Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious TraditionsThe 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 deeper.

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.

From 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.

Fine. 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 judgment.

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 you."

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'.

Surely (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 examples:

The 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.

Having 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.

No unifying motivation? Why publish it under such a lofty title: "The Great Transformation"? Why parrot Jaspers' themes if you don't even support them?

Here's why: your publisher wants to sell books.

Armstrong 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.

As a 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.

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