Alexander the Grape

Why is Alexander III of Macedon so often referred to as “Alexander the Great”? Some say he earned the title by his military victories, and others say that Alexander was great because he built a large empire. The most enduring legacy of Alexander, though, was not political or military. Alexander’s greatness comes from the establishment of a culture, called “Hellenistic,” that has shaped civilization and history for the last two dozen centuries.

Alexander’ father, Phillip II of Macedon, managed (through a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers) to bring all the Greek city-states under his control, a feat no leader before him had accomplished. When Phillip was assassinated, a teen-aged Alexander inherited his father’s kingdom. Needing a task significant enough to maintain the unity of Greek and Macedonian entities, Alexander completed his father’s plans to conquer the Persian Empire. Phillip and Alexander could have chosen to expand to the west. They could have controlled the Mediterranean world, overthrowing Rome and Carthage and other Mediterranean cities. Their choice to expand instead to the east was already significant for future world history. But Persia had more wealth and power to grant its conquerors, and it was ripe for the picking. Moreover, Phillip and Alexander could point to the past Persian invasions of Greece—although they predated the birth of anyone alive at that time, and although the Persians lost—as reason enough to return the favor and invade Persia.

Alexander’s conquests took him into Anatolia (now the country of Turkey) and south along the Mediterranean coast. He accomplished the extremely difficult task of laying siege to Trye and capturing that powerful Phoenician city. He also fought the Philistine city of Gaza and razed it. Ancient sources say that Alexander visited Jerusalem and was welcomed into the city, although the accuracy of their accounts has been doubted by some researchers. Then Alexander was welcomed into Egypt, where he was treated not only as a conqueror but also as one of the gods.

Alexander and his army, having stripped the Persian Empire of its western lands, now set out against the Emperor, Darius III. Eventually, Darius was captured and killed. (Alexander married one of his daughters to solidify Alexander’s claim to the Persian throne.) Moving further east, Alexander first laid claim to the eastern parts of the Persian Empire, then tried to expand his power even beyond what the Persians controlled. Eventually, his army resisted the continuing adventure of conquest. One of his contemporary biographers depicts Alexander standing at a river in India, gazing across the river and weeping because land and people existed that he would never rule. Accepting the will of his soldiers, Alexander turned back to the west.

Stopping in Babylon, Alexander fell ill and died. Strong evidence suggests that he drank himself to death. Some historians, both ancient and modern, think he may have been poisoned. Others think he died of illness—malaria, botulism, and meningitis have all been proposed. Alexander had an infant son who should have inherited the empire. The generals of Alexander’s army agreed to divide the empire among themselves and rule it on behalf of Alexander IV until the lad was old enough to wield power himself. Mysteriously, the boy died before he could receive his inheritance, and the kingdoms of the generals remained in place for hundreds of years, until Roman power eventually picked them off, one by one.

With Alexander and his armies came Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science. Alexander ordered cities to be built in his conquered lands, bearing his name. Alexandria in Egypt, and other cities elsewhere, became centers of Greek culture surrounded by older African and Asian cultures. The family of Ptolemy in Egypt and of Seleucus in Syria maintained Greek culture while ruling over non-Greeks. Blending Greek thought with older patterns produced a civilization called Hellenistic. This civilization preserved the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and other Greeks without erasing the religions, traditions, and cultures of western Asia and northern Africa. Even the Jewish people were transformed by Hellenistic culture, as groups like the Pharisees examined the writings of Moses and the prophets in the fashion of the Axial Age, seeking how to please God through personal obedience and piety, overlooking the more relationship-oriented words of God who had based his covenant on the proposition, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Other nations have produced leaders whom they called “Great.” Few have done more than Alexander, in his brief lifespan, to alter the course of history and to shape the thinking of many peoples and cultures. J.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

