Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation": Book Review

I heard here the same sympathetic tones as her "Buddha" in the Penguin Lives series, which I reviewed 3/08 on Amazon US, or her short studies of Muhammad and Islam. I wanted to compare this to Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God," Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" and Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" (all reviewed by me in 2011): they explain the hard-wired or embedded models for religious evolution from varying perspectives of economics, markets, and the sciences.

Well, Armstrong does not base her study on any model other than a history of ideas one. Not by diffusion, not by memes, not by franchises, her ambitious survey links China, India, the Middle East, and Greece by a shared shift away from ritual and top-down imposition of belief into a gentler, kinder compassion emanating from self-criticism, introspection, responsibility, and carried into action stressing social justice and practical cooperation. Certainly, this echoes our own times with their progressive bent, and such scholars as Armstrong favor this slant, aimed at a broad audience.

As in her "History of God" and her works on the Buddha and Islam, she packs a lot of learning gleaned from solid research; she tends towards popularizing and summing up scholarship for a wider readership rather than pushing her own original insights. She also leans towards generous sympathy, as in her closing section on Islam. Wright, Stark, Wade advance their own theories more than she does. We need such hefty works as these to inform us of how ancient many ideas we search out in religious traditions today have been, and how often they are suppressed or compromised given the counter-trends (Wright tends to emphasize these) towards doctrinal conformity and social control by these world-shaking religious powers, allied with political clout. Bigotry, as she closes her book elegantly reminding us, can emanate from secular as well as religious fundamentalism. Instead, we all need to look inside ourselves, do right, and share responsibility. Armstrong stresses the turning away from violence and prejudice, and she seeks Karl Jasper's "a pause for liberty," non-violence, and the Golden Rule in her study of the Axial Age, extending here to encompass ca. 900-220 BCE.

She carefully narrates an immense amount of data and stories. Her strength lies in the vignettes that enable her to loosen up on the recital of names and dates, and to allow some room to look into mentalities. For instance, the Greek new wine festival in spring turns eerie in her depiction of Anthestera; Amos finds himself overtaken, not pleasantly, by the prophecy he channels of Yahweh; Psalm 82 shows the "kenosis" or emptying that prophets embodied to advance justice and which would be revived by Paul to promote Jesus' mission; Yajnavalkya's formulation of "karma" and "atman" enhance his simple lesson to his son of salty water; Plutarch's fragment #168 of the moments before death is compared with the loss of consciousness by the ecstatics (~"stepping out"): those caught up in the Eleusinian mysteries into "entheos"--"within is a God." (187)

I found myself less taken by the Chinese entries, but Mozi's logical, moral challenge to Confucian "family ties" as insufficiently transforming for a wider society and Zhuangzi's "Way of Heaven" earn notice. Eventually, that empire learned the virtues of syncretism and inclusion. Still, after so many warlords, enforced order, massacres, and contention, the Chinese chapters did not catch fire as often; they seemed grimmer than even the Homeric interludes full of fury, half-celebrating the warrior, half-hinting at the folly of such mortal combat compared to the wonders of a treasured earthly life. India's yogins and Samkhya gain wonderful exposition, and we glimpse how the Vedic tradition blurred into a breath meditation that appears to go back to very remote Aryan times.

So much is only glimpsed; as with the often shadowy Greek rituals, Armstrong tells what we can puzzle out, but the dots cannot always be connected given the lack of evidence, despite the diligence of her and her scholarly colleagues. But, as with the reformation by the Deuteronomists and biblical chroniclers during the Judean kingdom's success and the Assyrian and Babylonian incursions, what we have learned lately about the truth of how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be arranged to make Moses and the Exodus "backdated" for issues six hundred-odd years later in an embattled homeland,  makes for useful reading. So does the moral of Ashoka's good intentions to build a peaceable empire, the "bhakti" yoga renewal, or rabbinic Judaism's "profound reticence" in theology and mysticism.

Armstrong does not strive for a stirring turn of phrase; she prefers a steady exposition. Still, elegant moments linger. Of the renewal in the Holiness Code by the P-writer of scripture in exile: "Babylonia could be a new Eden, where God had walked with Adam in the cool of the evening." (181) "Aristotle had no ambition to leave Plato's cave." (327). Of the Buddha's shock at "four disturbing sights" before his awakening: "Once the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition has broken through the customary barricades that we have erected against it, we can never see the world in the same way again. Gotama had allowed the knowledge of 'dukkha' to invade his life, and his quest could begin." (275-6) Like Socrates or Confucius, the Buddha represents for Armstrong the paradigm of the Axial Age by "enhanced humanity"--he stood for an archetype of "a place apart" separate from but at one with our world. "Suffering shatters neat, rationalistic theology." (398)

A few spot-checked references puzzled me; I often consulted end citations. For instance, I cannot tell if Armstrong translated to use in her narration excerpts of the Pali texts for Buddhist sayings or if her "version" is taken from other renderings. She refers to the "nothing" definition of God by "later monotheists" via her "History of God" book but the note offers no pagination. She sums up Platonic absolute beauty as an eternal form well, yet (at least at first mention) she gives no textual context.

However, I gained knowledge from Armstrong's careful arrangement of vast material. Four-hundred pages, as dense as they can be for a topic meriting close attention, manage to compress information into an accessible overview for the patient inquirer. It's pitched at a reader who must be willing to ponder its elevated contents as well as absorb its perspectives. While it does of course leap between four settings during each of its thematic chapters, with not much discussion of why ideas erupted when they did, as opposed to what they were, mystery remains, perhaps appropriately for this elusive topic. It's not a facile presentation, and this only confirms its appeal for a reader who's open-minded (the original meaning of "skeptic," as she defines it). (Amazon US 4-27-12)

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