Compassion: Is it a nice idea or an urgent global imperative?
That was the question posed by renowned British religion scholar and author Karen Armstrong at the start of her talk as she delivered the 2018 Ware Lecture on Peacemaking, hosted by The Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking at Elizabethtown College.
Armstrong, who founded the worldwide Charter for Compassion upon winning the TED Prize in 2008, obviously believes it to be the latter.
“Unless now we learn to implement the Golden Rule globally — never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself — the world is simply not going to be a viable place,” Armstrong told the audience assembled in the college’s Leffler Chapel for her lecture, titled “Leading a Compassionate Life.”
All major religions independently developed a version of the Golden Rule, said Armstrong, a former nun who, after leaving religious life, went on to write numerous books on religion, including about St. Paul, the Crusades, the Prophet Muhammad and the history of Islam, and the Buddha. She also penned “A History of God.”
Confucius, she said, first put this tenet into writing 500 years before Christ. The idea was also articulated by Jesus, Rabbi Hillel and the Buddha, all while living in violent times, she explained.
They all believed that “unless human beings learned to cooperate with one another, they would destroy each other. And that is more true than ever,” Armstrong said in her lecture on Wednesday, April 11.
Armstrong is working on a book exploring Scripture in all the world traditions: Chinese, Indian and monotheistic. And, she said, all have concluded that compassion “is the nub of the religious life. Not belief, not accepting a certain ritual, but treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.”
People “do religion” to be transformed, Armstrong said. In the pre-modern world, people wanted to become divine. But, she said, the modern Western world has created a “very limited version” of God and the divine. She noted that 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas described God not as a being but as “being itself … God is all that is.”
Faith traditions agree that for people to access the “authentic, sacred core that we have in our being,” they must go beyond the self, Armstrong said. But that isn’t easy, given that humans are “egotistic creatures.”
And the way to go beyond the self, or empty oneself (kenosis) of a “me-first” attitude, is to practice compassion.
Compassion, however, is not feeling sorry for or pitying someone. Rather, the word’s roots mean to endure or suffer with the other, she said.
“What the Golden Rule requires you to do is to continually put yourself in the place of another,” Armstrong stated. That also includes loving your enemy, arguably the most difficult mandate in her book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.” Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemies, and the Hebrew word for love, as used in Leviticus, refers to loyalty rather than affection, Armstrong said. The term was used in treaties between kings, meaning they would give each other aid and look out for each other’s interests.
“That is the love that we have to give to our enemies today, and if we had done this in the past, we wouldn’t be having so many troubles today,” Armstrong said.
Compassion also means allowing a feeling of discomfort, which can lead to action. The Charter for Compassion organization has a network of “cities of compassion,” which aim to address a city’s problems, such as homelessness. Such a city, Armstrong said, should be an “uncomfortablecity.” Armstrong also referred to the large number of refugees pouring into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. “We’re not letting this break our hearts. And we should” she said.
The plight of people who are hungry and dispossessed “should disturb us. We should nurture that,” she added.
In terms of religious transformation, such distress is “the grain of sand in the shell of the oyster that creates the pearl.”
Interview With Karen Armstrong
Religion scholar and author Karen Armstrong spoke with LNP/Advocate correspondent Diane M. Bitting following her April 11 lecture at Elizabethtown College.
Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
More on the Charter for Compassion: When Armstrong won the TED Prize, Armstrong knew immediately what she wanted to do. “They rang me up, and I said I’d like to get religious leaders together … and say compassion is what it’s all about, not all this other stuff, doctrines and that kind of thing. … I kept coming to it in all my books, and yet when you saw religious leaders coming together, they were either banging on about homosexuality or being unkind about one another, and you weren’t hearing this.”
On Pope Francis: “I never thought I’d hear myself say these words, but the pope is doing a good job. We need a few more people like that. And I think one of the ways they (religious leaders) could do it is more by gesture, which he’s very good at, instead of a lot of words.”
Being discouraged by these polarized, troubled times: “It doesn’t matter if I feel discouraged. It’s not important. You just have to try to do what you can. You can’t do more. … It’s very hard to keep bright and breezy, but perhaps we should feel discouraged.”
In her lecture, she spoke of why feeling discomfort over the plight of the unfortunate is a key to being compassionate. During the audience Q& A, she suggested taking a heartbreaking news image of one suffering person, say in Syria, and “instead of shutting your eyes or switching channels, let that person stay in your mind during the day. … Keep that picture of absolute, abject sorrow and despair in your mind, and it starts a spark.”
On human nature: While compassion is part of human nature, why are people so awful to each other? “Because we’ve got also very strong aggressive impulses in our brain that are much stronger than that,” namely fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing, she said. “They are very strong instinctual drives. We developed the compassion because we had to look after our young.”
Trips to Pakistan: During the audience Q& A, Armstrong mentioned traveling frequently to Pakistan. “I speak to them about Islam, and they tell me, don’t be polite. You tell us where we’re going wrong,” Armstrong said afterward. One man told her, “This is what we used to hear in the mosque and we don’t hear it anymore.” She also has spoken in the Gulf States, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Her writings include a biography of the Prophet Mohammad and a history of Islam. Following 9/11, she was a sought-after speaker here in better understanding the religion, addressing members of Congress, the State Department and the United Nations. “What’s happened, again with Western connivance, is that we’ve allowed people like the Saudis and the Deobandis to export their very, very limited view of Islam all around the world. It’s as though a tiny Christian sect in the Bible belt had petrol dollars and international support, (and) they could change the face of Christianity.”
On being a “freelance monotheist”: Armstrong left religious belief behind after leaving the convent. But later, after immersing herself in the study of religions, she referred to herself as a “freelance monotheist.”
“I said it in a carefree, jolly moment and it’s now dogged my ears. And I wouldn’t even call myself a monotheist anymore. … If anything, I’m a Confucian, I think. … What I meant was I can’t see any of those faces better than any of the others. Each one has its own genius, and each its own particular flaws or failings.”