The Axial Age in Greece

The coast and islands of the northeastern Mediterranean Sea were populated by waves of Indo-European immigrants who arrived from the north. Sharing a common language (though with different dialects), culture, and religion, they designated anyone who did not speak Greek as “barbarian.” But they engaged in trade with other cultures, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and the Minoans of Crete. Politically, the Greeks were never united until they all were captured and drawn into the Macedonian Empire by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Before that time, each Greek polis (or “city-state”) was independent with its own form of government, ranging from the royalty of Sparta to the democracy of Athens. Sparta had two kings, and they could not act unless they agreed with each other. The democracy of Athens included only Greek-speaking men who owned property, so it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and many other residents. But it was the beginning of democracy as is still practiced in the world today.

The Greeks united, after a fashion, to resist the Persian invasions of 490 and 480 BCE. They also united—sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily—as leagues to battle one another. Greek culture flourished in spite of their battles and wars. The Greeks of Athens and of other poleis achieved excellence in mathematics, science, architecture, sculpture, drama, history, and philosophy. Not only did Greeks know that the world is round; they measured its size fairly accurately. Although they borrowed freely from other cultures, the thinkers of Greece laid a foundation upon which western civilization firmly rests.

Confucius and the Buddha presented new Axial Age ideas without rejecting the gods and religious practices of the Chinese and Indian cultures. Zarathustra in Persia overthrew the gods in his proclamation of one god. Greek thinkers approached the world without reference to any gods. They continued to build temples to the gods and worship them; they continued to portray gods in sculpture and in drama. But Greek historians recorded events without attributing success or failure to the gods. Likewise, Greek philosophers sought to explain the material world and its processes without attributing those to the gods.

One early Greek philosopher thought that everything material is made of water. That makes sense: water can be solid, liquid, or vapor, and many things we encounter contain water. Others thought the material world consists of some other primary substances. Greeks first proposed the atomic theory, suggesting that all material things are made of tiny, unbreakable substances. Still others proposed that everything material is made out of numbers. Philosophers debated whether the material world is always at motion or whether true reality is stable and unmoving. One class of philosophers showed that motion is logically impossible. Achilles cannot defeat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise has a head start: by the time Achilles reaches the place where the tortoise started, the tortoise will have traveled to a new spot. When Achilles reaches that spot, the tortoise will have traveled further. Achilles can never catch the tortoise so long as the tortoise keeps moving. Likewise, I cannot throw a ball across the room, because the ball must reach a half-way point on its way across the room, but first it must get half-way to that point, and before that it must get half-way to that point—the ball cannot travel through an infinite number of points in a finite amount of time. (It took Newton and Leibnitz’ invention of calculus centuries later to handle concerns about traveling through infinite points of space.) Greek science did not involve observation and experimentation—that scientific method was developed in Europe during the medieval period. Greek science was a logical process that followed mental rules rather than seeking to discover natural rules.

Over time, Greek philosophy degenerated into theories of communication and rhetoric. Sophists claimed they could take either side of a dispute and win a debate—useful talents in politics and law, but not so helpful in scientific pursuit. From this community arose Socrates. He questioned experts in every field, searching for ultimate truth in the things they knew. Instead, he discovered limits to their knowledge. Socrates wanted to know what makes something good, whether that something is a song, a painting, a boat, or a man. A boat-maker can fashion a good boat and describe its goodness, but the boat-maker could not tell Socrates how the boat acquired its goodness. Especially the Sophists could not answer Socrates’ questions about language and rhetoric, about what makes something true or how to distinguish a good idea from a bad idea. By his persistence, Socrates made enemies among the Sophists and politicians and legal experts and leading citizens of Athens. They accused him of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. Narrowly convicted, both Socrates as defender and his prosecutors were allowed to suggest a punishment. The prosecutors called for death. Socrates said that, because of what he had been doing, he deserved to have a house and regular meals charged to the public expense. The jury chose the prosecutors’ sentence. With his cooperation, Socrates was executed by poisoning.

