The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Hardcover)

The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

By Karen Armstrong

Knopf, 9780375413179, 496pp.

Publication Date: March 28, 2006



In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all secondary flowerings of the original Israelite vision. Now, in The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal “Axial Age” can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times.

Armstrong traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining the contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. All of the Axial Age faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis, there was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and give us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: first there must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical, effective action.

In her introduction and concluding chapter, Armstrong urges us to consider how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today. In our various institutions, we sometimes seem to be attempting to create exactly the kind of religion that Axial sages and prophets had hoped to eliminate. We often equate faith with doctrinal conformity, but the traditions of the Axial Age were not about dogma. All insisted on the primacy of compassion even in the midst of suffering. In each Axial Age case, a disciplined revulsion from violence and hatred proved to be the major catalyst of spiritual change.

Praise For The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions

Praise for Karen Armstrong:

“Armstrong at her best–translating and distilling complex history into lucid prose that will delight scholars and armchair historians alike.”
–Lauren F. Winner, The Washington Post Book World

“Her conviction, passion and intelligence radiate throughout the book, making us feel the urgency of the ideas it seeks to convey.”
–Charles Matthews, Baltimore Sun

“A tour de force. . . . She has dedicated herself to understanding the most prominent world faiths and explaining them to a secular/postsecular society."
–Jane Lampman, The Christian Science Monitor

“Perhaps her most ambitious work. . . . Without overlooking the differences between religions, Armstrong emphasizes their common call for compassion.”
–Lisa Montanarelli, San Francisco Chronicle

“A lucid, highly readable account of complex developments occurring over many centuries. . . . A splendid book.”
—William Grimes, The New York Times

“An utterly enthralling reading experience. . . . This book ranks with A History of God as one of her finest achievements.”

“In her typical magisterial fashion, she chronicles these tales in dazzling prose with remarkable depth and judicious breadth.”
Publishers Weekly

"The Great Transformation can serve the needs of new readers interested in a popular work that synthesizes scholarship. . . . [U]seful to anyone seeking an integral sense of world religions."
The Globe and Mail

"Karen Armstrong is a genius."
—A. N. Wilson, author of Jesus: A Life

"Armstrong is a lucid writer with a knack for synthesizing vast quantities of research."
The Globe and Mail

"Armstrong’s writing continues to offer a religious mirror and a cultural vision."

"Armstrong has a dazzling ability: she can take a long and complex subject and reduce it to the fundamentals, without oversimplifying."
The Sunday Times

“Armstrong’s erudition is truly impressive. . . . Few people are better qualified to explain that what so often divides us ought to unite us instead.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Broad, eloquent storytelling.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Her conviction, passion and intelligence radiate throughout the book, making us feel the urgency of the ideas it seeks to convey.”
—New York Sun

“This could very possibly be one of the greatest intellectual histories ever written.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“A book of the magnitude of The Great Transformation can only be considered authoritative.”
Charleston Post & Courier

“On prominent display in this book are Armstrong’s usual virtues–wide knowledge, meticulous research, a superb appreciation for the beauty and power of religious and philosophical ideasls, and general readability.”
Shambhala Sun

“This magisterial work, continuing Karen Armstrong’s mission to explore the place and purposes of religions in the modern world, follows in the stream of her books on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddaism.”
Spirituality & Health