A new Axial Age?

Some years ago I wrote in this column about Fr. George McLean OMI, founder of the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (CRVP – www.crvp.org) and I suggested that in the not too distant future this now deceased philosopher will be recognized as a prophet. Fr. Mclean sensed that around the world the gentle stirrings of the Holy Spirit could be detected among all spiritually inclined people in their burgeoning impetus toward unity. Fortunately, his work and its international and inter-religious outreach live on at the McLean Center at Catholic University where Fr. McLean was the Chair Emeritus in Philosophy.

Recently in correspondence from the CRVP I came across reference to ‘the Axial Age.”  Coined by the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, in 1949 the term refers to the period between the eighth and third centuries BCE when great advances in religion and philosophy occurred independently and almost simultaneously in China, the Middle East, India and Greece. These were the centuries of Confucius, Lao-Tse, the authors of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, not to mention Xenophanes, Heraclitus and later Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. A momentous break from ‘pre-axial’ beliefs resulted in a spiritual transformation which laid the foundation for today’s major religions. The approximate simultaneity of these changes in parts of the world isolated from each other is too remarkable to be dismissed as accidental. It is a mystery. We believers are willing to credit the hand of Providence.

Pentecost is upon us. We now celebrate the birthday of the Church which from an historical perspective – coincidentally or not – came to life soon after the Axial Age. Is it possible, I wonder, that as we enter the ‘New Springtime’ Pope John Paul II foresaw as the third millennium approached we are in fact on the cusp of a new axial age?

Consider our situation today. Global communication, a heightened sense of international inter-dependence, shared ecological concern, all these enhance our awareness of the essential importance of relationship and community. What’s more a growing spiritual malaise has accompanied the expansion of consumerism and of toil-free time.  Honest souls around the world seek deeper meaning in their lives than physical gratification. Is the Holy Spirit about to elevate our understanding so that somehow among the world’s seekers ‘all may be one’ in a unity that celebrates diversity and disallows division?  Having prayed ‘thy will be done’ for two thousand years should we be surprised if God obliges?

These musings are not a prediction. Nor are they a call for the easy-outs of indifferentism or latitudinarianism. Rather they are an invitation to consider the possibility that something great will happen, that in the words of Isaiah the veil that has been cast over all peoples will be lifted.

Our inability to reason how or when such an ‘unveiling’ (the meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’) might occur must not diminish our faith that it will. Again, it will be a mystery. Reason is powerful. But reason relies on words, and words cannot fully capture Mystery. The language of adoration, after all, is silence.

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