Book Review:  The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (Karen Armstrong)

David Shasha

Posted Jul 5, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Review Essay: Finding the True Worth of Religion in an Age of War and Anxiety

Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, Knopf, 2006

American study of religion is related to the post-Civil War “Awakening” which stood in contrast to the fundamentalist strain of homegrown faith that grew in the charismatic tent-services that popped up all over the country, particularly in the South, throughout the 19th century.  In a manner that was related to the way in which Lincoln prosecuted his famous War, a new way of thinking emerged in this country which was exemplified in the institutions of higher learning such as Harvard and Yale in the Northeast.  A movement of thinkers known as “transcendentalists” or “pragmatists” redefined the nature of the American Religion in this new post-War era.

Emerson and Thoreau, followed by William James and Charles Sanders Pierce, hearkened back to the Deism of Jefferson and the Founders to establish a more ecumenical version of Christianity which took into account the history of religion in order to better clarify religion as a human enterprise which was meant to change man’s life in an intimate way.  This early form of American Existentialism was crowned by the publication of James’ lectures on religion called Varieties of Religious Experience.  These lectures were a product of a new democratic spirit that was making its way from the experienced-based philosophies of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman into an academic and social context in which the emergence of the great American university played a very important role.

Varieties of Religious Experience deftly articulated the basic themes of religious tradition and stood the various religions in a unified context to allow each of them to weigh in on the major issues that were to be addressed in the spiritual quest.  James did not seek to clarify the historical bases of the various religions, nor did he look to do a comparative analysis of the religions.  What he was after, in the spirit of his time, was to take from the various religious traditions what he felt was needed in order to heighten the spirituality that was the desideratum of the age.

Within a decade of the 1903 publication of Varieties of Religious Experience another Harvard professor published his own study of religions that would not have the popularity of James’ opus, but would nevertheless mark another very significant moment in the American study of religion. 

The first edition of George Foot Moore’s History of Religions in 1913 drew a picture of the world’s faiths that was nothing short of breathtaking.  Organizing a great deal of German scholarship in a lucid and programmatic fashion, Moore laid out a grand architecture of the world’s religions with great detail and in a spirit of tremendous empathy.  Rather than take the themes of religion as his guide, Moore critically analyzed each religion separately with one volume of the work dedicated to the non-Monotheistic religions of Greece, China, India and the Middle East and the second volume given over to Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  And while there is little comparative study in this epic work, Moore was deeply attuned to the links between culture and history, literature and society, in the development of religions in a cognitive context.

Although George Foot Moore’s works are not so well known these days, William James’ book remaining a staple of the college curriculum, it is in Moore that we see the first great leap into the world of Comparative Religion in America.  Moore’s extraordinary magnum opus Judaism: The Age of the Tannaim (the first two volumes published in 1927, notes and index published in 1930) was a massive achievement that remains one of the most insightful and profound works on the rabbinical tradition ever written in English.  His many insights on the nature of religious tradition remain valuable in our contemporary age when the American Religion has reverted to its 19th century state of fundamentalism.

The relation between the Civil War, a war that put into question the Christian values of this country and the way in which religion would address the issue of man’s dignity, and our current age of religious wars of fundamentalism all over the world – particularly in the Middle East, a region overloaded with religious meaning – is one that has been set into stark relief by the interest that has been shown to the religious enterprise in our day. 

Back in 1988 a British ex-nun named Karen Armstrong wrote a very good book analyzing the role of the Crusades in our modern politics.  In this book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World she began what would be a brilliant and critical project for the revival of historical study of religion in the tradition of a figure like George Foot Moore.  Like Moore, Armstrong held a deep affinity for Judaism to which she added a penetrating knowledge of Islam and the roots of the modern conflicts in the Middle East, which she correctly saw as stemming from the wars of Crusade that poisoned relations between Muslims and Christians over the course of many centuries.

Armstrong highlighted the Crusades at this stage of her career because she well understood that the current impasse between the West and the Arab world, entangled in the politics of oil and international trade in the wake of the Western Imperial enterprise, had at its core some crucial religious aspects; and she wished to trace that history for the Western reader.

In the books that followed Holy War, Ms. Armstrong widened her scope to produce a number of epic studies that have since become classics in both the academic and popular arenas, being read by millions of people.  It is no understatement to say that Karen Armstrong has brought the critical study of religion to a level of popular consciousness that rivals that of William James.  But with Armstrong it is not merely spiritual curiosity that guides her researches.  In an age of religious restlessness and a feeling that religious consciousness can be ordered a la carte, Armstrong upholds the rigorous standards of George Foot Moore rather than the amorphous spirituality of William James.

