Friday, November 6, 2009
In Karen Armstrong's recent book, The Case for God, she outlines how the great philosophers of the axial age (Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Rabbi Hillel - and by extension, Jesus) all came to similar great insights about the human condition. Out of this time we were given what is known as the Golden Rule, or the law of compassion - that we should "treat others as we would want to be treated," or, in another configuration, "do not do harm."
Armstrong asserts that these early versions of the world's religions were not interested in doctrine and the other most divisive aspects of religion, but in how to be good. They were reacting to the great waves of violence that were ripping the ancient world apart, trying to find a way out for mankind. She states that religion is at its worst where it draws up its standard and declares all must concede "this" or be wrong -and suffer the consequences, from shame to death to eternal hellfire (whatever it is is always bad.) She also contends that those who do so are acting in opposition to the original intent of the great sages. The point is not to be right, but to be good; not to believe correctly, but to act compassionately toward our fellow human beings.
She cites the famous quote where Rabbi Hillel (a Jewish scholar slightly before the time of Christ) was asked to cite the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, and he replied, "Do not do unto others that which is hateful unto thee. That is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary." This is the law of compassion that religions today should be teaching, if only they would be true to their origins.
I must confess I am a uniter at heart and I love Armstong's narrative. But is it true? I am not aware that the world has ever been particularly peaceful. In fact, from the dawn of human history, the world has been one long slaughterhouse from that day to this. I suspect that these great insights were simply logical extensions of behavior codes left over from a nomadic, tribal existence. We learned how to act reciprocally, even sometimes charitably, within our tribe. But as human civilization formed, the concept of tribe expanded beyond the 100-200 strong village-group to allied regions, then cities, then city-states, and empires, etc., and philosophies to incorporate previous enemies into the "in" group were hatched. The Golden Rule as we know it today evolved out of much more brutal codes, in fits and starts, slowly over the centuries.
But it was never pure; always the compassionate aspects of the religions came with a lot of cultural baggage that Armstrong rightly decries, but she also tries to wish it away. If the aspects of these religions that cause such trouble, such as clashes of doctrine concerning the role of the divine, the purpose of human existence, and the nature of the afterlife, are mistakenly over-valued by the great masses, where is the proof? To Armstrong, these matters are not important, and were not considered to be important by the original sages. But if that were so, why did those same sages teach anything at all about these subjects? Why lead everyone astray by allowing the chance of misinterpretation? Why not say, "all the rest of that is rubbish, concern yourselves with this alone." I suspect that Armstong herself has moved past these issues, and would like all of us to do so as well, but to say that the great religions also do so if only they are correctly understood is, I suspect, more a wish than a fact.
Posted by PatricktheRogue at 1:36 PM