In the ninth
century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world
created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to
nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China,
Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical
rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial
insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Rabbinic Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all secondary flowerings of the
original Israelite vision. Now, in The Great Transformation, Karen
Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak
clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in
our own times.
Armstrong traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining
the contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius,
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides.
All of the Axial Age faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the
unprecedented violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis,
there was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of
selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with
fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people
and give us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: first there
must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed
by practical, effective action.
In her introduction and concluding chapter, Armstrong urges us to consider
how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today. In our
various institutions, we sometimes seem to be attempting to create exactly
the kind of religion that Axial sages and prophets had hoped to eliminate.
We often equate faith with doctrinal conformity, but the traditions of the
Axial Age were not about dogma. All insisted on the primacy of compassion
even in the midst of suffering. In each Axial Age case, a disciplined
revulsion from violence and hatred proved to be the major catalyst of
Armstrong suggests that we should not see one or another doctrine as right or wrong in of itself, but instead should look for the spiritual concept that lies at the root of each to find the commonalities of compassion and tolerance. Of course, the idea that we can solve the world's problems by finding common ground between religions is hardly a new idea. However, Armstrong's grasp of history and her ability to so lucidly explain it to us raises The Great Transformation well above the level of mere platitude. (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).
The Globe and Mail The Great Transformation can serve the needs of new readers interested in a popular work that synthesizes scholarship. . . . [U]seful to anyone seeking an integral sense of world religions.
The New York Times - William Grimes
For the general reader The Great Transformation is an ideal starting point for understanding how the crowded heaven of warring gods, worshiped in violent rites, lost its grip on the human imagination, which increasingly looked inward rather than upward for enlightenment and transcendence.
Library Journal - Gary P Gillum
Both liberals and conservatives in all the world's religious and political camps could benefit from the historical insights gathered in this eminently significant volume.
A useful text for an intolerant and uncompassionate time.
Starred Review. Armstrong's magnificent accomplishment offers us an account of a violent time much like ours, when religious impulses in various locations developed practices of justice and love.
Booklist - Ray Olson
Starred Review. Magisterially but companionably, she unfolds the successive movements that molded religious consciousness in each nation, explaining them with such clarity that this book ranks with A History of God as one of her finest achievements and an utterly enthralling reading experience.
The Sunday Times
Armstrong has a dazzling ability: she can take a long and complex subject and reduce it to the fundamentals, without oversimplifying.
Recent Reader Reviews
Rated of 5
by Rupa Misinterpretation of Mahabharata In “The Great Transformation”, Karen Armstrong writes about Hindu epic Mahabharata:
“The five Pandava brothers were all married to their sister, Draupadi. This was clearly unconventional, but the marriage recalled the ancient ritual of the... Read More
Rated of 5
by Glen Sanderson Another useful perspective This book is probably more directed to the lay reader who does not have a theology or philosophy background. Like her other books, it is well written. I believe Karen Armstrong, more than most authors, writes clearly and can take very complex... Read More
Rated of 5
by Martin Kent A feel good read? The Great Transformation is typical of Armstrong's popularizing work. If you like to imagine great spiritual ideas emerging out of the human soul, this is a book for you. If you want to understand religion and its role in society you will need to... Read More
Karen Armstrong spent seven
years as a nun in the
Society of the
Holy Child Jesus
during the 1960s
and later wrote
a tell-all book,
for the Study of
Judaism. It was
her first trip
to Jerusalem in
1983 that piqued
her interest in
among faiths. At
the time she was
an atheist who
was "wearied" by
"worn out by
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