One of the highlights of this year’s General Assembly in Charlotte, NC was the Ware lecture by the well-known and highly regarded religious historian Karen Armstrong.
In addition to her widely acclaimed A History of God: the 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, she has written a short history of Islam, a biography of Buddha, a Short History of Myth and an anthology of religious and poetic experience – twenty books, so far.
Her Ware lecture topic was, The Challenge of Compassion, in which she suggested that each of the major religions has at its core the common affirmation of compassion.
She talked about the universally-held Golden Rule: do not treat others as you would not wish to be treated, and its positive corollary, do unto others as you would have done unto you.
She said that compassion “…is the test of spirituality.” The bottom line for Armstrong, after a lifetime of studying the religions of the world, is that compassion “…takes us beyond the prison of ego and selfishness and greed and enables us to enter into our best selves, and to express what some call God, others Nirvana, Brahmin, or Tao.”
She explained that the word compassion is not about pity, reminding me of a response to a recent sermon in which I said that ‘it is compassion that makes us human.’ A woman who I guessed was in her 70ʼs said, “I hate the word compassion. I don’t want people to pity me.” She went on to explain that she recently went through a difficult time and hated the feeling of being pitied.
In her recent book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong writes, “Our English word compassion is often confused with ‘pity’ and associated with an uncritical sentimental benevolence.”
She explained: “When I gave a lecture in the Netherlands recently I emphatically made the point that compassion did not mean feeling sorry for people; nevertheless, the Dutch translation of my text in the newspaper De Volkskrant consistently rendered ‘compassion’ as ‘pity.’ But compassion derives from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning, ‘to suffer, undergo, or experience.’ So ‘compassion’ means to endure (something) with another person,’ to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”
I was a bit surprised when she said that we ‘don’t often hear about compassion.’ She said, “Often when religious leaders come together, they talk about a particular sexual ethic, or an abstruse doctrine, as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of spiritual life.”
In conclusion she said, “To me it is quite clear that unless we learn to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all people, all nations, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we’re not going to have a viable world.” It seems so obvious, but a necessary reminder, not only on a global scale, but close to home. I hope your summer is going well.