Socrates had a student named Plato who wrote dialogues featuring the ideas and challenges of Socrates. Some are probably based on real conversations; others were likely invented by Plato to explore his own philosophical ideas. The search of Socrates for ultimate truths about what is good and true and beautiful led Plato to believe that the most real things in the world are goodness and truth and beauty. Those things we encounter in the material world merely draw their qualities from the more real world of ideas. When I write the word “dog,” each reader pictures a dog: large or small, young or old, exuberant or lazy, friendly or vicious, possessing various lengths and colors of fur, but each an example of a dog. Plato would say that they share the qualities of the idea of dog—the ultimate reality is not the individual dogs we experience and picture, but the dogness that they share. Likewise, goodness is an idea that is found in many places, but real goodness is an idea that we know through its diverse manifestations. To form a good society, we need experts who know how to approach the idea of goodness and how to express it in laws and requirements that will drive badness away and will draw goodness out of all citizens.

Plato had a student named Aristotle who disagreed. Aristotle said that the objects we encounter are real. Ideas about them, such as “good” or “dog,” are only labels we create for our own purposes; the labels themselves are not real. Aristotle had his students study the world to sort all things into categories. Dogs can be sorted into various breeds, and all dogs are among mammals, which are among animals, which are among living beings. Likewise, boats and songs and pictures can be described and labeled, sorted into categories and judged by predetermined rules to we can determine which boats and which songs and which paintings are the best.

Other schools of philosophy developed in ancient Greece. Stoics, like Buddhists, stressed non-attachment to the world. They viewed the material world as unimportant; they taught that the mind or soul escapes the body and material things at death and moves on to a higher state of being. Epicureans believed that only the material world exists. The mind and the soul, like the body, disintegrate and disperse at death. Nothing individual survives. The best we can do is enjoy life now, but not to excess. A glass of wine adds quality to the evening; drinking the entire bottle only causes problems. Both Stoics and Epicureans resisted Christian teachings about the resurrection of the body, but for different reasons. Epicureans thought that nothing remains to be regathered and raised; Stoics thought that when the mind or soul escapes the body it was better off and would not want to return to the body.

Many Christians have built their understanding of the world around Greek philosophy. Putting their trust in Jesus and believing the message of the Bible, they still approach and understand these teachings in a Greek framework, whether Platonic or Aristotelian or Stoic or Epicurean. Christian mystics often have drawn inspiration from neoplatonic expressions of ancient philosophy. Christian monastics often have justified their practices through a Stoic outlook upon the world. Christians committed to a faith-ordered life that is logic and rational draw inspiration from Aristotle’s writings. Christianity is not bound to Greek philosophy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ is available to everyone in the world, even if they were trained in Daoist or Buddhist or indigenous religious world views. J.

The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.

The Axial Age in India

The Axial Age largely encompasses greater individuality and autonomy in religion and philosophy. The religion and philosophy of India emphasizes annihilation of the individual. These contrary forces produced a wealth of new ideas and practices among the Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists of India.

Already Vedic Indian religion took a contrary path from much of the world. In western philosophy, thinkers choose among three options: either the material world is real and mind and spirit are imaginary, or mind and spirit are real and the material world is imaginary, or the material and mental/spiritual worlds coexist in a creative tension—a concept sometimes described as “the ghost in the machine.” But in India, both the material world and the mental-spiritual world are perceived as “maya,” or illusion. All that we perceive in ourselves and around ourselves is maya. Atman, or the sense of an individual being, is simply brahman in that place. Brahman is not a personal god or spirit; brahman is simply the principle or reality of the universe, the one existence that is not illusion or imagination.

