Classic review: The Great Transformation

Between 900 and 200 BCE, breakthroughs around the world laid the foundation for the emergence of today's major faiths.

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions By Karen Armstrong Knopf Doubleday 592 pp., $16

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Apr. 4, 2006.] In times of violence and upheaval, people historically have turned to religion to ground and guide them. Yet today, religious voices often seem strident and provocative. Does it make sense to think that people of faith can point a way through the unprecedented tensions of an unsettled, globalizing world?

Karen Armstrong is better positioned than most to answer that question. As author of a string of bestsellers on various religions (including "The Battle for God," a history of fundamentalisms), she has dedicated herself to understanding the most prominent world faiths and explaining them to a secular/postsecular society.

In her view, the one hope for surviving today's challenges lies in a spiritual revolution, one that recaptures the essential wisdom found at the roots of contemporary traditions.

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions is a masterful survey of the historical period that German philosopher Karl Jaspers named "the Axial Age," for its pivotal role in the spiritual history of humanity.

Between about 900 and 200 BCE, breakthroughs occurred in several parts of the world that created the foundations of today's major traditions: Buddhism and Hinduism in India; Confucianism and Daoism in China; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

"During this period of intense creativity, spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered an entirely new kind of human experience," Armstrong writes. These thinkers, she adds, "can still fill us with emotion because they show us what a human being should be."

What is remarkable about this age is not simply that profound religions were born, but that their essential teachings were so similar. At the core, in astonishingly similar language, stands the Golden Rule. In fact it was Confucius, she writes, who first articulated the rule, emphasizing the import of treating others with absolute respect.

In antiquity, religious rituals focused on the external world. But amid periods of war, intolerance, and disruptive social change, gifted individuals in diverse cultures began to seek the essence of the human being and explore the inner world.

That search spawned the struggle to rise above suffering and to go beyond egotism to empathy.

Armstrong sees a crucial element in those original teachings that she says has since been submerged or lost. Contrary to today's emphasis on doctrine, "what mattered [then] was not what you believed but how you behaved."

Indeed, seeking absolute certainty was considered ill-advised; it was only through living a compassionate life that one could hope to experience the transcendent reality one desired.

This is where contemporary faith has gone astray, Armstrong says, with the rigid adherence to doctrines that foster exclusivist thinking and a demonizing of "the other."

In this tour de force, Armstrong describes developments in four major civilizations side by side chronologically (century by century) as they pass through the Axial Age in different stages. Again and again, it becomes apparent that major breakthroughs come amid crises.

In the 9th century BCE, in revulsion against societal violence, Brahman priests in India eliminate violent elements from traditional sacrifical rites. Ritual instead becomes a reconstructive act for the individual, focusing on a changed mental state.

In the 8th century BCE, Jewish prophets insist that ritual is meaningless without ethical behavior, and call for introspection, integrity, and pursuit of justice.

Some philosophers remain skeptical of Jaspers' theory and question the categorizing of such worldviews as Confucianism as religion. Armstrong couches her discussion of such ethical systems in semi-religious language. It's easy to see, however, why individuals from other cultures might perceive some developments differently.

Armstrong's book is a sprawling, highly detailed history that offers readers a stimulating acquaintance with the teachings of figures from Confucius, Mozi, and Laozi in China to Buddha, the Hindu mystics, and Ashoka of India, to the more familiar giants of Greek and Jewish history.

Armstrong also briefly discusses Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as latter-day flowerings of Axial Age Judaism.

She is deeply serious about the import of learning lessons from the Axial sages. They gave us two important pieces of advice, she writes: "First, there must be self- criticism. Instead of simply lambasting 'the other side,' people must examine their own behavior."

(Even as the Jews were being carried off into exile, Jeremiah and Ezekiel insisted they scrutinize their own actions. That led to a great transformation, including the writing of the visionary first chapter of Genesis.)

"Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action," Armstrong continues. They "worked vigorously to change their religion ... to eliminate the violence ... and militant egotism."

Most of all, she calls for striving to recover the vision and practice of compassion. "The sages were not utopian dreamers but practical men.... They were convinced that empathy did not just sound edifying but actually worked.... They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer." If we live in an age of technological genius, she says, theirs was one of spiritual genius.

There is much talk of a spiritual awakening today. But Armstrong sets a high standard for such a notion as she describes the profound commitment and energies that gave birth to some of the world's great religious traditions.

Jane Lampman is a former Monitor staff writer.

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