Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Great Transformation

Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions provides a panoramic history of the religious breakthroughs during the period that Karl Jaspers referred to as the "Axial Age." Chronicling the period from 900 BCE to 200 CE, Armstrong writes compellingly of the experiences of suffering and transcendence that gave birth to biblical monotheism, Greek rationalism, and the great traditions of India and China.

While she occasionally succumbs to the risks of oversimplification (impossible to avoid in a narrative of this scope), Armstrong does a good job of summarizing and comparing developments across very different cultural traditions. Her treatment of each tradition on its own terms, while useful, is not what gives this book its compelling interest. Its real value lies in its invitation to see each of these traditions in terms of the others, providing a (mostly) reliable introduction to comparative religious studies.

While one can certainly disagree with this or that point in her presentation, the attempt to promote inter-religious understanding is admirable and timely. I highly recommend this book as a way to begin a conversation with and about our religious neighbors - who are now just down the street rather than continents away. At the same time, you will come away from this book thinking about your own tradition differently, seeing things about your own tradition reflected in the face of the religious "other" that you would not otherwise see.

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