Saturday, June 30, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Karen Armstrong / The Great Transformation

This book is, so far as I know, the first attempt to bring The Axial Age, where the profoundest heights of spiritual insight and philosophy were to emerge, into higher awareness in popular culture. I've greatly admired Armstrong's autobiographies and her book on Islam, but I have to say I was disappointed by 'The Great Transformation'. Her breadth of understanding of the Indian, Chinese, Greek and Hebrew cultures during this formative period is unquestionable, extensive and penetrating. The main difficulty I had was with the style of exposition, the narrative structure she's chosen to use. Each chapter spans a particular time period and examines what was happening simultaneously in each culture. This leads to a rather fractured, if not critically disjointed, narrative flow. Trying to hold in my mind and pick up where we had left a culture in the previous chapter, I'm afraid defeated me. It made reading it more a frustrating chore that I was not enthralled or enlightened by. I would personally have found it an easier book to read had it followed each cultures spiritual development fully through from genesis, development to conclusion.

In the final chapter,she pulls together the various strands and sketches out the general themes and gives an analysis of each cultures 'axial age', it's strengths and weaknesses, this indeed was interesting. Particularly that these periods of insight arose out of the suffering and fallout from the collapse or defeat of a political and economic culture, and, interestingly, ended with the arising of another. Her conclusions proceed boldly, and convincingly, into areas of religious universalism. She brings forward her assessment of the aims and beliefs they held in common i.e. the pursuit of wisdom and compassion. This analysis she has stated before in her book on Islam. It feels a little evangelical of her to be repeatedly banging on that drum yet again. Emphasising the commonality, or passively settling for relativism, seems rarely to have helped create harmony between faiths. Is trying to construct a spurious sense of 'brother or sisterhood' between the faiths really what is needed? Religious,political and cultural conflicts have always arisen out of an inability to deal with difference in culture, belief or practice. How we respond and deal with difference,racially, religiously or culturally, is surely the working ground for all of us these days.

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