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The Axial Age

The need for future Axial Ages

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Religious change in our long-term future:

Claire C. Patterson used the uranium-lead clock to establish that the Earth is 4.55 billion years old. 13 This number of years ago when our earliest ancestors walked upright is only about 1/10,000 of the earth's age. The number of years since the first civilization was formed is only about one millionth of the earth's age. 14,15 We are a product of billions of years of fortuitous biological evolution, which has proceeded at a rather leisurely pace and has as yet not ceased. At least there is no indication that, as species, we have reached a plateau of our development and that evolutionary processes have stopped. 16 Archaic forms of Homo Sapiens appeared some 500,000 years ago. The Neanderthals emerged in Europe 100,000 years ago. The Cro-Magnons drew paintings on cave walls and performed burial rituals 30,000 years ago. Agriculture goes back 10,000 years. The earliest writing, Sumerian, is 6,000 years old. 17,18

Only the last five to six thousand years of the above time-spans have produced continual intellectual development, with the Axial Age occurring in the middle of this interval, during the first millennium BCE. To visualize the above time schedule, consider the 4,550,000,000 years ago (when the earth was formed) equivalent to a day of 24 hours, from midnight to midnight. The appearance of Homo Sapiens on our planet does not occur until 9.5 seconds before midnight. The world history of the last 6,000 years takes only the last 0.11 second. This interval includes all the establishments of states, the wars between nations, the ideological struggles, the conflicts of faith, and the foundations of religions. In these circumstances, is it not incredibly presumptuous for us humans to assert that only the last instants in the development of the mammals are ‘history’ and that everything that precedes them was merely a ‘natural process’? 19

Science is forcing us to think in terms of an incredibly extended future. We find ourselves living at an epoch only a few billion years after the Earth's coalescence; almost all of human history lies ahead of us. The universe is already 10-20 billion years old, but as large as these numbers are, they pale to insignificance in comparison to the length of time the universe will continue to exist, whether it is open or bound. From what can be deduced from astronomical data, the universe could remain fit for habitation for trillions of years, possibly for ever. By the time scale of human standards the death of the cosmos is an eternity away. If we do not destroy ourselves through pollution or religious wars (a massive "if"), and if the earth does not collide with an asteroid, we have some five billion years (5,000,000,000 years) to go. Eventually, our earth will be consumed by the sun. In this context, what do the teachings of the Axial Age mean? What do we mean by bodily resurrection, eschatology and parousia, or the fulfillment of history in the last days? 21.

The total time span humanity has had for the development of its religious ideas (about God, about the meaning of human existence, etc.) is completely dwarfed by the total life span allocated to humanity’s stay on earth -- not to mention the life span of the universe. Translated into terms of ordinary human life, the level of knowledge humanity has reached up till now corresponds to that of a child that has barely started to consciously appreciate the outside world. What chance is there, in the billions of years to come -- again under the proviso that we will not come to an abrupt end, -- that the religious beliefs and scientific know-how will remain even remotely similar to what they are today? It is reasonable to expect that already a century from now civilization will be founded upon unanticipated new discoveries. For a million-year interval into the future, we cannot make a prognosis at all. New scientific principles will be discovered, and it is impossible to forecast either their nature or their direction. As to religion, can we expect that it will not change beyond recognition? What does it mean for a civilization to be million years old? As Carl Sagan puts it, at anything like our present rate of technical progress, the advanced civilization on earth that will exist millions of years in our future, will be as much beyond us as we are today beyond a bush baby or a macaque. 11 Under these circumstances, what is the probability that the various Scriptures, which have their origins in the Axial Age, will still be considered not only inerrant but also unchangeable?

"We are only at the beginning. We have plenty of time to solve our problems. The only way that we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. ... [In which case] We will confine man to the limited imagination of to-day’s human beings." 22

It is likely that a new threshold of complexity may be crossed in the future, unleashing higher conceptual levels. There may emerge collective activity of an abstract nature that we can scarcely imagine, and may be beyond our present ability to conceptualize. It is quite possible that this threshold has already been crossed by intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe. 23

The belief that the religions introduced within the last 6,000 years could apply to the total life-span of the universe is difficult to accept. Even a possible repetition -- not to mention many possible repeats -- of the Axial Age contradicts the assertion by most world religions in the permanence of the  revelations that they believe they have received. With very few exceptions, these religions base their teaching on the tacitly assumed notion that God has already provided us with all the knowledge we need to know.

