Interviews:

Making compassion cool: An interview with Karen Armstrong

posted by Nathan Schneider

A former Catholic nun, Karen Armstrong has written more than 20 books on comparative religions, including A History of God, The Great Transformation, and, most recently, A Case for God. In 2008, she received the TED Prize, which granted $100,000 to support her proposal—her “wish,” as it’s called—for a Charter for Compassion “based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule.” Since then, she and TED have parlayed the Charter into a movement of political and religious leaders, as well as, through its website, thousands of people around the world.

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the SSRC’s projects on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life and Religion and International Affairs.—ed.

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NS: Was it surprising to you that TED, by awarding you their annual prize, would choose to make such a serious commitment to religion?

KA: It was very surprising indeed. I had never heard of TED, which at that time was little-known in the UK. When friends of mine who did know TED heard the news, they were astonished, because they had always thought of it as a remarkably secular organization, many of whose members were skeptical about religion. I realized that TED was going out on a limb in giving me the prize, and I have been inspired by the generosity, creativity, and sheer energy that everybody at TED has put behind my wish.

NS: Tell me about the collaborative process by which you developed the text for the Charter for Compassion. What did that process enable you to accomplish?

KA: First of all, Chris Andersen and Amy Novogratz at TED helped me refine and word my “wish” in a way that would appeal to the TED community. I had been a little diffident about my idea, but their immediate enthusiasm energized me. After I made my acceptance speech at the TED Conference in Monterey in late February 2008, there was a lunch meeting for all the TEDsters who were interested in helping me with my wish and they all made very valuable suggestions. My initial idea had been to have the Charter composed by a group of leading thinkers representing each of the major religions, but TED persuaded me first to put a draft Charter up on a multi-lingual website, so that members of the broader public would have a chance to contribute and feel that they “owned” it, that it was not simply something imposed on them by yet another group of people behind closed doors. This is something I would never have thought of and that is the terrific thing about the TED prize. It brings together people with different kinds of expertise who might never have met otherwise.

Next, we started to build a network. We now have about 150 partners representing many different faiths in nearly every inhabited region of the globe. We met with many of them in Vevey, Switzerland in February 2009. They had all read with great care and attention the contributions made by the public. The meeting included the Grand Mufti of Egypt, who is one of the most authoritative clerics in the Muslim world, John Cheyne, Bishop of Washington, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Salman Ahmed, a Pakistani rock star who is also a practicing Sufi, and Jean Zarou, a Palestinian Quaker from Ramallah. All the Council members have been engaged in practical compassionate initiatives. The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, who chaired the meeting, for example, worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Peter Storey had worked alongside Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu (who is another of our Council members, though he could not come to Switzerland) during the apartheid years. The excitement, enthusiasm, and deep thought that pervaded the meeting were wonderful. Afterward, we corresponded electronically for about three months until, finally, we had a text for the Charter that everybody really liked.

At a time when religions are generally considered to be at loggerheads, the composition of the Charter was a demonstration of cooperation, showing that it is really possible for us to work together because, despite our interesting and revealing differences, we all know that compassion and the Golden Rule—“Do not treat others as you would not wish to be treated yourself”—is at the core of every single one of our traditions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian.

NS: Do you anticipate that the Charter will eventually translate into meaningful social change?

KA: All religious teaching must issue in practical action. This is something that has become very clear to me during the last twenty years, which I have devoted to the study of world religions. The doctrines and stories of faith make no sense at all unless they are translated into action. This is one of the essential themes of my latest book, The Case for God, which was being written at the same time as we were composing the Charter. We were all convinced that somehow the Charter must be a call to action. There was no point in us all embracing one another on the day of the launch if there would be no practical follow up. We need compassion—the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to “experience with” the other—in politics, social policy, finance, education, and media. Unless we can learn to treat all nations and all peoples as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we are unlikely, in these days of global terror, to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