The ideas of karma and reincarnation relate to maya and brahman. Atman returns over a series of lifetimes, governed by the principle of karma. Karma is not a god; no one prays to karma or builds temples to karma. Yet even the gods are subject to karma. Westerners tend to view karma and its place in reincarnation as a moral force: do good things, and you will be reborn in a better life; do bad things, and you will be reborn in a worse life. For Hindus, karma is less moral and more about the path to enlightenment, the acceptance that all else is maya and only brahman exists. Samsara, or the continual rebirth and return, is like going to school, taking the same class over and over until you finally learn your lesson, and then taking another class repeatedly. The goal is not to advance to better classes, but to graduate, to achieve moksha, to stop returning in the cycle of samsara but instead to become one with all things in brahman. Moksha is not heaven or Paradise; moksha is release from the burdens of rebirth and the illusion of individuality.

The Axial Age saw the development of yoga among Hindus in India. Westerners think of yoga as a set of exercises involving mind and body and spirit—various postures and breathing exercises used to develop peace of mind and self-improvement. Called Hatha Yoga, this form of yoga is found in India, but its purpose is contrary to the western approach. Control of the body and mind and spirit are seen as avenues to annihilation of the self, realization that the self is part of the illusion; self-improvement is the farthest position possible from the purpose of genuinely Hindu yoga. Other forms of yoga include Karma Yoga (seeking to do good things in the world), Jnana Yoga (studying to understand the world), and Bhakti Yoga (devotion to one of the many Hindu gods). Bhakti Yoga is perhaps the most significant development of the Axial Age in Hindu beliefs and practices.

Hindus believe in many gods, though none of them are all-powerful or all-knowing. Bhakti Yoga invites a Hindu to be devoted to one god, to worship and honor that god, and to find help from that god in achieving enlightenment and escape from samsara. Siva or Shiva is one popular god—the god of death, Siva or Shiva can also be seen as a god who clears away the old to make room for the new—a god of recycling. Vishnu is also popular. Vishnu is said to have visited people of this world in various avatars, or human appearances. The most recent and famous avatar of Vishnu is Krishna. Krishna should not be mistaken for Christ. He was not truly human, nor did he suffer to redeem believers. He was merely a teacher of divine origin. In the famous poem the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to a warrior king why the king must face his brother in a massive battle in which many soldiers will die. Though the war and suffering seem meaningless, they are part of karma. The brothers were born to lead their armies in this war, the soldiers were born to fight and to die, and resisting karma will only create further problems.

During the Axial Age, a teacher named Mahavira explored an ascetic religion called Jainism. (Jains say that Mahavira was the last of a line of twenty-four teachers with the same lessons.) Jains are dedicated to causing no harm to any living beings. Not only are the vegetarians, but they do not farm, because farming involves suffering and death for some creatures. Jains sweep the path in front of them when they walk to avoid stepping on insects; they wear veils to avoid inhaling tiny creatures in the air—not for their own health, but to prevent the suffering of those tiny creatures. They work to eliminate all connections to the world around them, seeing even positive karma as a barnacle-like growth that can prevent enlightenment. Some Jains wear a single white robe and are called “White-clad Jains.” Others wear nothing and are called “Sky-clad Jains.”

Also during the Axial Age, a man named Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened and was recognized as the Buddha. He was born to a wealthy family that tried to shelter him from pain and suffering, but he still witnessed sickness and death in the world. He first tried extreme ascetic practices to escape the world’s problems, but those practices brought him no enlightenment. He then choose the Middle Path—no extremes of wealth or poverty—and one day he discovered the Four Noble Truths. First, suffering exists. Suffering happens in this world, and one must accept its reality. Second, suffering is caused by desire, or craving. When we want things, we set ourselves up for disappointment. It does not matter whether we want good things or bad things, material things or spiritual things: every form of wanting leads to suffering. Third, it is possible to live without desire or craving. Fourth, that possibility is enhanced by an eight-fold path that involves right thought, right behavior, right vocation, right meditation, and the like. He spent the rest of his life teaching these Four Noble Truths to others, founding the religion of Buddhism in India.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are amazingly diverse. Although Buddhism began in India, it is more common in other Asian countries. It takes many forms, often including the worship of many gods. Sometimes the Buddha is worshiped as a god, although other Buddhists say he is merely a man who became enlightened, as all of us can become enlightened. For some Buddhists, he is the first and only man to achieve enlightenment; for others, many have found what he found. In some versions of Buddhism, enlightenment can happen suddenly in this lifetime through mediation and through resistance to logic and reason. (Chan, or Zen, Buddhism stresses sudden enlightenment.) Other forms of Buddhism stress that this world has too many distractions for anyone to reach full enlightenment, but proper preparation in this life leads to rebirth in a purer land where enlightenment is attainable (hence the name Pure Land Buddhism).