A few faith groups teach progressive revelation, but there is some doubt as to how rigorously they apply the concept. For example:

bulletAlthough religious truth is considered by the Bahá’í to be relative, Bahá’í scholars are forbidden to change, delete, or otherwise reinterpret Bahá’u’lláh’s writings and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretations and explanations of them. 24
bulletThe Buddha taught contradictory doctrines to different listeners according to  their capacity to understand. 25

We fool ourselves if we imagine that our present ideas about religious matters are more than a tiny fraction of the truth yet to be discovered in the almost endless years ahead. There is a surplus of extant problems and there is little doubt that only a tiny fraction of all possible questions have actually been asked. We are not even at the threshold of understanding the ultimate mysteries.

"All spheres of man’s activities are confronted with new challenges in each generation." 26 In order to meet them we have to radically shift our thinking and open new lines of inquiry. As a Hebrew proverb says: "Do not confine your children to your learning, for they were born in a different time." God has placed us in a reality that inevitably confronts us with deep and fundamental religious questions. At same time, he has given us an intelligence that cannot rest until we have sought for some type of answers to these questions. 27 Questions about higher reality and the meaning and purpose of our lives were asked two thousand years ago and are still without a definite answer today. The diverse and mutually contradictory answers that we hold just demonstrates how few of the proposed solutions have been correct. However, even though we may not always get the answers we need, we are keen to continue examining our religious beliefs by questioning. 28 The reason for our continuing interest, as expressed by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), is, that even though we can never fully understood "the mighty secrets," we still can sometimes "catch a glimpse of the truth, bright as a light of the day."

In the search for answers, we should be aware of our limitations:

bulletOur picture of the ultimate reality is influenced by an unavoidable selection effect – that of our existence. Our human mind must always see everything from a limited, and hence incomplete perspective. As Ronald Frederick Henry Duncan wrote: "the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it." Jules Renard wrote: "We are ignorant of the Beyond, because this ignorance is the condition sine qua non of our own life. Just as ice cannot know fire except by melting, by vanishing." 29
bulletScience has a distinct advantage over religion due to its ability to build upon successive theories. Ernest Joseph Renan wrote: "The simplest schoolboy is now familiar with truths for which Archimedes would have sacrificed his life."  In contrast, present day theologians appear to be in no better position than were the theologians of the fourth century – the heresies debated then are debated still, in only slightly modern guise. 30

Modern man is confronted by a number of conflicting world religions, each claiming to hold the truth. They are generally closed, immutable, and frozen. Religions point us in radically different directions. Their mutual incompatibility and resistance to change primarily lie in the various revelations which are considered a communication from God to humanity. These revelations do not agree with each other. Since there is only one ultimate reality, God, it is difficult to understand why there is not just one world-wide religion. Instead, there is a bewildering array of at least 670 main religions, churches and cults, as listed in the "Knaurs Grosser Religions Führer", all distinct and competing for our allegiance. To that number can be added additional sects, cults, and alternative religions, discussed, for example, by David V. Barrett 31 or George D. Chryssides. 32

If there is only one truth, why should the message of salvation be so confusingly different? Why should there be so many revelations, closed and immutable, that do not agree with each other, and which all bear marks of the time and place of their conception? Are the present religions just a phase of continuous evolution, a provisional stage toward one universal religion? Vivekananda wrote:

"Had it been the will of an all-wise and all-merciful Creator that only one of the great religions should exist and the rest should die, it would have become a fact long, long ago. If there were a fact that only one of these religions was true and all the rest were false, by this time it would have covered the whole world." 33

This statement, which evidently views the diversity of religions as natural, has a serious flaw: It does not consider the time factor. Namely, six thousand years is a long, long time for us, but it may be as nothing for God, considering the billions of years of history in our future.

Most religious traditions claim to have answers to such ultimate questions as the meaning of life. They come from two main sources:

bulletRevealed immutable knowledge, the truth or falsity of which is unverifiable, and
bulletDirect mystical knowledge, which is influence by the religious background of the mystic.

How then can be explained the fact that there are substantial differences among the hundreds of individual teachings, each pointing to its own version of revelation and of mystical experiences, and denying any adverse claims by all the others? As long as each religion will keep insisting that only its revelation and teachings are true we will not be able to come to an agreement in religious matters.

