Hawking Up Hairballs

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Great Transformation

I just finished reading “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions” by Karen Armstrong. She has written a number of books on religious and spiritual matters. In this one, she addresses the origins of the world’s religious traditions. As she puts it in the introduction, “From about 900 to 200 BCE, in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.” Not only that, but she attempts to show that each of these traditions went through the same stages of growth, and that each of them came to the realization that all is one, which led each to formulate a variation of the Golden Rule as the guide to a virtuous life.

It’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really work for me, and many of the parallelisms seem forced. They work best when she compares the traditions of India and China. Both civilizations arose along fertile rivers that generated lots of agricultural surplus. That favored the growth of a despotic eliet, and the resultant spiritual traditions were bound to be broadly similar since they were responding to similar geopolitical conditions. For example, the overwhelming majority of people in both of those civilizations were peasants living in a condition of serfdom. They felt oppressed and likewise felt utterly unable to do anything about their condition. Any spiritual tradition that took root there had to address that situation.

It was somewhat different in Greece. There the land was not good for agriculture, which meant that there wasn’t much of a surplus. That in turn inhibited the growth of a class of rulers who lived off of the surplus. As a result the Greek spiritual tradition was more individualistic, and I don’t really buy Armstrong’s assertion that their philosophical tradition reached the stage where they realized that all is one. Neither Plato or Aristotle asserted anything of the sort.

As for Israel, Armstrong doesn’t even discuss Judaism in her chapter on the “All is One” stage because the sort of pantheistic insight that the phrase implies is not really present at all in the Old Testament, nor in the New Testament for that matter. Neither Old Testament Judaism nor Greek philosophical rationalism fit her schematism.

As I mentioned above, Armstrong asserts that all of these traditions came to some variation of the Golden Rule as their guide to virtuous conduct. Christians might say that one should love others as one loves himself. Buddhists might go a bit further and say that one should love all living things as one loves oneself. However, it seems remarkable that all of these traditions should come to the same conclusion.

“Seems” is the operative word there. A good while back I watched a talk on CSPAN2's Book TV. I forget the author’s name and the title of his book, but his contention was that the Golden Rule was hardwired into the human brain. His argument went something like this. We humans are able to recognize something like 150 people. That doesn’t mean that we know them all, but that we recognize them as familiar. Anthropological studies show that when primitive tribes approached that number, a dispute would arise and they would split into two separate communities. Sociological studies of other groups has shown something similar.

When humans are forced to live in groups larger than that 150, they view people that they are familiar with as “us” and people that they don’t recognize as “them”. In groups and out groups arise, and we all know where that leads.

The author that I was watching maintained that the Golden Rule is the natural rule for life in communities small enough such that everyone recognizes everyone else. Not everyone lives according to that dictate, of course, but they come a lot closer to living by it than do people in larger groups. He maintained that all of the great religious traditions basically maintain that we should treat all people as part of the community of people who are “like us”. In other words, they are saying that people should apply the same ethic to all people that they apply to their families. Hence, the Golden Rule is an extension of something that is wired into our brains.

The formulation of that rule that strikes me most forcefully is: Treat everyone as though they are as important as you. When I read it put like that, I have to take a deep breath. I don’t even come close to being able to live like that, and I don’t know that I ever will be.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad you had that ephifany watching cspan2, after all your related readings. shed some guilt. you can't control when the revelations come. you're a very fine writer.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Barbara T said...

The Dao doesn't seem to be unitary in quite the sense you discuss here. Just saying.

Some feminists see the big three Daddy God monotheisms as operating to enforce what Engels called the "world historical defeat of women". In that context, I found the Orestia trilogy fascinating. Agamemnon uses his daughter for a human sacrifice to get winds to sail to Troy. Clytemnestra murders him for murdering her daughter. Orestes murders her for killing his dad. Then Apollo holds court in the last play asking which is the greater crime, matricide or patricide. Guess which way he rules.

2:11 PM  

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