In Review

Religion in the Age of Kant and Bacteria

Lucinda Friendly Murphy, Evolution, Life Origins #57 (2006). Acrylic and collage on paper, 38”x50”

By Suzanne Smith

In the wake of Germany’s surrender to the Allies on May 8, 1945, and the subsequent occupation of the country by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, the occupying powers had to weigh the benefits to be secured by reopening German universities with the risks of restoring Nazi academics to their positions. By the summer of that year, however, the deteriorating health of the war-weakened German population and the severe shortage of doctors forced the hand of the officials in charge.1 It had become apparent that the medical schools, at least, would have to be reopened, despite the fact that their faculties unquestionably still harbored Nazis. On August 14, 1945, then, the School of Medicine at Heidelberg was reopened, with a ceremony featuring a speech by German philosopher Karl Jaspers.

In his address, Jaspers exhorted his audience to feel “confidence and fortitude in the face of a grim reality.” At the same time, he warned against overconfidence, observing that there was no question of returning to prewar Weimar illusions.

Too many things have happened. . . . [W]e ourselves are no longer the same as we were in 1933. . . . We might have sought death when the crimes of the regime came to light on June 30, 1934; when our Jewish friends and fellow-citizens were robbed, deported and murdered; when to our everlasting shame the synagogues of all Germany were blazing. . . . We chose to survive on the weak but correct ground that our death would amount to nothing. Our guilt is to be still alive.2

Jaspers suggests that whatever sense of solidarity the survivors might have held for their Jewish friends had not extended to insisting upon sharing their fate. The war had exposed the relative frailty of the bonds of friendship and citizenship alike.

For Jaspers, this was a problem, not only for Germany, but for the whole world. In The Question of German Guilt, the published version of remarks he made to students at Heidelberg in the winter of 1945–46, Jaspers proposed a means by which both individuals within Germany and those in the world beyond could begin to see themselves as bound to one another in a single moral community.

It is only now that history has finally become world history—the global history of mankind. . . . What is taking place is a crisis of mankind. The contributions, fatal or salutary, of single peoples and states can only be seen in the framework of the whole, as can the connections which brought on this war, and its phenomena which manifested in new, horrible fashion what man can be.3

Jaspers employs the rhetoric of crisis to suggest that the world stood in need of a new mode of global historical consciousness, one which would allow individuals to perceive people who belonged to groups other than their own as individuals in their own right, and as fellow members of a common whole.

In his 1949 book, The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers attempts to foster just such a new mode of historical consciousness. His concept the “Axial Period” denotes a “spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 BC,” during which “Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being . . . India produced the Upanishads and Buddha . . . in Palestine the prophets made their appearance . . . Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers.”4

Jaspers’s hope was that an empirically ascertainable series of events and appearances suggestive of spiritual commonality could serve as a focal point to which seekers of the war-torn world could turn as a source of ultimate meaning, a prompt to communication, and a shared story of what it means to be human. A moment in which extraordinary events were concentrated, rather than a divine-human figure, a place, or a unique act of divine self-disclosure, was to serve as a spiritual and conceptual equivalent of Jerusalem or Mecca, an “ever-recurrent” (The Origin and Goal of History, 7) point of figurative ingathering. Yet the Axial Period is understood by Jaspers to have “ended in failure” (20) in historical terms, its putative persistence as a perduring point of spiritual and intellectual orientation notwithstanding.

As it turned out, Jaspers’s hopes were not realized. If his version of world history prompted an uptick in communication, it was not readily discernable. Among the fairly small number of academics who are concerned with the notion of an Axial Age, it does not primarily serve as the basis of a shared story of what it means to be human. Rather, it is the subject of a wide range of debates.


Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert N. Bellah. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 784 pages, $39.95.

The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 560 pages, $39.95.

Book cover for Religion in Human Evolution

Religion in Human Evolution by Robert Bellah

Two recent books offer us points of entry into those debates. The first, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by the late, eminent American sociologist Robert Bellah, attempts not only to utilize the concept of the Axial Age in a novel theoretical framework, but also, more generally, to recover the project of metanarrative, while inoculating it against the ostensibly destructive (because imperialistic or totalizing) tendencies that have so frequently been ascribed to it in the wake of postmodernism. The second, more modestly sized (but still hefty enough) book, The Axial Age and Its Consequences, is a collection of essays edited by Bellah and Hans Joas, in which a number of distinguished scholars in different disciplines address the circumstances, ramifications, and inquiries attendant upon the period in question.

