Axial Age

Living in an Axial Age – by John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D

Prominent religious thinkers and activists such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry have defined humanity in recent decades as living in an axial age. In simple terms, an axial period is one in which there are major mutations of our social fabric regarding consciousness and social structures.

I believe we today remain living in an axial period announced by the likes of de Chardin and Berry. Living in such an age that occurs every few hundred years in history is both challenging and uncertain. We cannot easily predict the eventual outcome of the transformative process. The significant changes that are likely to occur may move civilization in directions that are productive and fundamentally enriching for all created life forms or, on the contrary, they may enhance the further deterioration of our social fabric and sustainability foundations. People will come to know and experience the final verdict when the current axial age reaches its conclusion. The new age that dawns will retain some forms of previous creational existence. But the new existence will undergo significant, even radical redefinition. 

As I see it, there are several central facets at the core of the present axial age. The first, and arguably the most crucial, is the challenge of climate change. Without a constructive response to this challenge progress cannot occur. The reality we face is that if we fail to meet this challenge of climate change in a constructive and rapid way, progress in other areas will not matter because the earth will no longer be capable of sustaining life in any form. All life will have died.

The window on achieving the necessary changes in our human lifestyle is rapidly closing. Some experts even assert that in fact it has already closed and creational life is beyond redemption. I am not yet at that point. But I remain deeply troubled at the lack of response among the people on our planet. Far too many pursue their daily routines with their eyes closed to this immense challenge which we likely have only a decade to address in a comprehensive way. We desperately need to awaken people to the stark reality of the planet’s current condition as a result of human irresponsibility. We need to appreciate the integration of all created life which Pope Francis has termed a “network of life” and others have called the “web of creation.” We need to reduce the rise in temperature across the globe and protect our oceans and other habitats from contamination. The reliance on fossil fuels and plastics must be severely curtailed and eventually totally eliminated. A hopeful sign is the recent legislation passed by Canada and India to forbid utilization of “single use” plastics in the near future.

These are indeed herculean challenges for the human community. They must be met if we are to come through the current axial age in a longterm sustainable planetary condition. 

Religious communities can and must play an influential role in planetary protection. To do this, however, they need to take a hard look at their record of creating spiritualities which negate earthly existence in favor of a life beyond as Pope Francis has insisted in his encyclical Ladato Si, On the Care for Creation. For Francis, the earth is our common home rather than a temporary place of exile from which we hope to be liberated as quickly as possible. 

Central to the ecological vision for both faith-based and secular leaders dealing with climate change is the need of the human community to embrace biodiversity as integral to the self-definition of humanity, present and future. For faith communities in particular such integration will require jettisoning certain traditional understandings of humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation. Each faith community will need to examine its respective history in this regard. Speaking as a Catholic Christian, I recognize the need for Catholicism to significantly moderate its belief in humanity as a power broker with regard to the rest of creation and repudiate any lingering notions that non-human creation is inert and exists for its manipulation for the human community, The Catholic Church along with other faith communities must develop education programs and ritual observances that firmly root acknowledgement of the centrality of biodiversity in Catholic Christianity’s basic template.

Next to climate change the second challenging aspect of contemporary planetary existence is the presence of nuclear weapons. Their continuing threat has gone largely unnoticed for many people today, especially within the younger generation. This is due to their public invisibility and the lack of any real threat to deploy them in recent decades. Concern about their existence has largely been confined of late to senior members of our population. Younger people are far more concerned about the destructive potential of climate change because of increasing instances of its reality. 

Recently a new awareness of the severe danger inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons has arisen because of the savage war waged by the Russian Federation in Ukraine together with the expiration of various international nuclear treaties and the slim hope of their renewal. New data on the health risks merely resulting from the storage and testing of nuclear weapons has also come to light which runs counter to the 2022 Declaration by the United Nations General Assembly on the basic human right to a clean, sustainable and healthy environment. Efforts are underway to forge a merging of activist efforts to combat these two central threats to creational life. 

A third dimension of our current axial era is the lingering effects of colonialism and racism. These realities have produced fundamental differences in terms of human dignity and access to resources. The Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the the global community are intended to removed these basic inequalities. But they have only been modestly successful and have suffered setbacks in terms of their implementation as a result of the global Covid virus. 

Until these basic socio-economic fissures are overcome creational life will remain unstable and open to political disruptions. In my judgement, only a solid commitment to the democratic vision of social organization tempered by an awareness of international human and creational linkage can meet this challenge. 

Finally, while nation states have a right to protect their borders, a way must be found to enable people who live in oppressive economic and political conditions or situations of growing ecological destruction to migrate to more decent places of habitat. If such a legally regulated opportunity is shut down, we can anticipate periodic social explosions.

Will we as a global community take sufficient action in 2023 in these areas? I cannot predict. But I can say that if 2023 does not begin a serious addressing of the above challenges this axial period will move in the direction of intensified social collapse. 


Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

John Pawlikowski

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