Mar 27 2008

Karen Armstrong’s Take on the Golden Rule

Published by under Talks

Talk by Ian Fleming at the meeting of the Dunedin Sea of Faith Group on 27 March 2008, on the subject of Karen Armstrong’s take on the Golden Rule.

Hillel, the great Jewish Rabbi lived around the time of Jesus. It was said that one day a pagan approached him and promised to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied simply: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.”

Jesus said in similar wording: Do unto others as you would that they should do to you”. Some would say that Hillel’s version is preferable. Doing unto others at worst could be an imposition, presuming others might wish for themselves what you wish for. Hillel’s version restricts itself to refraining from behaviour that one would consider hateful if suffered by oneself. What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. Although on reflection, the two are complementary. Then Hillel followed his version with: That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. The WHOLE of the Torah! All its teaching and rules reduced to simplicity; the rest appended as mere commentary on this easy to understand, one would think, Golden Rule.

However seldom practised. So Hillel goes on even further to say GO LEARN IT. Go study it. The key is in the learning and doing.

The Golden Rule. Taught by the great Axial sages of India, China, Israel and Greece, the Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, and together with him the priestly writer of the Babylonian exile, and Socrates, in that period of 900 to 200 BCE. Each learning it independently of the others, and most importantly, discovering it as the only solution in the midst of horrific tumult. And as we shall see, Karen Armstrong in the concluding 10th chapter of her book The Great Transformation advocates the Golden Rule as a solution to today’s conflicts around the globe. The golden rule. Easy to say. But the only solution in terrible times, for individuals, for nations.

Last year I presented a reordered history of the Hebrew scriptures where the order of the books gets turned on its head in the light of the archaeological discoveries that Armstrong cites together with the documentary hypothesis of the pentateuch. It was this reconstruction of Israel’s history and documentation that was my primary interest. However Armstrong’s interest was to portray Israel’s journey, albeit patchy and erratic, towards discovering its own version of the Golden Rule. And as in the discoveries of the three other cultures she treats in her book, it was discovered only in experiences of violence, terror, dislocation and isolation. The small nation of Judah was smashed by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was destroyed, and with that its temple, the centre of its worship. Its royalty were abducted along with the majority of its inhabitants to Babylon. In the midst of such destruction, Jeremiah, amongst the few who were allowed to remain in Jerusalem’s ruins, because he had foreseen the futility of resisting the enemy, – Jeremiah discovered one of the insights of the Axial sages, to interiorise one’s spirituality instead of relying on outward vulnerable symbols. Yahweh would make a new covenant with his people. This time it would not be inscribed on stone tablets, like the old covenant with Moses: “Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

But going even further than Jeremiah, in all the refugee lostness and divorce of their Babylonian exile from the temple, the priestly writer or writers could write, even if it was also along with all the holiness requirements of Leviticus, “If an alien lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him like one of your own people and love him as yourselves. For you were aliens in Egypt.” – The Golden Rule, a law based on empathy. The experience of suffering must lead to the appreciation of other people’s pain. Your own sorrow must teach you to feel with others.

I noted in conclusion to that address, however, that as in the other cultures also, there followed a sad falling away. 70 years later when the exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem, only a small group made the journey, the majority of the diaspora having made a new life for themselves in Babylon, among them the priestly writers with their new spirituality.

And what did the small band of conservative returnees do? They rebuilt Jerusalem’s defensive excluding walls and divorced their Canaanite wives to preserve their purity. Only a few, like the author of the gentle book of Ruth who slipped in the concluding observation that even the great king David was of Moabite ancestry and also the author of Jonah within whose tale, when the prophet jibs at being compelled by Yahweh to save the foreign city Nineveh he is rebuked by Yahweh’s Golden Rule concern for others: “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?” Thanks to these two books, we know there were still some who advocated the compassion of the Golden Rule.

And that is where I left it. Karen Armstrong continues beyond the Axial sages to an appendix showing a reflowering of the Golden Rule in the three Abrahamic religions of today viz. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to show how they would build on Israel’s Axial insights, and create a faith based on the Golden Rule, concluding with her tenth chapter advocating a possible spirituality for us amidst the atrocities of today that television nightly beams in upon us.

