Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation": A preview based on Walter Grimes' review
By Thomas Riggins
THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS by Karen Armstrong, Alfred A. Knopf, 469 pp., reviewed by William Grimes in THE NEW YORK TIMES, Friday, April 21, 2006.
Grimes [WG] really likes this book; he calls it "splendid"-- his only reservation seems to be its ending which he calls "squishy". Armstrong [KA] is well known as a popularizer of religious history. She probably is most famous for "A History of God." She writes well, is very enjoyable to read and also very informative, but sometimes she lets her ideals, I think, distort the reality she is trying to describe.
Here she attempts to trace the origins and histories of four major religious traditions -- those coming out of India, China, Greece and Israel. Let’s see what WG says she is up to. He says that she begins 3,500 years ago (about 1500 BC) with the "Aryans" (an obsolete term these days, having been replaced by Indo-Europeans or even proto-Indo-Europeans) of "southern Russia," where he says we find "the first stirrings of religious consciousness... that would eventually lead humanity from nature worship and sacrifice to an inward-looking, self-critical and compassionate approach to life."
The only problem with this is the roots of this approach go back to several origin points, not just to the "Aryans," with a pedigree going well beyond 1500 BC. A "monotheistic" and compassionate religion had sprung up in Ancient Egypt several hundred years before this date, for example. Besides, if you look at any of the major spiritual traditions of today, many of their adherents have difficulties with being self-critical, inward looking or compassionate.
This great transformation supposedly "occurred independently in four different regions during the Axial Age, a pivotal period lasting from 900 B.C. to 200 B.C. ..." and resulting in Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and "the philosophic rationalism in Greece," WG reports. The "Axial Age" is, however, an unscientific concept cooked up in the 1930s to provide a "mystical" interpretation for these historical developments. Four extremely important "axial" figures, who were just as foundational to our world today as anything or anybody within the official "axial" parameters, actually fall outside of the 900 to 200 BC dates-- namely Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV, the "first monotheist") and Zoroaster (both before 900 BC), and Jesus and Mohammed (both after 200 BC).
The book is supposed to tell us how, WG says, "the crowded heaven of warring gods" lost out and the "human imagination" moved on to look "inward" rather than "upward" to find "enlightenment and transcendence." This just doesn't describe the real world, which is just as spiritually confused and "upward" looking with "warring gods" as it ever was.
WG says that "the military conflict and sectarian hatreds" of today are on KA's mind (they are "the powerful undertow to her book".) He quotes her as follows: "In times of spiritual and social crisis, men and women have constantly turned back to this period for guidance. They may have interpreted the Axial discoveries differently, but they have never succeeded in going beyond them."
There has never been a time, in my view, without its spiritual and social crisis, and these axial views have never and will never, I think, have any solutions for them. We have in fact gone beyond them. Modern science, Marxist economic theory, and the secular humanist values stemming from the Enlightenment are far more advanced "spiritual traditions" than anything left over from the "axial" age.
"The gradual elimination of violence from religion is one of Ms. Armstrong's great themes," according to WG. But the examples given are only cosmetic. Religion is even more violent today than in the past. From "kill a commie for Christ" to the inter-Islamic jihads of the Moslem world, the Holocaust (Christians exterminating Jews), to the Hindu-Islamic killings in India (where Kali worship still demands the sacrifice of children), as well as Christian-Muslim blood baths going on in Africa (Nigeria), there is nothing but religious violence. The contrary is Armstrong's dream as well as her theme.
KA writes, "The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, and our spiritual education is often undeveloped."
The problem is that the spirituality of the "Axial Age" is no longer relevant to our changed circumstances and the spirituality that would be relevant to us. The social values of Marxism, Darwinism and Einstein (for example) are stifled by a corrupt, ruling elite of capitalists whose power rests, in great measure, on perpetuating ignorance and superstition. Karen Armstrong has a good heart and clearly she finds solace in these outmoded beliefs, but I prefer to stick to Enlightenment values and modern science.