Spiraling War Culture and Human Empathy–Part II

In Part I, I wrote about the Parable of the Tribes, which explains the historical spiral of human civilization towards increasingly war-like cultures and ever more lethal war technology.  We discussed how the self-destructive behavior of humans in society can look demonic.  In this part I want to discuss a spiritual technology for defusing belligerent behavior–empathy.

I notice that as the Constitution of the United States is increasingly perverted, mangled, and subverted, people are not saying the Constitution is responsible for lawlessness.  Nor do they clamor for dumping the whole thing.  To the contrary, we call for a re-enshrinement of the Constitution in its place of honor.  Many of us don’t have such clear-sightedness with respect to religion.  Seeing the brilliant insights of early sages mangled, manipulated, and co-opted has caused many to reject the basic ideas of religion along with the humans who perverted them.  Herein we refresh our acquaintance with an idea fundamental to every major religion–the Golden Rule–in the hopes that it provides a way out of our spiral toward extinction.

In The Great Transformation:  The Beginning of our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong offers a detailed, not to say tedious, study of the Axial Age, a period during which several major religions and philosophies arose.  During this time of war, societal instability, and organized cruelty, wise men in various cultures offered their antidotes to the evils oppressing humankind.  The solutions they proposed are strikingly similar despite the important differences among their cultures.  All have at their core some variant of the Golden Rule, which of course is a prescription for basing one’s behavior towards others on empathy for their position.

The book is fascinating, but I’ll admit that by the end, I was slogging my way through the copious detail.  Then the last ten pages of the book bloomed like an oasis at the end of a long desert crossing.  I would like to quote every word here, but I’ll have to limit myself.  The following thought organized and clarified ideas I had been working with for several years.  Here I quote her at length.

 [Emphases added]

In every single one of the religions of the Axial Age, individuals failed to measure up to their high ideals.  In all these faiths, people have fallen prey to exclusivity, cruelty, superstition, and even atrocity.  But at their core, the Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect, and universal concern.  The sages were all living in violent societies like our own.  What they created was a spiritual technology that utilized human energies to counter this aggression.  The most gifted of them realized that if you wanted to outlaw brutal, tyrannical behavior, it was no good simply issuing external directives.  As Ahuangzi pointed out, it was useless for Yan Hui even to attempt to reform the prince of Wei by preaching the noble principles of Confucianism, because this would not touch the subconscious bias in the ruler’s heart that led to his atrocious behavior.

When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do.  The hatred and horror infiltrate their dreams, relationships, desires, and ambitions.  The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this.  The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had discovered something important about the way human beings worked.  Regardless of their theological “beliefs”–which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages–they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity.  In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.  This, they found, introduced people to a different dimension of human experience.  It gave them ekstasis, a “stepping out” from their habitual, self-bound consciousness that enabled them to apprehend a reality that they called “God,” nibbana, brahman, atman, or the Way.  It was not a question of discovering your belief in “God” first and then living a compassionate life.  The practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield intimations of transcendence.  Human beings are probably conditioned to self-defense.  Ever since we lived in caves, we have been threatened by animal and human predators.  Even within our own communities and families, other people oppose our interests and damage our self-esteem, so we are perpetually poised–verbally, mentally, and physically–for counterattack and preemptive strike.  But if we methodically cultivated an entirely different mind-set, the sages discovered, we experienced an alternative state of consciousness.  The consistency with which the Axial sages–quite independently–returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature.

If, for example, every time we were tempted to say something hostile about a colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country, we considered how we would feel if such a remark were made about us–and refrained–we would, in that moment, have gone beyond ourselves.  It would be a moment of transcendence.  If such an attitude became habitual, people could live in a state of constant ekstasis, not because they were caught up in an exotic trance but because they would be living beyond the confines of egotism.  The Axial programs all promoted this attitude.


The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda.  For them, religion was the Golden Rule.  They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from–their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.  If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and became dogmatic about it, they could develop inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskillful.”


…many Christians could not imagine religion without their conventional beliefs.  This is absolutely fine, because these dogmas often express a profound spiritual truth.  The test is simple:  if people’s beliefs–secular or religious–make them belligerent, intolerant,and unkind about other people’s faith, they are not “skillful.”  If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound.  This is the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major traditions.

Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual core.  A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact:  it is a program for action


Centuries of institutional, political, and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion.


…First, there must be self-criticism.  Instead of simply lambasting the “other side,” people must examine their own behavior.

Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action.  When they confronted aggression in their own traditions, they did not pretend it was not there but worked vigorously to change their religion, rewriting and reorganizing their rituals and scriptures in order to eliminate the violence that had accumulated over the years.


Today extremists have distorted the Axial traditions by accentuating the belligerent elements that have evolved over the centuries at the expense of those that speak of compassion and respect for the sacred rights of others.


Suffering shatters neat, rationalistic theology. Ezekiel’s terrifying, confusing vision was very different from the more streamlined ideology of the Deuteronomists.  Auschwitz, Bosnia, and the destruction of the World Trade Center revealed the darkness of the human heart.  Today, we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers:  the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other people’s point of view.  If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, an Mencius suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.

So we see that the heart of spiritual wisdom lies in disciplined practice rather than belief in something which, in any case, can’t be known until it is experienced.  We see that practice, not belief, is what brings one to ekstasis, or god, or however the indescribable is named.  And we see that the transcendent state carries with it new meaning, new understanding, and a new and natural way of relating with one another and the world; a way which defuses belligerence and pulls the rug out from under the war system.  Teaching others who are interested in learning may help spread spiritual wisdom, but without individual commitment to practice, the wisdom is not only utterly empty–it is lost to experience.  The anti-dote to our warring, self-destructive behavior finds potency only through individual commitment to active practice.

My hope is to make Part III a discussion of how a disciplined practice of empathy would feel and look for us today, including current obstacles to practice.  I’ll also encourage each of us to take a long, hard look at the ways the war culture has infiltrated our consciousness.  Being alert to the problem does not necessarily mean we are not also part of it.


Skip to comment form

    • geomoo on July 16, 2008 at 04:46

    And that this basic idea is so encrusted with corrption and perversion that it is difficult for many of us to see its simple power.  Notice how much of the long quote from Karen Armstrong is devoted to saying what the Golden Rule is NOT.

    Of course, any powerful truth about human nature will be co-opted by those who are committed to power and manipulation.  It is frustrating to see how successful organized religion has been at turning people off to the fundamental truths they claim to champion–either by deluding followers into following an opposite path to the prescriptions, or by being hypocritical enough to sour good-hearted people to anything that smacks of religion.

    I do believe that almost all of us are participating in the war culture.  My wife, a deeply compassionate person, will occasionally say with great feeling, “Somebody should torture Bush to death.”

Comments have been disabled.