To continue. .. The Roman Emperor Vespasian burnt the second temple to the ground in the year 70 of the CE. We know from the Qumran scrolls how the Essene sect withdrew into themselves into the wilderness.

However, amongst the more progressive Pharisees, who were not all as bad as the gospels make out, there were some who developed some of the advanced insights of the Axial Age. Perhaps the greatest of them all was Rabbi Hillel, who had migrated from Babylon to Jerusalem more latterly. And we have already noticed his summary of his faith: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.”

Another of the movements at that time trying to find a new way of being Jewish centred on the life and death of a Galilean faith healer who was crucified by the Romans in about the year 30 of the CE; Some of his followers believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited Jewish messiah who was to return and inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. In fact, Dr James Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and archaeologist, in his 2006 book The Jesus Dynasty makes some fascinating suggestions concerning Jesus’ messianic royal line and how he might have seen himself as such in consequence. But still only as a Jewish messiah, and an earthly one at that. Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion and was deeply Jewish. As we have seen he taught his own version of the Axial Golden Rule insight. Like the rabbis, he believed that the commandments to love God and your neighbour as yourself were the greatest commandments of the Torah.

But the person who made Christianity a new religion was Paul, the first Christian writer, who believed that Jesus had also been a messiah for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Paul had the universal vision of the Axial Age. God felt “concern for everybody.” He was convinced that Jesus’ death and resurrection had created a new Israel, open to the whole of humanity. There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead. The Axial compassion ethic.

Later Christians would set great store by ortho-doxy, the acceptance of the “correct teaching.” They would eventually associate faith with belief. But Paul would have found this difficult to understand. For Paul, religion was about kenosis (emptying oneself) and love. In Paul’s eyes, the two were inseparable. You could have faith that moved mountains, but it was worthless without love, which required the constant transcendence of egotism. Love was not preoccupied with self, clinging to an inflated idea of itself, but was empty, self-forgetful and endlessly respectful of others.

The gospels, written between the years 70 and c100 of the CE, follow Paul’s line. They did not present Jesus as teaching doctrines, such as the Trinity or original sin, which would later become de rigueur. Instead they showed him practising “concern for everybody.” To the dismay of some of his contemporaries, Jesus regularly consorted with “sinners” – prostitutes, lepers, epileptics and those who were shunned for collecting the Roman taxes. He shut nobody out from his radius of concern. He insisted that his followers should not judge others. The people who would be admitted to the kingdom would be those who practised practical compassion, feeding the hungry and visiting people who were sick or in prison. His followers should give their wealth to the poor. They should not trumpet their good deeds, but live gentle, self-effacing lives.

The final flowering of the Axial Age occurred in 7C Arabia when the prophet Muhammad brought the Qur’an, a divinely inspired scripture, to the people of the Hijaz arid, mountainous region in western Saudi Arabia. Muhammad, of course, had never heard of the Axial Age, but he would probably have understood the concept. The Qur’an did not claim to be a new revelation, but claimed simply to restate the message that had been given to Adam, the first prophet. It insisted that Muhammad had come not to replace the prophets of the past but to return to the faith of Abraham, who lived before the Torah and the gospel – before, that is, the religions of God had split into warring sects. God had sent messengers to every people on the face of the earth, and today Muslim scholars have argued that had the Arabs known about the Buddha or Confucius, the Qur’an would have endorsed their teachings too. The basic message of the Qur’an was .. a command to practical compassion. It was wrong to build a private fortune selfishly, at the expense of others, and good to share your wealth fairly and create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people were treated with respect.

Like the great Axial sages, Muhammad lived in a violent society, when old values were breaking down. Arabia was caught up in a vicious cycle of tribal warfare, in which one vendetta led inexorably to another. It was also a time of economic and material progress. … In the late 6C the city of Mecca had established a thriving market economy and its merchants took their caravans into the more developed regions of Persia, Syria and Byzantium. Muhammad was himself a successful merchant, and delivered his message to the Meccans in an atmosphere of cut-throat capitalism and high finance. The Meccans were now rich beyond their wildest dreams, but in the stampede for wealth, old tribal values, which demanded that the community take care of the weaker members of the clan, had been forgotten.