In her central and defining works, 1993’s A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and 2000’s The Battle for God, now turned into a trilogy with the publication of her new opus The Great Transformation, she has done what would have seemed almost impossible just a generation ago: She has written definitive studies of all the world’s religions in a style that never sacrifices its critical sense and does so in a way that is deeply sensitive and aware of the political and cultural ramifications of the manner in which her books are to be read.  Armstrong has become a sure and steady guide for many Western readers to the intricacies and complexities of religion and the role that it plays in our personal lives as well as the way it functions on the larger stage of history and politics.

A History of God was a phenomenal commercial success, and along with Umberto Eco’s brilliant novel The Name of the Rose has been responsible for raising the bar when it comes to popular literary bestsellers that do not sacrifice one iota of their intellectual rigor. 

The tandem of A History of God and its companion-piece The Battle for God presaged the attacks of 9/11 as it shouted out loudly and firmly the dangers inherent in the emergence of nationalisms which held to fundamentalist religious values.  The hegemony of the West was seen critically as a recasting of the Crusader mentality leading not to a resurgence of Enlightened values in the Arab Muslim world, values that Armstrong clearly showed were present in the Golden Age of Islam in the Middle Ages, but to a retrenched obscurantism that abdicated a good deal of the vital historical culture in the Islamic world.

But while Armstrong’s books were widely read by many general readers, it is quite clear that those in power did not heed her profound ideas.  Taking their cues instead from the fatalism of authors like Bernard Lewis, Robert Kaplan and Samuel Huntington, writers who to a man created a new Manicheanism where the West was pure and the East debased, political leaders as diverse as Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ignored the deep complexities of Karen Armstrong’s arguments and opted instead for the reductive nihilism of the more conservative writers.

In her new book, Armstrong does something quite interesting.  After spending many years analyzing the role of the Monotheistic faiths through her critical works on many aspects of the three religions, there have been studies of the Book of Genesis, a massive work on Jerusalem, a critical biography of Muhammad, and a primer on Islam, Armstrong has turned to study the religions of the East.  A few years ago she wrote a short biography of the Buddha and last year she published a book on mythology and religion.

The Great Transformation is perhaps her most audacious and ambitious work.  The book looks to tell the sprawling story of religion in a way that uncannily echoes the analysis of Giambattista Vico in his landmark New Science first published in 1725.  It was Vico’s goal to lay out a critical science that would see religion as the human outgrowth of its historical symbols and ritual traditions.  Rather than artificially synthesize religious traditions, something we see in William James as a product of 19th century Protestant thinking, Vico emphasized the ways in which each religious tradition was constructed as a set of symbols and values that could only be understood through an intimate knowledge of its specific cultural history.  In Vico’s analysis there were commonalities and differences which united and divided the various religious systems.

But The New Science is merely a blueprint for the type of analysis that Armstrong presents in this unique and most precious of books.  Never taking the easy road, Armstrong, a writer of great skill and panache, sets out the four world systems, Greece, China, Israel and India, and intertwines their singularly unique stories along with their common values.  Building her analyses on the idea formulated by Karl Jaspers that he called “The Axial Age,” The Great Transformation is a study of the foundations of spirituality in the World system in the period that stretches from 1600 BCE to 220 BCE.

These foundations were creative and dynamic in ways that can still serve to challenge us today:

The prophets, mystics, philosophers, and poets of the Axial Age were so advanced and their vision was so radical that later generations tended to dilute it.  In the process, they often produced exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial reformers wanted to get rid of.  That, I believe, is what has happened in the modern world.  The Axial sages have an important message for our time, but their insights will be surprising – even shocking – to many who consider themselves to be religious today. (pp. xii-xiii)

Such is the iconoclastic mode in which Armstrong functions.

Rather than abstract the principles of the Axial Age thinkers, she consistently presents a critical historicism in the Vichian tradition that will permit the contemporary reader to challenge hegemonic ways of reading the texts while absorbing the values of the Axial Age in innovative and uncharacteristic ways.  Eschewing the fundamentalism that is so pervasive among religious people these days, Armstrong grounds her interpretations of religion in a firm historical context which successfully struggles to present a clear picture of the realities of the past.

This mode of analysis is the hermeneutical key which unlocks the ultimate success of the work.

