This volume is a departure for Karen Armstrong. Known for an impressive series of studies of world religions and the history of religious ideas and practices, Armstrong used the resources afforded by her 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) award to launch a multi-stage project focusing on the theme of compassion. The project culminates in a global collaboration that produced the Charter for Compassion (www.charterforcompassion.org), as well as this intriguing and most accessible volume.
The medium and the message cohere closely here. The charter was drafted online with the input of thousands of contributors and subsequent deliberation of leaders from many religious communities around the world. Already translated into dozens of languages and endorsed by tens of thousands of people worldwide, the charter has gathered scores of partner organizations that commit themselves to a shared agenda of promoting the many faces of compassion. This book is the most substantial resource in this unabashedly idealistic project, one that is hardly shy about wearing its very big heart on its sleeve. It explores what makes empathy possible and effective—within each one of us and in the wider world beyond.
A potential shortcoming of this volume is the sheer familiarity of the major claims and themes covered. Alleviating suffering, honoring the sanctity of all, refraining from egotism and violence—don’t we all already recognize these as key agenda items for a better future? Taken at face value alone, Armstrong’s suggestions for change might be dismissed as mere pablum. Yet the patient reader is treated to a commendably methodical description of the human condition and an insightful program for how to improve life on all levels: the personal, interpersonal, societal and global. Even if the self-help style packaging of the book’s message may be a bit off-putting, nobody will turn from this work either expecting a quick fix or unprepared for bumps along the path of progress.
Armstrong is at her best when she taps into her particular areas of expertise: the spiritualities of world religions and religious texts and practices. While the book begins with the obligatory nods to universality and inclusion, the most engaging sections reach beyond generalizations about compassion into particular devotional traditions, relating stories about real-life figures who have pursued ideals like the Golden Rule, often at great personal cost. Armstrong appeals not to some least common denominator of feel-good altruism, but consistently to the concrete efforts of sages, philosophers and religious leaders from many eras, whose lives speak eloquently of empathy and selflessness.
Dare we quibble that a small and predictable cadre of figures (Jesus, Gandhi, Confucius, the Dalai Lama, Buddha, Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela, Thich Nhat Hanh) seems to keep coming up as the most exemplary? Actually, there is something new here for almost anyone, for Armstrong highlights the contributions of numerous lesser-known practitioners and proponents of compassion. Many are our contemporaries (e.g., Christina Noble, the international crusader for abandoned children), while others championed compassion as long ago as the Axial Age. The latter phrase refers to the era from roughly 900 B.C. to 200 B.C., first labeled by Karl Jaspers and analyzed in earlier works by Armstrong, which witnessed an explosion of religious ideals and spiritual practices to foster compassion and altruism. After reading this volume, you will know something about the Chinese philosopher and mystic Zhuangzi, for example, who appealed for the practice of more compassionate discourse as firmly as did Socrates, his near contemporary in the West. And you will never be able to read Sophocles, Aeschylus or Euripides in quite the same way after encountering Armstrong’s interpretation of the social function of Greek tragedy.
Armstrong is a sure-footed guide in diagnosing the key dynamics of human behavior. It is easy to agree with her observations that our interactions too often suffer from a deficit of empathy. Virtues like hospitality and equanimity hold the promise of healing human relationships, if only we commit ourselves to transcending envy, resentment and xenophobia and challenging the irrational boundaries that divide us. Less convincing is the author’s account of darkness in the human heart. Armstrong repeatedly attributes selfishness and aggression to the reptilian brain we have inherited, a neurological endowment that emerges as the seat of aggressive impulses, locked in conflict with “the soothing regulatory system” of the higher brain.
While the field of neurobiology has indeed advanced our understanding of the roles of the hypothalamus and neo-cortex in influencing human behavior, the model presented here comes off as simplistic and unduly mechanistic. A good corrective would be to recast the issue primarily as a matter of the soul and the will, opening space for more thorough coverage of the doctrine of evil and sin in world religions, a topic on which Armstrong could easily speak with much authority. Christian moral anthropology, for one, certainly contains ample resources to address the uneasy co-existence of dark and light within us, and would provide superior insight into this volume’s most profound question: is compassion natural to humans?
Regardless of how evil and tribalism arise, nothing could be more important than Armstrong’s agenda to “retrain our responses and form mental habits that are kinder, gentler, and less fearful of others.” All people of good will and open minds will admire the Charter for Compassion and its promotion of more constructive patterns of social behavior. Only time will tell whether the practices and disciplines described in this inspiring volume will be effective in bringing about that vision. But beyond doubt is Armstrong’s resolute belief that compassion is not an impractical dream but rather a real possibility for our world. Let us hope that she is right, and that the vision of a more humane world as developed over millennia of religious thought proves to be contagious.