In my ‘In Deepest Charity?’ post, Jules says, in part,
It’s reprehensible to give homosexuals the wrong messages. It would be lying.
I was reminded of this (a theme I’ve often come across on issues like homosexuality) when I read a review by Richard Holloway on Karen Armstrong’s ’12 Steps to a Compassionate Life’.
The first part of the review is interesting enough as it deals with the mythos and the logos, but the bit that brought Jules comment to mind (with my emphasis) was:
The second plank in her platform is that compassion is, as it were, the distilled essence of the world’s great religions. She is an immensely compassionate human being and has recently initiated a charter for compassion in order, as she puts it in the preface to this book, to “restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life … At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that … on this we are all in agreement …”. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is both a manifesto and a self-help manual. As a manifesto, it promotes her campaign to place compassion at the heart of religion; as a manual modelled on the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, it offers exercises aimed at increasing our own compassion. It would make a brilliant guide for leaders of retreats and workshops on the compassionate life, and as a repository of digested wisdom from the world’s religions I cannot recommend it too highly.
But is she correct in suggesting that, au fond, the essence of the main religions boils down to compassion? It is probably correct where Buddhism is concerned and it is from Buddhism that her best insights and examples come. I think she is on shakier ground when she applies it to Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.
This radically compromises the purity of their compassion agenda. Let me offer one example to prove my point. At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven. My worldly compassion for gay people, my campaign to furnish them with the same sexual rights as straight people, was actually a kind of cruelty. The price of their fleeting pleasures in this world would be an eternity of punishment in the next.
I can think of other examples from other moral spheres where an attempt to act compassionately towards certain categories of sufferers runs counter to Christianity’s doctrinal certainties. The point at issue here is whether Christianity, as it presently understands itself, is a religion whose central value is compassion. If the answer is yes, it can only be what we might describe as eschatological compassion, because the church’s doctrinal certainties and their corresponding prohibitions do not feel like compassion to those who are on their receiving end down here. They say justice delayed is justice denied. The same must be true of compassion.
This is a pretty good illustration of how two people can profess to belong to the same faith and talk past each other every bit as much as an atheist might talk past a theist. The gulf, at times, seems unbridgeable.