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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions Hardcover – March 28, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 119 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Having already recounted "a history of God," the redoubtable Armstrong here narrates the evolution of the religious traditions of the world from their births to their maturity. In her typical magisterial fashion, she chronicles these tales in dazzling prose with remarkable depth and judicious breadth. Taking the Axial Age, which spans roughly 900 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E., as her focal point, Armstrong examines the ways that specific religious traditions from Buddhism and Confucianism to Taoism and Judaism responded to the various cultural forces they faced during this period. Overall, Armstrong observes, violence, political disruption and religious intolerance dominated Axial Age societies, so Axial religions responded by exalting compassion, love and justice over selfishness and hatred. Thus, the central Buddhist and Jain practice of ahimsa, doing no harm, developed in India in reaction to the self-centeredness of Hindu ritual, and Hebrew prophets such as Amos proclaimed that justice and mercy toward neighbors offered the only correct way of walking with God. Accounts of the world's religions often present them as discrete entities developing apart from each other in a vacuum. Armstrong's magnificent accomplishment offers us an account of a violent time much like ours, when religious impulses in various locations developed practices of justice and love. (Apr. 3)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

If you've already written God's biography (A History of God), surely it's a cakewalk to tackle the era before His ascendancy in theological affairs. But making sense of four disparate cultures and religious traditions in the space of 400 pages proves to be a risky proposition for Armstrong. Critics agree that her central theme, "the gradual elimination of violence from religion" (New York Times), makes for compelling reading, as does her weaving together of similarities among disparate faiths. Though her analysis shines, many reviewers feel the book suffers from too broad a focus; centuries are foreshortened, and even her supporters feel her conclusion doesn't do the book justice. With classic titles like The Battle for God and Islam: A Short History in her bibliography, the "runaway nun" remains our preeminent writer on popular religion, but this tome might best be reserved for her hardcore followers.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf / Random House; 1st edition (March 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375413170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375413179
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #363,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By The Spinozanator VINE VOICE on March 29, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Karen Armstrong spent seven years as a nun, has written 16 previous books about religious matters, and is a prominent commentator on religious affairs in Britain. Her views have changed considerably since her earlier days in the convent, but she maintains tremendous respect for the world's great religions. She is a self-proclaimed "monotheist," but her writings seem to merely support and encourage a spiritual approach toward life - rather than a belief in any deity..."Human beings are spiritual animals...homo sapiens is also homo religiosus."

Armstrong's topic in this book is the Axial Age - those seven centuries from 900BCE to 200BCE that were marked by violence and warfare. In four different regions of the world, four great theologies (or ideologies) arose specifically to oppose these violent trends:

China - Daoism and Confucianism

India - Hinduism and Buddhism

Palestine - Judaism, which led to Christianity and Islam

Greece - philosophical rationalism

In all four geographical regions, the initial teaching was of tolerance, love, and humane treatment of others - despite the tendency for some of these to evolve into something else. Each tradition formulated its own version of the Golden Rule because what mattered was how one acts - putting ethical behavior at the heart of the spiritual life. The original prophets never relied on dogma - their emphasis was consistently on compassion. "The consensus of these four areas is an eloquent testimony to the unanimity of the spiritual quest of the human race. The Axial peoples all found that the compassionate ethic worked."

When secondary prophets or philosophers did start to insist on obligatory doctrines, it was usually a sign that the movement was losing its momentum.
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The Great Transformation is a history of the Axial Age, the period in the approximate first millenium B.C.E. when nearly all of our present day religions and philosophies were born. The Axial Age was a time when religion and philosophy evolved from the mere worship of something out of fear it could hurt you to a true ethical, compassionate belief. Karen Armstrong is a brilliant writer and thinker, and this is her finest work.

In a series of well organized and clearly developed chapters Armstrong traces the development of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Greek philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Armstrong provides context for the developments of these thought systems by succinctly describing the troubles of the time: invasions, epidemics, and the ebb and flow of cultural diffusion and change. She then relates these problems to the developing thought systems and shows how their influence penetrated the minds of the seers, prophets, and philosophers who were at work throughout the turmoil. Most interestingly, she interconnects the ideas with each other, showing how similar circumstances and contacts created philosophies and religions which shared the same concerns and often advocated many of the same solutions.

The Great Transformation should be on the shelves of all who seek to better understand the origins of so much of our human cultural heritage.
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This is an outstandingly interesting book, even if you do not agree with every one of Karen Armstrong's conclusions.

The great German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers first proposed the idea of an "Axial period" that ran from approximately 800 to 200 BCE. During this time all the fundamental creations that underlie our current civilization came into being. It was also during this time that four of the world's great religions and philosophical traditions emerged: Hinduism and Buddhism in India; Confucianism and Taoism in China; Monotheism in Israel, that eventually gave expression to Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and rationalism in Greece. Some experts - including Jaspers - included a fifth: Zoroastrianism in Persia. Most scholars now consider that Zoroastrianism emerged before the Axial period, so it is discussed in this book, but is not one of the four great strands.

Following Jaspers' lead, Karen Armstrong credits this six to seven hundred year period as the turning point in the development of human spiritual consciousness. She describes these developments as a reaction to political disintegration and religious intolerance that lead large numbers of people to turn away from their customary systems of ritual and worship, and instead to search for and to create new systems based on justice, compassion and love. This search provided the catalyst for major transformations in religious culture.

Though she is a scholar, Karen writes a clear and easily digestible account about the spiritual heart of each of these religious doctrines, and shows that they all have some things in common: primarily the need for compassion and love in overcoming violence, hatred and selfishness.
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Format: Hardcover
Karen Armstrong has written many shorter books dealing with the history of specific religious traditions, and has earned wide respect for her learning and insights. In "The Great Transformation" she attempts a grand synthesis of many of these traditions.

She gives us richly detailed accounts of the flow of religious thought within four cultural geographies over a vast period of time, but centering on what is labeled the "Axial Age": from around the 10th century BCE to approximately 200 BCE. China, India, Greece, and Israel are the geographical loci of her account. She interweaves these accounts in chronological fashion, seldom drawing explicit parallels until she reaches her concluding chapter.

In her introduction however, Armstrong makes clear her intent and her thesis. She says that "we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age" and that "[t]he Axial sages have an important message for our time." A reader will naturally go forward wondering if she will succeed in convincing us of that age's cohesion and its relevance to our own.

The amount of information in this book of almost 500 pages is undeniably impressive. It is organized effectively and embeds over 25 maps and other clarifying tables. The Bibliography is excellent.

When describing one of the phases of religious thinking that rolled across the Indian subcontinent, Ms. Armstrong writes "To an outsider, this sounds frankly incredible - a series of abstract statements that are impossible to verify. ... The sages did not give us rational demonstrations of their ideas." This fairly describes most of what she presents. Although this kind of editorial comment is rare in the main text, that text makes clear that "rational demonstrations" are seldom what religious teaching is about.
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