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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of…

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006)

by Karen Armstrong

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,476275,042 (3.85)1 / 83
Recently added byprivate library, alo1224, ameerali, safari45, Rje1, Patrick.McGlamery, boughner, boekl, campionlibrary
  1. 10
    The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions by Huston Smith (MsMaryAnn)
  2. 00
    Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong (tajar)
    tajar: The Great Transformation can be a lot to get through. Two of my family members have confessed it was too much for them. So...for a way in to Karen Armstrong's ideas, I definitely recommend Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. It's much more of a practical guide then a historical consideration. However, if you are able to stick it out with Transformation, I still recommend it because it's a lovely guide and shows how the author's thinking has evolved.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
I've liked everything that I've read by Armstrong and this is no exception. Just three stars only because I found that the central premise did not really hold up in historical terms, but full of fascinating and relevant history and spiritual insights that may well help us now if we are willing to explore them and challenge ourselves. It's another volume in her quest to call all religious traditions to reclaim the compassion that lies at their core (http://charterforcompassion.org)...a noble endeavor. ( )
  bibleblaster | Jan 23, 2016 |
This book was something of a disappointment to me, at least compared to several other of Ms. Armstrong's works. Some of her books have been very important to me, offering understanding, knowledge, and even enlightenment. This one, however, falls short of her best efforts, perhaps because it attempts so much. The problem is not the quality of Ms. Armstrong's research or clarity. In discussing the evolution of four major religious/philosophical traditions (the Indian, the Chinese, the Judaic, and the Greek) in the centuries around 500 BC, she imparts an enormous amount of information without overloading or confusing the reader. Rather, it seems to me that she tries to force what she is telling us into a pre- determined conclusion; that religion in general in this period moved away from violence and towards compassion. Certainly, this pattern did appear in the emergence of Buddhism, in some Hebrew texts, and in some strains of Chinese thought. But other, contradictory elements were there as well, and the compassion she finds in Chinese thinking seems very different to me from the compassion of Buddhism, or from contemporary developments in Judaic thought -- let alone what was happening in Greece. This is an interesting and instructive book, but it lacks for me the depth of some of her other works. ( )
  annbury | Sep 19, 2015 |
Karen Armstrong takes great mountains, virtual Everests, of wretched scholarly prose and turns them into something highly readable. She is a first-rate disseminator and popularizer of the history of religion. The Great Transformation reviews the history of what Karl Jaspers famously termed the "Axial Age." During this period, roughly 900-200 B.C.E., the foundations for all of our present religious traditions were laid down: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, the other monotheisms, etc. For example, she follows the Aryans from the Caucasus onto the Gangetic Plain and unfolds the story of proto-Hindu culture there. Similarly, she writes of the pre-Biblical development of what would become Judaism, and so on for all the relevant faiths. These are stories I have never come across elsewhere. Leave it to Armstrong to see this gap in common knowledge of religious history and seek to fill it. What she has undertaken here is of enormous scope. To write the proto-history and then the history of all the Axial faiths is not just ambitious, it is an effort that astonishes the reader as he watches it unfold. I recommend all Armstrong's books but especially this one, The Case for God (also reviewed here) and A History of God. What marks her prose is tremendous empathy. Her portraits of the various Axial Age peoples are stunning in their range and complexity. It is a very dense book, but loaded with fascinating information for the patient reader. Armstrong believes that there is much to be learned from our religious history. Properly understood it is both a cautionary tale and an indication of how very much we need spirituality in our lives. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, without it we are left with a great "God-shaped hole" in our lives. Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.) and Richard Dawkins want us to chuck it. I disagree. This is an integral part of our evolution as a species and we have much to learn from it. (Note: The other writer of excellence in this field I'm familiar with is Elaine Pagels. She, too, has a number of wonderful books but it is her Gnostic Gospels (also reviewed here) that is her summa.) Highly recommended! ( )
1 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
As a critical and theologically literate reader, I can't imagine taking Karen Armstrong seriously. This book is polemic pretending to be history, and as such it falls somewhere between "boring" and "dangerously wrong".

