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Give Us That TRULY Old-Time Religion

Updated: May 25, 2023

"Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation." Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, American Congregationalist clergyman of the 1800's, social reformer, known for his emphasis on God's love

Ok, I am about to take a chance with you, dear readers. First let me tell you what I am attempting to do and why I am doing it. Then I’m going to dig into ancient wisdom soil (religion roots) and open myself up to your thoughts….

But prepare yourselves. This is a long blog with no light stories to relieve the mental effort. Read it when you have plenty of time. Get a cup of coffee or tea. We are going to go deep. Worth the time if you are considering going on a good life journey because we are going to be following an overgrown path...the way of compassion. Beware. Lots of places where we can stumble.

But first.

What is it that I am attempting to do in plain speak? Fair question. I guess I am aiming to make compassion more popular – an imperative, more doable, and more understandable – for regular people, like you and me. Those of us not living in monasteries or sitting under bodhi trees, but who have smartphones and children and to-do lists. And insecurities. And blindspots.

Why? Because I’m a passionate compassion convert. I believe in the incredible power and benefits of compassion (on all fronts, it’s the fount of healing and wellbeing).

For nearly sixteen years, I have been researching and writing about how we can “move up” to the “good life” for a local magazine – The Good Life. That’s when I started noticing the science coming from several different sources. The science of how to live a life worth living – rewarding, fulfilling, meaningful, joyful. Compassion played a starring role it seemed to me.

Then, maybe seven years ago or so, my husband and I were exposed to a Christian theology professor, Dr. Frank Rogers, who emphasized the biblical mandate for compassion. He also conducted research on how one becomes more compassionate and presented a model which we learned.

That sealed the deal for me. You see, though I have a love for research and science particularly around human development, growth, and flourishing, both my husband and I know that science changes. Compassion research is in its infancy from a scientific perspective.

Not so with religion. Compassion has been around for hundreds of years in all religions– even though I cannot recall one sermon or conversation about compassion growing up in the Bible Belt of the U.S. with parents who were both ministers (among other things). Not saying it didn’t happen, I just cannot remember much emphasis on the concept nor the practice. Well, wait a minute, there was the story known as the “Parable of The Good Samaritan,” I concede that.

It was rather mind-blowing for me to see how important religious scholars like Frank and renowned author Karen Armstrong (Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life) assertively pushed the primacy of the concept and practice of compassion (mind you my first degree was in religious studies initiated at the University of Tennessee, but I heard nothing). Sermons on it every Sunday. Working at it every day. Make our churches “love labs” is part of their current urgent call.

Moving along, here I am then, a regular person who has not perfected the practice of compassion but is an enthusiastic believer and sincere devotee. Compassion has become a life orientation. A north star these last few years.

Often, I struggle. Others help me. We call ourselves a compassion circle. We meet weekly. We vulnerably expose our struggles and stories of both suffering and celebration… and learnings. We hold on to our collective intention to become better compassion practitioners and promote a world where we can live good lives together, even respectfully hold conflicting ideas.

We know that the journey is a lot more fun and infinitely more doable with companions. I’m inviting you to come along by reading these blogs and checking in with your stories and comments when you choose (and pass on anything which moves you).

It seems to me that in these blogs I’ve shared some of the benefits of compassion (and its foundations of kindness, understanding, and connection) from a science perspective. And shared some of my own experience.

What I have not shared is the “ancient wisdom literature” (religious thought) on compassion. Why? Well because I was being cautious, perhaps even cowardly. Religion is a hot potato – perhaps always has been.

But, in the interest of moving forward and making a serious dent in the world situation (I realize not much movement has occurred in 2000 years), I am turning to the biggies, like religious scholar, Karen Armstrong (she was one of three scholars to speak at the first ever session on religion at the United Nations) to turn up the heat on us humans… from a religious standpoint. Here are my slightly re-worked excerpts from a piece that was shared on NPR as well as from her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

Armstrong speaks of her religious frustrations and offers a solution which she sees as imperative at this time in history where there’s a mood of despair … and despair, Armstrong warns, is a dangerous thing, because once people lose hope, they can resort to extreme measures."

Armstrong says compassion isn't a very popular virtue and it’s a struggle for a lifetime because there are aspects of being human that militate against compassion. [In our compassion circle we have found that sometimes compassion is very easy and natural, other times very challenging.]

For example, it's hard to love your enemies. We are driven by our legacy from our reptilian ancestors. It makes us put ourselves first, become angry, and when we feel threatened in any way, we lash out violently.

Armstrong says she struggles with compassion, "all the time, every day." She admits to a sharp tongue, and "like everybody, I feel I've suffered, I feel I've been damaged, I meditate unpleasantly on my enemies and feel this corrosive sense of anger."

But Armstrong’s religious studies keep guiding her back to the theme of compassion. It pops up everywhere again and again. And that's what frustrates her.

"The religions," she says, "which should be making a major contribution to one of the chief tasks of our generation -- which is to build a global community, where people of all opinions and all ethnicities can live together in harmony -- are seen as part of the problem, not as part of the solution."

The golden rule, a commonality throughout religion and guiding force for compassion, asks you to look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anyone else. Making space for the other in our minds and our hearts and our policies is essential. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence (which Christians call God). 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.

Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days. Armstrong has lost count of the number of times she has jumped into a London taxi and, when the cabbie asks how she makes a living (religion scholar), has been informed categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.

In fact, the causes of conflict according to Armstrong 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.

In their public pronouncements, they rarely speak of compassion but focus instead on such secondary matters as sexual practices, the ordination of women, or abstruse doctrinal formulations, implying that a correct stance on these issues -- rather than the Golden Rule -- is the criterion of true faith. Yet it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed. Our world is dangerously polarized. There is a worrying imbalance of power and wealth and, as a result, a growing rage, malaise, alienation, and humiliation that has erupted in terrorist atrocities that endanger us all.

We are engaged in wars that we seem unable either to end or to win. 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.

Suffering is no longer confined to distant, disadvantaged parts of the globe. When stocks plummet in one country, there is a domino effect in markets all around the world. What happens today in Gaza or Afghanistan is now likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York. The Charter for Compassion written by leading thinkers from a variety of major faiths aims to restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life. From The Charter: "The principle of compassion lies 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 honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. We therefore call upon all men and women • to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion; • to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate; • to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures; • to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity; • to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings -- even those regarded as enemies. We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.

Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. But the work is only just beginning Armstrong says. We must continue working together to translate the charter into practical, realistic action.

Well, that’s a lot to take in. Maybe you feel some internal resistance or have questions or perhaps you sense an inner “amen” gushing up. Whatever. I invite us to courageously sit together with whatever we are thinking and feeling. Maybe reach out and share your thoughts with someone. Perhaps me.

For those of you who are Christians, Sunday marks Pentecost. The birth of the Christian church. What might happen if Christians everywhere decided to use the day to seriously reflect on their roots? (BTW, you can find Karen Armstrong’s TED talk and a link on my resource page).

How might we consider the wisdom literature as presented by Armstrong to journey together to the Good Life following the way of compassion?


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