Are we living in a new axial age?

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that is up at the Guardian’s Cif Belief

Are our centuries of technological innovation remolding us culturally? Are we becoming a new species, spiritually speaking, so that the inner lives of future generations will seem as strange and elusive as Paleolithic man’s is to us? Are we living in a new axial age?

The question is posed in a collection of essays, edited by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah. With his colleague, Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences probes the implications of this thesis in the history of ideas, first named by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.

The first Axial Age, it is said, ran across the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. It marked a transformative time in human experience, broadly accepted now by sociologists of religion, which can be summarized as an inward turn and a discovery of transcendence. So, in this period the Hebrew prophets declared that God was more concerned with attitudes of heart than with bloody rituals in the Temple. Not long after, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – that extraordinary procession of master and pupil – “brought philosophy down from the heavens”: they were gripped by the nature of the human condition. The Buddha probably lived at the same time as Socrates, attempting reform of the religions of India by his attention to human suffering and desire. Confucianism and Daoism were born too, creating between them a rich dialectic of humanist rationalism and spiritual non-rationalism in China.

“To generalize is to be an idiot,” observed William Blake in a presumably self-conscious generalization. So duly warned, are ours axial times too?

Jaspers noted that in the period around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth blossomed “superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion…” Sound familiar? Further, continued Jaspers, this riotous marketplace of ideas eroded the moral substructure of society: enjoyment was pursued for its own sake, and slaves, the poor and the vanquished were left to rot. It took Christianity to replace the chaos with vision and purpose – Christianity being one way of consolidating and operationalizing the Hebrew and Greek insights of the first Axial Age.

But if “an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion” marks our times too, then there seems to be no new Christianity to guide our way, observes Richard Madsen in his essay in the new book. Is there a contemporary faith that might refresh “the deep matrix from which we sprang”, as Jaspers put it?

We need to be careful with the word “faith” here. It is not what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls “expressive spirituality”, of which there is plenty today, based on the conviction that each one of us must create an authentic and individual source of consolation, dreams and self-realization. Expressive spirituality actually breeds dislocation and feeds the chaos. Even less is faith about being cognitively persuaded to adopt a creed: the head cannot reach “the deep matrix” and so its convictions, when they lack heart, feel empty.

Rather, the faith that can energize and organize people is what Jaspers defines as “the fulfilling and moving element in the depths of man, in which man is linked, above and beyond himself.” It is for such a connection that Barack Obama reaches in his most soaring rhetoric, though he can’t also help raise the question of whether it’s enough to save the Union? Hence the suspicion that we need a new axial age.
Madsen notes that the original axial movements emerged on the margins of powerful empires. Only at the edges of societies and institutions might you find the kind of balance between playfulness with inherited traditions, and respect for them too, that can re-tap the axial energy and transmit it in ways that are once again meaningful.

Examples do, in fact, abound Madsen avers. He highlights the emergence of forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan. The founder of one, Buddha’s Light Mountain, has written: “I do not unconditionally follow tradition. I do not toy with the idea of emptiness and talk in vain about abstruse things. I do not consciously accept the opinion of the majority. Instead, I constantly review our tradition, observe, and think about the future of Buddhism. I keep on reappraising values as I grow.”

In the Christian tradition, Madsen finds inspiration in South Korea and its “vigorous minjung (people’s) Christian theology, which mixes some of the expansionist passion of evangelical Christianity with the concern for social justice of ecumenical Christianity.” In the West, Madsen points to Taizé, the Sant’Egidio community and the Sojourners.

Practical wisdom and spiritual vitality is sought in these movements. They are flexible, unlike fundamentalist religious movements, because their way of life is orientated not around protecting doctrines but around the struggle to be faithful to the deepest principles of their tradition. They also strive imaginatively to communicate their “findings”. And they engage in critical dialogue with other traditions, a dialogue energized more by the exchange of ideas than the claim to power.

Crucially too for plural times, axial movements recognise that truth ultimately lies beyond any one group. That is the insight of the transcendent turn from the first Axial Age. An axial faith holds things sacred and makes a genuine commitment to one tradition because of, not in spite of, the recognition that human beings are linked to that which is “above and beyond ” all.

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