When Muhammad received his first revelations, in c. 610 CE, many of the Arabs had become convinced that Allah, the High God of the pantheon was identical with the God of the Jews and Christians. … who had received valid revelations of their own. .. It was assumed that Islam was the religion of the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, as Judaism was the religion of the children of Isaac and Jacob, and Christianity was for the followers of the gospel.

Eventually Muhammad’s religion would be called xiislamxi (“surrender”); “Muslims”, a derivative of Islam, are men and women who have made an existential surrender of their lives to God. This takes us immediately to the heart of the axial Age. … transcendence of the ego, which continually draws attention to itself. Muslims were also required to give a regular proportion of their income to the poor. … By meditating on the (bounty) of nature, Muslims must learn to behave with similar generosity.

However, despite the ideal, in every single one of the four traditions of the Axial Age and the Abrahamic successors, individuals have failed to measure up. In all these faiths, people have fallen prey to exclusivity, cruelty, superstition, and even atrocity. At their core, the Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect and universal concern. Can this be learnt, practised, however, apart from the experience of extreme suffering?

When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do. The hatred and horror infiltrate their dreams, relationships, desires and ambitions. The sages were all living in violent societies like our own. What they created was a spiritual technology that utilised natural human energies to counter human aggression. The most gifted of them realised that if you want to outlaw brutal, tyrannical behaviour, it was no good simply issuing simple directives.
They devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome aggression. The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked. Regardless of their theological “beliefs” – which did not much concern the sages – they concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to re-educate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or another their programmes were designed to eradicate the aggressive self-seeking that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule. This, they found, introduced people to a different dimension of human experience. It gave them ekstasis, a ‘stepping out” from their habitual, self-bound consciousness to enable them to apprehend a reality that they called “God”, nibbana, brahman, atman, or the Way. It was not a question of first discovering your belief in “God”, and then living a compassionate life. The very practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield high experiences of transcendence.
There was a section of the 20/20 programme last Thursday evening on “The Happy Brain”. It was asserted that a daily half hour meditation upon kindness and compassion – the very subject we are considering – gave rise to a feeling of well-being. A very timely confirmation of the Sages’ ekstasis – stepping out – experience of transcendence.

Armstrong writes: “Buddhists recommended meditation on the “immeasurables” to cultivate a different mentality. But people who have neither the time or the talent for yoga could repeat the Buddha’s poem “Let All Beings Be Happy” – a prayer that demands no theological or sectarian belief.”

From the internet: (MEDITATION IN YOGA AND VEDANTA by Swami Adiswarananda, Spiritual Leader, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York) “Sit in a straight posture. The next thing to do is to send a current of holy thought to all creation. Mentally repeat: “Let all beings be happy; let all beings be peaceful; let all beings be blissful.” So do to the east, south, north, and west. The more you practise this, the better you will feel. You will find at last that the easiest way to make ourselves healthy is to see that others are healthy, and the easiest way to make ourselves happy is to see that others are happy.”
Is this a non-sectarian move forward from the practice of intercessory prayer for others that Christians were taught?

Human beings are probably conditioned to self-defence. Ever since we lived in caves, we have been threatened by animal and human predators. Even within our own communities and families, other people oppose our interests and damage our self-esteem, so we are perpetually poised – verbally, mentally, and physically – for counterattack and preemptive strike. The sages discovered, however, that if we methodically cultivated an entirely different mindset, we experienced an alternative state of consciousness. The consistency with which the Axial sages – quite independently – returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature.

If, for example, every time we were tempted to say something hostile about a colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country, we considered how we would feel if such a hostile remark were made about us – and refrained – we would, in that moment, have gone beyond ourselves. It would be a moment of transcendence. If such an attitude became habitual, people could live in a state of constant ekstasis, not because they were caught up in an exotic trance but because they would be living beyond the confines of pure self-regard. The Axial programmes all promoted this attitude. As Rabbi Hillel pointed out, this was the essence of religion. In China, the Confucian rituals of “yielding” were designed to cultivate a habit of reverence for others. In India, before an aspirant could undertake a single yogic exercise, he had to become proficient in ahisma, non-violence, never betraying antagonism in a single word or gesture. Until this was second nature, his guru would not allow him to proceed with his meditation – but in the process of acquiring this “harmlessness” he would, the texts explained, experience “indescribable joy.”

