Finding God in Religious Tradition: The Call for Compassion, the New Golden Rule

As the world faces continuing division and chaos in the name of God, today’s interviewee, Karen Armstrong, shares with us important insights in the nature of religion, and the true essence of God through the shared moral precept of compassion. With vision and clarity, Ms. Armstrong discusses not only the differences in belief, but the reasons for the divisiveness that continues to plague humanity. With brilliant simplicity and reasoning, she shows us the way to unite human beings, no matter their beliefs, and end interfaith rivalry.

Interviewer: Hanako Cho


The Characteristics of Monotheism

Q. What are the characteristics of monotheism and the limitations of each monotheistic tradition?

Karen Armstrong: The three monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all confine their worship to the same deity. They all have in common a commitment to social justice and equity; like other world faiths, they all insist that the Golden Rule – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself – is the test of true spirituality. Their scriptures revere the same heroes – Abraham, Moses, and the great prophets.


The Limitations & Inaccuracies Inherent in Monotheism

I do not think it is helpful to emphasize the “limitations” of any faith’s tradition, especially in such divisive times as these. Every single human being has limitations; every single tradition – be it religious or secular – fails to meet its high ideals. And we are all too ready to point an accusing finger at other people’s faults and neglect our own. We also tend to cultivate an inaccurate view of the limitations of others. This is evident in the two examples you cite.

  • Muslims resort to violence: For most of its history, Islam has been a far more peaceful and tolerant faith than Christianity.
  • Christians believe in original sin rather than Imago Dei. Original sin is a doctrine only of the Christian West; Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians believe that God would have assumed humanity even if Adam had not sinned; “God became human,” said St Athanasius, “so that humans could become divine”. And even in the West, the doctrine of Original Sin did not become central until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.


Q. What are the differences between monotheism and polytheism? Why do monotheists fight one another?

Karen Armstrong: Again, these categories are too simplistic. The easy answer to the first question is that monotheists believe in One God and polytheists believe in many gods. But this is inaccurate. Polytheists have always seen their many “gods” as different reflections of an utterly transcendent reality. This is certainly true of Hinduism, which has for some three thousand years revered their devas as different expressions of a reality that lies beyond human conception – known variously Rta or the Brahman. Brahman is not a god but a sacred force that holds all the disparate elements of the universe together, the fundamental sacred principle that enables all things to become strong and expand. Brahman can never be defined or described. But Brahman is also identical with the essential and eternal core of each human being. All this is very similar to monotheistic theologies.


The Human Condition

And why do monotheists fight one another? This is another common misapprehension. Human beings are inherently aggressive and we fight one another whether we are secularists or religious. No one faith is more aggressive than any other. Buddhism is often declared to be a peaceful religion, but Buddhists have been engaged in warfare and atrocities in Sri Lanka, and look what is happening in Myanmar right now.


The Roots of Violence

And violence and warfare are never wholly inspired by religion or any other ideology. Historians of warfare tell us that, whatever its ideology, we go to war for multiple, interrelated reasons – territorial, social, political and cultural. By far the most frequent cause of war is the economy – the competition for scarce resources. Also, experts on terrorism tell us that whatever its ideology – be in secular or religious – terrorism is always inherently political: it is about seizing power, bringing down the status quo, or forcing a regime to accept or relinquish a particular policy. Much of the terrorism we see today is deeply political. The leaders of ISIS, for example, were nearly all generals in Saddam Hussein’s army, so they were secular, socialist Baathists. If we blame all terrorism on religion, we are not looking rationally at our situation and are ignoring political issues that must also be addressed if we want a peaceful world.


The Truth of Compassion

Q. How can compassion be used to limit interfaith rivalry?

Karen Armstrong: Interfaith rivalry is all about egotism. We see our own faith as an extension of ourselves and feel threatened by the attractiveness of others. Compassion – like all religion at its best – is about the transcendence of egotism. It is expressed in the Golden Rule, which Confucius, the first to promulgate this rule, said must be observed “All day and every day.” Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself. This means that – all day and every day – we have to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there. We have to look into our own heart, see what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. And all the faith traditions say that you cannot confine your compassion to your own group. You have to have concern for everybody without exception – even your enemies, as Jesus said. If you are really practising compassion, interfaith rivalry becomes a nonsense.


Finding Meaning in Life

Q. Why have different faiths functioned all around the globe? And in the Old Testament, is Elohim the God of love and compassion and Yahweh the god of justice and violence.

Karen Armstrong: The answer to the first question is that we are all different and yet share many of the same characteristics. Human beings experience transcendence – that is the way their minds work – and have sought ways of living in the presence of transcendence, which gives meaning to their lives. We humans fall very easily into despair if we cannot find some ultimate significance in life and we have created both religions and art – I see religion as an art form – to provide that meaning in a world of death, sorrow and tragedy. But because transcendence is absolutely indefinable, our conceptions of it differ – and that is the way it should be. It is all too easy to make “God” into a larger version of ourselves with likes and dislikes similar to our own. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. We have created a god in our own image and likeness and are worshipping ourselves.

Finding God in Religious Tradition: The Call for Compassion, the New Golden Rule
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