When looking at the history of the Jewish religion, she adopts a historical way of reading Biblical texts that would offend many pious believers, Jewish and Christian alike:

This shift from myth to history is clear in one of the very earliest poems in the Bible.  It was probably chanted during the Gilgal festival, and could be as old as the tenth century.  In the final biblical text, the Song of the Sea was included in the story of the exodus, just after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and put on the lips of Miriam, the sister of Moses.  But the Song of the Sea makes it clear that originally the enemies of Israel were not drowned in the Sea of Reeds but in the river Jordan.  The people who witnessed the miracle were not the people of Egypt or Sinai, but the inhabitants of Canaan and the kingdoms on the east bank of the Jordan. (p. 45)

This critical analysis does not seek, as the Higher Criticism of the Bible tried to do back in the 19th century, to undermine the Jewish tradition.  By utilizing the critical tools of history Armstrong is trying to step outside the tradition in order to better gauge the ways in which the tradition was formulated and understood in situ. 

Within a fundamentalist context the historical method is taken as an assault on the sanctity and the integrity of the tradition.  And yet what Armstrong is trying to do is to show the ways in which religions evolve and adapt to new circumstances.  Her reading of the Hebrew Prophets, the harbingers of the Jewish Axial Age, depends upon just this sort of historical analysis.  The composition of the Hebrew Bible brings together different values and different temporal concerns that serve to situate the radical nature of the prophetic voices.

The relation between the old ritual and the new ethics may be seen in the prophet Ezekiel and the ways in which he dealt with the impending collapse of Jewish national life in the land of Israel:

Ezekiel was a priest, and he interpreted the crisis in terms of the temple rituals, but used traditional liturgical categories to diagnose the moral failings of his people.  Sometime before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586, Ezekiel had a vision that showed him why Yahweh had been driven out of Jerusalem.  Taken on a guided tour of the temple, he saw to his horror that, poised as they were on the brink of catastrophe, the people of Judah were still worshiping gods other than Yahweh.  The temple had become a nightmarish place, its walls painted with writhing snakes and repellant animals.  The priest performing these “filthy” rites were presented in a sordid light, almost as if they were engaged in furtive, disreputable sex: “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the throne of Israel do in the dark, each in his painted room?” (p. 174)

In this passage we see the importance of the notion of transformation that is the main theme of the book: Israel had long been mired in the practices of ancient Near Eastern paganism which were gradually being transformed by the development of a completely Yahwistic religion that we see unfolding in the Biblical texts.  There is no one moment where things change in a definitive manner; the historical here meshes with the cognitive in order to gradually show the layered way that brings the Axial Age thinkers into a new spirit and a new morality.

Ezekiel’s visions serve to change the way in which God would be seen by the Israelites.  One of the central themes of the Axial Age was to relinquish immature views of a God who was more magician than deity.  The newly-discovered transcendental God reinforced the need for humanity to take responsibility for its own future:

God had become incomprehensible – as alien as Ezekiel felt in Tel Aviv.  The trauma of exile had smashed the neat, rationalistic God of the Deuteronomists; it was no longer possible to see Yahweh as a friend who shared a meal with Abraham, or as a king presiding powerfully over his divine council.  Ezekiel’s vision made no sense; it was utterly transcendent, beyond human categories…  But the exiles must realize that they bore some responsibility for the catastrophe.  Ezekiel’s mission was to bring this home to the deportees of 597.  There were to be no fantasies of restoration; their job was to repent and – somehow – to build a rightly ordered life in Babylon.  But they could not do this unless they allowed themselves to experience the full weight of their sorrow. (pp.172-173)

We thus see that the Axial Age is a time when the received wisdom of the past is continually being questioned and jettisoned. 

In India we see this transformation taking hold in what is marked by the figure of the “renunciator”:

Life was becoming more settled in the Ganges region of north India, and the family man had become the mainstay of society.  As soon as he was married, a householder was allowed to have a sacred fire in his own home, and could perform the daily rites that were a scaled-down form of the reformed public liturgy.  His home had become a private sacrificial arena, where he could build the self that would survive death and enter the world of the gods.  But some men took the extraordinary step of leaving their families, turning their back on society, and retiring to the forest.  Instead of making the household the focus of their lives, they were deliberately homeless.  They lived rough, owned no property, and begged for their food. (p. 120)

The sensitivity towards the socio-cultural context here is positively Vichian.  In contrast to the development of religion in Israel, India’s renouncers, a new type of religious devotees, could only be understood in the context of their society and its particular symbols.  The Axial Age was a time of rebellion and of the affirmation of what we now call “The Golden Rule,” that prime value which looks to transform the ritual act into a moral act.

