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The eonic evolution of religion

December 27th, 2008 · No Comments

The question of the evolution of religion in world history is one of the most complex issues. We are in a complete muddle on the whole question. But the study of the eonic effect gives us a new way to look at the question, and unravels one of the most complicated facets of the Axial Age, religion, and its continuation. Here is another passage from World History And The Eonic Effect. It is out of context slightly (buy the book!) and requires the larger discusssion about the development of the eonic model, but the basic ideas are reasonably clear, perhaps.

The Eonic Evolution of Religion

In the wake of the modern transition, right on schedule, we find a resurgence of religious tradionalism, indeed, fundamentalism, endangering the fragile achievement of secularism, and giving us a sense of déjà vu as we note the fate of the Greek Axial and its birth of rationalism (next to the Indic). Quite apart from this consideration, we suddenly inherit a better sense of the nature of religious development over the course of world history, the eonic evolution of religion. But the (eonic) evolution of religion is one of the most complex problems of history. Perhaps now we have a key: with the idea of relative transforms, and stream and sequence overlays. The material in this section can seem baffling, but keep in mind that our only method is that of periodization. There is hardly any mystery to the method. What it points to is the problem of categorizing ‘religion’ at all, at a time when dogmas of historized divinity are seen increasingly to be mythological.
In a nutshell, the issue is simple. Anyone can found a religion at any time, but, as an empirical observation, those emerging in the Axial interval, or any part of the eonic sequence, show a coherence and amplification that gives them a momentum, and a seminal character overshadowing the rest. Thus, our method is simple: we have to separate the general course of religion in general from the result of its intersection with the eonic effect, or eonic sequence, as we will call it. Once we do that the puzzle evaporates. We have spoken of the ‘eonic evolution of civilization’, and can also extend this to the ‘eonic evolution of religion (or science)’. These are formal terms, less profound than they look, cut from the mould of our periodization. The point is that the stream of religious history intersects with the eonic sequence, and a new potential for religion is created. In fact, all we can do is describe a phenomenon we don’t understand. If an intermittent long sequence is overlaid on a series of continuous streams the result would be about what we see historically, in a limited range. The gist is simple, two great religions arise in the mainline of the eonic sequence. Note the distinction of macro-action and micro-action: the creation of a religion is a freely open possibility at any time. The results, however, that occur in the eonic sequence are deeper, or, at least, have greater momentum.
Our discussion of the evolution of freedom, despite its seeming political cast, connects to this at once if we look at religion, on the one hand, as the consideration of the freedom of the individual in the sense of ethical agency, and, on the other, the collective ‘religion’ or ‘re-ligion’, rebinding, of that individual in terms of community. In modern terms, one would ask here, why bother with the second? Isn’t the first the only religion? But we see, like it or not, the dilemma of our freedom and necessity discourse all over again as the historical induction of religion produces all the dilemmas of the state in a different form. The final version of this, Islam, shows the point directly, as an entire socio-political world is created around a religion. We ought to be mindful of the way an eonic sequence allows us to appreciate different worlds, even as the modern transition presses the reset button, and moves against its previous steps. This confusing point has nearly undone modern secularism. The theocratic blend of religion and state is a clear Axial emergent process: the obvious aim is to mediate and tame the State. But in the modern transition the process goes into reverse, as the secular state moves to liberate itself from religious interleaving.

Limits of the eonic model: Our model must enforce its own discipline: its discrete-continuous character tells us that its action is confined to the intervals of transition. Therefore we can’t use the model to explain the mideonic outcomes, except by way of general diffusionist influence from those transitions, as these tend to generate oikoumene structures. It seems as if our transitions are purposively generating (religious or other) oikoumenes. But a close look at Israel shows at best the generation of potential, with premonitions of some future beside the almost humdrum concern for an evanescent Canaanite state. Prophets are prophets, but their predictions are so-so, inspirational, but vague, and it is not very controversial, or particularly teleological, to say our transitions will generate oikoumenes. Thus we have no sure grounds for explaining teleologically the emergence of descendant religions, e.g. Christianity and Islam, except in broad strokes, as clearly sequentially dependent on, but not determined by, their Axial inspiration. Taken this way these religions clarify considerably, save that their transcendental character is a highly dubious ideological myth created by their adherents, who clearly struggled to grasp the eonic character of their situation, and almost got it right. We don’t know. Our model gives us no dogmatic grounds for ersatz explanations of the sourcing of Christianity, save that it clearly began to work on Israelite Axial raw material, a rich source of fertilizer indeed. But we can’t be dogmatic on these issues. We have cut our losses confronted with such a complex system. A better model might show a more exact teleological explanation, but ours simply throws light on a series of transitions and then stops. Our model, like a tangent to a curve, simply touches history at a few points, and that is it. Note the issue of dates, and timing here. The Israelite transition occurs on schedule in a greater sequence, macro-action. The onsets of Christianity, (what we now call) Judaism, and Islam are relatively arbitrary constellations of micro-action.

