Telling the World a ‘Big Story’: RD in Conversation with Karen Armstrong

Can small acts of everyday compassion really make a difference? Karen Armstrong thinks they can. An acclaimed author of works on religion that give sweeping syntheses of the big questions, such as the History of God (monotheism) and the Battle for God (fundamentalism), Armstrong was a 2008 TED Prize winner along with author/philanthropist Dave Eggers and cosmologist/educator Neil Turok.

Winners of the TED [Technology, Education, and Design] Prize are granted “one wish that would change the world” and an 18-minute “speech of their lives” with which to launch it. Armstrong’s wish came in the form of a call to action, the Charter for Compassion, a document signed by religious luminaries and ordinary people, that would urge others to “look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world, which it can and should be.” Since its launch the Charter has partnered with dozens of well known interfaith foundations and corporate groups.

Conceived by Armstrong as a way to make the language of compassion a part of our everyday lives, last year people were invited to share their thoughts on compassion from a variety of secular and faith perspectives. Since that time the “Council of Conscience,” a group of intellectuals and activists who oversee the Charter, began crafting from the responses the wording of a call to compassionate action. Several drafts and conferences later, the Charter was unveiled in November 2009. Those who sign on can do several things: they can sign the Charter (over 30,000 have so far); they can create an event related to the Charter in their hometown; and they can share a story on the site. Backed by luminaries like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Tariq Ramadan, and lesser known but equally effective workers like Tho Ha Vinh of the International Red Cross, the Charter certainly has the right endorsements. But can the Charter do what Armstrong hopes? Noted scholar of religion Laurie L. Patton sat down with Armstrong to discuss the Charter’s possibilities, and Armstrong’s work more generally, for Religion Dispatches.

In the Charter for Compassion, you’ve started a movement via the internet in which we restore compassion to the center of our everyday practices. In addition, people pledge to give accurate and respectful information about each other’s traditions. This movement is impressive in that it seems to combine the best of education about religion with the best of a commitment to a different kind of spiritual practice that both embraces and transcends particular traditions. How has it been working so far?

This is going to be a very long process. I do not expect people to turn themselves around immediately! And in many ways, compassion is counterintuitive to our Western culture, which is very quick, in the media and politics particularly, to point a finger at others’ failings without taking the time to check out the details and form an accurate assessment. There is a lot of education around the issue of compassion still to be done and we will be addressing this need in our Web site in the New Year. Each week there will be more issues to discuss, refinements and questions answered, and I hope to write a piece weekly about such topics as the compassionate interpretation of scripture, the importance of acquiring accurate information about other people, and what it means to “love” our enemies.

There has been a lot of interest in the Charter. One of the things that made me want to undertake this project was the fact that wherever I went in the world, East or West, I found that people were hungry for a more compassionate form of religion, are unhappy that their faith has been hijacked by extremism, dogmatism, or intolerance, and want to make a difference in the world. But so far not as many people as we hoped have actually signed on to affirm the Charter. This is just a first step. We hope to send the Charter, with all the signatures, to five world leaders whose nations are currently embroiled in conflict. We want to make this a grassroots movement that will compel our political and religious leaders to take notice. 

As you write in The Great Transformation, you are interested in the Axial Age religious leaders because you find their more practical ethos of compassion a way of healing the contemporary world. My guess is that this intellectual commitment also led to your idea of a Charter for Compassion. And yet compassion during the Axial age was primarily a local, village, or kingdom-based affair. How might we re-think the question of compassion in a global digital age?

What we call the Axial Age occurred in four different regions—India, China, Greece, and the Middle East—from about 900 to 200 BCE, during which time all the major world faith traditions which have continued to nourish humanity—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, philosophical rationalism, and monotheism, for example—either came into being or had their roots. Each tradition is wonderfully different; each has its own genius, and each its particular flaws or failings. But they do bear a strong family resemblance.

