The Second Axial Age: Beginning to recognize our roles as global beings.

(background: the first axial age occurred the 6th B.C. and gave birth to the major world religions and Greek philosophy, as identified by Karl Jaspers)

* Article: Another Turn on the Axis: Religious and Spiritual Evolution in the 21st Century. by Jim Kenney. Kosmos, Fall | Winter 2011

Excerpted from Jim Kenney, in Kosmos magazine:

“In Crosscurrent, I argued that we are living in an age of dramatically accelerated cultural evolution. Such transitions— I call them ‘sea changes’—are powerful and progressive unfoldings, marked by the movement of humankind’s dominant values toward a closer fit with reality. Sea changes affect almost every dimension of human experience and endeavor and they are extremely rare. I suggest that the religious and spiritual expression of the current cultural evolutionary sea change can best be understood as a Second Axial Age. The First was marked by the emergence of individual consciousness, making it possible for humans to step forth from purely tribal existence.

The Second is giving rise to a new global consciousness. Still acutely aware of our individual existence, we begin to recognize our roles as global beings.

The great theologian Ewert Cousins, one of the first to explore the idea of a Second Axial turning, emphasized its global character. Karen Armstrong, one of the most respected chroniclers of the great religions, also sees the signs and calls attention to the continuity of the Second Axial with the First.

The flowering of a Second Axial Age could mean the most remarkable evolutionary advance in the human search for meaning since the birth of the great religions in the first millennium BCE.

But how can we be certain that such a transformation is actually underway, that ours is indeed a time on the cusp? Is there a cogent response to the new ‘cultured despisers’ of religion — those who imagine that uncritical dogmatism, rabid intolerance, rejection of science, and fanatical violence represent the authentic character of human religiosity? What might the critics discover if they responded to Schleiermacher’s gentle prompting and entered into dialogue with those who have real insight into the human spiritual quest? Might they begin to suspect that religion and spirituality truly do evolve?

The following section briefly outlines a possible answer to these several questions in the form of four organizing themes and sixteen emerging evolutionary dynamics. These Axial markers are already beginning to guide a new generation of religious and spiritual inquiry, expression and action. As we reflect on them, each one opens a new window onto our radically changing cultural landscape.

* The Axial Markers

The old ‘nature or nurture?’ controversy points up one of the most ?e Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history; there would be nothing comparable until the Great Western Transformation, which created our own scientific and technological modernity.

Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first 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. ?ey 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.

• awareness of the world, the cosmos, as a reality entire • reflection on the transcendent and the nature of ultimate reality • attention to a unitary God or core principle of the cosmos • a new sense of the human individual as related to the overarching whole • exploration of the self and consciousness • engagement with human mortality and a new focus on salvation, liberation, or redemption • emerging concern with compassion, empathy, ethics, individual responsibility for the other, and social justice important synergies in human social existence: the tempering of biology by culture.

Biological evolution equips us for self-defense against the stranger, altruism toward the kin group and exploitation of resources. Culture, on the other hand, expands our horizons and deepens our insight and, in the process, alters our behavioral patterns by changing our working understandings of ‘stranger,’ ‘kin’ and ‘resource.’ Since some of humankind’s earliest religious questions addressed our relationships to the outsider, the group and the environment, it’s unsurprising that any cultural evolutionary advance would produce new insights and new behaviors with respect to these critical dimensions of existence.

The First Axial Age, for example, gave rise to human ethical concerns, notions of social justice and reverence for the Earth. Appropriately, the first three Second Axial themes address these essential relationships. The first category of 21st-century evolutionary development has to do with our broadening and deepening relationships with ‘the other.’ The second is an extension of the first, shaped by new understandings of peace and justice as critical religious concerns. The third addresses our deepening understanding of our responsibility to the Earth and the entire planetary community.

The fourth theme has to do with the recognition of the vast global landscape of spiritual practice and possibility. Perhaps the greatest of the First Axial breakthroughs was the discovery of the personal spiritual path and the rich variety of its tracings. The Second Axial finds its sacred signature in what the late interfaith pioneer Brother Wayne Teasdale described as ‘interspirituality …an attempt to make available to everyone all the forms the spiritual journey assumes.’ ?e Second Axial reawakening of the inner life, it would seem, has a distinctively intercultural flavor.

The following list of Axial themes and markers is neither definitive nor exhaustive. Each theme represents one of the most important domains of 21st-century religious and spiritual advance; each marker points up a particular evolutionary shitf that is already well underway. It’s perhaps most useful to think of this compilation as a guide for reflection, a map of critical action areas, and—above all—an invitation to further exploration. Life in a period of powerful evolutionary advance is never easy but always energizing. And riding the new wave in is always preferable to washing out with the old.”

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