Compassion: Karen Armstrong on Interfaith Dialogue

Posted by Patrick James

Over the course of the last two years, the word "hope" has been at the forefront of our national consciousness. For much of the world, however, the very concept of hope is rooted specifically in religious faith. Yet it goes without saying that interactions between organized religions have, throughout history, been fraught with intolerance, conflict, and despair.Nearly a year ago, the religious scholar and author Karen Armstrong gave one of the most reasoned and impassioned pleas for inter-religious hope (and dialogue) in recent memory. Taking the stage at the 2008 TED conference, she made her customary wish: for the creation of a global Charter for Compassion, a open source document authored by people the world over-one that "seeks to remind the world that while all faiths are not the same, they all share the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule."Today, the final submissions to the Charter of Compassion are being received. In celebration of this project, and in anticipation of the Charter's launch, GOOD asked Armstrong for her thoughts on interfaith dialogue, Islamofascism, and the practical application of such a cerebral concept.What are the obstacles to interfaith dialogue?Egotism! No ideology, no institution can be final. But a lot of religious leaders-and there are magnificent exceptions to this-are rather like religious politicians who are very concerned to promote their own party and can't quite see their institution as on par with other people's.According to the New York Times, the current Pope recently "cast doubt on the possibility of interfaith dialogue but called for more discussion of the practical consequences of religious differences." Could you give any sort of appraisal of the current Pope's role in the Christian–Islamic discourse?Ah, it's not great, I wouldn't have thought-in his days as a Cardinal, he wanted to convert everybody in Europe to Catholicism. [But] I think that to the whole idea of working together side by side, the Pope is right. Instead of endlessly discussing our beliefs, when you work together on a common objective (poverty, climate change) then you discover commonalities that you might not have been aware of before.Like the commonality of the Golden Rule?Yes.  This charter is not making any doctrinal claims or saying that all faiths should merge together into some kind of corporate religion, but [the Golden Rule] is something on which all faiths can agree. In a torn world, it is very good to find something that unites us.For the last seven years, the Bush Administration's rhetoric has involved phrases like "war of ideals" or "islamofascism." How does compassion fit into that narrative?What I'd like to see is the voices of compassion putting up a counter-narrative. A counter story to this aggression. Our modernity has been very intolerant. Yet, wherever I go in the world-whether it's in the United States or in the Muslim world or in Europe-I find people are hungry for a more compassionate voice, both to religion and to politics. The charter was just an attempt, really, to bring compassion to the forefront of discussion and to issue some practical directives to how we can do better in the future.What are those practical directives?Well, it's really not for me to say because I'm not writing this charter. The public are writing this charter online as we speak. I've suggested a few, but people will be free to add their own suggestions as to positive action and to correct some of mine. Some of the things I've suggested are, say, a compassion day worldwide, where preachers, media people and educators all explore the nature of compassion. I've called on educators to make compassion a compelling story in the classroom (in both their own and other traditions).  It's very important to read scripture in a compassionate way. It used to be the case that Rabbis and major theologians said that any interpretation of scripture that did not result in compassion or that bred hatred or disdain was illegitimate. Now people use scripture very aggressively in these diatribes to prove their own point or put someone else down or even to justify terrorism. So, we must try to see how we can deal with the difficult passages that we all have in our scriptures and how we look at these in today's world.(Photo by Andrew Heavens for TED.com, 2008.)