Recently a few of us from Devon United Church gathered over a couple of weeks to talk about this very question. To aid us in this discussion we watched three different TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talks. Each speaker has a grounding in a different world religion and vastly differing life experience yet express strikingly parallel, hopeful messages for our day. The final one of these speakers was Karen Armstrong.
Karen Armstrong was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family in England. At 18 she entered a strict religious order and became a nun. During this time, she began studies in English literature at Oxford University. Armstrong didn’t complete the PhD program she had begun and went to teach English in a private girls’ school. She also began writing, starting with her experiences in the convent. Her life took a dramatic change in direction when she was hired by the BBC to write and present a documentary on the Apostle Paul.
Research for this documentary included extensive travel in the Holy Land. There she became better acquainted with her Christian faith but was also immersed in Judaism and Islam. These experiences led to a career as a historian of religion. In addition to becoming an expert in Christianity, she is so well regarded by the Jewish faith that she has taught rabbis in training. In 1999 she received an award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council in the U.S. In 2000 Karen Armstrong published two of her many books, Islam: A Short History as well as The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These books made her one of the go-to experts in the field of religion and conflict after 911.
Karen Armstrong began her TED talk with the reflection that virtually all major world religions share some version of the teaching of Jesus known as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While all religions agree on this core principle, unfortunately more often than not, when religious people gather, discussion and even argument ensues.
From Armstrong’s experience, discussions, between and even within religions, often
degenerate into what interpretations of scripture or traditions are seen as “right.” This insistence by religious people on being right and superior does two things. First it breeds intolerance and even hatred which can easily lead to acts of violence with apparently
religious justification. Second, intolerance leads away from all religions’ true purpose.
The true purpose of religion that so often goes lost, Armstrong maintains, is to inspire and even require the faithful to live with compassion.
For Armstrong, compassion is at the heart of “do unto others” and similar teachings in other religions. Compassion, “feeling for another,” means putting yourself in another’s place and speaking and acting accordingly. Armstrong states that compassion should be more than a nice idea that people, religious or not, agree on, but don’t practice. And speaking as a religious person herself, Karen Armstrong challenges religions because they have often been a big part of the problem, instead of being part of the solution that leads to compassionate living.
Because of this, Karen Armstrong has initiated a written statement, the Charter for Compassion. This on-line charter (charterforcompassion.org), written by Armstrong with the help of others, is intended to attract scholars and teachers from around the world who come from various religious and other perspectives. As one might hope, people who have, through the charter, committed themselves to developing people’s capacity for compassion come from a wide variety of religious traditions, but some are non-religious, others even atheists.
For Armstrong, the first step is educational, to stimulate compassionate thinking. Next is to identify and speak out against uncompassionate things said and written by religious leaders, scholars and prominent business leaders. The ultimate goal of course, is for people not only to think and speak compassionately toward other people, but to consistently act that way. Karen Armstrong maintains and even insists that compassionate living is attainable when people work together for this common goal.
It occurs to me that even within the United Church of Canada, we spend a lot of time trying to defend our position on various issues instead of acting in compassionate ways that reflect Jesus’ teaching to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. May we be inspired by this central teaching of our faith, so that we can all be more positive and even compassionate, as we live together.
Next time: Some final reflections on living with faith, hope and love in a brutal world.
- Rev. Dirk