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The Great Transformation

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions
by Karen Armstrong
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
470 pages
Reviewed by Linda Douty

Tempers flare. The fire ignites. Armies gather. The guns go off. It is the tired story of human history, played out through centuries of violence, often fostered and fed by religions preaching the virtues of love. Sometimes it seems that we have learned little from these cycles of predictable conflict. We have only to open the morning newspaper to support the claim.

But lessons for change, thus spiritual change, are there in any history book. Karen Armstrong, author of The Spiral Staircase and History of God, invites us to look carefully through the rearview mirror of history at the turbulent “Axial Age” for the guidance we so sorely need today. This era from 900 to 220 BCE is so named because it was the “axis” of humanity’s spiritual history. During this seven-hundred year span, axial peoples developed religions that have influenced and supported humanity through the centuries: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China; Monotheism in Israel; and Philosophical radicalism in Greece.

Rabbinic Judaism, Islam, and Christianity had their roots here and share some core values that we would do well to honor. As Armstrong dug into the history of the Axial Age she made some discoveries which have alarming modern parallels. In the four axial regions, violence and warfare reached such a peak that religious sensibilities formed an appropriate backlash. Two predominate spiritual principles emerged: First, The Golden Rule (Do not do to others what you would not have done to you) which calls for respect for the sacred rights of others and concern for all people, not just one’s own country or tribe. And second, recognition that egotism and greed are the chief obstacles to enlightenment and true religion.

As practitioners of spiritual guidance, we tend to focus on essential values and divine relationship rather than dogma that can divide us from each other. Armstrong guides us deftly through historical complexities, acting as a guide and interpreter of an age that can inspire us and lead us to the common ground of peace and justice. Armstrong writes: “In our global village, we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision. We must learn to live and behave as though people in countries remote from our own are as important as ourselves” (p. xiv).

Don’t let the daunting size of this book deter you. Armstrong’s perfect prose is spiced with wit and humanity, making it surprisingly approachable to the average reader. Chapter contents explore ritual, kenosis, knowledge, suffering, empathy, concern for everybody, all is one, and empire. Maps and a comprehensive index further facilitate the process.

Can the inspiration of 2,500 years ago be relevant for today? Armstrong’s reply in The Great Transformation is a resounding “Yes!” Perhaps a thoughtful look backward could help us to look forward to a world of compassion and peace with an overarching cosmic order.

Linda Douty is a graduate of Shalem, and has been a spiritual director for the past eleven years. She is a grandmother, retreat leader, and writer for religious publications. Her book How Can I Let Go If I Do Not Know I’m Holding On? (Morehouse, 2005) includes many stories of companioning directees on their journeys of letting go, and she is currently writing How Can I See the Light When It’s So Dark: Journey to a Grateful Heart (Morehouse).

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