The Compassionate Life

Just finished a study guide to Karen Armstrong’s new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which we are going to look at in Lent at Holy Trinity, Stirling. (I’ve uploaded it on to our website here if you’re interested.)  It was a bit of an effort, boiling down 209 pages to 12, for 5 sessions, but it makes you think about what her essential point is.

Armstrong is desperate to counter fundamentalism and intolerance, war and persecution.  She has already done marvellous work in the area of inter-faith relations, trying to get us to think openly about religion.  Now, she wants to take the best essence of all religions and show that they agree – and the basis of this is, she says, the Golden Rule:  ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself’.

There are wonderful insights from the different religious traditions, and exercises in compassionate thinking, based heavily on Buddhism.  She looks at compassion radiating out in concentric circles from the self, to those nearby, to others we may dislike and then finishes with ‘love your enemy’.

I guess my main question to her is:  should we be compassionate because (as she suggests) it makes us more peaceful and content and stops wars and their damage to us, or because we follow a divine person who calls us to be compassionate?  That is:  is compassion a strategic move to make our lives better, or something that takes over our hearts as God’s love grows within us?

It’s to do with the ultimate motivation for our moral behaviour.  If we talk about strategy, or rules, or benefits, they can always be challenged by a ‘better’ strategy or rules and so on.  If we follow a person and are moved by love, we may be compassionate because that is simply who we have become – whether it ‘benefits’ us or not.

I need the discussion group to help me think through this!  Roll on Lent.

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3 Responses to The Compassionate Life

  1. John Gilliom says:

    By way of introduction, I am a 72 year old American male Episcopalian. I have read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and was moved deeply by it. I am currently preparing a book study to be offered in the fall at my parish in Virginia. My vision for the study is to provide a support group for anyone interested in actually doing the exercises Armstrong recommends for each step.

    I appreciate Dr. Peden’s concern over motivation for a program of compassion. It belongs to the “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons” category of ethical dilemmas. But in my opinion, she is proposing a false choice. I believe that compassion is BOTH a strategic move to make our lives better AND something that takes over our hearts as God’s love grows within us. I believe that this intersection of enlightened self-interest and response to God’s love is a perfect example of what Jesus meant when he proclaimed that, “The kingdom of God is among you.” I believe it is an example of what Augustine of Hippo meant when he famously said, “Love God and do as you please.

    The real issue is one of process. How does an intelligent , thoughtful post-modern person become a compassionate doer of the word? In my parish, I am surrounded by thoughtful people who “get” the hortatory sermons, believe that God’s love is good for them, and are looking for ways to internalize it. What better way than by taking baby steps to exercise compassion.

    John Gilliom
    Charlottesville, Virginia USA

  2. alisonpeden says:

    I suppose the concern that I have is a more general one about religion becoming just another therapy amongst those offered in a postmodern society. It’s a bit like good classical music being recommended as a ‘stress-buster’, rather than because it is good and transformative in itself.

  3. John Gilliom says:

    “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.” I think we can safely include “sneaky” in the “mysterious” category. When a person invites God into her life through the back door of “therapy” rather than the front door of heart-felt conversion, she nevertheless becomes open to God’s grace working within her.

    I was uncertain about how to reply to Allison’s comment until my thoughts crystallized after hearing a sermon preached by the rector of my parish, the Rev. David Stoddart, on 5 Pentecost, 2011. Fr. David preached on Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; the parable of the good seed and the weeds. One main point of the sermon was that we are all mixtures of good seed and weeds. It is only through God’s grace that the good seed can flourish and the weeds wither. In my view, this is simply a kinder, gentler restatement of Paul’s theology in Romans.

    What does the process of grace working within us look like? Everyone has their own journey, and your mileage will vary. Like Jesus, we have to rely on extended metaphor to describe spiritual journeys. Fr. David used a story (a parable, if you will) from the Native American spiritual tradition to close his sermon, and I have copied it here.

    A grandfather was talking to his grandson one day, and said, “Within each of us lives
    two wolves. The one wolf is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with others,
    takes no offense, and fights only for what is right. The other wolf, though, is filled with
    anger and hate. He is not at peace. He fights all the time, with a sense of helpless rage
    and self-loathing. It is hard for us, because these two wolves struggle within us all the
    time, each one trying to dominate our spirit.” The grandson listened intently, and asked,
    “But Grandfather, which wolf wins?” And the old man replied, “The one you feed.”

    John Gilliom
    Charlottesville, Virginia USA

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