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Surveying religions' building blocks

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions
By Karen Armstrong
Knopf, 469 pp., illustrated, $30

One of the curiosities of modern American religion is the growth of spirituality at the expense of religion. The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but religion is rapidly becoming a bad word here. ''Spiritual but not religious" is the next new thing.

Those who thrill at the sound of this mantra typically divide religion into a light side of individual spiritual practices and a dark side of rigid dogmas and empty rituals. Spirituality, then, is code for religion disentangled from this dark side.

Such spirituality has a long pedigree in the United States, running from Henry David Thoreau's ''A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" (1849), which compared Jesus with the Buddha and found Christ wanting, to Harold Bloom's ''The American Religion" (1992), which located the nation's authentic creed in the Gnostic quest to find God within. This sort of spirituality is celebrated as well in ''The Great Transformation," the latest book by the former Catholic nun and ''A History of God" author Karen Armstrong.

The subject of this exhaustive history is the spirituality of the Axial Age, a term coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to refer to an epoch (between roughly 900 and 200 BC) in which the world's great religious and philosophical traditions emerged. Armstrong refers to this age of Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah, and the Buddha as ''the Great Transformation." The article in the title is instructive, since Armstrong believes that China, India, Israel, and Greece all underwent basically the same shift. There was one ''Axial ethos," one ''Axial vision": ''God," ''Nirvana," ''Brahman," and the ''Way" are all essentially the same.

The sages who effected this ''Great Transformation" rejected violence. They disdained ''magical rituals." Reveling in silence, they looked askance at theology, treating religious doctrines as ''a matter of total indifference" and refusing to believe anything secondhand. To them, ultimate reality transcended the limits of human knowing. ''What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved."

Since its inception in the Victorian era, the study of religion has been bedeviled by all sorts of evolutionary schemes. Writers have tracked the upward march of religious traditions from polytheism to monotheism, and from Judaism's rigid legalism to Christian heartfelt piety. Armstrong is an evolutionist too; her scheme runs from religion to spirituality.

''The Great Transformation" masterfully synthesizes mountains of information about Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Israelite religion, and Greek philosophy, and attends with care to how political and economic changes affected philosophy and religion. Armstrong offers more details about these traditions than many readers will abide, but it is possible to mine from the minutiae a clear narrative arc from sacrificial to nonviolent religion, from doctrine to morality, from external rites to internalized spirituality.

It has been said that literature is best when it is not trying to be something else. (In a recent article in The New Yorker on the Christian author C. S. Lewis, Adam Gopnik argued that Lewis was at his best as a writer when he was just telling a story and at his worst when he was intent on preaching Christianity.) History, too, is at its best when it is just being itself. ''The Great Transformation," alas, is social ethics masquerading as history, and not particularly interesting social ethics at that, since its main argument -- that the ''peaceful, interior spirituality" of the Axial Age is preferable to the ''militant piety" of today's bomb-throwing fundamentalists -- is unlikely to draw much fire.

In one of the most revealing passages, Armstrong writes that ''to find that our own faith is so deeply in accord with others is an affirming experience." As a historian, I find that I am deeply skeptical when I am told that an ancient person's thoughts are ''deeply in accord" with my own. Unfortunately, Armstrong lacks such skepticism, which is ironic, given her repeated praise for the skepticism of the ancient sages.

The philosopher of religion Ninian Smart once described religious traditions in terms of six ''dimensions of the sacred." These dimensions are: the doctrinal, mythic, ethical, social, experiential, and ritual. What Armstrong does here is collapse these six dimensions into one. The Axial sages preached ''the spirituality of compassion," she concludes. ''For them, religion was the Golden Rule." This may be good ethics, especially after 9/11, but it is bad history. The Buddha cared as much about wisdom as he did about compassion. Hinduism's Upanishads chart a path of knowledge. Ritual was central to both Confucius and the ancient Israelites.

At one point, Armstrong writes that Indians began ''losing faith in the efficacy of ritual," but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is Armstrong who is at a loss here. Christians have long criticized Jews for clinging to empty rituals, citing no less an authority than Jesus himself, who blasted Pharisees for rigidly observing Jewish law. Armstrong seems similarly allergic to ritual life. She repeatedly praises sages who find God inside themselves rather than in the ''minutiae of ritual."

What her rant against ritual fails to see is what Jews have long pointed out to any Christians (or ex-Christians) who would listen: that collective rituals can bear as much meaning as individual contemplative practices, that rites need not always be modified by the adjective ''empty." Armstrong seems living proof of the adage that it is harder to take the Christian out of the church than to take the church out of the Christian. Her paean to religious tolerance is not as tolerant as it seems.

Stephen Prothero is chairman of the religion department at Boston University and author of ''American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon."

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