The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong
This was a hard book to get through—and I suspect many people won’t bother. It’s especially difficult if, like me, your reading and learning has been focused on the last 200 of the last 2000 years because Armstrong’s focus is religious movements from 1600 BCE up until the 7th century of our own era, but nothing later than 220 BCE gets in before the last, really very brilliant, chapter. I’m tempted to recommend everyone reading that last chapter, but suspect that it wouldn’t make as much sense as it does after you’ve slogged through the rest. Let me also say that the need to “slog through” has nothing to do with Armstrong’s ideas or writing style, but is solely the fault of my own ignorance.
Here’s the idea in a nutshell as I see it. Armstrong examines various periods—usually periods of great change and much violence—in which religion changed and put a focus on love, forgiveness, respect for all humans, and nonviolence, often as an antidote to terrible violence, hate and exclusivity in the world. The term “Axial Age” Armstrong takes from German philosopher Karl Jaspers who saw significant spiritual progress in humanity between 900 and 200 BCE in several world religions: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel and philosophical rationalism in Greece and focused on “sages” like Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius and Euripides. During the various axial periods and with the teachings of various sages, religion went from being a matter of what you believed to how you behaved. Threading her way through these periods and religious changes—without oversimpilfying—is what Armstrong does in this book.
If you’ve studied comparative religion—as I have not—perhaps these historical periods are not so distant as they were for me. I knew little about
- “The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them, religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from—their greed, egotism, hatred and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.”
Not that all this hasn’t been said before and it may not strike you as brilliant until you’ve read this very impressive synthesis of common threads in the world’s great religions over the last 4000 years.