Another difficulty is caused by the treatment of logical problems created by traditional religious doctrines, that do not seem to make coherent sense but claim to present eternal truth. Typically, how should we deal with the dogma that Jesus Christ was both fully God and also fully human? How could anyone have both access to divine omniscience and exhibit human ignorance? The knowledge of the historical Jesus was limited to that available to his generation: He:

bulletBelieved that salt could lose its savor (Matthew 5:13),
bulletEpilepsy was caused by demonic possession (Mark 9:18),
bulletPredicted the Second Coming (Mark 9:1) within a few years.

How could he have at the same time divine omnipotence and human weakness, divine goodness and openness to human temptation, divine omnipresence in a finite human body, and the divine status of necessary self-existence while being a genuinely human creature? Can we ignore the logical problem? Or do we accept the contrived theory that Jesus temporarily divested himself of such divine attributes as are incompatible with being genuinely human (kenoticism)? Or, finally, do we accept that the respective dogma has been satisfactorily decided by a show of hands? Recall that the vote was taken in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea by bishops who had the rather limited outlook of their time: The followers of Athanasius claimed that Christ and God were the same essence, while the followers of Arius believed Christ was essentially inferior to God. A ballot was cast: Arius lost and his view was condemned as heresy.

Could it be that an explanation of our problems lies altogether beyond the reach of our traditional categories of thought, as well as beyond the language into which we project them? We must not forget that language can be a very effective barrier to progress, and that a challenge to the established wisdom by a radical new insight is always accompanied by a linguistic crisis. 34 The ancient Egyptians, who knew only the Nile as a river, could have but one word for two concepts, ‘north’ and ‘downstream’. When they discovered the Euphrates they had to enrich their vocabulary. 35

An attempt to solve religious problems by reinterpreting the existing texts would be a futile effort. the various interpretations of the ambiguities in Scripture lead to the establishment of sects, each one interpreting the same message according to its own views. How can we break the spiral of violence in the world, if we not challenge the sanctification of violence in our ‘sacred texts’. The so-called [Christian] heresies debated in the fourth and fifth centuries are argued still, in only slightly modern guise. 30 According to Canaan S. Banana:

"it is time to create a Bible that reflects the realities and possibilities of today’s world. … today we need a unifying element that will help our world to set aside our differences and learn to live together." 4

Centuries from now, current theories may be developed so far as to become completely unrecognizable when compared to current thinking. They may involve ideas that are radically different from anything we have so far encountered. It is foolhardy to assume that one knows even the terms in which future theories will be formulated. All we can do at present is to formulate general rules to be followed, in the hope that the best result will be achieved.


bulletThe questions asked have to be relevant and valid, and must allow a rational reply free of contradictions, contraries, or fault lines.
bulletWe have no option but to continue asking questions, even though it may seem that:

"all we are doing is posing unanswerable questions, dwell on subjects where there is no discernible progress, discuss but not reach a general agreement on premises from which our arguments could be launched, and argue together with others for some conceivable position in full knowledge that it will be eventually refuted by another group." 37

bulletLanguage freezes words and concepts into permanence. Thus, at times we may be looking at things in a rather inadequate way. This has to change.
bulletWe have to rise above the inertia of our minds caused by excessive reliance on ideas instilled by our teachers. We have to be imaginative to see the issue. (Charles Hartshorne)
bulletWe must set aside all of our biases.
bulletWe must accept that there is a limit to the knowledge that can be accommodated in the human brain, and that our mind is incapable of grasping certain phenomena and ideas. This must be accepted. We have to live with problems beyond our understanding.
bulletIt seems to be a common defect of human minds that they tend to crave for complete certainty of belief or disbelief in anything. This is not realistic.
bulletThere are many other guidelines.

People long to make sense of life, to find clues that would enable them to understand themselves and their place in the universe. We are currently languishing in a largely repetitive and unproductive situation. In order to escape from it, we must find new ways of dealing with the problems involved: Our best hope lies in a radical shift in our thinking, in which our current ideas are replaced by more powerful ones. We will have to:

bulletDiscard many beliefs that we have been taught.
bulletModify and discard the patterns of thinking in which we have been brought up.
bulletSurmount the limited ability of the human mind to grasp some crucial points, and
bulletOvercome the inadequacy of our language.

It is wise to feel a little humble when we face such profound mysteries.