The renouncer had declared his independence of the village, lived a world of his own making, submitted to no rituals, performed none of the ordinary social duties, and embraced a radical freedom.  At a time when social ideology decreed that a man’s lifestyle was determined by the class that he was born into, the renouncer made his own decisions.  While the householder was defined by the social network, his dependents, and children, the renouncer was an individual, existing for and by himself.  The new hero of the Axial Age was not a heroic warrior, proudly vaunting his martial prowess, but a monk dedicated to ahimsa (non-violence), who was determined to discover the absolute by becoming aware of the core of his being. (p. 124)

There is no formal connection between the mission of Ezekiel and that of the Indian Renouncer.  Each exists within his own cultural universe and must be understood as a product of that historical confluence.  The rituals of Israel and the rituals of India are not the same and do not address some universal element binding the civilizations.  But in an uncanny way the traditional Israelite and Indian systems of morality and ritual seem to be critiqued by these figures in a similar manner. 

What Armstrong presents is not a cultural unity, but a moral parallelism that shows the ways in which religious systems developed and were transformed during this period.  The cultures examined do not share a common history even though they form contacts that emerge over time.  The four systems function independently, but during the course of time they interact with one another to create two larger bloc-systems of East and West: the religions of the Buddha and Confucius together share many of the same ways of seeing in a similar way that the development of a Jewish religion finds the values of Greek philosophy a challenge that leads to an emergent Scripturalism which brings together the Axial Age values of the Hebrew prophets with a scholastic approach.

In the midst of all this Axial Age transformation we see the tension that remained between ritual worship and the need for a free, untrammeled ethical movement.  Armstrong presents the figure of the Buddha as emblematic of the transformation:

Like many other renouncers, Gotama was convinced that life was dukkha (suffering), and that desire was responsible for our suffering.  The practice of mindfulness made him more acutely aware of the impermanence and transitory nature of human existence and its countless frustrations and disappointments.  It was not simply the traumas of old age, sickness, and death that made life so unsatisfactory.  “Being forced into proximity with what we hate is suffering; being separated from what we love is suffering; not getting what we want is suffering.” (p. 278)

This concern with material possessions leads to what Armstrong sees as one of the most important ideas that seems to permeate all cultures during the period: the idea of Kenosis, of allowing our interior selves to be emptied of the selfish desires that control our being.  Each of the four cultures treats this idea in different ways, but it is nevertheless an idea that cuts across cultural and religious lines.

In the case of Confucius we see this idea exemplified in the following manner:

Like the Indian sages, Confucius saw the “ego principle” as the source of human pettiness and cruelty.  If people could lose their selfishness and submit to the altruistic demands of the li (ritual) at every moment of their lives, they would be transformed by the beauty of holiness.  They would conform to the archetypal ideal of the junzi, the superior human being.  The rites lifted ordinary biological actions onto a different plane; they ensured that we did not treat other people carelessly or relate to them perfunctorily; that we were not simply driven by utility and self-interest. (p. 206)

We see here the intricate interplay between ritual and ethics and the unique way in which Confucius contoured his teaching to the situation that applied to Chinese culture.  On the one hand, there was a confluence between Buddhist altruism in the Indian tradition and the new Confucian modality, but that altruism functioned in different ways in the different cultures.

The way that ancient Greece played its role in the Axial Age system was even more complicated.  Having inherited a vast network of pagan gods from their Aryan culture as well as from the Near Eastern domain that they conquered in their classical age, the Greeks produced a critical reaction in the form of philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and in the tragic literature of Aeschylus, Hesiod and Euripides.  These writers and thinkers questioned – like Ezekiel, Buddha and Confucius – the received wisdom of their time.  States of crisis led to fresh attempts to clarify and transform the nature of human understanding.  This teaches us that there is no single way to human knowledge and no definitive mode of being.  Greece – like Israel, India and China – provides us with a number of different ways of interpreting life and existence.

The Greeks added to the Axial Age cultures their own modes of logic and rational understanding:

The exercise of logic was an essential part of the catharsis of tragedy.  Aristotle would later claim that the “ability to reason well” was a sine qua non for the purifying emotion of pity.  Without analytical rigor, you could not see the other’s point of view.  For the Greeks, logic was not coolly analytical, but fraught with feeling.  The arguments in the courts and assemblies were as passionate and dramatic as those in the theater, and here too citizens learned the ekstasis of “stepping out” of themselves and moving toward a different perspective.  Reason could compel an audience to feel compassion for people who might seem to have no claim on their sympathy.  Euripides continued the tragic tradition of reaching out empathetically to the “other,” even toward Medea and Heracles, who had committed such unspeakable acts.  At the end of Heracles, Theseus offered the polluted, broken man his sympathy.  When he led Heracles offstage, the two heroes had their arms around each other in a “yoke of friendship,” and the chorus lamented “with mourning and with many tears…  For we today have lost our noblest friend.”  These words instructed the audience to weep too.  This was Dionysian ekstasis, a “stepping out” of our ingrained prejudice and preconception to an act of compassion that, before the play, might have seemed impossible. (pp. 254-255)

It is quite uncanny the way in which the various systems come to the same moral focus in their own individual ways.