And each one puts compassion—the principled determination to put oneself in the shoes of another—and the Golden Rule (“Do not treat others as you would not wish to be treated yourself”) at the heart of the faith. This is the litmus test of true spirituality; it is what brings us into relation with what we call God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao. And this intellectual commitment certainly drove me to the project of creating a Charter for Compassion, written by leading thinkers in all the major faiths, in order to make this ethos a dynamic force in our polarized world. The fact that this principle was formulated independently by the great sages of all these faiths (the rishis of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Prophets and Priests of Israel, Socrates, Aeschylus) indicates that this is the way human nature works; people have found that by living compassionately—“all day and every day,” to quote Confucius—they have activated aspects of their humanity that normally lie dormant, escape the prism of selfishness, and gain enhanced capacities of mind and heart.

Of course, the Axial Age took place in much smaller communities than our present global community. But in each of these regions, there was a broadening of vision. People’s horizons were expanding as a result of the large scale empires that were being created at this time; they were being taken out of the small confines of the village and being herded into large kingdoms; each one of these traditions took root in a burgeoning market economy, where people became conscious of their trading partners in distant parts of the world. And the Axial Age spirituality was largely a response to this new broad vision. People had to refine their view of humanity as a result of this. And most importantly, each of these traditions developed in a time of violence and warfare; society had become more aggressive; merchants preyed upon one another; kings fought to expand their territories—and the new technology made these wars more deadly than ever before. In every single one of the Axial regions, a revulsion from this violence was a catalyst of religious change: the great Axial Sages developed the compassionate ethos largely in response to this new threat. They were determined to mitigate the violence of their time, which seemed about to ricochet out of control.

Now we have this same problem writ large. The violence of our time could easily escalate out of control: it could be only a matter of time before a small terrorist group acquires a nuclear weapon. We are witnessing war on a global horrific scale—and actually seeing conflicts nightly on our television sets. We are also aware now that humanity is tightly bound together—electronically, financially and politically—as never before. We cannot live without the other. One of the major tasks of our generation is to build a global society where people can live together in harmony. If we do not achieve this, we are unlikely to have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.

So we have essentially the same challenge as the sages of the Axial Age. But we have to work hard to achieve it. Each of the sages almost sweated with the effort to make their spiritual insights speak effectively to their violent societies. They were creative; daring; willing to cast old sanctities aside and innovate. Religion is hard work. If we want to make the compassionate voice of religion a dynamic force in our world, we have to make the same gigantic, creative effort. And this will not be easy. But our global communications can enable us to work effectively together. That is one of the things the Charter is trying to achieve.

Your work on the Axial Age, The Great Transformation, is actually is quite different from Karl Jaspers’ work in one crucial respect. Your book is primarily ethical in its motivation, whereas Jaspers’ was more historical in its impetus. Can you tell me more about this ethical impulse for revisiting this idea about religious history? Do you think a better knowledge of history can help us be more compassionate, as you seem to suggest in some of the Charter’s prose?

I think history is terribly important. It is the story we tell ourselves that reflects our pain, suffering, hopes, aspirations, dreams, and achievements. Many of the world conflicts today are rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the past. We tell ourselves stories about other peoples too and sometimes this has been very hurtful. For centuries, European Christians told themselves appalling tales about Jews; they wrote libelous biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and biased accounts of Muslim history, and these became rooted in the Western psyche.

Later we Europeans told ourselves flattering tales about the countries we colonized and heaped scorn on their traditions in a way that has been profoundly damaging. But everybody is guilty of this. We are all far too ignorant of one another’s histories, and this is dangerous. History has become a weapon in many of today’s wars and conflicts. We use and abuse it to back up our prejudices, to deny the pain that people have suffered at our hands in the past, and to justify self-centered policies and even atrocities. So we need to learn about one another, gain accurate understanding of how we have reached today’s impasse, and learn about the depth and insight of other cultures. Compassion is not just a sloppy emotional bonhomie; it requires a serious intellectual effort to learn about one another, even if this is not flattering to ourselves.

