03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Compassion: Karen Armstrong and the World's Most Powerful Idea

It turns out that one of the most basic things we all learned as
children — treat others how you’d like to be treated, the Golden Rule —
is the most powerful idea in the world.

The idea is so important,
says scholar of religion and author Karen Armstrong, that it forms the
core of every religion and is among the deepest values of even the most
secular hearts. Compassion is an idea with the power to push our global
community away from the division and strife that have come to
characterize it, but only if we learn how to use it.

And learn we will, if Armstrong has anything to do with it. Last week she unveiled a brave new project -- the Charter for Compassion, an elegant four-paragraph call to action aimed at reinvigorating this most important value in our world today.

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," the document begins. "... We urgently
need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our
polarized world."

Created collaboratively by people around the
globe via the Internet and then honed by a team of religious leaders
and thinkers from all faiths, the project is the result of the one wish
Armstrong was given as winner of the 2008 TED Prize.

heard about this wish and I knew at once ... what I wanted to wish
for," she said. "Compassion is seen as the litmus test of spirituality.
This is the core of faith."

The Meaning Of Faith

Ever since Armstrong left the convent as a young woman, dismayed
with the inquiry-forbidding, authoritarian religious life she had found
there, she has been on a journey to understand what faith really means.

trying to debunk religion as a TV journalist, she realized she needed
to approach the subject more openly and found her niche writing
scholarly histories of the world’s religions and prophets, including A History of God and the acclaimed Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

that work, she has made her way back to faith, but to a faith much
different than the one she started with, built more on practice than on
belief. She has described herself in the past as a "freelance

"I don't think belief is very important," she said to the crowd
assembled to see the Charter unveiled. "Nobody has the last word on
what we call God."

But then why are we all taught that belief is
the core element of belonging to a religion? Religious people, after
all, are often called "believers."

Our word "belief," she told me, has changed in meaning. “The [Middle English] word beleven
used to mean ‘to trust, to love,’” she said. “Only in the seventeenth
century does it come to mean the intellectual acceptance of a rather
dubious idea."

The English word "faith," she went on, comes from
a Greek word that means trust, commitment, engagement or involvement.
Religion, she said, "is a practical skill, it's like driving, or
cooking, or swimming. You can't learn to swim by reading a book; you
have to get into the pool and involve yourself." Practicing compassion
means getting into the pool.

So has compassion, I asked, become an important part of your faith?

She looked at me matter-of-factly. "This is my faith."

Hard Work to Come

The organizers of the project
see this as the beginning of a long journey. They know it won’t be a
magic bullet to fix our ailing world.

"Is it possible that the whole world will come to this? I doubt it," said Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell,
director of the religion department at Chautauqua Institution and a
member of the Council of Conscience that wrote the final version of the
Charter. "But is that a reason not to work on it? ... We’re very
results oriented in this country, so we look at things and say if we
can't make it better, if we can't get everybody there, then we don't
have to try. But the very working at bringing people together has power
in it."

The interactive website
that TED helped the team set up makes bringing people together all the
easier. Thousands have already affirmed their support of the Charter,
and the "Act" page allows viewers to scroll through scores of actions people have taken to support the project and practice compassion.

potential audience is enormous. Events and ceremonies are taking place
around the world; last weekend and over the coming month congregations
and community groups everywhere began hearing speeches and sermons on
the value of compassion and how to get involved.

And the
Charter’s call can appeal to the nonreligious as compellingly as it can
the faithful. "Everybody believes in something," Methodist Bishop and
Council of Conscience member Rev. Peter Storey said. "The important question is whether what you believe in is bringing life or bringing death in this world."

current political climate in the U.S., he said, is a death-dealing one.
"The airwaves of this country are just being splattered with words that
kill, that invite hate, that invite violence. And a lot of that is in
the name of religion, let me put that right out there." The unfortunate
outcome is that many young people have turned away from religion
"because they’re sick and tired of the hatred." In this atmosphere, he
sees the Charter of Compassion as “a kind of centering opportunity," a
chance to "get to the center of what it means to be a human being."

Armstrong believes that finding our common humanity is more important
than ever at this charged moment in history. “We have a choice, it seems
to me," she said. “We’re standing at a crossroads in history. So many
of the things we took for granted have suddenly come to grief" — our
politics, our financial system, the environment. We can either
emphasize those aspects of our traditions that bring out exclusion and
disdain, or we can emphasize those things that inspire kindness and

"The golden rule requires you to look into your own
heart, discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse under
any circumstances to inflict that pain on anybody else," she said.

If enough people commit themselves to that project, think how different our world might be.