A New Axial Age

"All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.”- Karen Armstrong

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A New Axial Age
Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God
by Jessica Roemischer

Shortly following the terrorist attacks in Britain last July, I sat with world-renowned theologian Karen Armstrong in her historic London home. As we spoke about the spiritual challenges of our time and why it behooves us to learn from religious history, police sirens blared in the background, a reminder of the violent and unstable conditions we face as a human species at the outset of the third millennium.

Driven from a young age by a thirst for the spiritual life, Armstrong entered a convent at seventeen and left seven years later, disillusioned by the traditional structures and mores that, despite her passion for the divine, simply could not bring her spiritual yearning to fruition. In the nearly four decades since then, she has turned that passion into a prolific investigation into the essence and evolution of the great traditions. Her best-selling book, A History of God, now published in more than thirty languages, is a compelling retrospective of religious history. In it, she provocatively and exhaustively illustrates how humans have had to redefine the sacred at critical historical junctures in order to meet new spiritual needs created by changing cultural conditions and large-scale crises.

As we spoke together in an atmosphere permeated by disquiet and uncertainty, Armstrong pointed me back to the dawn of the great religious traditions and simultaneously brought my attention to the present—a time when once again, she believes, we will need to redefine the notion of the sacred so it can become relevant and enter our lives anew.

Karen Armstrong
K. Armstrong
What Is Enlightenment: In your book A History of God, you take us through the emergence of the world's religious traditions, which occurred during what is known as the Axial Age—a period you feel is particularly relevant to our own time. To begin with, why is this historic era called the Axial Age?

Karen Armstrong: The period 800—200 BCE has been termed the Axial Age because it proved pivotal to humanity. Society had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we're dealing with now, it was still a shock.

The first Axial Age also occurred at a time when individualism was just beginning. As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.

So the Axial Age marks the beginning of humanity as we now know it. During this period, men and women became conscious of their existence, their own nature, and their limitations in an unprecedented way. In the Axial Age countries, a few men sensed fresh possibilities and broke away from the old traditions. People who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same. They sought change in the deepest reaches of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a transcendent reality. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves.

WIE: Can you further describe the ways in which this "great transformation" manifested?

Armstrong: Most significantly, it is the time when all the great world religions came into being. And in every single case, the spiritualities that emerged during the Axial Age—Taoism and Confucianism in China, monotheism in Israel, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India, and Greek rationalism in Europe—began with a recoil from violence, with looking into the heart to find the sources of violence in the human psyche. The conviction that the world was awry was fundamental to these spiritualities. One of the things that is very striking is that all the great sages were living in a time like our own—a time full of fear, violence, and horror. Their experience of utter impotence in a cruel world impelled them to seek the highest goals and an absolute reality in the depths of their beings.

For example, the China of Confucius and Lao-tzu was engaged for centuries in one war after another. The whole of the very ancient civilization of China was becoming more aggressive. And you have that understanding very strongly in Confucius as he looks out on the world and laments loudly while, at the same time, he tries to rebuild it by recrafting the old rituals in a way that brings forward their compassionate and altruistic potential. That essential dynamic of compassion is summed up in the Golden Rule, which was first enunciated by Confucius around 500 BCE: "Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”

On the Indian subcontinent at this time, there was a major economic and political turnaround. Suddenly powerful kingdoms and empires were being created, and they relied on force. People all over India were equating horror with the new violence in their society and in the marketplace, where merchants were preying aggressively upon one another. Many of their philosophies developed a doctrine of nonviolence as a way to counter violence by refusing any form of it whatsoever.

The fifth century was terrifying in Greece as well. While it was a time of great artistic creativity, it was also a time of huge violence. The Greeks were, in many respects, a terrible people, and yet every year in Athens they would stage the political events of that year in their great tragedies. These were written as ways of looking at the tragic implications of what was going on in their midst, of calling everything into question and really plumbing the human experience of suffering. So violence and suffering seem to be a sine qua non of a spiritual quantum leap forward.

WIE: Why do you believe it's so important for us to reflect upon the traditional religions and the age in which they emerged?

Armstrong: Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age. Its roots lie in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the modern era, when the people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of society. Since that time, Western civilization has transformed the world. The economic changes of the last four hundred years have been accompanied by immense social, political, and intellectual revolutions, with the development of an entirely different scientific and rational concept of the nature of truth. But despite the cult of rationality, modern history has been punctuated by witch hunts and world wars which have been explosions of unreason.

So, I feel that we are—all of us—at one of those junctions in history when we are holding ourselves, our past, our future, and our integrity in the palms of our own hands. This is a moment when, if we allow that integrity to fall out, we might never recover it in the same way. Once again, a radical change has become necessary.

WIE: How do you see us responding to our own pivotal moment in history?

Armstrong: All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.

We have, from the very beginning of our existence as a species, created works of art and created religions to give us the sense that, against all the aggressive and spirited evidence to the contrary, life really does have some ultimate meaning, value, and sacredness. And the notion of the sacred has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to different groups of people at various points in time. If we look at our three major monotheistic religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective "God"; each generation has to create the image of God that works for them. When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been discarded and replaced by a new theology. Had the notion of God not had this flexibility, it would not have survived.