One of the things that strikes me about your work is its love of the big story—whether it’s a history of fundamentalism, or God, or the axial age, or women’s ordination. As scholars we tend to make our living on “the small story,” and yet I think the integrative vision that suffuses your work is also increasingly necessary in today’s world—both in the academy and outside of it. What drew you to the big stories, and how did you become comfortable writing them? And relatedly, might the Charter for Compassion be a kind of plea for us to tell ourselves a different kind of “big story?”

Well, I am an academic outcast. I wanted to become a professor of English Literature but failed to achieve this. And I think it was a good thing because, as you so rightly say, I am drawn to the Big Story, which is not in vogue in academia today. From the time I was a small child, I loved the big, sprawling novels of the Victorians. And as soon as I started writing A History of God, I felt that I had found my métier. I felt immediately comfortable—and that is probably why I was not able to succeed in the academic world. But I rely on the immensely intricate work of scholars working on the “small story.” Sometimes it is important to put all these small stories together.

Also I believe that all this religious material is immensely important to the world today. And the work of many academics is not always accessible to non-specialists and yet it is too important to be confined to the university. So I see myself as a “popularizer”—again that would be anathema to many academics! And yes, the Charter is a plea to look at the Big Story of humanity, see that we are one, that we need one another, and learn, as the Qur’an says, “To get to know one another.”

I think the problem with the word “popularize” is that it reinforces the dichotomy between specialized knowledge about religion in the academy and knowledge in the public sphere. But that’s precisely the dichotomy we want to break down. An activist friend of mine who works with Muslim women in Atlanta said that she couldn’t do her work if she didn’t have the work of scholars who interpret Islam. But scholars tend to be a lot more wary about affirming how much they need people like you to get the word out in a more public kind of way. They need to find a way to work with those who reach out in new ways.

I would entirely agree with your activist friend who says that people like me depend a lot on the detailed work that people like you do. Unfortunately, most of the general public will not engage with those studies. So what I’m trying to do is make that work accessible to people who need to know this history in order that we can understand one another better. I think we need a pleasant and respectful symbiosis between the two perspectives. We are all working on a set of common problems. We all know how deeply some of these ideas are enshrined in people’s hearts and minds.

If we just see studying religion as an arcane exercise alone then it is in a sense belittling the subject. People truly want to know, and such study is very helpful for those who truly want to know. And the knowledge gives them context. For example, Christians really want to know about the very early days of Christianity; they want to learn something about what we can know about the historical Jesus and what we can’t, and what words he said and what words he didn’t say. And this kind of knowledge about religions can be abused. People will quote scripture out of context, and having that knowledge of what the scripture is really about helps them. And so for these reasons it is really important to have that scholarly voice in the public domain.

Yes, and people come to that longing for knowledge because they are existentially driven—their hearts and minds are engaged with the questions. Even if their questions are deeply historical, or even arcane, the heart needs to be addressed.

Definitely. And people’s perplexities are soothed. People look so relieved when you explain something to them about, say, the early days of Islam. All this helps them put things in their place and put to rest those niggling worries they may have about their faith, or someone else’s faith, can be laid to rest. This knowledge helps to put things in perspective.

During one interview, you call yourself a “freelance monotheist,” and this is certainly evident in your writings on the saints in the Western tradition, on great religious thinkers like Paul, and on the history of God and fundamentalism. But I have noticed in your more recent writing you refer more frequently to stories and traditions from Asia; Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism all play a role in your more recent works. And you seem to find in them powerful examples of the kind of practical, effective action that you long to see in today’s world. You even end The Case for God with a Buddhist story. I wonder whether your thinking about the Charter for Compassion has been influenced by your encounter with Asian religions. Would you still call yourself a “freelance monotheist?” Or is “freelance religionist” a better moniker?

