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The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions Hardcover – March 28, 2006
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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.
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Top Customer Reviews
Armstrong has done a lot of research for this book, and she presents the latest thinking on many issues of the time. Most of the time she is careful to present speculation as such, but often she presents speculation as fact. The historical record for this period is very scant.
If you want to understand the development of religious thinking, and more importantly, the cultural and historic setting for that development, I'd highly recommend this book. Just be prepared to spend the time needed. This is the third book I've read by this author and I've learned a lot from them.
Karl Jung is not the one who coined the term Axial Age. It was Karl Jaspers.
Furthermore, the review is sensationalistic and misses the key points of Armstrong's work.
"It's not what one may expect from a book about the development of the world's religions: 'Crouched in his mother's womb, he lay in wait for his father, armed with a sickle, and the next time Uranus penetrated Gaia, he cut off his genitals and threw them to the earth.' However, the Greek myth of Cronus clearly illustrates Armstrong's main thesis, that the 'simultaneous' development of the world's religions during what Karl Jung called the axial age, is a direct result of the violence and chaos, both physical and spiritual, of past civilizations. Armstrong, a former nun turned self-described 'freelance monotheist,' has enough background and personal investment in the material to make it come alive. Her delivery is crystal clear, informative and, though somewhat academic, easy for the layman to understand. Her voice is straightforward yet wrought with palpable concern. This reinforces the book's goals of creating a clear understanding of where religious developments have come from and explaining how today's 'violence of an unprecedented scale' parallels the activities that created the 'axial age' in the first place."
In The Great Transformation (TGT) Armstrong meticulously, but without losing energy, explores the emergence of the pivotal religions of the world that emerged from c. 900 to c. 200 BCE. Her treatment is, first of all, historical and cultural, with emphases upon India (Hinduism and Buddhism), China (Taoism and Confucianism), the Middle East (Judaism), and ancient Greece.
Although Armstrong often is tagged as a comparative religion scholar/writer, she is less interested in comparing religions (comparisons almost always devolve into value assessments that fuel competitive approaches to religion) than she is showing how diverse histories and cultures leave us with deep resonances of religious and spiritual awareness.
Those resonances--including ritual, kenosis (emptying), knowledge, suffering, empathy, and concern for everybody--provide the clues to a careful reader to help understand how regional/cultural/historical expressions of religion finally transcended those beginnings and became viable across cultures and eras in history.
The transformation suggested in the book's title is kaleidoscopic. From time to time and from place to place the resonances emerge from particular circumstances and move toward universally recognized traits of authentic, transformative religions.
A delight found in each chapter is Armstrong's judicious use of primary sacred texts--yes, including Homer's epics and the Greek dramatists broad ouvre--that contextualize the values of religion without attempting to put all religions in one proverbial pot.
Finally, TGT begins with reflections upon recent history (e.g., the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001) and the rise of the perceived certainties of science and technology that have had the effect of muting the myths and mysteries found in the history of religions. Armstrong's closing parenthesis, "The Way Forward," holds out the hope those seeking to survive the twenty-first century might find, again, the values of myth and mysteries from ancient and contemporary flowerings of Axial Religion.