Monday, December 07, 2009

Karen Armstrong and the Charter for Compassion

Karen Armstrong, authority on comparative religion and spirituality, was recently awarded a TED prize, given annually to the best thinkers and innovators of the world.

In her acceptance speech, Armstrong identified the critical difference between belief and faith. "Religion isn't about believing things. It's about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness." Studying the world’s religions, she realized that belief, about which we make so much a fuss today, was a recent religious phenomenon that surfaced in the West around the 17th century.

The word ‘belief’ originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. It meant, “I commit myself. I engage myself.” From the 17th century onwards, however, the word narrowed its focus to mean merely an intellectual assent to a set of propositions: a credo. It lost its transformational power. Instead, ‘belief’ came merely to mean, ‘I accept certain creedal articles of faith.’ It lost its mooring.

What Armstrong found in her research was that religion was about behaving ethically and morally. Instead of flaunting your faith and engaging in religious chauvinism, do something positive. Behave in a committed way. Then, and only then, you begin to understand the truths of religion. Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

Compassion is at the core of religious practice. “In every single one of the world’s major faiths, compassion – the ability to feel with the other – is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine.” Why? “Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we are ready to see the Divine.”

Armstrong hopes that the Golden Rule will become the central global religious doctrine for our times. The Golden Rule can be stated either positively or negatively, both equally meaningful. “Do to others what you would like others to do to you.” (Treat others as you would like others to treat you.) Or, “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you. (Do not treat others in a way that you would not want yourself to be treated).

Practicing the Golden Rule is difficult. Unfortunately many religious people prefer to be right, rather than to be compassionate. We also need to move beyond mere toleration and toward appreciation of the other.

Every TED winner is granted a wish. Armstrong wished for the creation and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, to be crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from Judaism, Christianity and Islam and to be based on the Golden Rule. “We cannot confine our compassion to our own group or countrymen or co-religionists. We must have what one of the Chinese sages called ‘jian ai’: concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. God created nations and tribes so that we may know one another.”

What Armstrong hopes for is to “a movement among people who want to join up and reclaim their faith which has been hijacked … We need to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos … Jews, Christians and Muslims, who so often are at loggerheads, have to work together to create a document which we hope will be signed by people from all the traditions of the world … I would like to see it in every college, every church, every mosque, every synagogue in the world, so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world.”

You can join and affirm the Charter’s principles here.

You can also read a fuller version of this article at bdnews24.

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