The short form: Armstrong argues for the historical universality of politically correct humanism, but none of her approaches stand up to scrutiny. Her historical evidence is cherry picked. Her arguments regarding similarity of religious themes are little more than religious terms applied out-of-context to other traditions. She makes extensive use of specious hidden linguistic presuppositions. It's not even logically fallacious -- it's logically non-existent. Just, ick.

The long form: I find it almost impossible to believe that all the "Axial" religions (Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophical rationalism) were as concerned with individually knowing God and being empathetic as Armstrong purports. Although all these teachers might have embraced the value of empathy, they did not all, in historical fact, talk as much about empathy as this book would leave you thinking they did. This is especially true when she implies that Israelite prophets were concerned with empathy; Old Testament monotheism is extremely non-empathetic to non-Jews.

Even if we admit similarities between these Axial movements, Armstrong's argument for their similarity is based almost exclusively in using words from one tradition in the context of discussing another tradition. However, misusing words out of context is not an argument. Although I could use words commonly found in badly written pornography when discussing death (penetrate, suck, hole, ...), there are still extremely limited substantive similarities between sex and death.

Armstrong's language throughout the book betrays her inability to extricate the historical context of these religions from the themes that people today read into them. An example sentence: "By the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God." The use of "understand" here presupposes that that temples are objectively unnecessary for worshipping God, a presupposition that is blatantly unwarranted. This and many similar statements shouldn't pass a good religious scholar, and there is no excuse for their presence in a book that maintains it is describing historical fact.

Armstrong seems to be seeking and extricating her own agenda from a variety of traditions, a phenomenon that truly is rife in the history of religion (consider the extensive scriptural support of both slave owners and abolitionists). Her (lack of) argument leads so perfectly into what we want to believe about religion -- that our religious forefathers were, on fundamental issues, perfectly aligned with our current ideal of empathy, and they were objectively correct in their beliefs -- that it seems extremely likely that her argument is contrived. Although apologetics for politically correct humanism is almost universally appealing, filtering facts and playing word games instead of giving substantive arguments should garner only disapprobation, not respect and widespread lay interest.

In short, I don't trust Armstrong. This is apologism deliberately and misleadingly cloaked as objective history. I can only conclude she is popularizing her own name and her ideals at the expense of the integrity of religious studies as a discipline. Many thumbs down. ( )
1 vote pammab | May 7, 2013 |
This was a good book and an interesting look at the history of religion. I think it was well worth a read but I couldn't read too many pages at once as there was a lot of information to process. I liked her style of writing - informative, readable, accessible for the non-expert but not dumbed-down. She definitely seems to know her subject.

It is worth noting that I believe that this study of the Axial times, that led to the philosophies and religions that are the foundation of modern religion and thought, is relevant in today's troubled times. The core beliefs of compassion, charity and tolerance seem to be have been lost and we wouldn't go far wrong in returning to an original reading of the foundation texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism. There are many similarities that are worth understanding and Armstrong's overview is a good place to begin. ( )
5 vote calm | Sep 11, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
added by Shortride | editBookslut, Barbara J. King (Jun 1, 2006)
In our own time of "great fear and pain,"Armstrong proposes that we look to the Axial sages for "two important pieces of advice," both of which turn out to be quite uncontroversial: We should practice self-criticism (amen), and we should "take practical, effective action" against excessively aggressive tendencies in our own traditions (amen again). But after 400 pages of historical argument, the banality of such declarations is staggering.

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Perhaps every generation believes that it has reached a turning point of history, but our problems seem particularly intractable and our future increasingly uncertain. (Introduction)
The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living of the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385721242, Paperback)

From Karen Armstrong, the bestselling author of A History of God and The Spiral Staircase, comes this extraordinary investigation of a critical moment in the evolution of religious thought.In the ninth century BCE, events in four regions of the civilized world led to the rise of religious traditions that have endured to the present day--the development of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Armstrong, one of our most prominent religious scholars, examines how these traditions began in response to the violence of their time. Studying figures as diverse as the Buddha and Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Armstrong reveals how these still enduring philosophies can help address our contemporary problems.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:05 -0400)

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In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Now, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times. The Axial Age faiths began in recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. There was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. The traditions of the Axial Age were not about dogma--all insisted on the primacy of compassion even in the midst of suffering.… (more)

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