Jamming this into five-hundred words for a newspaper column is complicated, but stay with me here. It is also important.
Culture is a lens, one given to us at birth and adjusted throughout our lives. Scholars debate whether it is possible to ever change that basic lens, even by living in a different culture. But the more aware we are of how our time and place colors what we see, the more we will in fact, be able to see. For example, Columbus Day used to be unambiguous. Today, we understand that the arrival of Europeans on this continent is not something to be celebrated by everyone and some would say, anyone.
The European culture that shaped much of American history and society, dates the current epoch of history from the birth of Jesus. Never mind that no one knows the year Jesus was born, five hundred years later someone named Dionysius declared when it was. Now, everything before that year is BC (before Christ) and everything after AD (Anno Domini, “in the Year of Our Lord”). Meanwhile, less than a third of the world is Christian.
Perhaps even more problematic, Jesus is not the appropriate marker for the epochal dividing line. In fact, Jesus and Mohammad are extreme historical stragglers of an epoch that began centuries before them.
The Axial Age is a period of human history thought to be the crucible in which modern humanity was fashioned. Exact dates are difficult when dealing with mythic figures and events in the ancient world, but somewhere between 800 and 200 BCE a revolution of thought took place that changed human history. (BCE – “Before the Common Era” – and CE, are used instead of BC or AD in recognition that Jesus is not culturally universal).
In those six hundred years (or so), something happened simultaneously across continents even though there was little co-mingling between cultures. There emerged great philosophical and spiritual thought-systems and imagination that came to shape the world as we know it today: a host of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah in the Levant or Al-Mashriq; Zarathustra, the Persian prophet of Zoroastrianism; Confucius and Lao-Tzu in China; the Upanishads and Buddha in India; Socrates and Plato in Greece. In short, brilliant new ways of seeing and interpreting the world arose, and mysteriously they were laced with similar and complimentary ideas and beliefs. These ways of seeing led to new ways of organizing and doing that consequently created modern human civilization.
Human ideas, the way we see and interpret the world, are evolutionary. Sometimes the speed at which they develop is revolutionary. The Axial Age was a period of seismic change in human thought and perception and some folks say such a change is happening now. We cannot quite see it or measure it because we are in the thick of it. Yet new awareness from a changing lens seems to be opening at the same moment the fading old epoch is being fiercely held onto. The more aware we are of how our time and place colors what we see, the more we will in fact, be able to see.