Karen Armstrong: 'All the major traditions adopted the theology of non-violence'

From the Hibbert Trust Lecture, delivered by the writer and broadcaster to the Royal Society of Arts, in London

Why should we go back to these ancient faiths? Because they were the experts. In this period of history, not so much in Greece, though they have made some wonderful contributions, but especially in India, China and Israel, people worked as hard to find a cure for the spiritual ills of humanity as we do today trying to find a cure for cancer. We don't spend as much energy re-hashing, looking, examining, experimenting with our religious and moral traditions and we've rarely gone beyond these insights.

Every one of these traditions grew up in a society like our own that was torn apart with violence on an unprecedented scale. Iron weaponry had been discovered so weapons became more serious and wars more horrific than ever before. A new market economy was in its infancy and people were preying on one another aggressively in the marketplace.

In horror at this aggression, the Axial sages all turned in to find the root causes of violence in the human psyche. That was also certainly the case with Islam, which took place at a time when tribal violence had risen to a crescendo, a horrifying crescendo in Arabia in the 7th century.

So, every one of these movements, to a greater or lesser extent, adopted the theology of non-violence, and, insofar as they adopted that, the more thoroughly they adopted the non-violent ethic the deeper they went into the self. Non-violence was at the root of the transformation.

The Axial sages said that compassion was the key. Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people or feeling pity for people but to feel with the other, to learn to dethrone yourself from the centre of your world and put another there, and this would be not only the test for any religiosity but it would also be the means of entering into enlightenment.

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