Christian understandings of sin and redemption are foreign to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. They do not believe that an Almighty God created a good world or that he offers eternal life in a world without suffering and sorrow. Being polytheists, they are sometimes willing to add a place for Jesus in the community of the gods, but they are puzzled by his insistence that he is the only God. Nor is it clear how his suffering on the cross can rescue anyone else from suffering and death. Finally, teachings about nonattachment are contrary to the commands of God to love him above all else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christ’s teachings about denying ourselves for his sake seem on the surface to resemble Hindu and Buddhist teachings about self-denial, but the point for Christians is entirely different than that for Hindus and Buddhists. A great gulf of understanding and of conflicting definitions of terms must be bridged for communication to happen between Christians and followers of these Asian religions. J.

The Axial Age in China

When I told my students that the culture tendency of China over the centuries has been very conservative, I made sure they understood that I was not referring to positions and issues considered conservative in contemporary American politics. Instead, I was using the word for its core meaning—that the people of China, for the most part, wanted to converse the past. They were uncomfortable with change. New ideas tended to be discouraged; holding to the tried and true tended to be the preferred mode of operation.

Traditional Chinese thought sees the world composed of two forces: yin and yang. Yin is described as feminine, soft, dark, and passive; yang is described as masculine, hard, bright, and assertive. Neither yin nor yang is good; neither yin nor yang is bad or evil. Balance between the two is good. Imbalance—too much of either or two little of either—is bad. Therefore, if a family or community or nation has reached a balance of yin and yang, the worst thing they could do is change. Maintaining balance is better than seeking any improvement. Losing balance is worse than remaining steady, poised, and centered.

Another traditional Chinese belief reinforced this inherent conservatism. Many Chinese people believe that, when people die, they become more powerful. They linger around their families, blessing those who maintain the ways of the past and afflicting problems on those who threaten changes. When one’s ancestors are enforcing the older ways, one does not risk innovation. This burden fell hardest on young women who married into a family and needed to be taught the ways of the family. Any trouble in the household would be pinned to their behavior, and they would be firmly directed to follow the family path, not to innovate. Over time, they would bear sons, the sons would grow up, and the women who once suffered the instruction of their in-laws would now have power to train the next generation.

Only one good way exists to introduce new ideas into such a culture. One must insist that the new ideas are old, that they had been forgotten, that they must be restored to remove current problems and to bring back the peace and harmony of the past. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was a master of such presentation. He insisted that he taught nothing new, that he was restoring the old ways of China that had been forgotten. He introduced no new gods, no new ceremonies, and no new customs. He spoke glowingly of the past. But, while he claimed to be returning to the older and better ways, Confucius introduced Axial Age principles into Chinese thought. His approach was individualistic: Confucius directed people to look within themselves to find the virtues that would be expressed in proper attitudes and proper behavior, maintaining peace and harmony in the family, the community, and the nation.

Confucius was optimistic about human nature. He said that people want to be happy, that obeying the rules leads to happiness, and that people disobey the rules only because they do not know or understand the rules. Therefore, Confucius taught the rules that were appropriate to people in their various relationships: father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, ruler and ruled, friend and friend. Success in following the rules, though, came from inner virtue, from being true to one’s self. Like other Axial Age philosophers, Confucius directed people to search within themselves to find truth, virtue, and piety.

