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Karen Armstrong’s Compassion

It’s a common refrain that one hears among those of us looking to think responsibly about the world’s religions: at bottom, they all have a common core, and the core is a genuinely good one.

That would be nice, but I’ve never really bought it. To be honest, I don’t even think it would be nice. All we’d have to do is follow the correct kernel of our religions and we’d be golden forever, end of story. So much of the interesting, complex, and messy stuff that makes learning about religions and about people so engrossing might peel away in the name of unity. And often, when such universal perennialism gets wheeled out, it turns out to be in fact a surreptitious assertion of a particular tradition, to which all the others become subservient.

But when Karen Armstrong, the British dean of comparative-religion-for-the-people, claims that all religions are really about compassion, when she goes on to promulgate a “Charter for Compassion,” and when TED throws its connections and tech savvy behind her, it’s hard to be too much of a curmudgeon. Sure, such things have come and gone again and again in history—how often have we heard calls for World Peace in Our Time?—but no less are we probably still responsible for giving it another go. And if a bit of fascinating religious mayhem has to be quieted in the process, so be it. There will still be science fiction.

That said, I’m glad to have had the chance to interview Karen Armstrong at The Immanent Frame. What she proposes is certainly a brave effort to mobilize her years of studying and writing into action, into a movement. It also represents an important example of activism and organizing from precisely the spiritual-but-not-religious vantage point that is supposedly able to do neither.

NS: Do you anticipate that the Charter will eventually translate into meaningful social change?

KA: All religious teaching must issue in practical action. This is something that has become very clear to me during the last twenty years, which I have devoted to the study of world religions. The doctrines and stories of faith make no sense at all unless they are translated into action. This is one of the essential themes of my latest book, The Case for God, which was being written at the same time as we were composing the Charter. We were all convinced that somehow the Charter must be a call to action. There was no point in us all embracing one another on the day of the launch if there would be no practical follow up. We need compassion—the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to “experience with” the other—in politics, social policy, finance, education, and media. Unless we can learn to treat all nations and all peoples as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we are unlikely, in these days of global terror, to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

Read more at The Immanent Frame.

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