The last section of the Charter, for instance, demands that we learn to refrain from inaccurate, bigoted speech about others (even those with whom we are at war) and that young people are given respectful and impartial information about other traditions and cultures. A small planning group will meet soon to formulate a practical strategy for this. But exciting things are already happening. In Australia, our partners are going to launch the Charter in Parliament and are currently working to get it included in the educational curriculum. A TEDster from the UAE has been introducing the Charter to the rulers and imams of the Arab world, and they are beginning to sign up. In April, I shall be making a visit to the Gulf to talk about the Charter with leaders and educators there to see how we can integrate it into curricula. In Malaysia, the former prime minister has formed an organization devoted to implementing the Charter, and there are similar motions afoot in Singapore. We need to overhaul textbooks—in the East and the West—and revise those that speak in a prejudiced manner of others.

NS: There is also a very personal component to the Charter’s website, where people can send in and share their own acts of compassion. What role does this play?

KA: It is no use urging other people to be compassionate if we do not practice it ourselves, “all day and every day,” to quote Confucius. This is hard, because, as the Charter says, it demands that we dethrone ourselves, habitually and reflexively, from the center of our worlds and practice putting others there. On our website we are going to set up a space in which Council members and I will write a piece every week reflecting on the meaning and practice of compassion. I would like it to become “cool” to be compassionate; I would like people to become sensitive to uncompassionate speech, in the same way as we have become sensitized to the language of race and gender. I envisage “compassion clubs” in colleges and schools, where people might follow a twelve-step program that will help them to live more compassionately and see what a difference it can make to their spiritual and emotional lives.

NS: Your books appeal to people interested in exploring world religions in ways that their own traditions oftentimes don’t readily allow for, which can make for a very individualized mode of spirituality. Do you think people in this position—and perhaps you can speak from your own experience—are at a disadvantage when trying to organize for social and political change?

KA: Yes, my books are read by people on lonely quests, but they are also read by people who are firmly established in their own traditions. Community is crucial to the religious life. It is the training ground for compassion; even in the strongest communities, there are people we find uncongenial, and learning to behave with sympathy and respect for them is a dress rehearsal for the challenging task of addressing people who are strangers or foreigners. I myself am at a disadvantage as a “freelance monotheist” in not having a ready-made religious community, though on my travels I have found a global community of like-minded people across many faiths. My experience with the Charter has, so far, shown me that this has not been a problem. In fact, because my work is read by so many people from different traditions, it has been an advantage. People might be unwilling to come to something organized by a leading representative of Christianity, say, or Islam, but people do not feel that I have a particular axe to grind.

NS: By the same token, does an independent initiative like the Charter challenge the authority of conventional religious authorities?

KA: Some religious authorities may take the Charter as a challenge because we’ve designed it as a grassroots movement, something that happens from the bottom up.  But a lot of religious leaders and organizations are eager to contribute. Traditional communities should be working for social and political change, but some of them are not doing so. The Charter is an attempt to step in and see if we can encourage them. It is not saying anything new or heretical; it is simply saying what the traditions themselves have been saying for centuries. But sometimes the compassionate ethos gets lost in institutional goals, dogmatic priorities, or the internal politics of organized religions.

NS: What about atheism, which you take on in your latest book, or the growing number of people who identify as ‘not religious’? Can they participate in the Charter? Do their outlooks have access to the kind of compassion that you’re advocating?

KA: Of course, the religions don’t “own” the compassionate ethos! While drafting the text, we were very concerned that it be inclusive and not confined to people of faith. It says that compassion lies at the core of all religious and ethical traditions; it is the basis for morality and is deeply enshrined within our human nature. The fact that all the major world faiths have formulated their own version of the Golden Rule shows us something important about the structure of our humanity, that this is how human beings work. But even though compassion is natural to us, we have to cultivate it assiduously, just as we cultivate our capacity for language, dance, or music. At their best, religions help people with that cultivation, but they have also failed, often spectacularly, as the Charter admits. Compassion is an ideal that can bring us all—religious (whether we belong to the “new” or “old” faiths) and secular—together.

