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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Interview by Andrea Bistrich: Karen Armstrong (3)

In addition, you have stressed the importance of a "triple vision"-the ability to view the conflict from the perspective of the Islamic, Jewish and Christian communities. Could you explain this view?

The three religions of Abraham -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- can and should be viewed as one religious tradition that went in three different directions. I have always tried to see them in this way; none is superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius; each its own particular flaws. Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God and share the same moral values. In the book A History of God, I tried to show that throughout their history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have asked the same kind of questions about God and have reached remarkably similar solutions-so that there are Jewish and Muslim versions of the incarnation, for example, and very similar notions of prophecy. In The Battle for God, I tried to show how similar the fundamentalist movements are in all three faiths.

Jews, however, have always found it difficult to accept the later faiths of Christianity and Islam; Christianity has always had an uneasy relationship with Judaism, the parent faith, and has seen Islam as a blasphemous imitation of revelation. The Qur'an, however, has a positive view of both Judaism and Christianity and constantly asserts that Muhammad did not come to cancel out the faiths of "the People of the Book": you cannot be a Muslim unless you also revere the prophets Abraham, David, Noah, Moses and Jesus-whom the Muslims regard as prophets-as in fact do many of the New Testament writers. Luke's gospel calls Jesus a prophet from start to finish; the idea that Jesus was divine was a later development, often misunderstood by Christians.

Unfortunately, however, religious people like to see themselves as having a monopoly on truth; they see that they alone are the one true faith. But this is egotism and has nothing to do with true religion, which is about the abandonment of the ego.

Too often it seems that religious people are not necessarily more compassionate, more tolerant, more peaceful or more spiritual than others. America, for example, is a very religious country, and at the same time it is the most unequal socially and economically. What does this say about the purpose of religion?

The world religions all insist that the one, single test of any type of religiosity is that it must issue in practical compassion. They have nearly all developed a version of the Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not have done to you." This demands that we look into our own hearts, discover what it is that gives us pain and then refuse, under any circumstances, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion demands that we "feel with" the other; that we dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there. This is the bedrock message of the Qur'an, of the New Testament ("I can have faith that moves mountains," says St. Paul, "but if I lack charity it profits me nothing."). Rabbi Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus, defined the Golden Rule as the essence of Judaism: everything else, he said, was "commentary." We have exactly the same teaching in Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism and Buddhism. I have tried to show this in one of my most recent books, The Great Transformation.

The traditions all insist that it is not enough simply to show compassion to your own group. You must have what the Chinese call jian ai, concern for everybody. Or as Jewish law puts it: "Honour the stranger." "Love your enemies," said Jesus: if you simply love your own kind, this is purely self-interest and a form of group egotism. The traditions also insist that it is the daily, hourly practice of compassion -not the adoption of the correct "beliefs" or the correct sexuality- that will bring us into the presence of what is called God, Nirvana, Brahman or the Dao. Religion is thus inseparable from altruism.

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