THE BLOG
08/18/2010 09:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eat, Pray, Love ... Serve ? The Religious Mandate for Compassion

Let's be honest, Elizabeth Gilbert is enviable. Raised on a Connecticut Christmas tree farm, she and her sister got to read and play all the time, like latter-day Brontës, without having their brains turned to blood pudding by cable TV or other pernicious pop influences. Elizabeth went on to be educated at that sandbox of the elite, NYU, and then, wonder of wonders, became a successful freelance writer right out of the box.

Oh, sure, Gilbert had some pain and struggle along the way, but she rebounded neatly from divorce by writing a "living well is the best revenge" bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. And now Julia Roberts is playing her in the movie version. Sheesh! As the old Gershwin standard puts it, who could ask for anything more?

I can. And I'm going to ask it of her. But first, let us put envy to rest. We are all phenomenally lucky. If you are reading this, chances are you can go out today and buy a greater variety of food, wine, and song than could the mightiest pharaoh or potentate of old. Indeed, just to be alive at a time when knowledge abounds and all the information and entertainment you could want awaits at your fingertips is a blessing. That we waste so much time envying others is our curse. Or, to switch from religious to scientific language, we are a social species all too prone to runaway social competition.

Of course, competition is not the only distinctive feature of our kind. And that brings us back to Elizabeth Gilbert. Her essential theme is love. Eat, Pray, Love is, let's be honest, mostly about love of self -- in the nicest possible way. Her latest, Commitment, is, I understand, about marital love, that great, amorous bargain between the sexes, till death (or divorce) do us part. But what's next? This series cries out to become a trilogy, and we can only hope the next entry won't be about how wonderful her children are. Everyone's children are wonderful.

Fortunately for Gilbert (and the rest of us), there is another love she may yet aspire to: the selfless love of humanity and the world. In religious terms, it has many names. Christians call it agape. Muslims call it rahmah. In Judaism it is rachamim. Buddhists have a goddess called Kannon who embodies compassion. The Dalai Lama says simply, "My religion is kindness." In short, unselfish love for one's fellow beings, or compassion, is a human universal.

Karen Armstrong, the former nun turned religion author, writes, "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." Indeed, she has made these words into the opening lines of a document she calls the Charter for Compassion. It's a fine declaration. I have signed it, and I urge you to do the same. But Armstrong would be the first to agree that it's not enough.

You have to put your love into action. The universal word for this is philanthropy. Americans are notable for it: we volunteer our time and give away a lot of hard-earned wealth. But in view of the global challenges dead ahead, the time has come to redirect the immense power of religion into something more than the tithe, zakat, or charitable contribution. True philanthropy requires a remaking of religion itself. It can no longer be merely a social control mechanism, a collective bargaining unit for blessings, a mystical justification for nationalism, an ad agency for doctrine, a bloody-minded battle cry, or any of the other petty functions it serves. It must rise to the challenge of worldly salvation.

The last time anything like this was done, something amazing happened: America broke with its ugly past and ended legal segregation and discrimination. In the struggle, people of all faiths and no faith at all came together as never before. Black people and white people held hands, many for the first time in their lives. I was just a boy, but I can remember being in the National Cathedral, with tears blurring my eyes, holding hands, swaying, and singing "We Shall Overcome." Though he had already been taken by an assassin's bullet, I was enraptured that night by a recording of the incomparably wise and inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. It shaped my life.

Elizabeth Gilbert, I happen to know, possesses the philanthropic instinct. A couple of years ago, I wrote letters to many authors asking them to donate signed copies of their books to a fundraising auction for the nonprofit literacy center I head. It was a small thing to ask perhaps, but you'd be surprised how many did not respond. Gilbert was one of the first to send a book. Now that she has reached the mountaintop of fame, I hope the author of Eat, Pray, Love will find meaning and fulfillment of a deeper kind by borrowing one word more from MLK: "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."