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History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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More on Armstrong’s Axial Age

November 22nd, 2005 · No Comments

Continuing the question of Karen Armstrong on the Axial Age, previous post here, which you can read first.
Googling Karen Armstrong’s views on a so-called ‘Second Axial Age’ I find a number of seminars on the subject, with this from a conference of the Jesus Seminar. Who should we find present here but Eugenie Scott! Hey wait a minute! I will indulge a moment’s (paranoid) speculation that we are to be treated to a version of the “Second Axial Age” that is sanitized on Darwin. You won’t get away with it. If you propose an Axial Age, or a second Axial Age, you have to declare by what evolutionary dynamic this occurs, and in the process address the issue of Darwinism. Obviously that will kill the sales of Ms. Armstrong’s projected book, and with Eugenie Scott scurrying in the shadows I doubt if we will hear a peep on evolution.

I have a bad feeling about all of this….
Wouldn’t the establishment like a bad book by Armstrong on the Axial Age, one well-behaved on Darwin, a book so bad it will discredit the idea for another generation, and quite possibly deflect attention from my comprehensive treatment of the subject, which is not well-behaved on Darwinism.

The theme of the conference was “The Future of the Judeo-Christian Tradition in the Second Axial Age.” The philosopher Karl Jaspers had coined the phrase “first axial age” to refer to the period from 800 BCE to 200 CE, when virtually every major civilization witnessed the appearance of key religious figures, prophets and sages. The second axial age denotes, according to the Seminar, the revolution in Western thinking from 1600 on produced by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, including the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. The last one hundred years are apparently included by the Seminar in this age, even though other commentators would mark ours as the start of a new historical period: the “postmodern” era.

Here is the crux of the confusion, and we see that the current New Age postmodern strategy is at work. Armstrong’s plans for a book on the (Second) Axial Age is now transparent, complete with a ‘logos-mythos’ version of the issue of God. Armstrong’s pet theme is ‘logos=mythos’, which must mean ‘make it up as you go along’.
The problem lies with the postulation of ‘age periods’. The ‘Axial Age’ points to a definite phenomenon, but there is no ‘age period’ as such called an ‘Axial Age’ save as a descriptive category. If you try to generalize and postulate a ‘second Axial Age’ you are in trouble, you need a definition of ‘age periods’. And there is, for the same reason, no such thing as a ‘postmodern’ age.
The study of the eonic effect completely resolves all these questions, and it is to be hoped that Ms. Armstrong in her declared intent to write a book on this subject get her act together or the result will a hopeless mess. Clearly she will not deign to read my book, so, armed with the power of celebrity bestsellerdom, we will be treated to some real crud.
World History and The Eonic Effect completely resolves this question of ‘axial periods’, ‘age periods’, ‘new ages’, phoney ‘new ages’, postmodern phoney ‘new ages’, gurus promoting postmodern phoney ‘new ages’, plots against modernity, modern freedom, democracy, and spiritual autonomy by gurus promoting postmoern phoney ‘new ages’, … enough?

I also have a tutorial series on the ‘Axial Age’ at
Tutorial on Axial Age

The Jesus Seminar Takes a Bite of the Big Apple

by Alan Bentz-Letts and Ralph Peters

It took a long time for the Jesus Seminar to make its way to New York City. As an extreme example of modern secularization and a center of global power, the Big Apple would seem an inviting location for one of the Seminar’s quarterly meetings. Certainly no effort was spared in securing a truly stellar lineup of speakers for the March 3-6, 2004 gathering at the sleek Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square. Yet the audience turnout was far from overwhelming, and frustration was voiced by at least some participants.

The Jesus Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk as a collaborative enterprise of a self-selected group of biblical, historical and theological scholars who sought to evaluate the sayings of and stories about Jesus for historical authenticity. The publication of The Five Gospels1 and The Acts of Jesus 2 after twelve years of meetings elicited front cover stories in national newsmagazines, as well as much controversy. The Seminar has gone on to other topics (like Paul and the biblical canon), and has also attempted, from its inception, to bring its findings to the general public and, indeed, to the ordinary Christian worshipper in the pew. It has established a large group of interested layfolk, called “associates,” who attend the meetings and provide financial and moral support for the founding organization, Westar Institute.

The theme of the conference was “The Future of the Judeo-Christian Tradition in the Second Axial Age.”3 The philosopher Karl Jaspers had coined the phrase “first axial age” to refer to the period from 800 BCE to 200 CE, when virtually every major civilization witnessed the appearance of key religious figures, prophets and sages. The second axial age denotes, according to the Seminar, the revolution in Western thinking from 1600 on produced by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, including the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin. The last one hundred years are apparently included by the Seminar in this age, even though other commentators would mark ours as the start of a new historical period: the “postmodern” era.

Four subthemes of the conference stand out in retrospect. First, how far can or should the Christian tradition be liberally revised, radically transmuted or even jettisoned altogether in order to carry the essential and enduring elements of faith forward into the future? Second, given our contemporary understanding of the origins of the universe and the ecological crisis, how must Christianity transform itself to harmonize with the new cosmology and to become an earth-friendly religion? Third, what are our moral obligations to church and society in this dawning global age? One of the prominent speakers, James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword,4 focused on the crisis in American Roman Catholicism and the need for a grassroots, laity-led democratization of that church. Fourth, speakers such as Karen King5 and Elaine Pagels6 discussed how the Gospel of Mary and the Gnostic Gospels help us to understand the origins of the Christian movement, as well as its gender politics, and to interpret, in fresh and interesting ways, the books which made it into the New Testament canon. The Gospel of John is a case in point.

In response to the first subtheme, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg and retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong represented a “liberal revisionist” option, while figures such as Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering took a more radical approach. The latter two, heavily influenced by the likes of existentialism and Nietzsche, argued that the word “God” does not refer to any objective reality (the nonrealist position), but only to aspects of the secular, human experience. In response to a question from Cupitt, Marcus Borg, the author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,7 called for a “critical realist” position: God does exist, in some sense, as an independent reality apart from and transcendent of human beings, but the mystery of God defies any attempts to define and capture it in human concepts. It was very interesting to see Borg, a key figure in the Jesus Seminar and an influential critic of traditional Protestant theology, take the more moderate stance here. The Jesus Seminar does not have one monolithic viewpoint; instead, diversity and debate thrive among its representatives.

Anne Primavesi, with her personal roots planted firmly in the nature-sensitive medieval tradition of Celtic Christianity, was ideally equipped to articulate the theological meaning and ethical imperatives which follow from Jim Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Gaia originally designated the earth goddess of ancient Greece. In contemporary scientific terms, Gaia denotes the self-regulating capacities of the atmosphere, the seas and the land working in tandem with the plants, animals and microorganisms of our planet. For example, the sun has increased its heat output directed toward the earth on the order of 25% over the past few million years, yet the earth has not heated up in any corresponding way. The ongoing production of clouds, among many of the mechanisms, reflects the sunlight back into space and keeps the earth more or less “just right” for the flourishing of life.

Eugenie Scott, as Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, has engaged in court battles with creationists all over the country. She stressed that creationism is really a continuum of positions, with significant diversity of ideas.

The final sessions of the conference featuring many of the women speakers were probably the best attended and also the most engaging. Besides Karen King and Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong gave a personal, moving account of her new autobiographical work, The Spiral Staircase.8 This was a welcome break from the overly intellectual atmosphere of the rest of the conference.

Tags: Evolution · The Eonic Effect

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