Friday, November 06, 2009

The audacity of compassion (Sunday Reflections for November 8, 2009)

On Thursday, November 12, a document called the “Charter for Compassion” will be published. It is the brainchild of British religion scholar and popular author and speaker Karen Armstrong. She presented her vision for the charter in a February 2008 speech accepting a TED Prize for her work. Since then, thousands of people from around the world have contributed their ideas. These in turn have been processed by a group of international religious leaders to create the Charter’s text.

The Charter is a call for the members of all religions and philosophies to commit themselves to the ancient, global principle of human relationships commonly known as the Golden Rule. One of the oldest known versions of it is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius in the 5th century BCE: “Do not do to others what you would not have others do to you.” It is phrased in various ways in the gospels, one of which is in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 where Jesus says,” Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

From Jewish tradition Armstrong recounts a story of the famous Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan comes to him and says he will convert to Judaism if the rabbi can summarize all of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Accepting the challenge, Rabbi Hillel says, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Similar statements are found in all the world’s major religions.

In making this gambit, Armstrong is making a bold and strategic move. She is attempting little less than reframing and refocusing world religion.

Armstrong grew up in an Irish Catholic family and became a nun in her late teens. She left the order and the church seven years later as a result of a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual crises. She intended to become a scholar of English literature but instead found herself doing television documentaries about religion. A work-related trip to Jerusalem caused her to revalue the role of religion and to see their common message as far more important than their individual differences.

The main thrust of Armstrong’s mission is to return (in her view) to the ancient understanding of religion as a way of living rather than as a collection of ideas to be believed. In her recently published book The Case for God, Armstrong writes:

Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.

Armstrong correctly notes that both the words “faith” and “belief” originally meant trust and commitment (Latin credo), rather than acceptance of ideas. Christian theology has always been wordy and concerned with getting ideas about Jesus and God right. Yet this was originally motivated by a need to support the church’s worship and liturgy. Orthodoxy literally means “right praise.”

With the Reformation and Enlightenment periods, however, that connection was largely lost. Being orthodox came to mean having the right ideas and doctrines. The invention of the printing press resulted in enormous quantities of theological writing, poured over and endlessly debated by clergy and laity alike. Bibles could now be studied and interpreted by every literate person. There began an obsession with studying and analyzing Christianity’s doctrinal “trees” while losing sight of its gospel “forest.”

In doing so, of course, theologians were paralleling what was going on in the new fields of science. Truth was in the details, scientists said, whether the very small (cells and atoms) or the very distant (stars and galaxies). Christian theology raced to keep up, accepting that the only truth worth believing was in demonstrable propositions: God is X, Jesus is Y, the Bible is Z. To be a Christian meant accepting these “truths” just as being a scientist meant accepting nature’s laws.

The Charter for Compassion is an assertion that religion generally, and Christianity in particular, is concerned first and foremost not with what we think but with how we live, especially in relationship to our neighbor. The world’s rising tensions and violence demand we make this shift. Obsession with what we believe is making world worse, Armstrong says, not better. “Any ideology that does not promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of one another is failing the test of the time.”

While Jesus’ commitment to love for neighbor and even one’s enemy is universally recognized, placing this at Christianity’s center as Armstrong wants is not universally welcomed. As she recognizes, many religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Indeed already you can find people basically calling her the Antichrist for saying that having the right doctrine is not the most important part of Christian life. In their view heresy is the truly unforgivable sin.

In this country, at least, the personal value of religion or spirituality is still accepted but the social value of organized religion is increasingly doubted. The injection of religion into politics is overwhelmingly rejected and continuing outbreaks of inter-religious violence deplored. Imagine, Armstrong asks, if religion became a force for peace in the world, rather than conflict?

Sadly, religious leaders have figured out that their power is enhanced when they can create fear in their followers, convincing them that other religions are “false” and therefore their followers dangerous and evil. Armstrong believes, and I think she is right, that this is not the inclination of most people, including most religious people. Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 LA riots is increasingly a global concern: Can we all get along?

In our shrinking world this is becoming the question which may well determine the survival of our species. Calling religions and religious people everywhere to make this simple commitment, to do to others only what you would want them to do to you, may be a first step. In doing so it would return the word “religion” to its literal meaning, that which “binds together,” rather than something which pulls us apart.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. I hope this catches on. David Mc

Anders Branderud said...

Hello Doug Kings!
Yes, of course it is important to be compassionate and love others.

The website proves (using logic) in the "Christians"-page how the Creator wants us to live - what His instructions are for humankind.

This is also in accordance with what Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth taught.

Anders Branderud