As Bellah sees it, “our” metanarrative is not world history (contra Jaspers), but rather the theory of evolution. In Religion in Human Evolution, he remarks: “I do believe we need to speak of evolution, which is the only shared metanarrative among educated people of all cultures that we have, but in a way that shows the dangers as well as the successes in evolution and that is not afraid to make distinctions between good and evil” (600). This means that the story of evolution is not a story beyond good and evil. But what can we say about the story of evolution aside from saying what it is not? What does it have to do with the story of religion?

Before turning to these matters, it is worth reflecting a bit on the process of how Bellah arrived at a book that is intellectually capacious enough to give rise to such a wide range of inquiries. Of his many books and articles, Bellah’s best-known prior work on the topic of religion and evolution is his seminal 1964 essay, “Religious Evolution,” which focused on “evolution in the sphere of religion.” Comparatively speaking, his new book might be said to focus on religion in the sphere of evolution. Although Bellah is primarily concerned with human evolution, that process is treated as part of a larger evolutionary trajectory which has its origin long prior to the rise of religion—and, indeed, to human beings themselves. He does not just ask us to consider our “familiar cousins” (93) in the animal world, such as chimpanzees. Rather, we are asked to go back to the beginning, and consider “unicellular organisms in the primeval sea” (xi).

In order to get from the primeval sea to such places as ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India in the space of one book, even one of considerable length, Bellah must create a theoretical and narrative framework supple and expansive enough to accommodate radically diverse settings. Within that framework, he reflects upon the role of religion in each geographical setting in relation to the historical moment. Before doing so, however, he reflects upon evolution and its relationship to history and religion.

For Bellah, the story of evolution assumes the existence of variation and selection. He builds upon and complicates that story by attending to the question of human cognitive evolution (aided by the work of cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald), understood as the process in which the physical evolution of the human brain occurs in tandem with changes in culture, with the effect that human beings develop new cognitive capabilities over time that create, shape, and are shaped by shared cultural resources. The mechanisms by which these developments occur are rooted in biological mechanisms, again, operating in tandem with culture, but Bellah wants to show that a metanarrative of humanity that takes evolution into account does not, for that reason, exclude questions of meaning and purpose as well as of extravagance and freedom: “it may even turn out,” Bellah suggests “that it is ‘functional’ to have spheres of life that are not functional” (xx).

To Bellah’s mind, religion arises within just such a sphere: that of play, understood as the exercise of freedom within a relaxed, experiential field. He starts with a description of animal play and proceeds to that of the human play out of which he thinks religion emerges. This strategy reflects his broader sense that, when one begins thinking about the relative places of human and nonhuman beings in evolution, one is led toward territory that has traditionally been the province of religion: “What evolution as a whole means gets us into large issues, which almost inevitably become issues of ultimate meaning that overlap with religion” (xiii).

What Bellah’s book provides, then, is an overarching narrative-historical framework that includes both biological history and religion. Within that framework, we find various means of articulating a boundary between experiential worlds, one understood to be ordinary, and the other, extraordinary (the sphere of the sacred, of something set apart). “[O]ne of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life,” Bellah aptly observes, “is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time” (3). In order for the world from which we regularly flee to be identified as a settled state from which we seek to gain distance, it must be understood relative to some other vantage point, from which we might identify daily life as “ordinary.” There is no such thing as the ordinary world of everyday (and its characteristic activity, work) if there is no such thing as the extraordinary day, the holiday, with its characteristic cessation of work, and turn to rest.

The distinction between ordinary and extraordinary worlds is, of course, neither internal to nature nor eternal. It was first articulated in human religious practice, which changed over the course of time to accommodate a number of different means of securing distance—and freedom—from the ordinary, workaday world. Bellah argues that this distance was often secured through the renunciation of the ordinary world:

Buddhism provided a radical form of the renouncer, whose initial act is to “leave home” and who thereafter remains permanently homeless. If the renouncer is “nowhere,” then he, and sometimes she, can look at established society from the outside, so to speak. It is not hard to see the Hebrew prophets as, in a sense, renouncers, though I have also called them denouncers. They too stood outside the centers of power, attempting to follow the commandments of God, whatever the consequences. (574–575)

The Axial Age, for Bellah, is the age of the renouncer par excellence. In order to connect this notion to his metanarrative of evolution, he casts the renouncer in the role of theorist; correspondingly, the culture influenced by the appearance of Axial Age theorists becomes “theoretic culture.”

