Friday, January 6, 2012

Individualism in the axial age?

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Click for an awesome book symposium
at The Immanent Frame blog
Two years ago, when I started reading more "hardcore" academy nerd literature (especially philosophical writing about secularity), I was gifted to find a wonderful online resource, perfect for an almost-digital-native such as myself: The Immanent Frame blog. One of the features of this blog is that they consistently have a significant work of scholarly literature being discussed in an interdisciplinary book symposium. In fact, that was how the blog was born in 2007, with the release of philosopher Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Most recently they have been posting responses, praises, and questions related to sociologist Robert Bellah's landmark book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. I've been reading all these posts with great interest, since there is little chance I'll read the book itself, which sits at a hefty 784 pages.

The most recent post comes from historian of religions, Wendy Doniger: Axial axioms, where she brings her specialty on religious history in India to bear on Bellah's work. In an otherwise fascinating post, I was struck by her following statement:
The new religious movements of the axial age [sometime between 600 and 400 BCE; this includes biblical Israel, see below] located the problem of the human condition, of human suffering, within the individual heart and mind (where Freud, too, located it), rather than in a hierarchical society (where Marx located it). In this way, at least, these movements were individualistic — “Look to your own house”... — rather than socially oriented... This in itself was a tremendous innovation. (Emphasis mine.)
What follows is my amateurish rejoinder...

 This, to me, seems like a particular construal of "religion" that is read back into history, a serious charge given that Doniger is a historian. As William T. Cavanaugh has pointed out in The Myth of Religious Violence, "religion" in modernity has come to function as a descriptor for something that is, among other things, private (individualistic). So it may be that Doniger has a particular idea of what constitutes "religion" before she goes to her historical task, and that construal of religion just so happens to resemble what counts as "religion" in much of the humanities and social sciences (cf. her reference to Freud).

I won't argue with Doniger on religious history in India one little bit, but her claim that this individualistic move happened in "[t]he new religious movements of the axial age" puts biblical Israel in the mix, and Bellah himself addresses Israel in his book. My theological education, which has included theological politics (Cavanaugh) and theological history (John Howard Yoder) and theological ethics (Yoder and Hauerwas), has cautioned me against such an individualistic construal of religion per se, not to mention the very notion of "religion per se."

The "new religious movement" of biblical Israel was constituted not by a conflict confined to "the individual heart and mind." It was rather (see me move to the theological) Yahweh's choice of a particular group of people, called out from the nations to be a priestly kingdom, for the sake of God's reconciling work in all of creation, not just the salvation of individual souls with their individual hearts and minds. (Now I'm offending academic historians and evangelical Christians.) This does not eradicate the individual but rather situates them in a particular order of creation, social and environmental.

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