When a friend finished reading Karen Armstrong's supremely even-handed A History of God, she closed the book and wondered where Armstrong's own religious convictions lay. Between her prodigious research and impartial tone, it isn't easy to discern her sympathies. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, however, she climbs out from her role as an objective historian and professes a personal creed.
Armstrong, a sublime synthesizer of the world's faiths and possessor of a Bill Clinton-like ability to express abstruse points clearly and quickly, is the author of 22 books. The one-time nun has published biographies on Buddha, Mohammed and St. Paul, the comprehensive A History of God and last year's A Case for God, a rebuttal to the recent flurry of atheist tracts. (She notes that, historically, atheism is often a transition period when our myths morph into new form and relevance.)
In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong leaves aside the debates about doctrine and history and zeroes in on the social benefit of compassion. Where the Dalai Lama's bestseller, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, concentrates inward on the psychological benefits of compassion, the British writer's focus is outward, on its social and political impact.
Her goal is to plant a deep-rooted desire for equity. She seeks to alter those who have hardened into partiality or righteousness. She counters the anxiety of cooling our confidence in our beliefs by promoting the wisdom of uncertainty: "Religion is at its best," she writes, "when it helps to ask questions and hold us in a state of wonder - and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically."
Armstrong's 12-step process attempts to peel away the fetters of the ego and enlarge our sympathetic capacity. For her, when we go beyond our likes and dislikes, our sense of self grows and our perspective fans out. Her commitment to this end is so fierce that long-time Armstrong fans may bridle at her direct instruction. But her goal is sure. Compassion for her is not simply warm-heartedness; it is energetic:
"Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect."
The context defining her book is twofold: first, a world where the illusory barriers of the ego - the ego of individuals, tribes and nations - sow fear, insecurity and anxiety, which impairs our perceptions and decisions. And second, it is a world where debates about the literal truths of scripture have supplanted the therapy of religion's myths.
These two forces have let a crucial psychic need go unmet: How do we overcome the straitjacket of the ego and feel transcendence and a common humanity? Our era rewards hardness, competitiveness and self-centeredness. How do we thrive while overcoming the temptations of the reptilian portion of our brains, and its preoccupation with feeding, fighting, fleeing - and a fourth, racy f?
Her solution, her path to transcendence, is compassion embodied by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
Blending examples from across the world's religions, the Western canon and her personal experiences, Armstrong assembles a personal set of commandments that enlarge our sympathies from our family, to our friends and workplace, and then beyond that, past our tribe and nation. Her impressive range also shows that no one religion has a monopoly on prizing benevolence.
One of her many compelling points is that any interpretation of scripture that causes contempt is illegitimate. Scripture should be read with charity and goodwill.
Armstrong refutes the dogma that we are hardwired for selfishness, but not altruism or compassion. We are hardwired for both, she says.
The book concludes with examples from transcendent political figures - Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi - and their ability to engage their foes. The lesson she learns from them is that what we revile in our enemies is simply the shadow of our own unfulfilled desires.
Some may regard this project as utopian or find that the schematic, 12-step approach reduces the complexity of the planet's religions to a strained middle ground. But Armstrong is neither dreamy nor simple-minded. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she seeks to retrain us from an ego-fuelled outlook of partiality and prejudice to an informed, expanded humanity.
Moez Surani is a Chalmers Arts Fellow and the author of the poetry collection Reticent Bodies.
Karen Armstrong will speak at the Toronto Reference Library on Monday, Jan. 17 at 7 pm. Free tickets are available through the Toronto Public Library Web page.