The Importance of Narrative in the Axial Age

This post is the first in a series of reflections concerning “Conceptions of the Ultimate”, the ways in which various world religions conceive of and interpret the Ultimate Being of the cosmos. In today’s reflection I consider some of the implications of the “Axial Age”, a term first coined by Karl Jaspers to designate the period of development among the major world religions, wherein these movements transitioned from “primitive cultures” to developed religions.

World ReligionsIn “What is Axial about the Axial Age?” Robert Bellah argues that the central development of the Axial Age involved the transition from mythic culture to theoretical culture with second-order thinking and ideas concerning transcendence (78). Perhaps the most critical point from this article concerns the ongoing connection between theoretical culture and mythic culture. Throughout the “Axial Age” Bellah argues for a shift from thinking in terms of myth and narrative to analysis steeped in reflexivity and logic, a shift from primarily oral narrative to the use of external memory and graphic invention (79). However, this theoretical turn did not dispense with narrative and mythic culture entirely; indeed, analytic and theoretical thinking were added to the existing narrative worldviews and modified them. Thus, while second-order thinking during the Axial Age gave rise to considerations of the transcendent, these conceptions were ultimately born out a worldview that contained mythic narrative as well as analytical insights. It is within this context of the “radicalization of mythospeculation” that transcendental breakthroughs occurred, not merely with the insights of the theoretical (81). Recognizing the centrality of this point remains key for the study of conceptions of the Ultimate both because it touches upon the cumulative effects of ideas of the transcendent as well as because it notes the centrality of narrative within axial worldviews. Continue reading

Book Review: Religion in Human Evolution (Bellah)

Religion in Human EvolutionRobert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution stands as magnum opus of breathtaking proportions. Developed from the Merlin Donald’s work on cultural evolution, Karl Jasper’s insights on the axial age, and drawing upon a range of historical, anthropological, and biological sources, Bellah traces the evolution of religion within human culture from its origins in primordial play to the theoretical turns of the Axial Age. Central to this argument is that nothing is left behind during the evolution from episodic to theoretical culture through the mimetic and mythic. As a result of this massive study, Bellah argues that the evolution of human religion, which culminated in theoretical religious discourse in axial cultures and refigured preceding mimetic and mythic culture, continues to influence human religion and culture today. Bellah’s latest monograph stands as in-depth treatment of the evolution of human culture that is a must read for those involved in the study of the history and sociology of religions. Continue reading