The world’s major religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion, including Daoism. With respect to these, only Christianity and Islam didn’t originate directly from the Axial Age in roughly the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the invention of alphabetic literacy led to revolutions in moral and existential self-reflection.
Christianity and Islam are based on Judaism, which did develop from the Axial Age, as did Zoroastrianism which had informed Jewish monotheism during the Babylonian captivity.
The plot thickens if we include secular humanism and neoliberalism among the world’s major worldviews, since they, too, originate from the Axial Age via the advent of ancient Greek philosophy that seeded the European Renaissance, modern philosophy and the Scientific Revolution through the preservation and rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin texts.
Islam is essentially Judaism 2.0, with its single-minded commitment to monotheism and its emphasis on a legal code that marks out God’s newly chosen people.
That leaves Christianity as the outlier, since Christianity is very different from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the world’s largest religious group, with 32.8% of the world’s population, the next largest being Islam with 22.5%. Yet Christianity represents a break from the perennial wisdom that sprang up in the Axial Age.
It’s as though our prehistoric ancestors gathered their pent-up suspicions and insights over the generations, contenting themselves with some artistic expressions, but had to await the invention of a more useful writing system before their ideas could be systematically explored. Those ideas drove the spiritual revolutions that still impact us to this day through the world’s major cultures — excepting Christianity, which has a fraught relationship with the axial perspective.
The Animality of Pre-Axial Tyrannies
To get a clearer picture of the mystery at hand, we need to appreciate what the Axial Age represented. Pre-axial society can be divided very roughly into two periods, those of nomadic hunter-gather tribes and of the subsequent prehistoric civilizations (including those of the Neolithic and the Bronze and Iron Ages).
The former must have presented early Stone Age people with horrific dangers we can barely imagine, because we’re able to entertain only neutered versions of the daily threats they faced, such as when we sit comfortably to watch a horror movie. At least we can assume Paleolithic people’s relative ignorance about the inhuman reality of nature spared them a debilitating grasp of their plight of living in the wilderness as hapless, albeit highly-intelligent primates.
In any case, the dangers were balanced by exhilarating freedom and even abundance, in a sense, since the world was pristine and not yet ravaged by industry. The nomadic tribes hunted large animals with abandon, likely extinguishing numerous species at the end of the Pleistocene.
Eventually, humans turned to farming, we exchanged a nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary one, and our populations rose. Notably, the first civilizations exacerbated the evolutionary method of group management. This is to say that these large societies were highly unequal in their distribution of power, a social structure symbolized so well by the Great Pyramids of Egypt. At the top of these human dominance hierarchies were the minority of rulers, consisting of the royal family and its sub-commanders, followed roughly by the vast powerless majority of the population, the peons.
By contrast, hunter-gather clans were likely more egalitarian by necessity. Unlike, say, in a wolf pack where access to resources is determined mainly by differences in bravery and physical strength, our main adaptation is our intelligence which would have been equally-enough distributed in virtually all Paleolithic people to make them vital to the overriding task of aiding in the group’s survival.
More importantly, the Paleolithic groups were relatively small, no more than a hundred members per band. That meant social dominance had to be exercised face-to-face. Unlike the members of most animal species that aren’t likely to feel ashamed in acting like animals, early humans would have preferred to avoid social conflict, by sharing power, making all members of the group feel important to the communal effort. It was all-hands-on-deck for puny, fragile early humans, as it were, to overcome the odds that are stacked against all animal species in the wild.
What civilization did was create social structures that made the distribution of power impersonal. The populations became so large that the majority may never have seen or spoke to the rulers that dominated them from afar. This was the rise of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, of the theocracy whose chiefs ruled via polytheistic abstractions, with myths and noble lies about the gods and their exploits that happened to justify the patriarchy, slavery, polygamy, and overall oppression that were reflected in the actual civilization.
For several thousand years, the masses must have grown resentful and even the elites may have been ashamed of their corruption. But they were all stuck with the new system, since they’d become effete and decadent and could no longer survive as hunter-gatherers.
The Politics of Axial Mysticism
Along came the innovations in writing such as the Greek alphabet, which made literacy much easier and which facilitated self-reflection, since the writer can stare at and ponder linguistic representations of thoughts. The spread of writing also afforded the intergenerational accumulation of knowledge, which accelerated the intellectual advances.