The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda. For them, religion was the Golden Rule. They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from – their greed, egotism, hatred and violence. More elusively, what they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle. If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and became dogmatic about it, they could develop a .. stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskilful”.

This is not to say, says Armstrong, that all theology should be scrapped or that the conventional beliefs about God or the ultimate are “wrong”. But – quite simply – they cannot express the entire truth. A transcendent value is one that, of its very nature cannot be defined – a word that in its original sense means “to set limits upon.”

Christianity, for example, has set great store by doctrinal orthodoxy. The test is simple: if people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant, and unkind about other people’s faith, they are not “skillful” as the Buddha would say. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, then they are good, helpful and sound. This is the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major traditions.

A religious teaching can never be simply a statement of objective fact: it must be a programme for action. Paul quoted that early Christian hymn to the Philippians not to lay down the law about the incarnation, but to urge them to practise kenosis (self-emptying) themselves. If they behaved like Christ, they would discover the truth of their beliefs about him.

The importance of compassion in religion however, has tended to become obscured by centuries of institutional, political and intellectual development. All too often the religion that dominates public discourse seems to express an institutional egotism: my faith is better than yours! As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi noted, once people interject themselves into their beliefs, they can become quarrelsome, officious or even unkind. Compassion is not a popular virtue, People often prefer being right to being compassionate. Fundamentalist religion has absorbed the violence of our time and developed a polarised vision, sometimes dividing humanity into two hostile camps, with the embattled faithful engaged in a deadly war against “evildoers.” As we have seen to our cost, this attitude can easily move into atrocity. It is also counterproductive. The Chinese Daodejing writing pointed out that violence usually recoils upon the perpetrator, no matter how well intentioned he might be. You cannot force people to behave as you want; in fact, coercive measures are more likely to drive them in the opposite direction.

All the world religions have seen the eruption of militant piety. As a result, some people have concluded either that religion itself is inescapably violent or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition. But the story of the Axial Age shows an opposite result. Every single one of these faiths is rooted in principled and deeply-felt recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time.

Nevertheless, the critics of religion are right to point to a connection between violence and the sacred, because early religion has always been preoccupied by the cruelty of life. Animal sacrifice – a universal practice of antiquity – was a spectacularly violent act designed to channel and control our inherent aggression. It may have been rooted in the guilt experienced by the hunters of the Palaeolithic period when they slaughtered their fellow creatures. The scriptures often reflect the agonistic (i.e. contesting) context from which it emerged. It is not difficult to find a religious justification for killing. If seen in isolation from the tradition as a whole, individual texts, in, for example, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Qu’ ran can easily be used to sanction immoral violence and cruelty. In our own day, people all over the world are resorting to religiously inspired terrorism or freedom-fighting, whatever. They are sometimes impelled by fear, despair and frustration; sometimes by a hatred and rage that entirely violates the Axial ideal. As a result, religion has been implicated in some of the darkest episodes of recent history.

What should be our response? The Axial sages give us two important pieces of advice, says Karen Armstrong. First, there must be self-scrutiny. Instead of simply lambasting the “other side”, people must examine their own behaviour. … The piety of the Axial Age demanded that people take responsibility for their own actions.

The Jewish prophets gave a particularly strong lead here. At a time when Israel and Judah were threatened by the imperial powers, Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah all told them to scrutinise their own conduct. Instead of encouraging a dangerous righteousness, they wanted to puncture the national ego. To imagine that God is reflexively on your side and opposed to your enemies was not a mature religious attitude.

So, Amos saw Yahweh, the divine warrior, using Assyria as his instrument to punish the kingdom of Israel for its systemic injustice and social irresponsibility. And Ezekiel, after his deportation to Babylon, when the exiles had been the victims of massive state aggression, insisted that the people of Judah look into the own violent behaviour. And Jesus would later tell his followers not to condemn the splinter in their neighbour’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own. And the Indian doctrine of karma insisted that all our deeds have long-lasting consequences. Blaming others without examining how our own failings might have contributed to a disastrous situation was “unskilful,” unrealistic, and irreligious.