Keeping in mind the synthesis of William James in Varieties of Religious Experience, a synthesis that continues to bedevil the ways in which Westerners remain entranced by the exoticism of other religions and seek not to understand them in their precise historical and cultural contexts, as Moore did and as Armstrong does as well, the particularistic mode of critical analysis that is the hallmark of the Vichian tradition, a tradition that finds unity in the plural, permits cultures to remain different while aspiring to many of the same ideals.

The Great Transformation provides the reader with a way of isolating each of the major religions of the world and seeing how each tradition found its own way of addressing its individual challenges while still remaining wedded to a moral ideal that each expressed in terms of its own history and symbolic tradition.  There is no attempt in the book to elide the complications and the difficulties that the innovators faced in their time.  Figures like the Hebrew prophets; the Buddha and Confucius and their heirs; the Greek philosophers and tragedians; all rose in the context of crisis and conflict.  The age was one of unrelenting war and bloodshed, of great and deep injustices and struggles.  Their words and ideas were articulated in societies that often sought to reject them.  As time went by, the innovations and the radicalism of these thinkers was, as Armstrong has already noted for us, co-opted by the mainstream and diluted – sometimes to the point of reversing the moral center of gravity demanded in the texts and pronouncements of these traditions.

In our Modern age we have seen an attempt to sublimate religious ideas and traditions with the concomitant result of finding resurgent and often intolerant forms of religion emerge in ways that have led to ever more violence and dysfunction.  In spite of the attempts of humanists and academic scholars to lay out the historical context of Axial Age thought, the innate prejudices of the Modern against the values of the mythical and the spiritual, values that are often trumped in favor of the scientific and the technological, very frequently removes the moral aspects of our religious heritage from the current discourse on values.

The work of Karen Armstrong continues to mark the importance of the study of religious traditions in the wake of Modern rejectionism.  And rather than articulate her study of religion as a means of “self-help” or at the service of some amorphous solipsism, books like A History of God, The Battle for God and now The Great Transformation transcend the limitations of the binary modes in which religion is widely understood today: The work of Karen Armstrong does not preach either fundamentalism or religious rejectionism.  It requires of the reader that very empathy that is required by the “Golden Rule”; treating others the way we would wish to be treated.  It reflects a historical dialectic that we are much in need of at a time when believers and non-believers alike find no common ground and see fit to reject one another in the name of the absolute values that were roundly dismissed by the sages of the Axial Age; sages whose values hinged on the sort of investigation and spiritual insight that proclaimed a restless energy that Armstrong characterizes in the following manner:

The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda.  For them religion was the Golden Rule.  They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from – their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence.  What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the ego principle.  If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and become dogmatic about it, they could develop an inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskillful.” (p. 392)

The Great Transformation is a seminal landmark that forms a crucial link in the study of our religious traditions.  By critically discussing the ways in which religions have evolved and developed it does not seek to remove religion from our contemporary culture, nor does it try to set out a religious smorgasbord for people to pick and choose from as they might wish.  It is a deeply learned book that is never less than exacting in the exhaustive attention that it pays to the detailed realities of the historical while it simultaneously tracks those realities within the ever precious context of the larger spiritual quest of humanity.

In this sense, The Great Transformation, along with all of Karen Armstrong’s other books, proclaims the noble values of Religious Humanism that act as a series of chains linking one historical era with others.  A lesser scholar would not have been able to interweave these stories so skillfully and a person with less of a concern for the spiritual needs of humanity would not have been able to achieve the moral synthesis upon whose foundation the book rests.

The Great Transformation is a bona-fide milestone in the contemporary study of our religious heritage.  It challenges the modern reader to take the past seriously while it challenges the traditionalist reader, the fundamentalist, to look more carefully at the historical transformations that have brought their traditions into their current forms.  In both cases the idea is to challenge orthodox viewpoints and permit the emergence of a variegated reality which would be expansive enough to equally value both the universal and the parochial, the moral and the ritual, just as the Axial sages had done.


In an age when religion and modernity have clashed and fought bitterly with one another, the chance to return to and reappraise the original locus of our religious traditions is a rare and valuable opportunity which would give to us as human beings the means to observe not merely our own tradition and culture, but to see who we are in terms of how we are seen by others.

It is this value of cultural pluralism which, if adopted, might provide us with the means by which we can truly create a civilized world that will be able to return to the Golden Rule that is the prime value upon which The Great Transformation stands.