Behold the explosion of knowledge in the Axial Age! And notice the profundity of the main subject at hand: the existential question of what it means to have a worthwhile life as a person.
The upshot of Greek philosophy, Zoroastrian process theology, Jewish monotheism, the mysticism and asceticism of the Hindu synthesis and of Jainism, Buddhism, and Daoism, and Confucian humanism is a massive, global critique of how most people were being degraded by the impersonal societal structures — by the “modernity” of their time. In essence, the lingering imposition of the Law of Oligarchy concentrated power, corrupted the rulers, and oppressed the majority, forcing the masses to live as though they were less than animals.
The critics were “righteous rebels,” as W.G. Runciman puts it in his contribution to The Axial Age and its Consequences. What these prophets and sages did is seize a moral high ground that hadn’t yet been conceived of or explored, ground that was opened up in part by the use of entheogens and by other means of inducing sublime states of consciousness.
It turned out that even kings weren’t subject only to the natural cycles and instincts that produced tyrannies throughout the animal kingdom. In addition, there was the Good from Plato’s cave analogy; the triumph of morality at the end of time in Zoroaster’s eschatology; the will of the Jews’ Almighty God; the Hindu oneness of Atman and Brahman; the Buddhist tranquility of nirvana; the Daoist spontaneity of nature’s universal Way; and the Confucian sacredness of our moral nature.
What was the point of all these abstractions? What was the end of such revolutionary philosophy and theology? The point was to transcend nature by sharing power, by appealing to a moral and existential equality or unity in a higher, spiritual dimension which we ought to realize here on earth. Whereas polytheism had only reified the bureaucratized dominance hierarchy, a social structure that was wholly bestial, axial-inspired societies would enforce a greater sense of human dignity, as reified by the new emphasis on meta-level thinking.
The righteous rebels envisioned not just the oneness of Emperor and Everyman, but the glory of that common personhood.
Rome’s Taming of Axial Spirituality
At first glance, Christianity seems to carry on the axial revolution even though this religion begins, at best, towards the very end of that first flowering of theoretical thinking. Strip away the hagiography, for a moment, and focus on the social elements of Christianity’s founding narrative.
The story of Jesus is of a righteous rebel, a Jew living in Roman-occupied Judaea. Jews stood for axial, supernatural hyper-morality, whereas Rome was a semi-enlightened but still largely pre-axial empire in terms of its practices and ambitions. Italians in the ancient Roman period were pragmatic, industrious, and even anti-spiritual, taking their pantheon largely from Greece and interpreting spiritual and existential matters in crude, contractual terms.
Jesus appealed to a higher moral order by way of condemning all manner of beastly conduct unbecoming the children of that spiritual plane, and he prophesied the apocalypse and the coming of Judgment Day when the spirit world would engulf fallen nature and all ungodly, amoral villains would be cast into a lake of fire while God’s praises would be reserved for zealous followers of Jesus’s way, for those who cared more about others than themselves.
According to the story, this rebel preacher and miracle-worker was seized by the authorities, tried and executed, but his resurrection and ascension to Heaven vindicated him after his humiliating death.
However, if Christianity were an axial revolt against the injustice of natural social arrangements, the so-called gospel or good news would be that we can and should emulate Jesus to bring about social progress either in this world or the next. But one of the history’s greatest ironies befell early Christianity, which is that the Roman Empire had the gall, in its death throes, to coopt axial spirituality by adopting this offshoot of Judaism as its official religion in the fourth century CE.
If Jesus’s message of rebellion and moral purity had, on the contrary, captured Rome and if Christians had used the husk of that behaviourally-pre-axial empire to spread spiritual enlightenment around the world, there would be no mystery and Christianity could justly be called a flower of the Axial Age. For all the Church’s aping of Jesus’s altruism throughout the centuries, though, that isn’t an incisive representation of this religion’s trajectory, especially with respect to its Western denominations.
The decisive step was the literalization of the Jesus narrative, which favoured Roman polytheism over Jewish monotheism. Jesus became God not by sharing in some axial abstraction (such as the Logos), but with a fleshy incarnation in history. The Romans, Sumerians, Egyptians and other pre-axial empires had already engaged in such apotheosis, but had reserved divinity for the royal family who stood for the chief gods. What official Christianity did was replace a deified alpha with a deified omega; the last truly became first.
