Karen Armstrong speaks on 'charter for compassion'

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

Religious historian and former nun Karen Armstrong, gave a talk at London’s Purcell Room last Wednesday  on her project to return compassion to the heart of religious discourse.

This initiative, whose central ideas are elaborated on in her latest book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, came about in 2008 when she was awarded $100,000 from Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) which promotes “ideas worth spreading”. Frustrated that, she felt,  religion is not making a contribution to building a global community founded upon respect – “one of the chief tasks of our time”, she asked TED to help her to create a charter for compassion that would restore the golden rule to the centre of moral and religious life. This charter was then drawn up by leading activists and thinkers representing six of the major world faiths.

Neuro-scientists have detected evidence of man’s penchant for altruism, but Karen argued that there are four more key instincts ‘the four F’s’, feeding, fighting, feeding and reproduction. She saw at the core of all religions an ideology of compassion which is viewed as the key test of spirituality. Each has developed its own version of the golden rule and insisted that benevolence should not be confined.

The first person to formulate the golden rule was Confucius around 500BC who told his disciples that the central thread of his teaching was to never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself. This should be practiced all day and every day and should be applied to political life. Anyone who seeks to establish himself should also seek to establish others. Today people tend to confuse compassion with pity, but Confucius saw the other person as a sacred realm or mystery, so as to mitigate against imposing one’s will without consideration for the other person’s dignity.

The title of her book has clear resonances with Alcoholics Anonymous, and Karen argued that today we are addicted to our likes and dislikes. It also draws, however, on Buddhism’s four immeasurable forms of love – a compassionate meditation whereby at various points of the day sympathies are extended outwards from oneself to a friend, to someone neither liked nor disliked, then to someone who is disliked, and finally to an entire  country with which one is at war. Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies was a response to the command in Leviticus to love one’s neighbour. In that context love did not connote tender affection but rather practical support, loyalty, coming to one another’s aid and looking out for one another’s interests.

Karen described herself as a pessimist motivated less by optimism than by horror at how things are,  and it was very important to her that both the book and charter should be a call to action, so the charter now has 150 partners, mainly organisations,  throughout the world. In Seattle a group of people from Microsoft created a compassionate action network and are seeking to translate the charter into business and environmental ethics. They have also started a network of compassionate cities worldwide. In Amsterdam took place a big conference which included a discussion on Islam and homosexuality.

For 13 years, after she limped away from her convent, Karen hated religion, wanted nothing to do with it, and her first books were very sceptical. The great Islamist Louis Massignon, however, warned against looking at the spiritualities of the past from the viewpoint of post-enlightenment rationality. He argued that a religious historian must develop the science of compassion –putting oneself in the place of the other. Karen said that she could not define God, but neither could Thomas Aquinas.

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