Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The curse of the axial age

Can I just make an observation? And it's an observation that's gonna make a lot of people, including myself uncomfortable.

But here's what I want to say...

All major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), it seems to me, are all based on the same notion. The notion is that someone (or a group of people) figured it all out 2500 to 1500 years ago (or had a direct transmission from God during that time), that somehow we forgot the thing that they figured out, and now we're all supposed to look backwards (to ancient texts and teachings) for wisdom.

It's hard for me to overstate just how problematic and troubling that is.
  • It's a gross misreading of history -- a retro romanticism that glosses over the fact that many elements of the best moral and ethical systems of those eras are now considered criminal because they are so backwards.
  • It discounts two thousand years of hard-fought progress on human rights, civil rights, women's rights, and environmental protection.
  • It seems to give short shrift to the extraordinary breakthroughs in art, literature, medicine, the sciences (obviously), and psychology.
  • It seems to deny the divinity of every age and inside every person except those from an era that can only be partially understood through archeology.
  • It's an infantilizing notion that excuses us from taking responsibility for our own moral and ethical decisions here and now.
It seems to me that at best we are setting up a screen -- like hanging a sheet back across history -- and projecting all of our modern wisdom and greatness back on an earlier age (that we really don't understand at all -- nor can we really hope to, nor should we want to). At worst, and this is certainly the case with the Taliban and certain Christian fundamentalists in the U.S., we are permanently tying our modern political, economic, and moral systems to a genocidal 1st or 5th century morality -- which is insane.

It just seems to me that it's no wonder our modern world is so screwed up -- we keep walking backwards into the future. I think the challenge is to name and to own the rather advanced moral systems we practice daily (starting with affirmation of equal rights for all people) that has come to us not through religion, but rather through politics, pluralism, democracy, and modernity.

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