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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.

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.

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December 2005–February 2006