Friday, April 15, 2011

I have only recently been introduced to the work of Karen Armstrong who is widely regarded as one of the best living writers on religion. Karen spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun and then left her teaching order to study at Oxford, becoming afterwards a full time writer, authoring 16 books. She is the inspiration behind a Charter of Compassion which is gaining support around the world. 'I am a religious historian,' she says, 'and it is my study of the spiritualities of the past that has taught me all I know about compassion.'

Karen won the prestigious TED prize which was instituted in 1986 to bring together people from the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. It is given to people who they think have made a difference but who, with their help, could make even more of an impact. They are granted a wish for a better world which TED will do their best to make happen.

At the award ceremony she asked TED to help her create, launch and propagate a charter of compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from major faiths. Very quickly momentum built up behind the concept and the writing of it was supervised by a Council of Conscience who in February 2009 composed the final version. This was launched in November 2009 in sixty different locations around the world in religious and secular venues. There are now 150 partners working to translate the charter into practical and realistic action. It is a document that transcends religions, ideologies and national differences. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter calls on us all to activate the Golden Rule around the world. Karen says that the first person to formulate the Golden Rule was Confucius who when asked which of his teachings his disciples could practise all day and every day replied, 'Never do to others what you should not like them to do to you.'

Karen believes passionately that religion is about people behaving differently. The test of any real religiosity is in her view not measured by what we profess or even believe but by the way we feel towards each other. Religion has been hijacked, she maintains, whether by Muslim terrorists or 'Christians endlessly judging other people'. She writes of the flagrant abuse of religion in recent years and speaks of public pronouncements that rarely speak of compassion 'but focus instead on such secondary matters as sexual practices or abstruse doctrinal definitions, implying that a correct stand on these issues – rather than the Golden Rule – is the criterion of true faith'. She sees compassion as alien to our modern way of life and, like Martin Luther King Jr, that it is no longer a luxury but 'an absolute necessity for our survival'. She says that 'many people would rather be right than compassionate' and 'never mind loving your enemies – sometimes loving your nearest and dearest selflessly and patiently will be a struggle!'

I began with her book The Great Transformation – The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah and at times found it rather too intense for me but her latest book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate World is very accessible. She builds on the model of the famous twelve steps of Alcohol Anonymous to give practical advice on how to live out compassion in our daily life. For instance in her Eighth step she writes:

'During this step we try to make ourselves mindful of the way we speak to others. When you argue do you get carried away by your own cleverness and deliberately inflict pain on your opponent? Do you get personal? Will the points you make further the cause of understanding or are they exacerbating an already inflammatory situation? Are you really listening open-heartedly to your opponent? What would happen if – while debating a trivial matter that would have no serious consequences – you allowed yourself to lose the argument? After a contentious discussion, conduct a post-mortem with yourself: can you really back up everything you said in the heat of the moment? Did you really know what you were talking about, or were you depending on hearsay? And before you embark on an argument or a debate, ask yourself honestly if you are ready to change your mind.'

The Charter of Compassion calls on all men and women 'to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings - even those regarded as enemies.'

Thoughtful and timely.