Although Confucius was mostly ignored during his lifetime, a group of students wrote what he said and continued sharing his ideas after he died. Over time, they became more accepted in China and in neighboring lands. Eventually, Chinese government even sponsored the teachings of Confucius. At times, no one could acquire a government job without first passing a test on Confucianism. A government established and in place valued the teachings of Confucius because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them. Of course, any revolutionary government had to evade Confucianism. Mao’s Communist Revolution resisted the teachings of Confucius and included them among the evils that had to be overturned in China. But now, seventy years later, the Communist Party in China likes people to learn the teachings of Confucius, because he told people to respect and help their rulers, not to challenge them or rebel against them.

Around the same time that Confucius lived, another philosophy also emerged in China. Attributed to the legendary Laozi, the principles of Daoism also direct a person to look within himself or herself. But where Confucianism stresses rules appropriate to social relationships, Daoism pays more attention to observing the world, fitting into what is happening, and going with the flow instead of fighting the stream.

The Dao is not a god. No one prays to the Dao or builds temples to the Dao. But the Dao is at the center of the universe: it is the source and cause and meaning of all things. One might even say that the Dao “surrounds us and penetrates us [and] binds the galaxy together.” One does not resist the Dao; one cooperates with the Dao, observing the flow of energy around one and finding one’s place in that flow. The Daoist principle of wu wei, sometimes translated as “doing nothing,” is better interpreted as “effortless exertion.” A Daoist is active in the world, but the activity of a Daoist moves with the flow of energy, not against it. While a Confucianist might try to follow all the traffic laws, driving exactly at the speed limit, a Daoist is more likely to conform to the traffic; if all the other drivers are going sixty-five, the Daoist will go sixty-five. (Note: that is meant as an example of how the two groups think, not as a description of Chinese drivers.)

Some forms of Daoism express the thought that a person living in harmony with the Dao will not sicken, age, or die. Such harmony includes the right foods and beverage, the right amounts of exercise and rest, the right meditation, and the right attitude toward family and friends and neighbors and those in authority. Rumors persist among some Chinese Daoists that a small number of experts have achieved that balance and have lived for centuries, not in the cities and towns, but hidden in the countryside. In an effort to stamp out religion, the Communist Party sought the legendary long-lived Daoists to kill them. Failing to find them, Party officials announced that they never existed, that Daoism is a sham. Because those Party officials were backed by soldiers with guns, people nodded and agreed with them. But when the soldiers and the Party officials left, the same people told each other that the experts evaded the government searchers because of their power drawn from harmony with the Dao.

In the western world, Confucianism and Daoism are both studied and described as Chinese religions. They could just as easily be called philosophies. Neither movement added new gods to the gods already worshiped in China; both movements encourage people to honor the same gods that were already being honored. In the Roman Empire and in its aftermath, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle were often borrowed by Christian teachers and adapted to the Christian faith. Some people suggest that, stripped of polytheism, Confucianism and Daoism can also be blended with Christian teachings. Four hundred years ago, Jesuit missionaries in China said that the laws of Confucius were as worthy to be followed as the laws of Moses, but that grace and forgiveness come only through Jesus Christ. Likewise, one might translate verses from the first chapter of John’s Gospel to read, “In the beginning was the Dao, and the Dao was with God, and the Dao was God… all things were made through him… and the Dao became flesh and made his dwelling among us….”

Next to come: the Axial Age in India. J.

The history of religion and the Axial Age

One cannot study human history without noticing and learning about the religious beliefs and practices of various people. Religion has been—and remains—a strong motivation for the actions of many people. Sometimes religious differences have led to wars within a group of people or between groups of people. More often, religion has motivated beneficial actions within a group of people or between groups of people.

Scholars who study religion fall into two groups. The first group believes that religious truth is permanent and unchanging. It was known by the earliest people and has been passed down intact from generation to generation; it still exists in the world today. But many people have wandered from the truth. They have added beliefs and practices that differ from the truth, resulting in today’s diverse religious beliefs and practices. Traditional (or conservative) Jews, Christians, and Muslims all accept this concept of a single religious truth, even as they disagree about the content of that truth. I suspect that many traditional (or conservative) Hindus, Buddhists, and followers of other religions have a similar confidence in the existence of one fundamental set of truths.

