Prolific religious-studies scholar Armstrong (The Spiral Staircase, 2004, etc.) offers a lively, big-picture treatise in comparative religions, finding similarities more than differences.
Borrowing from the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, and with ecumenical good cheer, Armstrong evokes an Axial Age that lasted for about 700 years, from roughly 900 to 200 b.c. During that time came great faiths that “have continued to nourish humanity”: Hinduism and Buddhism from India; Daoism and Confucianism from China; rationalism from Greece; and monotheism from what is now the vicinity of Israel. Armstrong allows that there’s quite a lot of scholarly guesswork attendant in looking into the prehistory of these faiths; in recent years, for instance, it has been determined—for the time being, anyway—that Zoroaster lived centuries before the usually presumed sixth century and that Laozi (Lao Tse), the Daoist philosopher, lived centuries later. Still, there is enough good data to show that each of these worldviews, sometimes independent of each other, sometimes by word of mouth, addressed similar concerns in quite similar ways: Each recognized that suffering is “an inescapable fact of human life,” indeed part of its definition; and each developed a body of doctrine or learned opinion about such core ethical principles as hospitality, empathy and “concern for everybody.” Of course, these big ideas come wrapped in very different packages; though informed by “the Deuteronomists’ passionate insistence on the importance of justice, equity, and compassion,” the ancient Israelites took their instructions from the “one true god,” whereas the Greeks advanced the same sorts of ideas through a panoply of gods and the Buddhists through no god at all.
The point being, as Armstrong writes, that tolerance is a sine qua non in a world in which so many people “prefer being right to being compassionate.” A useful text for an intolerant and uncompassionate time.