Yes, I wish I had never made that quip about being a freelance monotheist. I drag it around with me wherever I go. What I meant was that at that time I drew nourishment from all three of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and that I could not see any one of them as superior to the others. But since then I have indeed studied the oriental traditions, some of which are not “theist” at all in an Abrahamic sense. And yes, I have been hugely influenced by both the Buddhist and the Confucian teachings on compassion.

In your book, The Battle for God, you agree with many scholars of religion that fundamentalism is a product of the contemporary world in that it is a response to many of the alienations of twentieth and twenty-first century societies. But you tend to define fundamentalism primarily as a kind of exclusivist turn away from modernity. Many recent scholars would disagree with you on that, pointing to fundamentalist movements’ sophisticated uses of technology and even postmodern philosophy as evidence that these movements are not exactly rejections of modernity, but in fact thoroughgoing modern, even postmodern phenomena. Relatedly, even someone whom we might classify as a fundamentalist might embrace the values found in your Charter for Compassion. How might you respond?

No, no, I entirely agree—and make it clear in the book—that fundamentalists make great use of modernity and that these are all essentially modern movements that could have taken root in no time other than our own. Fundamentalists may have retreated from some aspects of modernity, but they are themselves modern people and this has profoundly affected their vision. As I insist in The Battle for God, Protestant fundamentalists are reading scripture in an essentially modern way—one which our medieval forebears or the fathers of the church would have found very peculiar; that Ultra-Orthodox Jews are observing Torah in a way that would have been deemed inadvisable in the premodern world; that Muslim fundamentalists were creating a “liberation theology” that was not dissimilar to that being developed by some Roman Catholic theologians.

What I do say, however, is that all these movements are rooted in a profound fear; that all have experienced secularism, liberalism and modernity as invasive, coercive and alienating—and are convinced that they are fighting for survival, because our modernity has also been spectacularly violent (because we have developed the means to kill more effectively than ever before) and has not been necessarily tolerant. Most of these fundamentalist movements retreat from modernity as a survival technique. And yet they have developed religious counter cultures that are essentially modern.

In relationships between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalists, it seems to me that the challenge becomes translational—how do you talk across boundaries? I know you’ve written about this, but I frequently joke that the liberals are all one tradition in a sense, and it is easier to get them to talk to each other. But the real challenge is when you might try to get liberals and fundamentalists from the same tradition to talk to each other. That seems to be the challenge of the twenty-first century. Have you ever seen a common language, or a sense of the common good develop between a fundamentalist group and a liberal group of the same tradition?

I haven’t really seen it with my own eyes. Extremists don’t usually come to my lectures, so there’s a self-selected audience there. We don’t inhabit the same universe; we are running along on parallel lines. But I think something that people can do as intellectuals is analyze the discourses. We can do this in the same way that we analyze carefully an op-ed piece or a presidential speech looking for underlying messages or different emphases.

We have a lot of extraordinary myths. Let’s take, for example, the rapture myth. It is a terrifying story: that God so hates the world that he is about to smash it into bits with some terrible catastrophic disaster. The fact that this belief is so widely held in the most rich and powerful nation in the world has profound implications—ones that we ought to be listening very carefully to. People just scoff at these mythologies, but what we need to see when we read them carefully and sympathetically—as one might be trained to read a poem or a piece of intense prose—are the issues and disturbances that lie beneath these things. We need to make that kind of reading available to the general public.

And of course, liberals can be just as hard-line in their beliefs. I remember lecturing in the early days to the Sea of Faith Group. They are an extremely liberal group that have based their theology on the teachings of Don Cupitt, who would deny that he believes in God, but argues that one can still find value in the rituals. I spoke to them just after I’d written the History of God and they were very cross with me for using the word “God.” So I asked them, “You’ve not all left your churches in order to establish a new orthodoxy, surely?” We have this awful tendency to make rules and boxes instead of opening up and deconstructing a little bit what we mean when we say God. And there’s value in that. So there is a sort of fundamentalism there in the secular world. That is very prevalent in the UK.