So too in our current predicament, the Axial sages would probably tell us, reformation must start at home. Before stridently insisting that another religion clean up its act, we look into our own traditions, scriptures, and history – and amend our own behaviour. We cannot hope to reform others until we have reformed ourselves. In the same way, secularists, who reject religion, should look for signs of secular fundamentalism, which is often as stridently bigoted about religion as some forms of religion are about secularism. In its own brief history, secularism has also had its disasters: Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein show that a militant exclusion of religion from public policy can be as lethal as any pious crusade.

So first: self-criticism.

Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action. When they confronted aggression in their own traditions, they did not pretend that it was not there, but worked vigourously to change their religion, rewriting and reorganising their rituals and scriptures in order to eliminate the violence that had accumulated over the years. The ritual reformers of India took the agon – the contesting – out of the sacrifice; In China, Confucius tried to extract the militant egotism that had distorted the li; (rules of propriety) and in Israel, “P” took the aggression out of the ancient creation stories, producing in Genesis chapter one, a cosmogony in which Yahweh blessed all his creatures – including Leviathan, whom he had slaughtered in the old tales.

Today extremists have distorted the Axial traditions by accentuating the belligerent elements that have evolved over the centuries at the expense of those that speak of compassion and respect for the sacred rights of others. To reclaim their faith, their fellow-religionists should embark on a programme of disciplined and creative study, discussion, reflection, and action. Instead of sweeping uncomfortable scriptures and historical disasters under the carpet in order to preserve the “integrity” of the institution, scholars, clerics, and laity should study difficult texts, ask searching questions and analyse past failings.

Discussion two.
Karen Armstrong writes: When (the Axial Sages) confronted aggression in their own traditions, they did not pretend that it was not there but worked vigourously to change their religion, rewriting and reorganising their rituals and scriptures in order to eliminate the violence that had accumulated over the years.
…. To reclaim (our) faith, (we) should embark on a programme of disciplined and creative study, discussion, reflection, and action. Instead of sweeping uncomfortable scriptures and historical disasters under the carpet in order to preserve the “integrity” of the institution, scholars, clerics, and laity should study difficult texts, ask searching questions and analyse past failings.
Discuss. Would this be something for people like us? Is it doable? How?

This need not be a purely intellectual campaign; it should also be a spiritual process. In these perilous times, we need new vision, but, as the Axial sages tirelessly explained, religious understanding is not simply notional. – Many (in Hebrew history) understandably opposed the idea of a written scripture, because they feared that it would result in slick, superficial knowledge.

So, at the same time, we should all strive to recover the compassionate vision and find a way of expressing it in an innovative, inspiring way – just as the Axial sages did. A self-effacing, compassionate, and non-violent lifestyle was just as important as textual study. Even Indra had to change his belligerent way of life and live as a humble Vedic student before he could understand the deepest truths of the tradition. It also took him a long time.

Because we live in a society of instant communication, we expect to grasp our religion instantly too, and can even feel that there is something wrong if we cannot appreciate it immediately. But the Axial sages tirelessly explained that true knowledge is always elusive. Understanding comes only after intellectual kenosis, when we realise that we know nothing and our mind is “emptied” of received ideas. The Axial sages were not timid about questioning fundamental assumptions, and as we face the problems of our time, we need to have a mind that is constantly open to new ideas.

Armstrong sees the present period as one of great fear and pain. The Axial Age taught that facing up to suffering is an inescapable fact of human life. Only by admitting our own pain can we learn to empathise with others. Today we are deluged with more images of suffering than any previous generation: war, natural disasters, famine, poverty, and disease are beamed nightly into our living rooms. Life is indeed dukkha, uneasy, anguished. It is tempting to retreat from this ubiquitous horror, to deny that it has anything to do with us, and to cultivate a deliberately “positive” attitude that excludes anybody’s pain but our own. But the Axial sages insisted that this was not an option. People who deny the suffering of life and stick their heads, ostrich-like, in the sand are “false prophets”. Unless we allow the sorrow that presses in on all sides to invade our consciousness, we cannot begin our spiritual quest. In our era of international terror, it is hard for any of us to imagine that we can live in the Buddha’s pleasure park. Suffering will sooner or later impinge upon all our lives, even in the protected societies of the first world.

