Nov 20, 2008

"Freelance Monotheist" Launches Ambitious Compassion Project

White Tara from Monastery Wall, Lhasa, Tibet

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I'm quite taken with Karen Armstrong. As I wrote here, I feel a certain kinship with her break from Christian dogma and movement towards a deeper, more empirical, spirituality. Armstrong, last week, launched a new website to advance her goal of sharing an ecumenical vision of a more compassionate world.

Karen Armstrong, author of over 20 books, former Catholic nun, and a 2008 TED Prize winner, wants to create a Charter for Compassion, to be agreed upon and signed by religious leaders all over the world.

TED (acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an ongoing conference of "talks" by various scientists, engineers, authors and artists. It is the reward for winning the TED prize that one wish will be "granted" by aiding the prize recipient in fulfilling a dream. For example, earlier this year, one TED Prize winner, photographer and filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, was permitted to organize Pangea Day, a film event which aired globally in May. Karen Armstrong felt that although most world conflicts were political, religion was a "fault line" and had been "hijacked" by extremists and abused, so her wish was clear: Encourage peace and tolerance by emphasizing the "Golden Rule" moral value that is present in some form in all religious teaching in all faiths, by creating a "Charter for Compassion" document to be globally endorsed and acknowledged.

Through the website, Armstrong has opened an invitation for the world to help envision and complete the Charter, which is to be presented on December 4, 2008.

As I wrote here, I don't think religion is required for compassion. Nor does Armstrong, for that matter. But, buried underneath all the tribalism, divisiveness, and even cruelty, of the world's religions, is the central call for unity and compassion. That is the kind of faith Armstrong seeks to have brought to the forefront of a shared spiritual vision.

Deepak Chopra wrote of the core conflict here:

Compassion is universally revered and universally ignored. The situation is primal. It has existed as far back as Buddha and Christ, and long before them. In a sense we may feel disadvantaged compared to our ancestors -- for them, drawing your hand back from an enemy meant laying down a spear or mace. For us, it means laying down a nuclear arsenal. But despite that gap in destructive power, the essential problem remains the same: whether human nature can be changed, and if so, on how large a scale.

The teaching and preaching of compassion has done some good, perhaps. Most people are happy that Christ and Buddha lived, even if they give little thought to them, much less to the age-old concept of Daya, the original Sanskrit word for sympathy that later evolved into compassion. I feel more secure starting there, because sympathy is as natural to human beings as aggression.

Chopra goes on to discuss the differences between the brain function between violent felons and Tibetan monks. Not surprisingly, very different. But, as I've already discussed here, religion alone is not enough to deter the felonious. There are much larger questions of nature and nurture. The study of prison inmates Chopra cites brings to mind the work of Lonnie Athens -- the criminologist who set out to determine the causes of violence. In numerous detailed interviews with violent felons, he isolated a four stage process of violentization. According to Athens, anyone who completes all four stages -- presumably, even a Tibetan monk -- will become irredeemably, pathologically violent. Athens work is revolutionary because he demonstrates a sociological, rather than psychological, underpinning for the cultivation of violence. His assertion is that the violence is a learned, acculturated behavior.

We all have darkness and light within us. The question seems to be how to foster our "better angels," rather than our demons. This seems to become more complicated when taken out of a face to face context. Empathy, if not damaged through abuse and neglect, does seem to be an innate part of our development.

My husband and I were discussing this last night, when we were watching the news. It seems the chief executives of the big three flew into Washington to beg for taxpayer dollars in private jets, displaying the remarkable tone-deafness that seems to have overtaken the highest levels of corporate culture. It raises an interesting question. What happens to the moral compass in a consequence-free environment? Why does power corrupt and absolute power corrupt absolutely, as Lord Acton observed. Neither a "healthy sense of shame," nor the "enlightened self-interest" Alan Greenspan was counting on, seem to have deterred the financial excesses that have sent our economy careening off the rails. My husband conjectures that it is for the same reason that bomber pilots don't get PTSD; insulation and distance from the consequences of one's actions.

Empathy challenges us when we have to look people in the eye, like when we have to kill them in hand to hand combat, or fire them in a face to face meeting, instead of a pink slip. One thing I remember well from my days in corporate America is that department heads hate telling people they'll be laid off, but the people who really make the decision to cut a department by 10% never have to face that 10%. If they did, I doubt dumb-sizing would have become the preferred method for pleasing stockholders. Depersonalization is a powerful thing.

How then does one instill a global vision of compassion? It will be interesting to see what Armstrong, in collaboration with such spiritual luminaries as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, and others, come up with.

In this interview, Armstrong explains her central premise of a religion of actions rather than beliefs, as a vehicle for "the golden rule." (She also takes on the question of whether atheism provides a more peaceful vision than theism.)

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