A naïve hope I have is that there are very conservative clerics who are interestingly still committed to non-violence. I wonder whether those people are not the kind of linchpin, or perhaps a fragile bridge, between those two parallel universes that you pointed out earlier. Would you say there was a possibility there?

I think it’s no good arguing about ideologies or doctrines or dogmas. I would say this a great deal in interfaith dialogue where Muslims, Jews, and Christians get together. You get the Christian who says “We believe Jesus is the son of God” and then the other two say “Well, we don’t.” And then where do you go from there? What I think we can do is work together. I do think that when we are working together on a shared issue, say, on the West Bank, you need to focus on a social problem that’s happening on the West Bank, or local governance or a problem in a school, something of that kind, where people can join together.

That’s one of the things about the Charter for Compassion. We’re not saying we all agree with each other, ideologically or doctrinally. In a sense that really doesn’t matter because all our doctrines can only be approximate when we speak about transcendence. But by working together we discover what we have in common. There’s an image which I use here from C.S. Lewis, who isn’t someone I quote very often. But there’s one phrase from the Four Loves which I read when I was a girl. The passage is talking about the difference between erotic love and friendship. And Lewis says that in erotic love, we gaze into each others’ eyes and are rapt by staring at each other. And in friendship, we’re standing side by side and looking at a common vision, a common goal. We don’t have to fall in love with one another; we don’t have to even agree with one another. But we can work together side by side. We can become friends in that sense. And I would say that that’s the best way forward—to find issues, such as violence in society, or gun crime, for example. What can we do to work together about this, and lay aside all discussion about differences? That’s where links can grow up.

In your most recent work, The Case for God, you suggest that we have distorted religious truths in that we expect them to provide us with explanation and information. On the contrary, you argue that most religious teachers as well as scientists understand that there is a powerful “in-between state” between rationality and the transcendent. This leads you to hope for something like a new apophatic theology which may in fact embrace unknowing in a new way, without necessarily becoming simply another postmodern suspicion of the master narrative. Can you develop this idea a little more, and tell me how, in your boldest moments, you dream that it might come about? (I imagine the Charter for Compassion might be part of your answer.)

We need to realize that when we speak about God we are at the limits of what words and thoughts can do, and to understand that because God is transcendent nobody can have the last word about the divine. This kind of reticence was practiced in the past by some of the major carriers of the tradition: Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Thomas Aquinas, the list could go on and on. I think that many of our intellectual problems about God today come from the loss of this reticence. We are all talking far too easily today about God and what we say is often facile. We often learn about God as children, at the same time as we learn about Santa Claus. But as we mature, our ideas about Santa Claus change and become more sophisticated, though our ideas about God can get stuck in an infantile mode and become thereby incredible. So in The Case for God I was trying to show that people in the premodern world would have found much of our God-talk today as frankly idolatrous, and that many modern theologians, such as Bultmann, Tillich, and Rahner, would agree with them.

But in the book I also argue that religion is essentially a practical discipline and we have made it a notional one. We have made a fetish out of “belief,” for example, and confused it with “faith” in a way that Jesus, for example, would have found odd. The doctrines, dogmas and myths of religion are essentially calls to action. They are telling us how to behave in a way that will transform us at a profound level. In particular, in most of the major traditions, they are calling us to lay aside the egotism that holds us back from our best selves and from the divine. This is certainly true of the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation, for example. They also insist that the best way of achieving this is by compassion, in which, “all day and every day” we have to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there.

The doctrines and mythos of religion only make sense if we put them into practice—and that is why the Charter for Compassion is a part of the answer to your question. If every time we are tempted to say something unpleasant (about an annoying colleague, an ex-wife or a nation with whom we are at war), we reflexively ask ourselves how we would like this said about “us,” we would be achieving the ekstasis that brings us into relation with the transcendent. This is not an exotic trance; ekstasis means “standing outside,” stepping outside of the ego. We would then know what “God” is, even though we would never be able to formulate this transcendence rationally. In the oriental traditions, particularly, the sages concentrated on what we were transcending from (selfishness, greed, hatred, envy) but in the modern world we have concentrated overmuch on what we are transcending to.

