The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came to be aware of this book through my research for my distant
future fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb'. I wanted to
understand the origin and evolution of mankind's religious journey in
order to project a plausible future. That's a tall order, of course,
but for me the study was a fascinating journey. I started by reading
Huston Smith's iconic 'The World's Religions' and then began to delve
Along the way I had a little epiphany: It seemed that
many major faith traditions/institutions were founded about the same
time (800 to 200 BCE). I pursued this idea, wondering if the nascent
trade routes that would become the Silk Road had begun a cultural
exchange that early in human history.
Well, as I dug into it, I
found out that my idea was far from original (few ever are). Karl
Jaspers had the idea, and published it in `The Origin and the Goal of
History' in 1953. Karen Armstrong seems to have latched onto Jaspers'
grand theories as a way of hooking the reader (selling more books). But
it remains unclear whether she actually believes them. Nowhere did she
overtly refute Jasper's theories, but in the meat of the text she seems
uninterested in reinforcing them. Sometimes it seems as if she finds
his themes unsupportable but doesn't want to make an issue of it.
That's not the kind of incisive scholarly analysis I would hope for from
a book with such a grand title published by an expert. It's clear she's
more interested in the detail. She shies away from big-picture
analysis. Result: the title begins to come across as
disingenuous--false advertising. And I begin to feel cheated.
my point of view I wanted insight into the maturing of the human
psyche, its causes and implications. Were there unifying factors that
led to this period of unprecedented global advancement in and
formalization of human thought?
Through my own independent
research I found that this revolution or maturing of human consciousness
seemed to be entirely global. Jaspers and Armstrong focus only on four
major hubs of emergent civilization (Greece, Judea, India and China).
What I found was that there were many more examples of emerging faith
traditions and landmark human advancement that flowered during this
period. Shinto religion began during this time frame as did the Norse
theology--Odin first appears during this time. The first major cities of
the Maya civilization arose during this period. The Polynesians were
at the height of their seagoing prowess as they migrated across the
south Pacific, and humans arrived in Madagascar for the first time.
Clearly any unifying mechanism went far beyond cultural stimulation via
the Silk Road trade routes.
To my disappointment Armstrong
mentions none of these other cultures, and does not seem to be
interested in the physical/environmental/external underpinnings of why
this revolution happened. Rather she focuses on something she seems to
implicitly assume is a 'universal' underpinning of human morality.
She's on a different wavelength. By now this has become abundantly
clear. Okay, I'll sit back and let her elaborate before I pass
So now she proffers her primary theme: it's all about
the `Golden Rule' -- "Do unto others as you (in your '*infinite wisdom
and universal understanding*') would desire that others would do unto
For the obvious reasons (highlighted in the sarcastic
parenthetical expression) this ancient and revered ethical directive is
becoming one of the old clichés that can no longer be supported. It
translates into: 'ignore cultural diversity, reject the opportunity to
expand your personal horizons through deep listening and understanding
of your neighbor's point-of-view, and just blindly assume that everyone
wants to be treated the way you want to be treated'.
(Armstrong implicitly assumes) the 'Golden Rule' is a universal sign of
humanity's newly emerging (shallowly defined) 'compassion' to which all
these nascent religious movements must have aspired, and thus to which
they all gravitated.
To me this is not a satisfying explanation.
I see no universality. I'll offer one benign example: In China you
must burp to express your satisfaction for a meal. In western Europe
the burp is a sign that you're uncultured. Okay, here are a few more
closest Armstrong comes to addressing my 'big-picture' question is by
regurgitating Jaspers' thesis that the Great Transformation was a result
of an interregnum between eras of war and destruction and suppression
of original thought by great empires. This seems insufficient, and again
this is not my original thought--it is shared by other critics.
posited her theme for the 'Axial Age' (as Jaspers called it), Armstrong
proceeds to delve into an historical survey, in chronological blocks,
of the secular and spiritual events in the four cultures. It turns out
that the Axial thinkers (by her definition) arose sporadically, not
simultaneously in most cases. In fact she concludes that Axial thinking
never really took hold in Greece as it spawned the Western philosophies.
unifying motivation? Why publish it under such a lofty title: "The
Great Transformation"? Why parrot Jaspers' themes if you don't even
Here's why: your publisher wants to sell books.
is a 'can't see the forest for the trees' thinker. Her book reads like
a series of book reports (here is what I read and here's what I got out
of it). Too often her work becomes a tedious recitation of factual
historical events and summations of ancient writings without any raison
d'être. Rather, it seems, she has an obsession for completeness
(demonstrated in other works of hers such as `A History of God'.)
Finally, a pet peeve: Armstrong has the annoying habit of using `chic'
words drawn from the subject culture, such as nibbana (nirvana), ahimsa
(harmlessness) and li (tradition). There are many of these. She defines
them once and then expects the reader to remember them all.
research earth scientist I find myself wondering if human interactions
with the changing global climate of the time may have contributed to
this great global revolution. Psychologists may wonder if this was a
result of the natural evolution of human self-awareness as we came to
recognize our mind as a useful tool. Armstrong peripherally mentions (in
barely a few lines) such revolutions as the smelting of iron and the
domestication of the horse as contributing factors to destabilization
during these times. She was silent on my Silk Road thesis and the
others. In the end, this book was not what I was hoping for.