Monday, November 30, 2009

The dynamism of compassion, part deux

Compassion is the key.

(All the major religions) have come to this conclusion

not because it sounds good, it sounds nice, but because it works.

We are at our most creative when we’re ready to give ourselves away.

We are at our most sterile and dangerous when we seek to have ourselves and more so,

and to use religion to enhance our sense of ego.

--Karen Armstrong, to Krista Tippett

I listened today to a podcast of an interview done for the program Speaking of Faith--it resulted in a show entitled “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong,” but what I heard was the unedited version, and it was terrific.

Karen Armstrong is a former nun, a religious historian/scholar, and currently leading the Charter for Compassion. I first heard of her 15 years ago or so when she was part of Bill Moyers’ Genesis discussion, and she struck me as a truly fresh voice, and won me with the line “Religion is at its best when it asks questions.”

That comment sparked a new chapter in my own faith life, and I’ve kept her work on my personal radar ever since. I recently linked to her TED video (which is related to her winning a TED prize for the idea of the Charter).I commend this interview to you; it’s available here. In it, she tells the story of her own journey through Roman Catholic religious life, through amused/bewildered atheism, to her present orientation as a person of faith not tied to a particular faith tradition--or, rather, lightly tethered to many and adept at finding their points of commonality.

The quote about compassion with which I opened this post captured my imagination today. The charity necessary for true compassion could be a truly powerful (holy!) force, were it fully unleashed in the world. She spoke of charity not in the sense of pity, which locates the charitable above the other, in the center; rather, charity is the force that gets us to willingly vacate the “center” position and put someone else see the world through their eyes. Whether we like them or not. Whether we agree with them or not. Even if they drive us nuts. Even if they’ve done Bad Things.

This isn’t new thinking. What got me was her assessment that this kind of generosity of spirit is the most creative of forces. That sings somewhere deep in my soul.

She also discussed the Western/Christian tendency to be hung up on doctrine--to focus first on believing rightly--in contrast with the Eastern/Muslim/Jewish orientation toward living rightly as a path to the Divine.

(We do spend a lot of time and energy arguing, do we not, fellow Lutherans?)

What if, instead, we tried this (Karen’s quote, again):

If we do what Hillel says (do not do to others as you would not have done to you), if we lived by that, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute--and it’s no good going straight on to Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein when there are people in our own immediate entourage who we find difficult to get on with--the Buddha always said you have to radiate compassion to all four corners of the world, but you’ve got to deal first with the people who are right there around you: that difficult sibling, that annoying colleague, that rival, your ex-wife. (When) you can extend benevolence, wish them well, this starts to break down the hard shell of ego.

If, every time you attempted to say something horrible about one of these “enemies,” (you stopped to consider) how you would like it said about yourself or a loved one and refrained (from doing so) that moment, you would have achieved a transcendence of ego--and that would be a religious life, I think. Hillel was right to say that that’s the essence of religion; that’s the Torah, the rest is commentary. Confucius uttered a version of this golden rule 500 years before that; Buddha taught a version of it.

I think lots of things would change if we learned from our co-religionists instead of fearing them, judging them, and focusing on why they’re “wrong.” I think part of the reason we argue so much is that it’s substantially easier and more immediately gratifying than it would be to live in the simplicity of genuine compassion. We like to be right, and don’t want to spend more time with the Other than we absolutely have to.

I had a Zen class in seminary. The view of “what’s next” expressed in that class frightened me at the time--it was about attainment of enlightenment via complete emptying of the self (oooo...sounds like Jesus); about a "goal" of finally sort of being absorbed back into the web of life that hums all around and through us. This is a contrast with most of the funerals, most of the conversation about death I’ve been part of in the Christian world--you know, harps, clouds, lots of anthropomorphizing, a “reward” for a life well lived (yikes!).

What if this whole journey IS about breaking down ego, about emptying the self to find the Divine? What does that change in each of our lives?

What if we Christians took Jesus more seriously than Church/Tradition/Doctrine?

If we try to live our way into the answer via compassion as depicted above, it seems to me that we’d all be changed for the better, regardless of our dogmatic location.



Mompriest said...

When the adult forum at small church spent an entire year reading her book, A History of God, I was most struck by the section in which she discusses the religious bloom that took hold of the world back like 2000 or 3000 years ago - a bloom that grow from the evolving human emotion of compassion for the other. I'm not saying it exactly as she did, it's been years since I read it...

but yes, for me, it is about compassion, all faith is about that. It's difficult, though. I tried to have and show compassion in the midst of the conflict at St. Homeostasis, but I gotten eaten up instead. Nonetheless I tried to model another way...

RevDrKate said...

This comes at such a timely point. Trying to find to compassion past a whole bunch of things that masquerade as highly significant but just might turn out to be my bruised ego....thanks for some very meaty food for thought.

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