Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The "Axial Age" - Now

David Walsh[1]

My Preface

Benedict XVI’s point at Regensburg, his undelivered address to the Roman University “La Sapienza,” his Address to European Professors, June 24, 2007 and his address to The Sixth European Symposium of University Professors (June 7, 2008) are all directed to the same point: “Broaden Reason.” This broadening is achieved by the ontological experience of self-transcendence in the act of Christian faith. The mind “sees” the being of the believer as illuminated in the very act of belief that is a moral, ontological act of the “I.” Reason is “broadened” by this new exposure to Being in a way unmediated by sensible perception or conceptual symbolizing. Access to Being broadens reason. It is a new access to a reality that transcends cosmic perception. In the Regensburg address, Benedict made reference to this moment of tansfertilization between Abrahamic faith and Greek pagan culture in which a "transfiguration" took place, the lights went on: “Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am."

“This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Psalm 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature."

[My comment]

The moment we are now living through as a financial debacle, but which is really a crisis of the meaning of man as person, begs for a comparison with the meaning of axiality. Is this beginning of the third millennium not another axial age in which the implication of the Incarnation of God as divine Person not irrupting as a huge tectonic plate in the consciousness of men? An age of conceptual reductionism is being exploded by an age of experiential enlightenment which cannot tolerated the burden and boredom of a meaningless infinity of data bases of facts. The human person is emerging not as an evolving animal but as “another Christ” who is an autonomous and self-determining “I,” a pilgrim of the Absolute.

Consider David Walsh’s remarks on the previous axial moment:

David Walsh

“Historians have long been fascinated by the question because the study of the past virtually invites reflection on its structure. A pattern that has impressed several generations with its significance is the occurrence of parallel irruptions of transcendent revelation between 800 and 200 B.C. This is the period when the prophets in Israel, the mystic philosophers in Greece, the Vedists and the Buddhists in India, the Taoists and Confucians in China, and the Zoroastrians in Persia were all engaged in the opening of the souls toward the extra cosmic revelation by which universal humanity is constituted. It was a period of such momentous significance in terms of the break with the cosmological myth, the discovery of rationality, and the emergence of universal human nature that Karl Jaspers named it the axis time.
[3] All history seemed to revolve around it, and we recognize the source of the great symbolic forms that endure architectonically up to the present. A particularly striking convergence seems to occur around 500 B.C., at least in retrospect, when we contemplate that Confucius, the Buddha, Heraclitus, and Deutero-Isaiah were contemporaries. The pattern could not be merely coincidental, since the moment seemed to have inaugurated the decisive opening of history toward universality. Jaspers may even be forgiven the enthusiasm of denoting the epochal contemporaneity as the ‘axis time’ because such outbursts do signal a decisive differentiation of order. Of course, remainder is needed that t he axis designation omits such momentous irruptions as the Mosaic revelation and the epiphany of Christ as well as the experience of Mohammed, but the inclination is not false. Each of the Theophanies is axial, but neither individually nor in aggregate are they reducible to a mundane pattern of occurrence. The axis is precisely the shattering of the cosmic realm as the scale of measurement of reality.

“They converge in rupturing the compactness of the cosmological form of experience. Unity is the primary experience of the cosmos within which we find ourselves. It is one order whose consubstantial wholeness indicates that all levels of reality are connected from the most ephemeral to the most enduring. Only the cosmos as a whole is the comprehensive embodiment of order, and everything else gains its position by participating in the imitation of the cosmos. Just as order in the cosmos is mediated hierarchically from the highest visible divinities to the lowliest elements of nature, so too can human society live in order by analogically reflecting the hierarchical mediation of the cosmos. Just as the cosmos undergoes its cyclical redemption from disorder and the rebirth of new order by returning to its first day of creation, so human existence can participate in the same rhythms of regeneration from decay by fitting within the New Year renewal of the cosmos. Cosmological order, as it develop din the ancient high civilizations or as it perennially exists among all archaic societies, is an enchanted world. It is a world ‘full of gods’ in which any event can become the occasion for a hierophany and in which magical transformations can break out at any moment. Not only is nothing simply what it is, but rational speculative unfolding is impossible. The most poignant feature is surely the degree of unself-consciousness concerning the source of it order. Everything must be depeicte din tangible visible terms, since there is no differentiation of the mind, soul, or heart as the seatr of its symbolic profusion.

“All of that unexamined unity is ruptured, not by the breakdown of order that compels men to think about their situation, but only by the concomitant irruption of transcendent Being, whose revelation is, of necessity, wholly inward. The instrument by which it is apprehended is illumined only in the radiance from the Beyond. Apprehension of the radical otherness of the transcendent casts varying degrees of negativity over al other immanent transmitters. Divinity withdraws from the cosmos [i.e. the cosmos considered as divine] as it is concentrated in the revelation of Being. Mediation by the hierarchy or rhythms of the cosmos can no longer occupy central place, when the incompatibility of the God with all intracosmic embodiments has been more or less dramatically discerned. The move is not from polytheism to monotheism, since both variants are discoverable at every point in the cosmological myth. Indeed, the consciousness of the gods as all derived from a common divine cosmic substance is its overriding emphasis. What is decisively new is the irruption of transcendent Being. The encounter with an utterly different order of reality is the signal event . Having once felt its unmistakable touch, the derivative character of all other reality can never be eliminated. All of the epochal spiritual outbursts move in the direction of this fundamental distinction from which all other differentiations follow.

“The line by which the implications are unfolded is never smooth or uniform. It can be expressed as an utter gulf between the transcendent divinity and the rest of reality, as in the Mosaic definitiveness of the I AM, yet never succeed in extending beyond the confines of the Chosen People to the chosenness of each individual human soul. The break with the divine reality of the cosmos may be far less radical, such as in classical philosophy, in which the movement of the soul toward the Beyond is differentiated, but no countermovement from the transcendent can be conceived of a divine source whose paradigmatic ikon remains the cosmos itself. Friendship between man and God is, according to Aristotle, impossible. A fully transcendent and self-revealing God, indispensable for such a relationship, has not yet been experienced by him. The break with the cosmic reality can be so tenuous that the movement toward the Beyond is still expressed hierarchically, as in Confucianism, or has been concentrated into itself as the Way, beyond it, as n Taoism. Or the transcending movement can remain so tied to the struggle against the cosmos that it can only be conceive in terms of the dichotomy of illusion and liberation, as in Hinduism. By contrast, the fuscous on the movement itself can become so intense that it can become its own justification eclipsing all other reality, as in the Buddhist attainment of Boddhisatva. Even when the maximum differentiation is beheld in the self-revelation of transcendent Being within time, as in Christianity, there is no guarantee that the full amplitude of differentiation will be maintained. Islam arises, to a considerable extent, out of the demand for simplification of the mystery of the incarnation, and Gnosticism flourishes because of the perennial demand to overleap the distance that separates us from it consummation.”

[1] Cf. David Walsh, “The Third Millennium – Reflectons on Faith and Reason” CUA (1999) 166-169.
[2] One might also consult Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” pp. 150 et seq.
[3] Karl Jaspers, “The Origin and Goal of History,” trans. Michael Bullock, New Haven: Yale University Press (1953).

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