Overall, Bellah accepts the notion that an Axial Age existed. He goes so far as to claim that “Our cultural world and the great traditions that still in so many ways define us, all originate in the axial age” (269). But he sees a problem arising from the fact that “In discussing the axial age it is all too easy to read in our own presuppositions or to take one of the four cases (usually Israel or Greece) as paradigmatic for all the others” (272). It is explicitly for the purpose of correcting this tendency that Bellah invokes a theoretical framework informed by the work of Merlin Donald, according to which human culture and cognition evolved in three evolutionary stages spanning millions of years.5 “In the first millennium BCE,” Bellah observes, “theoretic culture emerges in several places in the old world, questioning the old narratives . . . and their mimetic bases, rejecting ritual and myth as it creates new rituals and myths, and calling all the old hierarchies into question in the name of ethical and spiritual universalism” (xix). The Axial shift is supposed to mark the arrival of the evolutionary stage of “theoretic culture” and of the universal, egalitarian ethics to which that stage corresponds. Bellah points out that “moral upstarts—prophet-like figures who, at great peril to themselves, held the existing power structure to a moral standard”—began to emerge prior to the Axial Age (573). In his view, it is only during the Axial Age, however, that “such challenges to the dominant cultural order became widely apparent” (573).

After reflecting upon tribal and archaic religion, Bellah launches into a sweeping account of the Axial shift as it occurred in his four Axial cultures. Here, I shall focus on Bellah’s account of Axial Age Israel, which represents a major correction of Jaspers’s account of the same topic and, by extension, the other writers, both academic and popular, whose versions of the Axial Age have been influenced by Jaspers.

As is well known, Jaspers, in looking around for figures in the religion of ancient Israel he can fit into his model of Axial Age exemplars, zeroes in on select prophets, “from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah” (The Origin and Goal of History, 2). He lumps them into a group (including the philosophers of the period) that, experiential differences aside, turns out to be very much in sync with the concerns of twentieth-century liberal German existentialists. Jaspers’s Axial man confronts the void “face to face” (2). For the first time, “Human beings dared to rely on themselves as individuals” (3). One would never know from Jaspers that the prophets (even the ones he identifies as Axial figures) are commonly represented as having understood themselves to be profoundly dependent upon God.

All this changes with Bellah. The revolution with which he is centrally concerned is the Deuteronomic rather than the prophetic revolution. When Bellah does discuss the prophets, he correctly points out that “the prophet is never a ‘private individual’ ” (317). For Bellah, “What is critical . . . is that we try to understand what Deuteronomy, and by extension, the Pentateuch, the Torah, is doing, for that is the heart of all subsequent Jewish piety. If there was an ‘axial breakthrough’ in Israel it is here if anywhere that we shall find it” (313).

What does Bellah find? Not surprisingly, covenant: “What is fundamental here is that the Torah is a covenant between God and his people, constitutive of a new understanding of self and world,” and his related claim, “also key is that the covenant is contained in a text, a text that in critical respects supersedes kings, prophets, and sages, though not the necessity of interpretation” (314). This emphasis on Torah needs to be understood as being, among other things, a polemical correction of Jaspers’s narrow emphasis on the prophets as the biblical vehicles through which a new mode of being was opened up for humanity.

What does the triumph of the Deuteronomists, as Bellah would have it, have to do with the rise of theoretic culture, which is supposedly the hallmark of the Axial Age? The answer to this question is not readily apparent, as Bellah himself is well aware. “To the extent that we have made theory . . . the criterion of axiality, Israel remains a problematic case” (321). Bellah invokes rhetoric as a sort of stunt double for theory (pointing out that Israelite rhetoric entailed forensic argument, which in some sense entails putting theory into action under pressure) and then turns to narrative.

At the risk of generalizing, one might say that what individual reflection is for Jaspers, shared narrative is for Bellah. It is not just that narrative is, to his mind, “the way we understand our personal and collective identities” and the “source of our ethics, our politics, and our religion” (280); it is also the vehicle through which profound religious change happens and where it registers. According to Bellah, the Axial shift in Israel “was attained through a cultural medium that never gave up narrative as the fundamental framework. . . . This leads us to ask if the ancient Israelites were not using narrative in a new way . . . that was effectively a functional equivalent for theory—not, to be sure, for the analysis of nature, but for the understanding of human existence” (322).

