A Compassionate Evening with Karen Armstrong

What a wonderful privilege to hear this kind and articulate soul speak at the Inaugural Ismaili Centre International Lecture at their wonderful facilities in Dubai.

Compassion is not gentle nor is it pity. Its Latin and Greek roots refer to feeling with the other, to endure with, but not just when you might feel like it but all day and every day. The essence of compassion is the need for a lack of ego, a characteristic that she returned to many times during her speech.

The Golden Rule of every religion is along the lines of “Do not impose your will on others” or more positively, “do unto others as you would have them do to you”. This requires a transcendence of ego and not clinging to your own opinions. In her books about God, she mentions that God is often a reflection of ourselves. We must get beyond that notion as God goes beyond.

Karen does not believe in a supreme being. Humanity has a tendency to shrink God down to size and make God an idol. Catholicism for example, is often about the ego, about not performing sins as an individual as you will need absolution or go to Hell. It hasn’t lost the ego. Rather, God is transcendent and it’s hard to put the words around it. Her best analogy is that God is present in the shock we feel when we realise the limitations of our speech when talking about God.

Compassion is central to the notion of God. With 20 leading thinkers across the major religions, she coordinated the development of the Charter of Compassion. Compassion is not just about feeling good but is required in order to gain action. Business people are required to help implement the Charter and young people need to be involved to translate the Charter for the new generation.

Her next book will be about scripture. Her thesis is that scripture is essentially an art form; it is performative. It was meant to be read out loud, or to be sung. Theology is a poetry of expression and in the silence from reading scripture, she found the texts spoke to her. Compassion and a sense of equality are central themes across scripture.

She claims that religion in the West is becoming too individual. It needs to be shared and communicated. In the west, we flaunt our inequity at others (the poor, the less developed countries, etc.). How then do you insert compassion into western society when its politics is essentially unjust.

She then asked what would a compassionate city look like? It would not be a comfortable place. It would deal with suffering and see that as a spiritual opportunity to make us work for a better world. Her dream is not for compassionate cities but for cities that link up as we all have to care about the rest of the world. Compassion is the virtue that can change our world and get rid of hatred while ego will hold any of us back from our best selves.

The final question posed to Karen was “Does being compassionate hold us back?” Her response was that in the long run you need to ask yourself what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to get to the top by trampling others or do you want to live a good and humane life? A more compassionate world is there for us. Let compassion in but also leave room for the unexpected.

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