Unfortunately, there is little hope in the real world that the suggested changes will be achieved. Any religion committed to the rather flattering belief that God created man specially and suddenly in his own image, is bound to resist change. Is there a known case of flourishing priesthood reforming its own faith group by willingly making an important change along moral lines? Is there a Church not interested in the maintenance of the status quo and the maintenance of spiritual power, no part of which will be willingly surrendered? The Churches fear to affect any changes in religious scripts, even in minor matters, as this would undermine their position as long-standing institutions promulgating the full ‘word of God’. To leave open the possibility that another prophet -- another messenger of God -- could come along, bringing new revelations and opening us to new under standing, is something that existing religions could not abide. It is because Bahá’u’lláh followed Muhammad (the Seal of Prophets) that Muslim so much dislike the Bahá’í with whom they have so much in common.

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According to Charles Bennett, it appears that the sources of universal wisdom are traditionally protected from causal use by being hard to find, and hard to understand when found. This seems to make it even more improbable that all the answers that we need are already available in the various religious teachings for immediate use.

However, not having all the answers may, in the end, have a small positive effect: Their absence gives some meaning to our existence in the future. If all the answers were straightforward and easy to obtain, what would be left for us to do in all those years to come? Can we really seriously contemplate humanity resting on laurels for the next few million years, having solved all its problems?

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Lambert Yves: Religion and Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New
    Religious Forms? http://www.findarticles.com
  2. Parkes Henry Banford: Gods and Men. Knopf, 1959.
  3. Jaspers Karl: Way to Wisdom. Yale University Press, 1954.
  4. Eisenstadt Shmuel Noah: The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. State University of New York Press, 1986.
  5. Humphreys Sarah C.: Dynamics of the Greek Breakthrough. In Eisenstadt Shmuel Noah: The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. State University of New York Press, 1986.
  6. Jaspers Karl: The Origin and Goal of History. Greenwood Press, 1977.
  7. Landon John C.: World History and the Eonic Effect. Quality Books, 1999.
  8. Toynbee Arnold: Mankind and Mother Earth. Oxford University Press, 1976.
  9. Armstrong Karen: The Battle for God. HarperCollins, 2001.
  10. Cupitt Don: Emptiness & Brightness. Polebridge Press, 2001.
  11. Sagan Carl E.: Cosmos. Futura, 1983.
  12. A "li" is a traditional Chinese unit of distance which is now standardized at 500 meters or about 1,640 feet. It is also called "a Chinese mile."
  13. Allègre Claude J., Stephen H. Schneider: The Evolution of the Earth. Scientific
    American, Oct. 1994, 44-51.
  14. Heidmann Jean: Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  15. Shklovskii Iosif Samuilovich., Carl Sagan: Intelligent Life in the Universe. Picador,
  16. Sagan Carl E.: The Cosmic Connection, Anchor Books, 1973.
  17. Barbour Ian G.: Religion in the Age of Science. SCM, 1990.
  18. Duane Elgin gives a somewhat different chronology in "Awakening Earth." William Morrow, (1993).
  19. The calculation is based on Paul Dorn’s idea, quoted in 20.
  20. Heim Karl: Christian Faith and Natural Science. SCM Press, 1953.
  21. Essay by Robert John Russell in John M. Magnum, Ed., "The New Faith-Science Debate," WCC Publications, 1989.
  22. Feynman Richard F.: The Meaning of it All. Allen Lane, 1998.
  23. Davies Paul: The Cosmos Blueprint. Penguin, 1995.
  24. Conow B. Hoff: The Bahá’í Teachings. George Ronald, 1990.
  25. Jones Richard H.: Science and Mysticism. Associated Universities Press, 1986.
  26. Twinn Kenneth (Ed.): Essays in Unitarian Theology. Lindsey Press, 1959.
  27. Heim Karl: Christian Faith and Natural Science. SCM Press, 1953.
  28. Hatcher John S,: The Purpose of Physical Reality. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987.
  29. by Jules Renard; Quoted Rhoda Tripp, Compiler,"Thesaurus of Quotations," Penguin, (1976).
  30. Polkinghorne John C.: The Way the World Is. Triangle, 1992.
  31. Barrett David V.: Sects, ‘Cults’ & Alternative Religions. Blandford, 1998.
  32. Chryssides George D.: Exploring New Religions. Continuum, 2001.
  33. Swami Vivekananda: VEDANTA Voice of Freedom. Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1990.
  34. Pedersen Olaf: The Book of Nature. Vatican Observatory, 1992.
  35. D’Espagnat Bernard: Veiled Reality. Addison-Wesley, 1995.
  36. Banana Canaan S.: The Case for a New Bible. In: Sugirtharajah Rasiah S. (Ed.):
    Voices from the Margin. Orbis/SPCK, 2004.
  37. Redhead Michael: From Physics to Metaphysics. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-29
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-29
Author. Vladimir Tomek

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