Today’s post will continue to address the evolution of religion from the historical perspective, as it evolves from laws defining the behavior necessary for order in society to a focus on the human person, his potential and his relationships.
The Axial Age
Karen Armstrong’s study of the birth of the major religious traditions, “The Great Transformation”, addressed the ‘Axial Age’ (900-200 BCE), which she sees as “..one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history”. During this period, expressions of belief came to be expressed in terms that were equally applicable to both the common person and the elite. They not only addressed those concepts which held society together, but also addressed both the nature of the individual himself as well as his potential for ‘fuller being’. The integrated ideas of ‘person’ and ‘love’ began to emerge.
The Axial age saw the rise of many approaches to the understanding of the reality in which we live:
- Confucianism and Daoism in China
- Hinduism and Buddhism in India
- Monotheism in Israel
- Philosophical rationalism in Greece.
In this relatively brief span of time, six profound lines of thought emerged in four parts of the world. This was the period which saw such Axial sages as the Buddah, Socrates, Confucious and Jeremiah, the mystics of the Upanishads and Mencius and Euripides. Armstrong sees these great thinkers as those whose insights are still relevant because “they show us what a human being should be.”
She also saw the birth and articulation of basic and universal beliefs during this period, such as:
- The supreme importance of charity and benevolence
- Reluctance to be dogmatic about a transcendence that was essentially undefinable
- Recognition that the transformative effect of ritual was far more important than manipulation of the gods
- Belief that egotism is largely responsible for human violence
- A movement from sacrifice to a focus on the essential and eternal core of the human person, that which made him or her unique
- The further belief that this essential core was of the same nature as the ultimate principle that sustained and gave life to the entire cosmos. “This was a discovery of immense importance and it would become a central insight in every major religious tradition.”
- The further belief that this ultimate principle was an immanent presence in every single human being
She saw that during this formative era:
“…they (the Axial sages) all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to re-educate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or the other, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence and to promote the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.”
“For the first time, human beings were systematically making themselves aware of the deeper layers of human consciousness. By disciplined introspection, the sages of the Axial Age were awakening to the vast reaches of selfhood that lay beneath the surface of their minds. They were becoming fully “self-conscious” “
“When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do. The hatred and horror of war infiltrates their dreams, relationships, desires and ambitions. The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this. The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked”.
The axial age introduced the concept that there were modes of human behavior which could lead to the fuller being of the individual person at the same time that his relationships were strengthened; even that the deepening of these relationships were key to such fuller being. Armstrong sees this as the basic nature of morality. Teilhard terms it the ‘articulation of the noosphere.”
The Next Post
While the Axial Age may have laid the foundation for the major expressions of belief, the transition to contemporary Western religious thinking would take two more major turns. The next post will begin to explore the first of these: the evolution of Greek thinking from Near Eastern modes to that which was to be the foundation of Western philosophy and science.