As a result, Jesus became as distant from the average Christian as the peon was from the deified emperor. The radical thought of the Axial Age was that we’re all the same when evaluated from an enlightened standpoint. But to hold out an individual as supernaturally superior to everyone else is only to reinstate the evolutionary norm and reinforce our tendency to divide ourselves into a dominance hierarchy. To say that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God and to berate everyone else for their comparative “fallenness” is to say we should worship Jesus rather than our divine potential.
All of which was exacerbated with the Pauline explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death. Borrowing once again from paganism rather than just from Judaism (specifically from the dying-and-rising deity cults), Paul said Jesus died to pay the last-needed price for human sin. Rather than seeing ourselves as divine or as having to emulate Jesus, Christians need only believe in Jesus, confess that he’s their savior and engage in other tokens of loyalty such as baptism and the Eucharist.
Indeed, the Eucharist is a glaring illustration of how far Christianity fell from axial spirituality. Having historicized and thus removed divinity from all other people, Christians had to devise a way to feel united with God. Thus, they said, by eating certain bread and drinking certain wine, they could symbolically ingest Jesus’s flesh and blood.
The more relevant and sane form of communion would be to enjoin the followers of Jesus to act in a Christ-like manner, to sacrifice themselves in denouncing injustice and helping the needy. But precisely that imperative to be authentic in grappling with spiritual matters is ruled out by the influence of Roman conservatism on Christianity, since Jesus already accomplished all the necessary work on the cross! All that’s left for us is to submit to Jesus. Submit to the omega instead of the alpha, the righteous rebel instead of the pharaoh or emperor. For an axial-inspired rejoinder, see the Buddhist adage that if you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him.
The Arbitrariness of Christian Theology
To be sure, there have been dedicated Christian nuns, monks and priests who renounced worldly affairs, but their efforts flow more from the arbitrariness of Christian theology than from the core message of their religion.
Here, for example, are two contrary interpretations of what Christians should do. First, they should emulate Jesus, renounce the world, and practice radical altruism since perhaps Jesus was able to conquer death only because he’d lived such a worthy life.
Second, we might say with Joel Osteen that because Jesus alone saves and Jesus was only one man who lived long ago, our renunciation of the world would be a sinful refusal to accept God’s offer of salvation; on the contrary, we should use the freedom Jesus’s sacrificial death gave us and strive to prosper in this life in material terms, such as by earning a fortune and living like a king in a palace, like Osteen.
There is no resolution to such a theological conflict, because the entire body of Christian theology is arbitrary, based as it is on the initial flagrant incoherence: Jewish monotheism equals Roman polytheism (the Trinity), one man alone equals God, all are precious to God but only one man can satisfy God’s expectations. In short, in the case of Christianity, a pre-axial mindset captured the Jewish version of axial enlightenment. In so far as Christianity reflects that enlightenment in Jesus’s teachings and mission in life, that’s only the means by which the religion effectively sabotages dignified spirituality by shutting the door on axial radicalism.
Indeed, the more axial Christians were evidently the Gnostics whom the Christian institutionalists condemned and persecuted. Gnostics were spiritual individualists, believing that while Jesus may have been a special messenger, we each have the potential to save ourselves by acquiring spiritual knowledge. We all ought to renounce worldly distractions and devote ourselves to the task of spiritually liberating ourselves from fallen nature, to moksha as it’s called in the East.
From the Catholic view, Gnosticism gave far too much power to laypeople, which was antithetical to the business of setting up a religious organization that could serve similarly-compromised secular institutions, beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing throughout the Church’s history to the present day with Trump’s Republican Party. Christian institutionalists deliberately opposed the “heresies” of such individualists and wiped out the axial versions of Christianity.
The kinds of Christianity that are so popular today are mysterious, then, because despite this religion’s connections to the Axial Age, Christianity doesn’t champion axial values but is all-too easily twisted to serve unenlightened interests. The mystery is solved when we consider Christianity’s foundational syncretism with the anti-spiritual, pre-axial Roman culture.
Christianity was effectively an instrument for trapping and neutralizing axial radicalism. The charade of Christian theology is based on contradictions that allow Christians to “prove” whatever they like, including perverse justifications for all manner of amoral, wildly anti-Jesus behaviours. Capitalism, for example, gets the Christian go-ahead from American “Christianity,” as do war and anti-intellectualism. Christianity represents a counter-force to the Axial Age; the revenge of pre-axial, evolutionary social norms; a bastardization of spiritual and existential thought.