In that context, atheism takes on a different meaning. Atheism is often a transitional state: Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all called atheists by their pagan contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of divinity and transcendence. The people who have been dubbed atheists over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. But is the God who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? All these deities have been venerated, but they are very different from one another. Perhaps modern atheism is a similar denial of a God that is no longer adequate to the problems of our time.

WIE: So, we are again at a point when religion and the notion of God, or the sacred, may need to be redefined.

Armstrong: Religion is highly pragmatic, despite its other-worldliness. It should not only transform us, but it should also transform the world. Religion should make a difference. And as soon as it ceases to be effective, it will be changed. So we should be working now to make our religion and our faith effective in this lost, suffering, and terrifying world. But first, before we can make a proper difference, we must transform ourselves. There's a very good verse in the Qur'n where God says," Therein God will not change the state of the people unless they change the state of their own selves.” And that's what we must do now.

WIE: In what way do you see this occurring?

Armstrong: At this moment in history, I believe that we need a new spiritual revolution. We need a new faith. Now, you can say," Look, give us a break. This is hardly the time to start a new spiritual revolution. At this juncture, we've got war. We've got the prospect of terrorism. The economy is bad. Let's have a bit of peace and quiet so that we can go up a mountain, collect ourselves, and then begin this spiritual effort.” But suffering, fear, violence, and despair are the prime conditions for such a renewal.

I think the sages and prophets of the first Axial Age knew very well about our destructive potentials. What was happening in their own society was a tremendous shock to them. They had to look into their own hearts, discover what gave them pain, and then rigorously refrain from inflicting this suffering upon other people. In order to counter aggression, they taught their followers to cultivate the habit of sympathy for all living things. They discovered that greed and selfishness were the cause of our personal misery and that egotism imprisoned us in an inferior version of ourselves and impeded our enlightenment.

Our present Axial Age is characterized by globalization. We live in one world, and we have to learn to live with difference, at home and abroad. We have to see that we have very big brains and very puny bodies, and because of our big brains, we've been able to create a technology that compensates for our small size. But we don't seem to have the ability to keep our aggression in check. Unfortunately, as our technological expertise advances, our spiritual wisdom isn't growing up alongside it. Yet that's what we need now in this world that, as we're speaking, is falling apart. We've seen the bombs here in London, on 9/11, in Auschwitz, in Bosnia. We have lost all sense of the sacredness of human life. And that has to be cultivated.

We can't think "God" without thinking "human" now. We can't think "human" without thinking "God.” Because the sacred is not just something tacked on to our natural existence. it's no longer something out there. The sacred must be that to which we all aspire. It must become, in the best possible sense, deeply natural to us. It should fulfill our being so that we can all, as the Greek Orthodox said, be like Jesus even in this life, if we live right, in this certain way.

During the first Axial Age, the great sages worked at this. Everyone was prepared to be creative and spend as much time on this as people spend today on discovering a new computer. And that requires discipline. But we've lost the sense that spirituality is hard work. It is often turned into a commodity to make us feel good. But it isn't just wandering lonely as a cloud and hoping you'll see a clump of daffodils to enthuse about. I believe the Dalai Lama was reduced to tears when an American audience asked him how they could get instant enlightenment. He hadn't realized things were that bad. So we have to make a constant effort of imagination, which is the great religious faculty. As Sartre says," The imagination is the ability to see what is not present, what is hidden.” We must exercise this faculty fully, whereby we apprehend, in a new way, the inscrutable and ever-elusive divine.

A New Axial Age
Karen Armstrong on the History—and the Future—of God
by Jessica Roemischer

Karen Armstrong
Biography & Resources

Karen Armstrong is one of the best known and most popular writers on religion today. She has authored twelve books, including the best-seller A History of God, and created a six-part documentary television series in England on the life of Saint Paul. At age seventeen she took vows of chastity and poverty, and entered the Roman Catholic order of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Seven years later she left the convent and in 1982 published her first book, Through the Narrow Gate, which chronicles her life as a nun. Shortly thereafter she published a second autobiographical book about the religious life, Beginning the World.

Ms. Armstrong studied at Oxford University, where she read literature and wrote a doctoral thesis that was subsequently rejected by an external examiner and which prompted her departure from academia. She took a position teaching English at a girls' school for several years, and is presently teaching Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism.

Armstrong's achievements as an independent scholar focusing on the three great monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have earned her a reputation as a major contributor to interfaith understanding and respect. Her books on Islam and Muhammed have given many Westerners their first clear and unbiased insight into the history and teachings of this great tradition and its prophet. With the recent publication of a biography of Buddha, she is extending her reach into the East and offering readers another accessible, if unconventional, account of one of the most influential religious teachers of all time.

Ms. Armstrong writes regularly for The Guardian and is at work on her thirteenth book about religion in the axial age.

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