Bellah’s claim that “the historical framework of the Hebrew Bible is metanarrative big time” (322) should not be taken to mean that he is implying that it fails to do theoretical work: indeed, it prompts the question of just what it is that we take theory to do, especially in relation to and in conjunction with narrative. In the end, one wonders how many theories from the Axial Age (if any) fall entirely outside of a hybrid category of narrative-theory, such as Jan Assmann’s “mythospeculation,” which Bellah employs to good effect. Bellah’s claim that the Axial breakthrough “involved a radicalization of mythospeculation but not an abandonment of it” (276) is a strong formulation of his argument about the coactivity of theory and narrative in this period.

Line drawing of cellular organisms

Lucinda Friendly Murphy; “Evolution, Repetition with Change” 2007 #23; Chinese ink on paper; 22″ x 30″


On one level, Bellah wants to suggest that narrative may do theory and that theory may require narrative. In the context of Bellah’s specific interest in the Deuteronomists, however, the central question is how theory relates to law. In invoking rhetoric instead of law in his discussion of how to view ancient Israel, Bellah bypasses this question. It is an unfortunate omission. That said, he persuasively revises Jaspers’s account of the Axial Age. For Bellah, the Axial Age marks the point in human evolution at which theory becomes available as an option in addition to practices and stories, without invalidating the latter or becoming wholly disembedded from them. This means that practices and stories are as essential to an understanding of human beings as we know them today as is theoretical reflection.

The elegant and intricate structure of Bellah’s book is vast enough to accommodate a number of different formulations of this claim, some of which are more effective than others. It is not clear that theoretic culture emerged “in dialogue with mythic culture” (273) (a claim which suggests a rejoinder to Jaspers’s notion that the Axial Age marks the end of “the Mythical Age”). With respect to Bellah’s account of Israel, perhaps we do not so much see a “dialogue” of theoretic culture with mythic culture as we do the idea of narrative that, in his account, actually does something like theory without engaging with a discernably separate entity which we may clearly identify as theory.


Bellah’s treatment of Israel sheds light on the challenges entailed in sorting out the relationship between particularistic narratives and universalistic theory and ethics. He wants to argue that the Axial shift in Israel did not unambiguously mark the triumph of universalistic norms. Thus, in his discussion of the idea of chosenness, he brings up the question of love:

. . . the recognition of love must be personal, it cannot be general. God must recognize someone, to begin with, and if from that someone something new comes into being, a people constituted not by loyalty to an earthly ruler but by loyalty to God, that too must be a particular people. Certainly the religion of ancient Israel moved powerfully toward the recognition of justice, and here the beginnings of a larger context, how one treats the aliens for example, developed. But without the continuing insistence on particularity it is hard to see how the Israelite axial breakthrough could have been preserved. (320)

Particularity shows up as a precondition and product of love, but also as a preservative for the Axial breakthrough to “the recognition of justice,” with respect both to the idea of a God who is held accountable to justice (even as he is understood to be its source) and to the idea of just and loving treatment of resident aliens.

Here, particularity—even when it is associated with one group being singled out by God—is no scandal. In fact, from the perspective of human cultural evolution, “the continuing insistence on particularity” (as manifested in narrative content and structure) is a necessary safeguard to and vehicle for the transmission of what Bellah calls “the larger context.” Some measure of exclusiveness (here, registered as the unequally distributed personal recognition entailed in love) is necessary as a condition of the furtherance of norms entailing openness to others beyond one’s group. But is it desirable in and of itself? Bellah does not pursue this question. He does make the useful point that “the particularity of Israel is only relative: the two ‘universal’ religions that emerged from Israelite origins [Christianity and Islam] had their own quite particular beginnings that have defined them ever since” (320).

From the perspective of Bellah’s model of human evolution, the notion of chosenness does not pose a problem because it preserves universal values, such as justice, that benefit everyone. Yet Bellah’s model of evolution is a bit like one of those nesting dolls from Russia that contain one wooden shell of a doll within the other. “Human evolution” pertains to humanity as (to borrow a concept from Spinoza) a state within the state of nature that has different laws than the larger state in which it is contained. With respect to culture, Bellah claims that what humanity was in the past is somehow transmuted into what it is today: history practices the virtue of thriftiness, as in Hegel. But the laws of evolution pertaining to the state beyond humanity work differently. There, particularity is a scandal: we are not to think of ourselves as special or as the center of anything at all. Bellah seeks to convert nature into a locus not only of egalitarianism but of solidarity as well: to his mind, we have “friends among nonhuman organisms” (xi). This may, however, be difficult to accept when it comes to bacteria. The certain knowledge that your “friend” will eventually consume your flesh tends to put a strain on even imagined intimacy.