Instead of resenting this, the Axial sages would tell us, we should treat it as a religious opportunity. Instead of allowing our pain to fester and erupt in violence, intolerance, and hatred, we should make a heroic effort to use in constructively. The trick, Jeremiah told the deportees, was not to give free rein to resentment. Vengeance was not the answer. The Priestly writer told the Jewish exiles: honour the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in Egypt. The memory of past distress brings us back to the Golden Rule; it should help us to see that other people’s suffering is as important as our own – even (perhaps especially) the anguish of our enemies. The Greeks put human misery onstage so that the Athenian audience could learn sympathy for the Persians who had devastated their city only a few years earlier. In the tragedies, the chorus regularly instructed the audience to weep for people whose crimes would normally fill them with abhorrence. Tragedy could not be denied. It had to be brought right into the sacred heart of the city and made a force for good. We have to learn to feel with people we have hated and harmed. Rage and vicious resentment can make us inhuman.

We have to continually remind ourselves that the Axial sages developed their compassionate ethic in horrible and terrifying circumstances. They were living in frightening, war-torn societies, where the old values were disappearing. The sages were practical men; many were preoccupied with politics and government. They were convinced that empathy actually worked. Compassion and concern for everybody was the best policy. They devoted a great deal of time and energy to thinking about the nature of goodness. They spent as much creative energy to seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer. We have different preoccupations. The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, but our spiritual education is often undeveloped, Armstrong says.

The Axial Age needed to craft a new vision for a new age. People had discovered that each person was unique. The old tribal ethic, which had developed a communal mentality to ensure the survival of the group, was being replaced by a new individualism. Many of the axial spiritualities were preoccupied with the discovery of the self. The sages demanded that every single person become self-conscious, aware of what they were doing.

Today we are making another quantum leap forward. Our technology has created a global society, which is interconnected electronically, militarily, economically and politically. We now have to develop a global consciousness, because, whether we like it or not, we live in one world. Even though our problem is different from that of the Axial sages, they can still help us. They did not jettison the insights of the old religion, but deepened and extended them. In the same way, we should develop the insights of the Axial Age.

The sages were ahead of us in recognising that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an “immeasurable” outlook that extends to the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern.

The Golden Rule reminded the fledgling individuals of the Axial Age that I value my own self as much as you do yours. However, if I made my individual self an absolute value, human society would become impossible, so we must all learn to “yield” to one another. Our challenge is to develop this insight and give it a global significance.

In the Holiness Code, the Priestly writer insisted that no living creature is unclean and that everybody – even a slave – has sovereign freedom. We have to “love” our neighbour as ourselves. “P” did not mean that we had to be filled with emotional tenderness for everybody; in his legal terminology, “love” meant being helpful, loyal, and giving practical support to our neighbour. Today everybody on the planet is our neighbour.

In China, Mozi tried to convince the princes of his day that it made good, practical sense to cultivate jian ai, a deliberate and impartial “concern for everybody.” It would, Mozi argued, serve their own best interests.

However, acceptance of the alien and the foreign takes time; displacing the self from the centre of our world view demands a serious effort.

Buddhists recommended meditation on the “immeasurables” to cultivate a different mentality ..

In China, the Confucians also recognised the importance of a programme of self-cultivation. The rituals were designed to create a junzi, a mature, fully-developed human being who did not treat others carelessly, perfunctorily, or selfishly. And they also transformed the person who was the object of ritual attention and brought out his or her unique holiness.

A practically-expressed respect for the other is probably indispensable for a peaceful global society and perhaps the only way to “reform” rogue states. But this respect must be sincere. As the Daodejing pointed out people always sense the motives behind our actions. Nations will also be aware if they are being exploited or humoured out of self-interest.

Suffering shatters neat, rationalistic theology. Auschwitz, Bosnia, the destruction of the World Trade Center, Sudan, – the list goes on – reveal the darkness of the human heart. Today we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers; the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other peoples’ point of view. If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, as Mencius in China suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.

The basis for this address was taken in very large part from “The Great Transformation – The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah by Karen Armstrong, published by Atlantic Books, London, 2006.

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