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.

Advent thoughts–December 18

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1—read Isaiah 60:1-7).

The contrast of light and darkness is one of the great recurring themes of the Bible. The first thing God created when he made the heavens and the earth was light, and then God separated the light from the darkness. John begins his Gospel writing about the Word, who is the light and the life of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it. Isaiah said that the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light. Both Isaiah and Simeon called Jesus a light to enlighten the nations. Now Isaiah calls upon God’s people to arise and shine, because our light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.

Jesus told his disciples that they are the lights of the world. Jesus also declared himself to be the Light of the world. He is the primary light; his disciples are secondary lights. He shines like the sun; we shine like windows through whom the sun shines. When Jesus shines through us, his light enlightens others. As we share his promises and the good news of his victory over evil, we do our job as windows, letting his light shine into the lives of others.

Without Jesus we cannot shine. His light comes first and passes through us. Along the way, his commandments reveal our flaws and our faults. When someone washes the windows on a cloudy day, the streaks and smears might not be visible. When the sunlight shines brightly on that window, every missed spot and every speck of dirt can be seen.

We might not want Jesus to shine on us and show our sins. But the light of Jesus does something that sunlight never does to windows: his light removes the dirt and makes us pure and holy. When his light shines through us, we become clean; and because of that cleansing, the light is all the more able to shine through us to enlighten others.

Isaiah pursues that theme as he describes the nations coming to the light of Israel. Isaiah even mentions the nations bringing gifts of gold and frankincense. The wise men who followed a star to find Jesus in Bethlehem were the first of the nations to seek the light in Israel. Centurions in the Roman army also sought help from Jesus during his years of ministry, and one came into the Church early in its history through Peter’s ministry. An Ethiopian official was told about Jesus and was baptized by the deacon Philip. Paul preached to Jews and to the nations, to whomever would listen, and over the course of three hundred years the Roman Empire became a Christian nation. Now the Gospel continues to be spread throughout the world. As missionaries teach about Jesus, people hear and believe and are saved: God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done. Thanks be to God! J.