I’m interested that in several of your recent books you mention the challenges that writing a history of women within these larger histories presents. Some of your earlier works deal with these vexing questions, particularly those of women’s place in Christianity. How do women’s issues connect to your development of a Charter for Compassion? Might you ever return to that topic—and perhaps write a “big story” about women in religion?

I am not sure that I want to undertake a history of women in religion—but maybe. It is certainly true that none of the great Axial traditions has in practice been good for women. And this is something that they all have to redress, because it is a major flaw. How does this relate to compassion? I would say that women have a special role here. That is not because we are more compassionate than men; women can be just as cruel as any man. But even a privileged woman like myself has experienced some form of denigration, discrimination, patronizing, sneering, etc., etc. We should use this experience as a springboard to help us to empathize with others who have suffered such discrimination and oppression—even in societies that seem initially alien to us. Instead of falling in with the patriarchal chauvinism that dominates most of our societies, let us develop a more global, universal view, that enters into the suffering of people all over the world.

I’m impressed by your movement between genres—memoir, general history, and religious biography. And now you are moving to a kind of internet-based activism with the Charter. What challenges do you find in switching genres, and what advice would you give to an aspiring writer who finds him or herself too curious to be confined to a single genre?

At the University of Oxford, I studied English Language and Literature and that has been a very good preparation for discussing theology, because literature takes fiction, poetry, unknowing, transcendence, and mythology very seriously. I think it really doesn’t matter what you study originally. At Oxford, I learned how to think and how to study and I have been able to apply that to my theological and historical studies, because I am entirely self-taught in these fields. I never consciously set out to cross genres in this way. It came about largely by accident, after a series of career disasters, as I have explained in my memoir The Spiral Staircase.

So to an aspiring writer who is curious about other genres, I would say “Go for it!” If you have learned how to study, how to think rigorously, accurately and imaginatively, you can certainly master other genres. Though you will probably find, as I have, that there is at base a common core to your studies—a developing vision, with one thing leading to another. So learn from disasters and mistakes; don’t be put off by people who sneer at your initial efforts (I certainly had my share of this in my early days as a writer) and keep on learning, studying, and going deeper, as well as broader.

You have made a life of writing for the public. And through the Charter for Compassion, you are putting that commitment to public knowledge into practice. And yet most young scholars today cannot write books the way you write them because the rules of the academy are different—focused on specialization, learning relevant languages, and so on. Some of them are also struggling with how to make sense of the postmodern turn in the study of religions. I have noticed, however, that there is a very powerful longing in my students to become public intellectuals, even though the academic system does not reward it. What advice would you give them?

I truly sympathize with these young scholars, because if they want to get tenure and job security, they have to learn to write in a particular way and they thus acquire habits of writing that are difficult to discard. But their expertise is very valuable. As I have said above, I have learned a good deal from this rigorous scholarship and, indeed, rely upon it. But we do need public intellectuals at this difficult time of “sound-bite media,” where discussion of the huge issues of our time is often dangerously narrow, trivial, and superficial.

I would say again: “Go for it!” Intellectuals have often adopted a truly prophetic role in society. I think of Chomsky, for example, or Edward Said. It requires selflessness of the sort I have been speaking about earlier, because academia will not reward this. It must be done pro bono, in addition to already demanding jobs. But it is worth it. It is necessary, however, to both make sure that you know about the issues on which you are going to speak and to learn to speak clearly, forcefully, and accessibly. I have been working with TED on the Charter for Compassion. It is well worth tuning in to some of the amazing talks at TED conferences, to see how this can be done. 

