BookBrowse Reviews The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

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The Great Transformation

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong X
The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 496 pages

    Paperback:
    Apr 2007, 560 pages

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Armstrong is a lucid writer with a knack for synthesizing vast quantities of research. History/Religion

From the book jacket: 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.

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.

Comment: Since 1942 the BBC have broadcast a weekly radio program called Desert Island Discs in which a guest chats with the interviewer about their life and shares the eight pieces of music that have meant the most to them.  These pieces of music are what will accompany them to their hypothetical desert island, along with a book of their choice and one luxury item.  When interviewed on the program last year Karen Armstrong chose to be accompanied to her desert island by a variety of classic music, the complete works of Milton and a "continuous supply of very cold and dry white wine".

If I could take one book to a desert island, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Tradition (subtitled The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah in the UK) would be high on the list because it's one of those books that is entertaining to dip into but also has the depth, scope and clarity of thinking to stand up to close scrutiny.  Armstrong traces the roots of the Axial age to the Russian steppes about 1,500 BCE , where the slow movement from nature-worship and sacrifice to a more inward-looking and compassionate approach to life began, and then bounces between the four key Axial regions, showing at what points they connect and how they have influenced the modern-day religions so many hold dear. 

She shows us that the shift in spiritual thinking during the Axial age was not only radical compared to what had come before, but also was substantially different to what many consider "religion" to be today.  The Axial age thinkers were concerned more with self-transformation than belief systems, and questions of theology and metaphysics were unimportant.  

On this basis, 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.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2006, and has been updated for the April 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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