“I want people to hear the compassionate voice of religion,” says religion scholar Karen Armstrong. What, you say, religion and compassion in the same sentence?
It’s precisely because religious people of late are being intolerant that Karen Armstrong, an Oxford-educated scholar of literature and religion, has launched the Charter for Compassion, a cooperative effort to call all people back to compassion, which is the heart and intent of every religion. Her interview with Bill Moyers aired Friday night on Bill Moyers Journal.
Armstrong is one of my personal heroes–a scholar who speaks in everyday language, a thinker who cuts to the heart of a complex matter and presents it in terms everyone can understand. She’s best known for her books A History of God (1994) and The Battle for God (2001), which looks at militant fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
One of the things Armstrong’s writing on religion is known for is kindness–presenting religious ideas and people with utmost respect. A Muslim woman in Pakistan remarked about Armstrong’s book Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, “When I see you with your blond hair and blue eyes speaking with such respect about our prophet, I just weep.”
Armstrong says she was not always so kind in her use of language. “I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors”–she was a former nun–“and also from my teachers at Oxford.” But her life was changed by, of all things, a footnote. An Islamic scholar had coined the phrase “the science of compassion.” That’s science in the sense of disciplined study, and compassion in its literal sense of com-passion, “feeling with the other.” The footnote that changed her life suggested that such compassion needed to be applied to whatever subject one was writing about; a religious historian writing about people in the past had to “feel with” those people, putting herself into their lives and their culture, in order to present their spirituality with respect.
The Charter for Compassion calls attention back to the heart of every religion, which is the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
And that’s what the charter is trying to do. Trying to nudge people into the hard work of being compassionate. People don’t want to be compassionate. When I go around lecturing about this, I sometimes see the “good faithful” looking mutinous. Because they may know that they ought to be compassionate. But what’s the fun of religion if you can’t sort of slam down other people? This is ego. . . . It’s ego that holds us back from what we call God.
Compassion, she says, is hard work:
It’s not just a question of holding hands in church. Or you know, embracing when you make the peace. Or allowing a charitable thought to rise to your mind in a sporadic moment. It is a discipline that you have to practice all day and every day.
If it’s hard work between individuals, it’s even harder work between nations. In relation to fundamentalism, she says,
One of the things that we can do on our side is to learn to decode fundamentalist rhetoric, as we learn to decipher a great poem or an op-ed article. To see the hidden agendas. To see what lies underneath this. Because they are expressive of a fear and rage that no society, as we’ve seen, can safely ignore.
Does understanding another’s fear and rage eliminate those feelings? Perhaps not, but understanding goes a long way toward defusing them.
Compassion–it’s what our world needs now. It’s what religions, at their heart, have been trying to teach.