How has public reception of your works changed your writing, either positively or negatively? What issues do you still struggle with as a writer as you work to tell religion’s story?

I am very grateful to all the readers who have been so encouraging to me over the years, because this has helped me on what could have been a very lonely quest. I live in the UK, which is very hostile to religion and have been astonished by the generosity of readers from the Middle East, the United States, Pakistan and many other countries who have reached out to me so warmly. I have encountered some opposition from academics, who regard me with a certain disdain because I am self-taught, do not have a PhD, and have no official theological qualification. I have been roundly scorned by secularists and atheists (people have written to me to tell me that they would like to burn down my house, because of my championing of religion); and I have had a lot of abuse from people because I write positively about Islam; some Christians in Holland objected vociferously when I was awarded the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal; Catholics in the UK have hated my work. But I am writing about contentious issues that arouse a good deal of passion. If I did not attract some odium, I would probably be writing so blandly that I was saying nothing of value. The fact that there is such opposition (as well as warm support) tells me that I am putting my finger on an important pulse and this compels me to continue.

One final thought: where would you like the Charter for Compassion to be in five years? What are your wildest hopes for its success?

I’d like to see it adopted in social programs and in educational curricula. There are moves to get it included in educational curricula already, and so that’s progress. I’d like compassion to be something that is bobbing up in conversation more than it does at the moment. Just as in nowadays we are attuned to gender issues, I’d like there to be that kind of sensitivity about issues of compassion. It’s not that everyone will become angelic overnight. I have no such expectation. Politicians will continue to be egotistic and self-serving, but it’s still important to get that word about compassion out in the public domain. I’d like to have every year a Compassion Day. We’re moving ahead with this in the United Nations, where perhaps on that day, the Charter is read out, or perhaps there are sermons on the Charter. Or even leading up to it, you might have Compassion Week, like you have the Week of the Child, and things are done in the media on the topic. I would like it to be cool to be compassionate among the young. And people might have more of an understanding of what’s involved. It’s important that people sign up.

We also need a deeper voice at an institutional level. Last night I was having dinner with a young oil millionaire from the Arab Emirates. And he came to me afterward, and he said I would like to get this accepted in the Middle East. And he has access to the top leadership to do so. And so the ruler of his own emirate, Sharjah, has endorsed the Charter as has his Head of Education. He wants me to make a state visit to Sharjah and to Doha where there’s also interest. In Abu Dabi and Jordan there’s also interest. Many people are naturally slightly suspicious of the West. But there are many clerics in the Middle East, even in Iran, and Iraq, who have interest in this Charter.

Now this won’t be headline news. We want people to get the Charter adopted in schools, and working in a quiet way. This is a kind of careful methodical work. So my friend has taken copies of my book personally to these rulers and kings and emirs and they are really interested. The interesting thing about the ruler of Sharjah is that he is a very conservative person. He’s very Western-educated, and yet he doesn’t want his country to go the way of Dubai. And because he’s a conservative person, that gives the green light to others who might be worried that this Charter isn’t kosher.

And my friends in Pakistan are also doing interesting things. They’re having to proceed very slowly because things are so terrible in Pakistan. People are getting blown up every day. Nonetheless they are simply getting on with it. I think the Charter has been put up in about fourteen places all over the country—in the Karachi Press Club, for example. This means that in trouble spots, the idea is quietly worming its way into consciousness.

I very much like the idea of not making the headlines, because you can almost guarantee that if it does, it will be less effective! These have been really helpful answers for our RD readers and I wish you all the best with the Charter as well as the upcoming holidays. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you.

Thank you. I have enjoyed this as well!

lpatton@emory.edu'

Laurie L. Patton is Professor of South Asian Religion at Duke University. She is the author or editor of eight books about early Indian myth and ritual, and two books of poetry. She has also translated the Bhagavad Gita for Penguin University classics series. She has written and lectured widely on interfaith issues, and religion, conflict and peace-building. She is a regular blogger for Religion Dispatches.