Spirit Quest


A 12 step program to bringing hope and joy to the world

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

I am no great fan of 12 step programs. Undoubtedly they have merit, but not being an addict of alcohol, drugs or smokes, or work for that matter, I have not considered enrolling in some remedial exercise.
Thus I was somewhat surprised when Karen Armstrong, one of the most prolific writers  on religious topics (22 books) such as A History of God has come out with a book entitled Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. That just didn’t seem to me to be her genre of writing. 
At first when I spied this small book (less than 200 pages) I was not attracted. However, having read most everything she has written and having enjoyed and benefited  from them, I took this post Christmas plunge  and bought the book. I have not been disappointed.
Moez Surani in a review of Twelve Steps in the Globe and Mail (Jan. 8/ 11) tells of a friend who really enjoyed A History of God, after reading it wondered  where Armstrong’s own religious convictions lay. “Between her prodigious research and impartial tone, it isn’t easy to discern her sympathies. In Twelve Steps, however, she climbs out from her role as an objective historian and professes a personal creed.” And so I welcome this new work.
I knew something about Karen Armstrong having read her biographical The Spiral Staircase in which she tells of her brief time as a nun, her diagnosis with epilepsy and her unsuccessful venture into academia (Oxford). It almost seems predestined that as each door closed a new one opened that finally led to a career as religious journalist and broadcaster par excellence. 
I have had several occasions to meet her and found her an interesting conversationalist, but not until Twelve Steps have I discovered her own faith.
Armstrong possesses an inquiring mind. Surani writes , "Armstrong, a sublime synthesizer of the world’s faiths possesses a Bill Clinton-like ability to express abstruse points clearly and quickly . And yet hers is a simple faith  that she sums up in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” a philosophy that she finds as the basis of all the world’s great religions. “Religion is best when it helps to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder - and arguably its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically,” states Armstrong.
( I was glad upon enrolling at Queen’s Theological College, now Queen’s School of Religion, to discover that there was no course in Dogmatics, it was simply called Systematic Theology.)
She writes that, “ Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being , treating everybody without exception with absolute justice , equity and respect.”
It seems like a tall order in a world that is short on those values. We desperately need a 12 step program to release us from our addiction to wealth and power.
As I read her book I kept being reminded of another book published  in 1923 by Martin Buber a Jewish philosopher, with the interesting title: I - Thou. In it he defines the love relationship as one between an I and a Thou, and he defines God as the Eternal Thou. 
I am no great fan of those modern day atheists, Dawkin and Hitchens who vigorously deny the existence of a God and blame religion for much of the world’s bloodshed. It is hard to argue with them as Tony Blair the former British prime minister and ardent Catholic attempted, and according to public opinion, lost. For me God as an IT rather than a Thou, be that as prime mover or intelligent creator, is quite meaningless and irrelevant. 
The late Rollo May, a Park Avenue psychiatrist/analyst in his best known book Love and Will makes the point that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. He does not mean self absorption. Unless we have a sense of self worth, not based on our achievements but simply as human beings, it is impossible to love and value others and the environment we share.
I therefore welcome Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps. She states that it is not enough to just read the book, her program needs to be followed.
When she won the TED (Technology,Entertainment, Design) Prize of $100,000  she set about to use those funds to create a Charter of Compassion, the aim of which is to implement the principle of the Golden Rule and counter extremism, intolerance and hatred with justice, equity and respect. The Charter is online at: charterforcompassion.org
I am always surprised and thrilled to see the Spirit alive and moving bringing hope and joy to the world.