Anyone who has heard the religious historian Karen Armstrong speak on a public platform about the origins of faith and its role in our world will know the buzz her oratory creates around her subject. Her erudition and ability to convey complex ideas on the page, in a series of best-selling books which include A History of God and biographies of the Buddha and Muhammad, has long been widely admired. But in the flesh Armstrong brings an extra, more urgent dimension - the power to challenge audiences to consider afresh their prejudices about religion, and thus their own behaviour.
It is a gift that has seen her teaching summer schools for US Senators and addressing the UN, and in 2008 brought her both the TED prize (other recipients include Bill Clinton and Jamie Oliver) and the Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal.
A truer measure of her bridge-building achievements, however, is that she is just as welcome lecturing on religion in the US as to Muslims in Pakistan. This all makes Armstrong sound like a latter-day evangelist. In the old-fashioned sense, she isn't, having long since left behind her own narrow denominational pigeon-hole as a Catholic nun to espouse a broader, more thoughtful spirituality that combines the best of all the traditions she has studied. But there is undeniably something about Armstrong and her message of drawing on the faith traditions to build a better world that, like the pulpit preachers of yore, gets her listeners to their feet, and stays with them.
Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life marks a new publishing departure. It sees Armstrong combine in this brief volume both her usual high quality historical scholarship and an explicit self-help programme that echoes her rousing lectures. Its origins lie in that TED prize, as she explains. As part of her award, the not-for-profit organisation that runs it granted her a wish for a better world, and pledged to do all in its power, and resources, to make it happen.
Armstrong's "wish" was a world where we could all live in harmony, and where religion was seen as part of achieving that, rather than an insurmountable obstacle. Drawing on the "golden rule" at the heart of all religions - their demand that we do to others what we would want them to do to us - she worked with TED and leading figures from the different credos to launch an online Charter for Compassion to act as a counterbalance to religious voices of extremism, intolerance and hatred.
How, though, do you live a compassionate life? Is it possible, or are we, as some scientists suggest, simply hard-wired by our evolution to do the very opposite, namely pursue the "Four Fs" - feeding, fighting, fleeing and - for want of a more basic word - reproducing?
Essential to Armstrong's thesis is that the pull of the "Four Fs" is no more programmed into us than the urge to compassion. She traces its evolution in world faiths, especially in the Axial Age between 800 and 300BCE. Then, figures such as Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah and Lao Tzu attempted to define for more settled, less warlike times an ethic that reached beyond our baser instincts to something more profound within. The struggle to reach that something within - whatever name it is given - is then effectively the purpose of religion.
Armstrong then spells out her 12-step programme. Long before the self-help industry made such exact calibrations their own cash cow, religion had made this idea its own. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, founded the Jesuits in the 16th century around his "Spiritual Exercises". There may be more of Buddhist meditation than of Jesuitical casuistry in Armstrong's C-plan, but overall there is plenty of every tradition in there.
Starting out with theory (learning about compassion, its history and its value) leads on to taking a long hard look at ourselves (our smallness in the human chain) and then to an engagement with others, familiar and strange, close at hand and faraway. Recognising what we have in common, rather than hiding behind what divides us, is the key to reaching stage 12 - loving your enemies - and true compassion.
If it sounds rather too neat, then the scale of the task is constantly emphasised. It is a lifetime's task, a struggle to our dying hour, Armstrong writes. Given some religious views of afterlife, she might have added beyond death. Failure is inevitable along the way. But the ultimate prize, she stresses with an enthusiasm and energy that are impossible to resist, is worth it.
Among the many sages she quotes is Gandhi: "We must ourselves become the change we wish to see in the world." Borrowed by politicians, this remark can ring hollow and vague, but in the context of this challenging, persuasive self-help book that seeks to distil the very best of religion, it is as inspiring as any New Year's Resolution.
Peter Stanford's 'The Extra Mile: a 21st-century pilgrimage' is published by ContinuumReuse content