God to the rescue
The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah By Karen Armstrong Atlantic Books, 469pp, $ 26.95
TO persuade an educated audience that society needs religion is not easy. Many readers will point to empty churches and bombed mosques as evidence for their conviction that religion is irrelevant or harmful.
In this republished account of the origins of the great religious philosophies, Karen Armstrong argues that religion is socially valuable, but she carefully limits the scope of her argument. She claims that in a world troubled by violent and destructive conflict and facing enormous ecological challenges, human beings need to change habitual ways of acting selfishly and violently. She finds resources in the religious movements of the 6th to the 3rd centuries BC. These all arose in violent and troubled times.
She describes these movements in India, China, Israel and Greece as religious philosophies. Gifted individuals explored the path to freedom from egoism and to an unnameable experience of transcendence. Their path required self- mastery and compassion for others, particularly those seen as hostile or worthless.
Armstrong claims that, in contrast to many of their followers, these men put no weight on set forms of belief, on doctrine or on the boundaries of their religious movements. Theirs was finally an individual journey, not one that justifies the orthodoxies and exclusiveness of religious movements inspired by them.
The scope of The Great Transformation is vast. Armstrong sets significant texts and people against their religious, economic and political background. Her definition of religion allows her to include the ethical philosophies of China and Greece. She traces new movements and the decline and renewal of older movements through 900 years.
As in her previous books, Armstrong wears comfortably her wide reading and describes simply events and ideas of great diversity and complexity. By juxtaposing religious approaches from different places and at differing stages of development, she illuminates each of them.
Her greatest gift is facility in narrative. In each chapter she weaves together the developments in three or four cultures without confusing or blurring her account. I found particularly engaging her story of Chinese movements. These ethical philosophies fitted best her theoretical description of religion and were conceived in relationship to problems seen in governance of the kingdoms of China.
I enjoyed the work greatly and would recommend it to readers who want an introduction to Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian religious movements. But I was not persuaded by Armstrong’s argument that religion as she defines it will make a significant contribution to a world threatened by brutality and selfishness. By locating religion in the liberation, enlightenment and compassion of the individual, and by regarding belief systems, communal allegiances and boundaries as corruptions of religion, she weakens what is distinctive in religion and its capacity to make a difference in public life.
Religious movements certainly begin with a distinctive vision and path. But they become contagious when they attract disciples and connect them with one another. They then shape communities that develop institutions to transmit the vision and path as it has been given. Belief systems, practices, communal allegiances and boundaries in their various forms are the stuff of religions as lived. If they are open, they can sustain the founding vision; if closed, they will deform it.
Religions are able to shape societies for better or for worse because they are communal and express themselves in networks of social relationship. By these connections their vision and their way can then shape public attitudes. At their best they can encourage compassion and transcendence of self in domestic and public life.
Religion and churches, of course, are not always at their best. They fail to reflect in their life the vision and way that grounds them. That is why it is so difficult to convince the doubtful that institutional religion is necessary and beneficial to society. Armstrong has made her task easier by minimising the institutional dimensions of religion. But in those dimensions lies the potential of religions for good. Andrew Hamilton is a consulting editor of Eureka Street magazine.