Lesson 11: Karen Armstrong – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

I decided a good way to bring this series together was to reread Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Many regard it as the classic treatment of compassion in our time. My guess is many, if not most of our readers resonate with her position.

Armstrong believes compassion is the basic teaching of all the great world religions. Throughout her book, she weaves scriptures from Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together to make her argument.

She summarizes her thesis in this carefully written paragraph: ‘One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody—even your enemies.’

Armstrong is trying to offer a concept of religion she thinks can become part of the solution, not the problem, in modern society. Her intention is not to diminish the present faith communities but to show how they complement one another and are able to cooperate. She writes, “We should not attach ourselves to any particular creed so exclusively that we disbelieve all the rest. Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder—and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically.”

Building on the widely held idea that religion helps humanity manage life’s violence and suffering, she maintains compassion is needed to rescue us from the troubles resulting from our defensive fundamentalism, endless wars, tribal nationalism, and cowboy capitalism.

She defines religion as a 12-step program. After using the preface to argue her thesis, Armstrong divides her book into 12 steps rather than chapters. Each offers first an explanation of the step using scripture from the different traditions followed by exercises meant to promote compassionate everyday living in the family, job, community, nation, and world.

The latter are primarily questions for the discussion of compassion by individuals and small groups. The topics range from caring for yourself to making room for others in your life. She sees them as building habits of the heart.

I found her exercises interesting but hardly transformative. In fact, I came away appreciating the important role she painted for compassion in Christianity and other religions but thinking religion is much more than self-discovery and improvement programs.

Those interested in delving deeper into Armstrong’s thought can examine her Charter for Compassion found at https://charterforcompassion.org/how-to-engage/donate/donate.html

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