Some people just cannot grasp the idea that religions might actually have something in common. A couple of years ago I got in serious trouble with a real estate agent from the Bible Belt of Manitoba. I was speaking at a continuing educational seminar for real estate agents and we were talking about ethical rules. I told the real estate professionals, ‘Don’t worry about trying to memorize all the rules.’ I said, ‘Just know where you can find them and remember this—the fundamental rule: The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I should have stopped there. Instead, I made a big mistake. I brought in religion of all things to an educational session for real estate agents. How stupid could I get? I said to them, this rule, the golden rule, was the basis of all moralityandall religion. I said all religions had this important rule in common. I presumed this would please people. Religions actually agree with each other. There is no reason to argue. They should be able to get along. But at least one agent did not accept that.
After my talk I was approached by a real estate agent. He asked me if I was “born again.” I knew immediately I was in trouble. No I said, “I was born only once to my knowledge.” But I did think about Bob Dylan who said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
The agent pounced on my comment. “I thought so,” he said. “You are obviously nota Christian because you are equatingChristianity with Islam. That means you are going to hell.” And that was not enough. He added, “And you’re an old guy so you will be going to hell soon.” That last part really hurt. (Well not really)
Obviously this was a man without fellow feeling. He could not grasp that it was a good thing, not a bad thing that all or most religions agreed on the fundamentals. He much preferred to think that hisreligion was superior to all others. I would say that meant he was not religious at all. No empathy; no religion. No connection; no religion.
As I have already said, the word “religion” in fact comes from the old Asian/Indian word religiothat means “connection.” I think it explains religion perfectly. It explains how religion is what connects us to others. I would even add it is what connects us to the world, to nature, to all beings.
It is deeply interesting to me that religion has a common core. Karen Armstrong has some interesting things to say about this. She had joined a convent at the age of 17 but found it was not for her. She became a scholar instead. For the next 40 years she learned a lot about compassion and dedicated her life to the concept. In my view she did not move far from the world of what a convent or at least religious retreat should be. When she studied world religions she too was surprised to learn that compassion was the core of allmajor religions.
She became a historian of religion, received the prestigious $100,000 TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue, and founded the Charter for Compassion, a multilingual and multi-denominational effort to transform the world’s religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord. She enlisted a wide array of thinkers from many faith and moral traditions.
Armstrong summed up her life long study in a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In it she wrote:
One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody— even your enemies.
Armstrong also challenged the common view that religion is the cause of all wars:
“In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity… Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media… In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.”
Armstrong quoted the final version of the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November of 2009 and came to embody this spirit by offering an antidote to the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred:
“The principle of compassionlies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity. […]
We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.”
Armstrong offered the following as a definition of compassion:
“Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.
In fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively — when asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day,” the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) pointed to the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”
Armstrong clarified this as follows:
“A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.
Compassion, thus, is a matter of orienting oneself toward the rest of humanity, implicitly requiring a transcendence of self-interest and egotism. I would say that this means that we are not required to renounce self-interest, but rather to transcend it. We must combine it with beneficence. We must love others like ourselves, but clearly that entails, that first we love ourselves.”
Centuries after Confucius, the three major monotheistic religions adopted the strikingly similar doctrines that many believe are at the core of each religion. I also believe that this same principle—the Golden Rule—is the also at the heart of all morality. I hope to explore that in a subsequent post. It is also interesting that the compassionate spirit is ennobling in all cases and even when it has a secularorigin.In other words, fellow feeling or compassion is the basis of religions and a morality. I think that is important.
I think that real estate agent did not understand religion at all. Nor morality for that matter.