We should remember that ‘Israel/Judah’ was a state in the context of empires, and a ‘religion’ emerged from that, still bearing all the traces of its theocratic statist origins. Nor can we safely ascribe any teleological process to what we see, although the temptation is severe. For, clearly, as Christians realized, the match was peculiar: should they annex the Old Testament or simply start from scratch? And the progeny then proceeded to overtake the entire Roman Empire. So the connection is completely transparent, whether or not we find any of this the ‘true essence of religion’ or not. We should note that primitive Buddhism associated with our pattern was a revolt against society, and induced the individual to renounce the ‘state of civilization’ to seek his own salvation outside of the state. But within two centuries there was a Buddhist empire. And the appearance of Mahayana Buddhism is direct concert with Christianity is another reminder of the integrated complexity of our eonic sequence and its effects. Whatever the case, the mystery of religion is discovered in the permutations and combinations of our freedom consideration, and the evolution of man’s self-consciousness. Religions end in the mechanization of social ideology, and rarely serve this purpose. We must also remember the absurdity of discussing ‘religion’ in the abstract as a category in itself. What religion is, changes drastically at each stage of history. The system of medieval Papacy was as surely a form of ‘state/empire’ as the Roman. Most discussions of religion now assume the gestures of Luther who created a ‘revolution against this state’.
Religions and relative transformations There could hardly be a less satisfying abstraction, at first, than the idea of a ‘relative transformation’ applied to religion. But the idea can help to disentangle ourselves from the strange dynamics of ‘religion’ seen in world history. Religions appear, grow, evolve, at all times, but those that cross the boundary of the eonic effect often end up with a special status that leaves us with a sense of ‘revelation’. Examples are the proto-Judaism and Buddhism of the Axial period, and the Protestant Reformation. The latter is the clearest case of a relative transform, i.e. something that was there before suddenly remorphing in a larger sequence pattern. Note that Confucius/Lao Tse and the Ionian Enlightenment are simple disguised examples of the same process, which thus has no intrinsic connection with ‘religion’.
We focus on this, one of the subtlest points of our thesis, for a specific reason, among others, that it will help to define the ‘secular’ age in which we find ourselves. The secular philosophy of history is the object of much criticism for its supposed shallowness, and one might consider, for example, Karl Lowith’s acute examination and critique. But what was the objection, apart from the confusions of Darwinian scientism? The modern philosopher of history is indicted as a secularist. In fact, in our analysis the ‘secular’ shows eonic macro-action, which the great religions of Christianity do not.
And we may with some irony trace the Zoroastrian theme through the modern period, as the recycling of a myth. And then go back and trace it once again as recycled in a previous cycle of the eonic effect, the emergence of the Judeo-Christian tradition. That the term ‘secular’ should derive from the word ‘saeculum’ and merely suggest a new age is a reminder that the legacy of the Old Testament is a secular as the ‘modern’ in this dictionary sense. Our words fail us at this point. There is no ultimate distinction between sacred and secular history once we factor in the eonic effect. The ironic fact is that we are in the same position as the original observers of the modernist eonic transition, to use our developing term, armed with a superset of data calling for a new interpretation, as universal history. We should further note that the same conflict between old and new that we see in modern times is clearly present in the radical Judaic tradition creating its new tradition.
We are confronted by the myth of Revelation as an ‘eonic effect’, and the paradox of discontinuity in continuity, with the strange contradiction this creates. We have no evidence whatever of the action of divinity in the history. In fact, we have something much more remarkable, ‘what the Israelites must have really meant’, that does not square with current ‘secular’ thought. The effect can be seen from studying the Hellenic parallel, and thinking how we would take an account of Socrates discoursing with Athena on the Parthenon, had the Greek epic postdated the Greek Enlightenment, rather than preceded it.
Witness the near simultaneity of parallel emergent culture in the world of Archaic and Classical Greece, or the China of the period of Confucius. What is going on? The secular enlightenment is born in this period in parallel, making a mockery of a series of Comtean age periods, sacred followed by secular. We could as well say an early form of modern thought emerges in the Greek Enlightenment. The clue is to see the spectrum stretching from philosophy to religion to science, and to see the unity of the diverse manifestations in disguise. Then the resemblance of all of them to the rise of the modern will stand out. We need to consider that the transformation indicated in the concept of the ‘Axial’ age seems independent of its content, and like a wave simply bobs the phenomena it finds already in place. But there can be so simple theistic explanation of the fact that this period produces two religions, one theistic, the other atheistic. There is no absolute category of ‘religion’.
