Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, coined the term ‘Achsenzeit’ or axial age to describe the period from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE when, among other things, the human as an individual emerged. It is the time when the discipline of philosophy comes in to being, and major world religions are founded; humans across the planet seem to have undergone a revolution in thinking.
In Greece Socrates, Plato and Aristotle head a list of philosophers who, along with poets and playwrights, develop the first inklings of what we would now call humanism, and move beyond simple adherence to myth and tradition, instead asking questions and developing creative and revolutionary answers. In India the Buddha begins his teaching. At the same time the Upanishads transform Vedic traditions into classical Hinduism, asking similar sorts of questions as the Greeks, trying to figure out the human place in creation. In China Confucianism emerges and provides systematic thought on issues of the human condition. In Persia Zoroaster provides a bridge from polytheism to monotheism, addressing the same issues about the place of the human in the universe. In Israel the prophets were also expanding Hebrew traditions from their original polytheism (the God of Israel was their God, but early on not the only God) towards the traditions we now see defining Judaism. And, though Christianity and Islam came later, they built on the Hebrew traditions, and were strongly impacted by Zoroastrianism and Greek thought. Indeed, Augustine’s theology, so influential in the development of Christian thought, brought in Platonic ideas mostly from neo-Platonist philosophers like Plotinus. Plotinus spiritual philosophy showed a blend of ideas that traversed the axial age, and shows the influence of Upanishads and Zoroaster as well as Plato. In essence, our world views and religious traditions emerged from this era. It was, in some ways, the awakening of the human mind to contemplate its place in the world.
To be sure, Jaspers may have overstated it — clearly all of these traditions built on ideas in the past, and we don’t know how sophisticated earlier traditions were. But it does seem that in that era human thinking took a pivotal leap, and from China to India to the Mideast, Northern Africa and Europe, began a trajectory to where we are today. Why did such a radical change occur, and why was it so widespread? I suspect it had to do with the expansion of trade and technology. Technology at that time was making cities possible, improving agricultural production, and in some places led to things such as indoor plumbing (which even the old Indus valley civilization had) and writing. Technology changes conditions, which can lead people to think about things differently. Moreover, trade forces one to recognize that the traditions of his or her society are not the only ones, and aren’t simply natural, ‘the way things are.’ Others think and do things differently. This recognition naturally leads to introspection, and often imports ideas and questions which challenge old beliefs and bring up new issues. The rise of cities, empires, trade, and communication necessitated a move from a very traditional mythical world view to one that could incorporate the existence of others and find a place for ones’ own culture. It created an introspection on what it meant to be human; ritual and tradition couldn’t provide every answer needed in that new era.
Jumping ahead to 2008, I believe it could well be that we are in need of another pivotal period or ‘axial age.’ In part, we need to confront those old questions: what does it mean to be human, what is the nature of the universe, how should humans act towards other humans, and where is our place in the universe? The last axial age produced religions which connected universal spiritual beliefs to particular traditions, rituals and notions of identity. They dealt with the questions raised by the rise of cities and trade, but those questions remained primarily local. It was less about how to integrate with different cultures — trade rarely meant any kind of mass contact with others — and more about how to define local identity in new conditions. As such religions often became dogmatic and exceptionalist. Only those who believe in Jesus, or follow the Koran, or are devoted to the way of wisdom or devotion can either be saved to experience paradise, or perhaps escape the futile and painful wanderings of Samsara.
Now we are confronting the need to address these questions anew, experiencing new technology and globalization which causes people to have to interact and live interdependent lives. The old ways of thinking lead to competition and rivalry, especially involving exclusivist religions such as Christianity and Islam. We need to develop a way of thinking that does what was done in the axial age: build on past traditions, but also give society an intellectual and spiritual means to comprehend and contemplate human existence. This doesn’t mean old religions have to disappear, but somehow they have to address the questions in a way that moves beyond the simplistic ‘here’s how you get to heaven.’ Most importantly, they have to move to an inclusive view, whereby other religions are seen as legitimate and potentially effective, even if they are not ones’ own. This is already true within much of Hinduism, where some Hindus worship different gods, celebrate different feasts, and have many different traditions than other Hindus. This has to be more than that kind of sectarian tolerance (Lutherans and Catholics getting along would be similar), but a real ability to move beyond the exclusivist “we are the one true faith” view that religions like Islam and Christianity espouse.
The modern era started this process. The enlightenment took up the questions of humanism anew, and religious developments like natural religion, Deism and even atheism tried to address these issues. In fact, for atheists like Diderot, atheism was an ethical as well as rational perspective on life. The problem with the enlightenment is that its focus on reason and rationality over spirit and sentiment only addresses one side of the human essence. We are rational thinkers, yes. We are also spiritual and emotive creatures, and rational analysis is devoid of personal meaning without that spiritual/emotional connection. No one dispassionately examines their needs and decides it is in their interest to buy a red bike. There’s desire, an emotional will, a sense of excitement, something beyond pure reason. If there are not ways to express this within the cultural norms of a society, it can breed radicalism, extremism, and fanaticism, and people look for some way to find release of that part of their existence. Violence and warfare may be horrid, but it can provide a sense of meaning for life.
At this point our spiritual development is stuck with the old religions, which find it easier to arouse passions by stressing exclusivity rather than inclusivity. Our reason leads many to denigrate and try to even eliminate the importance of spirit, dismissing emotions as mere psychological phenomena. That reinforces the sense of hopelessness and despair that drive people to fanaticism, and also risks creating a cold rationalism that loses itself in ideological faith. When this happens (and it first happened with Robespierre after the French revolution) the ideology fills peoples’ spiritual and emotional needs, but they fool themselves into thinking it is based on reason and that they have the right way of understanding the world. This becomes a secular religion (and if you haven’t seen the power of secular religion, talk with a committed Marxist or a devotee of Ayn Rand). Exclusive secularist ideology is as dangerous as religion, and just as much in need of a jolt of new thinking.
So we as a world community are at a crossroads. We’re entering a new era, and while we’ve developed technologies and our facilities of reason and rational thought, we have yet to truly address the questions of meaning and humanity. Reason alone leads to post-modernism, skepticism and nihilism, and that is no answer. We have the scientists, we need the poets and visionaries unafraid to think about the nature of humanity in spiritual as well as material terms.