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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Andrew Hamil­ton

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.

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