's call to rededicate our religious selves to compassion, other-directed love and service is downright rousing. People from many different faiths will close this book reminded of the value their tradition places on compassion and recommitted to expressing it in their own religious idiom. ยท

Lauren F. Winner, a visiting lecturer at Duke Divinity School, is the author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir."


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