The Axial Age
The need for future Axial Ages
Religious change in our long-term future:
Claire C. Patterson used the uranium-lead clock to establish that the Earth
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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:
|Although 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 |
|The Buddha taught contradictory doctrines to different listeners
according to their capacity to understand.
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
"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
In the search for answers, we should be aware of our limitations:
|Our 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."
|Science 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
"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:
knowledge, the truth or falsity of which is unverifiable, and |
mystical knowledge, which is influence by the religious background of the
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
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
|Believed that salt could lose its savor (Matthew 5:13), |
|Epilepsy was caused
by demonic possession (Mark 9:18), |
|Predicted 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
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."
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.
|The questions asked have to be relevant and valid, and must allow a
rational reply free of contradictions, contraries, or fault
|We have no option but to continue asking questions, even though it may
"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."
|Language freezes words and concepts into permanence. Thus, at
times we may be looking at things in a rather inadequate way. This has to
|We 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)|
|We must set aside all of our biases.|
|We 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.|
|It 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
|There 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:
|Discard many beliefs that we have been taught.|
|Modify and discard the patterns of thinking in which we have been
|Surmount the limited ability of the human mind to grasp some crucial
points, and |
|Overcome the inadequacy of our language. |
It is wise to feel a little humble when we face such profound
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.
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
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
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essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
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Copyright © 2006
by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-29
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-29
Author. Vladimir Tomek