Karen Armstrong is a wonderful writer and an original thinker on the subject of religion in the modern world. I’ve already commented on some her writings and find that I have great respect for her work.
In this talk she talks about The Golden Rule, how it is a fundamental tenant of all the Abrahamic faiths ( Judaism, Christianity and Islam ), as well as many others. She touches on how she feels, and quite rightly, that these religions have diverted from the moral purpose they share to foster compassion. She talks about how what the golden rule truly embodies is the notion of compassion, and how it is our compassion that will ultimately change the world for better. It’s an inspired talk and one that left me feeling hopeful.
One of the most profound things she says during her talk, one that I was immediately drawn to because it echoes a sentiment that I have long struggled to articulate, which is that:
If religion is not about believing things then what is it about? What I found across the board is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God first you do something, you behave in a committed way and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. Religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action, you only understand them when you put them into practice.
In many ways The Golden Rule is a summons to action, for those who don’t know what Golden Rule is, it is a simple ethical edict that states (as Confucius first propounded):
"do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."
As Karen points out in her talk though the key to this ideal is that you treat all people with the same consideration, not just members of your own faith or social/political/ethnic group. As I mentioned the origins of this rule can be traced back the core traditions of each of the major faiths, and in fact can be traced much further back to older traditions. I fundamentally agree with Karen when she says:
Compassion, the ability to feel with the other ... is not only the test of any true religiousity it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call God or the Divine. It is compassion says the Buddha which brings you to Nirvana.
There’s a profound conviction in her words, and one that should touch us all regardless of what faith or tradition we choose to follow. Compassion, to my mind, transcends the world traditions, it’s what each of those traditions should be reaching for, and yet, for whatever reason, we often find that those traditions have diverted from it. Karen’s idea of a Charter of Compassion seeks to restore the Golden Rule as a the central global doctrine … and as a Muslim I applaud her for that. After all, didnt the Prophet Muhammed, in his final sermon, say that:
"Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you"
And also in the hadith:
"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself"
During her talk I also think that Karen was quite right to dismiss the notion that Religion is the cause of all war and suffering:
The cause of our present woes are political. But make no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line and when a conflict gets ingrained in a region then religion can get sucked in a become part of the problem. Our modernity has been exceedingly violent.
I think fundamentally Karen has a point, I think that religion can be a force for harmony but only when each of us embraces the idea of compassion, as embodied in The Golden Rule. Could that ever be a reality? I don’t know, the cynic in me says probably not, but the romantic in me says that we should never loose sight of that ideal.