The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The case for compassion: Awakening our true selves

Posted by Ron George on October 31, 2010

'Where do I go when my house will be real estate and a golf field,' by Dhea Savitri

The Case for God, Karen Armstrong’s magnificent lit review of religio-philosophic history, ought to have been titled, “The Case for Religion.” She succeeds in making the latter case while ironically failing to make the former: As Armstrong relentlessly points out, there is no case to be made for God. In Alan Watts’ charming turn of phrase, “the which than which there is no whicher” is utterly incomprehensible by human thought. Armstrong cites authorities across the spectrum of historic religious traditions – Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian – that once we begin to speak of God, we immediately find conceptual language inadequate.

The historic, trans-traditional answer to this problem has been to acknowledge the inadequacy of theology, fall into meditative silence and content one’s self with what one medieval Christian author called The Cloud of Unknowing. All religious traditions have developed practices associated with this way of knowing-by-unknowing God or whatever it is we believe we’re engaging. Despite these numerous ways of spirituality, all seem to lead to self-transcendence, an experience that satisfies an innate desire for something more than that which is mundane or ordinary.

My guess is that there are many ways of self-transcendence other than the spirituality of religion. There are, for example, the spiritualities of athletics, of musical and dramatic performance, of graphic, static and dynamic arts; indeed, religion is probably most at home in this list of interrelated human activities, all of which are species of creativity. Armstrong argues persuasively that the list also includes science, which consists of anything but dispassionate observation of phenomena; indeed, that it is but another form of human faith rooted in wonder and awe.

The urgency of Armstrong’s review – and probably the misnaming of her book – is driven by what she sees as the deteriorating, fundamentalist discourse among the various faith traditions and their critics, including militant atheists whose popular books are no more an expression of dispassionate, scientific criticism than that of the religions they attack. Atheist fundamentalism is no less driven by fear and ignorance than that of the Christian, Muslim or Jew – and it’s escalating fear and ignorance that further polarize and harden the battle lines among the warring groups. There can be no productive conversation among them because there is no compassion. Armstrong argues that this is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. She cites case after case of historic accommodation among Jews, Muslims, Christians and scientific elites. The contemporary situation has become exceedingly dangerous for all concerned, and because it is a relatively new phenomenon, we seem incapable of dealing with it.

It is useful to know that Armstrong is author of the Charter for Compassion, an trans-traditional movement of world religious leaders that affirms what can be affirmed by all people for whom the spirituality of religion is fundamental to interpreting human life, culture and history: Compassion “is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.” In fact, Armstrong’s book might have been titled “The Case for Compassion.” The term underlies Armstrong’s interpretation of religious and philosophical history. It is the golden thread of her understanding not only for what is affirmable about that history but what will redeem the present.

Compassion, according to Armstrong’s glossary, is “the ability to ‘feel with’ another, ‘experience with’ another; empathy; sympathy. It does not mean ‘pity.’ Compassion is regarded as the highest of the virtues in all the major religious traditions; it is the test of genuine religious experience and practice and one of the chief means of encountering the sacred. All the traditions also insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group but must have ‘concern for everybody’; honor the stranger; love even your enemies.’” There are no fewer than 17 discussions of compassion in The Case for God.

Armstrong has little to say in this work about the church as an institution, and I wish there had been more in her discussion of science about what anthropology has to tell us about religion as a cultural artifact. My guess is these issues are dealt with elsewhere in her body of work, which includes a book now on my must-read list, A Short History of Myth.

It is not difficult to draw some conclusions from Armstrong’s work about the decline of mainline Protestant denominations over the past 40 years. These are traditions that – to their credit – continue to struggle intellectually and spiritually not only with profound theological changes since World War II but also deep socio-political change in Western societies. Just since 1966, the year I was confirmed, Episcopalians have been divided profoundly over race, war, gender and sexuality, let alone tumultuous squabbles over the Book of Common Prayer and (to a lesser degree) the 1982 hymnal. There were about 3.6 million Episcopalians on the books in 1966. Nowadays (2008) we claim there are 2.1 million, but who are we kidding? On any given Sunday, there may be 705,000 practicing Episcopalians in the United States, down 3.1 percent from 2007.

Socio-cultural disputes have pushed Episcopalian conservatives and liberals into extreme camps. Intransigence on both sides sends the disaffected for the exits, including moderates tired of the rancor. Meanwhile, conservative and fundamentalist Christian congregations have flourished because they offer certainty not only regarding social issues but also theology. They are not in the least concerned about the implications of postmodern philosophy, science and culture. Their certainty is built upon a creed of sorts: The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it. It probably was inevitable that mainline Protestant denominations went into decline because we were blinded by postwar modernism to the rapidly changing postmodern milieu. Armstrong suggests a kind of reform – interfaith dialogue, intellectual rigor, consistent spiritual practice and, above all, compassion “all day, every day” – but I doubt whether this is a viable program for institutional reform.

“Compassionate Christianity” is in for a long, dark night of the soul, perhaps to be nurtured wherever two or three are gathered, as Armstrong suggests, in mutual respect and compassion for the stranger. I doubt, however, that the institutions will survive, except, perhaps, as tourist attractions. Western Europe is littered with the ruins of once thriving monasteries and churches. It is not unlikely that the same fate awaits great Episcopal churches across the United States. As for suburban churches, they likely will be sold to more successful congregations – conservative, fundamentalist, Pentecostal or whatever.

The hope in all of this lies somewhere in the fabric of our common humanity that has no regard for ideology. It is our nature to embrace the religion of spirituality as a means of interpreting the meaning of our lives. We are a long way from letting compassion heal our brokenness, and Armstrong indicates that the way is perilous, the outcome unclear; however, the ground of our hope lies in understanding and, more important, remembering who and what we are.

Armstrong writes: “From almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity. They evolved mythologies, rituals, and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity. They were not religious simply because their myths and doctrines were scientifically or historically sound, because they sought information about the origins of the cosmos, or merely because they wanted a better life in the hereafter. They were not bludgeoned into faith by power-hungry priests or kings: indeed, religion often helped people to oppose tyranny and oppression of this kind. The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now. Truly religious people are ambitious. They want lives overflowing with significance. They have always desired to integrate with their daily lives the moments of rapture and insight that came to them in dreams, in their contemplation of nature, and in their intercourse with one another and with the animal world. Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. They yearned for the courage to overcome their terror of mortality; instead of being grasping and mean-spirited, they aspired to live generously, large-heartedly and justly, and to inhabit every single part of their humanity … Of course, they often failed, sometimes abysmally. But overall they found that the disciplines of religion helped them to do all this. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their own true selves.”


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