Thus it is obvious, although strange, that religions can and do arise potentially at all times, yet the ones that carry the day show the signature of the Axial period, as if they were being amplified or transformed as they cross a temporal boundary. The only explanation here is some idea of an intermittent sequence, calling up the elements already in place and producing something new from what was already there. That is what we will call the ‘eonic evolution of religion’, and we suspect that it earlier and later signatures in disguise in the model we will construct. We also suspect the birth of this sequence even before the rise of the state in the era of the Neolithic. Thus religions are evolving on two levels. The following will become clearer once our model is established. But the point lies in the question, e.g. what of Christianity (indeed, late Judaism), Islam or the Mahayana?
We are left to ask the nature of religion itself. Here we must see that while the eonic evolution seems to take it to new heights, the factor of mechanization is not religious. Our later discussion of the so-called ‘fundamental unit of historical analysis’ will help here, in part. The confusing entanglement of a strange frequency phenomenon with the essential meaning of religion creates a muddle from which we might hope to free ourselves. One of the confusions, as noted, of the Axial Age concept is that it mimics the idea of an age of revelation. But the problem here, as noted, is that we see the continuous appearance of religions before, during, and after the crucial era, yet we have an especial mystery attached to those that arise in a narrow band pointed to by Jaspers. Thus Buddhism seems to be a cousin to the Judaic exemplar, and appears in an entirely different context, yet proceeding from its ‘Axial’ source outward in the generation of an oikoumene. Christianity and Islam appear in a seemingly contingent fashion quite outside this seminal period. The issue will resolve itself as we go in search of the ‘fundamental unit of historical analysis’ and its transformations, state, empire, and religion.
The sudden reappearance of a strong ‘secular’ civilization, in what is almost a surprise attack on the European fringes of Eurasia dominated by religious formations, echoes the Ionian Enlightenment, so to speak, and reamplifies a lost strain of world history. The theme of Reason in history rises to challenge, and to fulfill, the trend, leaving the deeper question of the place of religion in the future. The significance of Spinoza, for example, and then of Kant, and others, is already forgotten in the ill-conceived effort to replace religion with a positivistic scientism, a gesture doomed to fail. As we will see these developments are as valid datasets in the ‘eonic evolution of religion’ as anything in antiquity, the concept of ‘revelation’ being shown up for what it is, an eonic myth, and returned to the domain of philosophical enquiry.
Note: The eonic evolution of religion: macro-action This phrase joins the list of terms for our model. We begin to see that the history of religions shows two aspects, its continuous particulars of spiritual culture and the intersection with some larger sequencing on a higher scale. It is this that generates the illusion of an Age of Revelation (no illusion, in our terms). We have the seeds of an explanation for the Judaic myths, and the remarkable historical data that accompanies it in the ‘history of Israel’, now seen in a new light. We will begin to suspect a much earlier history to all this, even predating the rise of civilization, and going back to the Neolithic.
…vs. religion as mideonic free action: micro-action The eonic effect reflects the distinction between our sense of sourcing religions and what comes in their wake, and the composers of the Christian Bible struggled with this obvious point in their own terms. They could see that the Old Testament period was somehow ‘special’ and their teleological confusions in relation to that are the stuff of some quite dangerous history. We will see that our eonic model faithfully reflects this aspect of eonic determination in the proto-Judaic generator, as compared with the ‘sequential dependency’ of Christianity and Islam. Let us not forget that the latter show ‘free action’ and were driven to construct their own mysteries of the supernatural. The mere existence of ‘several’ such reminds us indeed that they were arbitrary ‘free action’. Note that the Axial period, by our hypothesis, comes on schedule, while the mideonic religions show relative contingency. We cannot give them eonic status. We don’t have to, and they don’t need it.

Tags: Third Edition · World History and The Eonic Effect

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