The turbulent time when religions in many lands turned to compassion

Review History


The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Karen Armstrong

Alfred A. Knopf / 496 pages / $30

We can be almost certain that somewhere, at this very moment, someone is committing an act of violence in the name of God. That troubling realization underlies Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Great Transformation, which shows how, in an earlier age of violence and brutality, human beings turned to faiths based on empathy and compassion.

A former nun with degrees in English literature, Armstrong is the author of numerous well-respected histories and commentaries on religious belief, including A History of God, The Battle for God and brief introductions to Islam and Buddhism. Since Sept. 11, 2001, she has been a frequent commentator in the media on the emergence of militant fundamentalism.

Her new book is a defense of the healing power of religion at a time when many have concluded, as she puts it, "that religion itself is inescapably violent or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition." In The Great Transformation, she reaches back 2,500 years and more, to a period that the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age - roughly seven centuries, starting around 900 B.C., in which the foundations were laid for Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the later faiths of Christianity and Islam, and for secular inquiries into the nature of being and the good life. In discrete corners of the world - places we now know as Greece, Israel, India and China - thinkers developed new concepts of human beings' relationship to God and to one another.

This was the age of great texts: the Hebrew Scriptures; the Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita and Mahabharata, which are the foundations of Hinduism; the Analects of Confucius; and the dialogues of Plato. All of them stressed the primacy of doing good. As Armstrong sums it up, "First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought."

The golden rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you - recurs through all four of the traditions Armstrong surveys.

"The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda," she writes. "For them religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from - their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence."

What makes the emergence of this "spirituality of empathy and compassion" more striking, and earns it the designation of "great transformation," is that in all four regions, Armstrong observes, it was "rooted in fear and pain." Brutal tribal warfare was the rule at the opening of the Axial Age, and religion was very much a matter of trying to make sure - through ritual and sacrifice and other means of subjugation to a mysterious higher power - that you had a god on your side who was stronger than the other guy's god.

Armstrong's often fascinating intellectual history shows how a new attitude toward God and humanity emerged: a belief that "Heaven was not simply influenced by the slaughter of pigs and oxen, but by compassion and justice."

The transformation was brought about by a variety of thinkers whose ideas Armstrong presents with lucidity. Among them are the biblical authors and editors whom textual scholars have identified by initials: "J," "E" and "P." The last, Armstrong notes, was most likely "a school of priestly writers and editors" who seem to have had a hand in, among other things, the compilation of the opening chapter of Genesis.

In most traditions, the creation myth was presented as a titanic struggle; even in Hebrew tradition, one early version had "Yahweh slaying a sea dragon when he created the world," Armstrong tells us. But P changed all that by presenting the creation as a story of calm mastery: "There was no fighting or killing. God simply spoke a word of command: `Let there be light!' ... P methodically extracted aggression from the traditional cosmogony."

Other sages recognized that religious dogma was itself a cause of strife. Confucius "discouraged theological chatter," Armstrong tells us. "Instead of wasting time on pointless theological speculation, people should imitate the reticence of Heaven and keep a reverent silence. ... The ultimate concern was not Heaven but the Way."

The Buddha, Armstrong says, even went so far as to deny the existence of "an authoritative, overseeing deity" because it "could become another prop or fetter that would impede enlightenment. ... But his rejection of God or gods was calm and measured. He simply put them peacefully out of his mind."

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