Nominal Christians think of the life of Jesus as being paradoxical. According to the myths which are typically misread as historical narratives, Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin and when he came of age, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and he heard the voice of God bless him. Jesus grew up and taught a radical message of peace, performed numerous miracles, started a church that flourishes to this day, and was resurrected after his physical death. His life is supposed to represent a pivotal intersection between the supernatural heavens (which we know of now merely as places in outer space) and the fallen world of Earth. Christianity thus follows the patterns of deification and mythologization that are familiar not just to all historians, but to anyone who’s coped with the loss of a loved one by confabulating and concluding that the dearly departed was the greatest father, mother, husband or wife for whom anyone could have asked. When dealing with a horrific experience, we often enter tunnel vision; far from soberly accepting the statistical fact that none of us has everlasting significance, we glorify those in whom we’ve been emotionally invested, to avoid the awkwardness of having wasted our feelings on something so transient and ultimately inconsequential as another human life.
The Axial Age
Much of the historical context of Christianity was deliberately destroyed by the established churches. Those who rejected the party-line myths or whose deviant form of worship pointed to a larger earthly milieu were demonized and persecuted, their texts burned and their movements wiped out. Then the Church lost its autocratic power as a result of the Age of Reason which began with the Renaissance. And now we’re poised to see, indeed, that the contemporary enlightenment in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries CE wasn’t the first of its kind. It was indeed a re-birth, as indicated by the word “Renaissance,” which means Revival. The most illuminating part of the historical context of Christianity is what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Period. As he writes in The Origin and Goal of History, that was the uncanny “period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being.”
The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato—of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.
Jaspers describes what is new about this age in existential terms: “man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and of his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence.” The cause of these revolutions, says Jaspers, was “reflection. Consciousness became once more conscious of itself, thinking became its own object.”
So this ancient period of enlightenment was both spiritual and philosophical, and a word that encompasses both aspects is “existential.” We might compare, then, the two historical awakenings, the ancient Axial Age and the modern one, by noting that the latter leaves less room for spiritual, psychological or social growth, because its catalysts were advances mainly in technoscience, in an instrumental affair that only presupposes rather than justifies certain ideals. After the medieval Dark Age, reason was wedded not to the self-awareness of Byronic loners but to industrialists. (Romanticism was a movement of counter-Enlightenment in the early 1800s.) Instead of a mass flowering of spiritual insight, Europe and the Americas devised new forms of population control that were made possible by developments in economics and public relations. Instead of efficacious modern religions we had “ideologies” such as the Nazi or Communist utopias and the American Dream of Liberty.
That, though, makes for a larger point of similarity between the two periods of existential enlightenment. As Jaspers wrote,
The age that saw all these developments, which spanned several centuries, cannot be regarded as a simple upward movement. It was an age of simultaneous destruction and creation. No final consummation was attained. The highest potentialities of thought and practical expression realized in individuals did not become common property, because the majority of men were unable to follow in their footsteps. What began as freedom of motion finally became anarchy. When the age lost its creativeness, a process of dogmatic fixation and leveling-down took place in all three cultural realms. Out of a disorder that was growing intolerable arose a striving after new ties, through the re-establishment of enduring conditions.
Thus arose empires of conquest in China (Tsin Shu hwang-ti), India (Maurya dynasty), and the West (Hellenistic and Roman empires). “Everywhere the first outcome of the collapse was an order of technological and organizational planning.”
That which had collapsed as a result of rational enlightenment was the “Mythical Age, with its tranquility and self-evidence.” What the Frankforts call the mythopoeic naiveté of childhood innocence was suspended by the Axial Age of Doubt. Those prehistoric, that is, prehumanistic and regressive myths had codified prejudices and superstitions that had held together tribes and kingdoms since the end of the Paleolithic Era. Once the conventions were questioned, because of the dawning of hyperconsciousness, the multitudes could no longer take their existentially inauthentic modes of life for granted. At least, they had to defer to the newfangled spiritual and philosophical elites whose knowledge and experience were subversive and might have led to mass panic if the majority had had firsthand access to them. The Axial Age liberation was thus relatively short-lived, but there was a long-delayed aftershock after the Dark Age: the Rebirth of Reason, beginning in the 14th C. And arguably, the creative spirit of that latter age has likewise left us in the last century, and we “postmodern” or “post-postmodern” relativists and cynics now absurdly wait for Godot, knowing that no mythical narrative can sooth us.