I just finished reading Muhammad by Karen Armstrong (Orion Publishing, 1991) while en route from Dubai to Paris, and a steward on the plane stopped me to see if I liked the book. He was Pakistani and a Muslim and could not say enough about how wonderful he thought her descriptions of the origins of his religion were. He noted that even as a non-Muslim she had captured the essence of Islam.
Karen Armstrong spent seven years of her life as a Catholic nun and later as a teacher at the Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism. She has a profound understanding of the similarities and differences of these monotheistic religions and conveys that knowledge in an easily accessible manner (e.g. see her new book The case for God).
As we struggle today to make sense of conflicts in the world based on religious differences, it is perhaps useful to turn toward historical contexts in which religions unfolded and contrast that with the 21st century in which secularism is rising and people are leaving traditional religions at increasing rates. As an agnostic to any particularly religion, I see the importance of inward exploration and 'transcendent' experiences (often associated with religion) that strengthen religious faith (for those within a religion) or strengthen a sense of connection to something 'larger' than oneself (whether that is called 'humanity', the universe, or some other name).
What Armstrong's writings consistently convey is the important role compassion plays in all religions, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. But she has taken this key principle and moved it beyond religions in the 21st century by forming the Charter for Compassion -- a personal commitment to think and act with compassion. Joining this Charter is making a personal commitment to act accordingly and is a conscious decision that can bind secular and non-secular alike.
We may have been told to 'follow the golden rule' as children (to do unto others as you would have others do unto you) but now science is illustrating the powerful role doing just that can have on humanity. The capacity to feel what other's feel is now known to have its biological roots in mirror neurons found in the brain. It is through interpersonal relating and an understanding of our shared experiences that we can see our commonalities across religious, gender, age, or other boundaries. And science again is showing that understanding our shared humanity is a key to compassion (see Mark Leary's work at Duke University on self-compassion).
As we come to the end of another year of conflict and inequality around the world (gender, socioeconomic, etc.), it is more necessary than ever to commit to think and act with compassion.
Perhaps joining the Charter for Compassion as 2009 comes to an end is way to make a stronger personal commitment to live by a code of compassion. If we each think and act accordingly perhaps we will begin to all live by what Henry James said is most important in life:
Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.
For more information see Charter For Compassion.