The second group of scholars believes and teaches that religion evolves. They say that primitive people, having no science, assumed that things they could not explain were caused by spirits living in the observable world. Early religious practices focused on living in harmony with those spirits, cooperating with them, gaining their help when needed, and placating them when they were angered. Over time, according to these scholars, some of these spirits (along with some revered human ancestors) became regarded as gods. That stage of religious belief is called polytheism, belief in many gods. Many generations later, some gods were viewed as more powerful than others, until belief centered around a single central god—often the national god of a powerful nation that subdued its neighbors and built an empire. From that stage, the next step was monotheism—belief in one god, denying the reality of the other gods that once were trusted and obeyed. Following the introduction of monotheism came deism: deists acknowledge a creator god who established the rules of nature and of moral behavior, but the god of deism is no longer involved in the world. That god can be compared to a watchmaker who assembles a watch, winds it, and then steps away. From deism, it is a short step to atheism—the claim that there is no god—or to agnosticism—the claim that no one knows whether a god exists.

It should be noted that, among atheists and agnostics, some are militant and some are quiescent. Militant atheists boldly assert that no god exists, and the battle against all believers who proclaim the existence of a god or of gods. Quiescent atheists also believe in no god, but they do not try to convert anyone else to their belief. Quiescent atheists are content to continue in their lack of belief but do not care what other people say or do about their god or gods. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone. Quiescent agnostics are not sure if god exists, but they are content to remain quietly in their uncertainty. They do not challenge the conviction of believers or of unbelievers. Militant agnostics say that no one knows if god exists. They equally challenge the convictions of believers and atheists, insisting that all of us are guessing about religious truth, that no one on earth really knows for sure about god.

Both groups of scholars agree that a revolution in religious thought occurred in the world roughly twenty-five centuries ago. Dubbed the Axial Age, this time marked the beginning of several religious movements, including Confucianism, Daoism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Greek philosophy. Scholars have also sought information about the Axial Age in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament). Ezra and Nehemiah lived during the Axial Age, as did the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Some scholars claim to find evidence of the Axial Age in other Biblical books traditionally regarded as older, such as the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

Axial Age beliefs began, for the most part, in Iron Age cultures long established in the river valleys of Asia, from China to Mesopotamia. Although expressed in a variety of ways in different cultures, they bear a common theme of individuality, of looking within one’s self to find truth rather than seeking it in the surrounding world. These pursuits are credited with stimulating Christianity and Islam in later generations, as well as helping to generate European science and philosophy, beginning in Greece. The Axial Age can be described as a human revolution equivalent to the Neolithic Revolution of ancient times (when people stopped hunting and gathering food and began raising it for themselves in settled areas) and to the Scientific and Industrial revolutions of modern Europe.

Vedic Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan bear traces of the religious beliefs that prevailed before the Axial Age. So do indigenous religions still followed by small groups of people in Asia, Africa, the southern Pacific, and Native American settlements in the Americas. One common theme among the many diverse indigenous religions (at least in Africa and the Pacific islands) is awareness of a powerful creator god who, like the deist god, created the world and established its rules, but is no longer involved in the world. The religious practices in those indigenous groups involve honoring and seeking the approval of divine beings that are less than all-powerful. Often each of those beings has power in only a single area—planting, harvesting, human health, childbirth, weather, and so on. Christian and Muslim missionaries often win converts among such groups by promising to “eliminate the middle-men,” so to speak. They offer knowledge of the creator god and access to that god—Christians through Jesus Christ and the Gospel, Muslims through the Qur’an.

In coming days I will offer a more detailed study of those Axial Age movements that profoundly shaped the way religious people think and act today. J.