NS: If that is the case, why is it necessary to orient the Charter around religions?

KA: Well, I am a religious historian, so it was natural for me to think in religious terms. I had become frustrated that the religions, which should be making a major contribution to global harmony, are often seen as part of the problem. The compassionate voice of religion has been drowned out by the strident voices of extremism. I wanted to restore compassion to the heart of the religious life. But after I had made my acceptance speech, I was surrounded by secularist and atheist TEDsters who insisted that they wanted to take part in this endeavor. Quite frankly, I was astonished. In the UK, which is an extremely secular country, I get such hostility from secularists and atheists who think that it never occurred to me that they would be at all interested in the project. But it is, of course, absolutely thrilling to me that people of no religious faith are enthusiastic about the Charter.

NS: The Charter declares, “Any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.” Can we be so sure of the meaning of these ancient texts? Could it be that an ethic of comprehensive compassion such as you propose requires us to look beyond those texts, to hold something else as a higher authority?

KA: The quick answer would be to read my book The Bible: The Biography. While researching it I found that when Judaism and Christianity became “religions of the book” during the first andsecond centuries CE, they both insisted that compassion was the key to the interpretation of scripture. The rabbis who composed the Talmud all insisted that “Love of God and neighbor” was the central principle of the Torah and that any other exegesis was illegitimate. When he formulated the Golden Rule, Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, said that it was the Torah and that everything else was merely “commentary.” In the same spirit, St. Augustine, one of the great authorities of the Western tradition, insisted that if a biblical text seemed to teach hatred, it must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity. And every reading of the Qur’an begins with an invocation of the Compassion and Mercy which is God. We need to get together and get back to these principles. We should also decide what to do with those difficult texts that are used by extremists in all traditions to justify hatred and even atrocity. We might not have the same taste for allegory as Augustine, but we need to find a way of making these more rebarbative scriptures speak of charity—in a twenty-first century way.

NS: Who are some of the theorists that have most informed how you think about comparative religions?

KA: Wilfred Cantwell Smith almost single-handedly turned my thinking around and helped me appreciate what religion was really about. In particular, I was struck by his insight that faith was not the same thing as belief, and that our Western preoccupation with doctrinal orthodoxy was a very peculiar religious development. He was a Christian minister, but when he taught Islamic studies at McGill, he used to make his students live like Muslims, observing the prayers, fasts, and rules of Islam, because religion only makes sense when you practice it. I have also been hugely indebted to the work of Tu Wei Ming, a great Confucian scholar, who is one of our Council members. He taught me to love and admire Confucianism, with its emphasis on compassion, practically expressed, all day and every day. I was also massively inspired by the work of Herbert Fingarette on Confucius. The work of Michael Fishbane has been important to me too; he helped me enter into the rabbinical mindset and explore the richness of the Talmudic methods of interpretation. Seyyed Hussein Nasr’s books taught me to appreciate the Islamic tradition. And I have been greatly indebted to the work of Joseph Campbell. I like to think that I have done for the monotheisms what he did so brilliantly for the Native American and other indigenous traditions.

NS: Though you insist that the Charter does not declare all religions to be the same, could identifying such common values perhaps still cause us to overlook important differences between them—differences worth treasuring as the inheritances of unique traditions?

KA: Each tradition has its own particular genius, so each will have its own particular “take” on compassion. The Charter does not say that all faiths are the same. But it does say that in every single faith, compassion represents the test of true spirituality; it is what brings us into relation with what we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. My books have continually explored the differences between the faiths, and these differences are absolutely precious.

It was very revealing that people around the table at the Vevey meeting, who represented six different traditions, all had their own particular way of expressing the compassionate ideal, but they were also in absolute agreement that the compassionate ideal was crucial. They could all recognize that our present policies—political, financial, environmental—were no longer sustainable, and that if any faiths do not emphasize the compassionate ethos, they will fail the test of our time.

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