Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Great Transformation, by Karen Armstrong

A former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong has written a swag of books on religious subjects, from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism. Her books are a treat to read, as she has a sophisticated and vigourous style that mixes religion with economics, politics, culture and other disciplines.

Her latest book, The Great Transformation, discusses the 'axial age' of religious development, using this age as a guide for our current political problems, especially the lamentable wars and their attendant massacres and human rights abuses.

From the book:

'In our current predicament, I believe we that we can find inspiration in the period that the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age because it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity. From about 900 to 200 BCE, in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.'

Besides being a fascinating read on these subjects, the book also makes a really good primer on the begininnings of all the world's major religions - religions that continue to attract followers in the millions and billions.

What I liked most about this book was the way Karen Armstrong weaved all the language that we commonly use - words like ecstasy come to mind - into her story, showing their spiritual and religious provenance. It showed that so much of the language we speak everyday we really don't know all that well.

Karen Armstrong at the end of her book readily agrees that religions have violent customs and histories:

'Nevertheless, the critics of religion are right to point to a connection between violence and the sacred, because homo religiosus 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.'

This is a splendid book which can be used in various ways: as a guide to ethical living; a religious history; for those interested in an alternative political vision; for spiritual questers; and for those who take pleasure in reading and learning.

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