Chosenness functions in Bellah’s narrative as a point of intersection at which two strains of his argument collide. In the context of human evolution, chosenness is necessary. It plays the role of a carrier and preserver of Israel’s Axial breakthrough to universal ethics. In the larger evolutionary metanarrative, however, chosenness is a problem. There, humanity itself is not special and must not be singled out in a manner suggestive of triumphalism. Is there, one wonders, a non-triumphalist way of singling out humanity, as one must do in order to support such notions as specifically human dignity? It is not clear from this book what that way might be.

Throughout the book, Bellah strives “to show that the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ is always relative, that the bacteria, for example, could be seen as the most successful of all forms of life, and that we have no grounds for sneering at the dinosaurs” (600). This last claim is more puzzling than damning; has anyone, one wonders, ever sneered at a dinosaur? It would seem to be a behavior that would have to be imagined before it could be renounced. While one may doubt whether concepts of friendship or enmity are especially useful in thinking about our relationship to dinosaurs and bacteria, it is important not to underestimate what Bellah sees as the ethical and practical dimensions of the failure to attend to our commonality with other creatures (whether dauntingly large or infinitesimally small) if we would seek to understand his project.

It is partly in order to ward off forgetfulness of our commonality with our fellow creatures that Bellah posits an evolutionary framework for his theoretical argument. In Religion and Human Evolution, his humanism, as much as his theoretical objectives, requires the renunciation of human triumphalism. By positing a cosmological and biological framework, he attempts to account for religious phenomena in the context of the evolving capabilities of human beings over time and in the world while modeling the renunciation of human time as the sole measure of those capabilities. It is rare in this day and age to encounter a scholarly book that takes up a compound theoretical-narrative-normative task on this scale, without nervousness or apology. There is something refreshing about a book that aims openly not only to inform us but also to transform our understanding of where we are in the cosmos.

Book cover for The Axial Age

The Axial Age and its Consequences

In turning to The Axial Age and Its Consequences, we find ourselves on more familiar ground. The essays in this collection aim to clarify, explore, “interrogate,” argue, consider, reflect, examine, propose, and so on in the usual fashion of scholarly writing. Yet the publisher’s blurb for the book announces that “understanding the [Axial Age], the authors contend, is not just an academic project but a humanistic endeavor.” Here, in contrast to Religion and Human Evolution, the humanistic endeavor is pursued along multiple lines suggestive of diverse, if not competing, humanisms.

In the introduction, the editors (Bellah and Hans Joas) note that they left the matter of what the authors would write about with respect to the Axial Age up to them. The upside of this decision is that the book offers a rich and rewarding panoply of widely varied perspectives and topics. The chapters in this book (notably, those by Joas, Charles Taylor, Ann Swidler, David Martin, W. G. Runciman, Johann Arnason, Jan Assmann, William Sullivan, and Bellah himself) are likely to be of interest to general readers as well as specialists. The essays that address the normative dimensions of the concept of the Axial Age are of particular interest in thinking about Bellah’s project along the lines that I have been pursuing. Here, I have space only to address one of them, Jan Assmann’s “Cultural Memory and the Myth of the Axial Age.”

To Assmann and, he suggests, historians like him who “specialize in ‘pre-Axial’ civilizations . . . Jaspers appears as a teller of myths, narrating about beginnings where [historians] see slow developments, continuities, discontinuities, revisions, and recourses” (366–367). Assmann observes that “In a normative perspective, the myth of the Axial Age has a clear function of orientation. As a reconstruction of the intellectual and social history of the first millennium BCE, however, it is highly problematic” (367). To his mind, “[t]he Axial Age is nothing else but the formative phase of the textual continuity that is still prevailing in our Western and Eastern civilizations” (399). While the concept of an Axial Age should, in his view, be shelved, the concept of “axiality,” can and should be employed as an analytic tool. Assmann defines axiality with reference to German historian Eric Voegelin’s concept of a “turn from ‘compactness’ to ‘differentiatedness’ ” (371). In this formulation, axiality “consists primarily in the introduction of new distinctions” (371). The discovery of new distinctions went hand in hand with the processes of what Assmann calls “distanciation” and “disembedding” through which human beings become capable of “standing back and looking beyond” (372).6 Other crucial Axial features, in Assmann’s account, are the rise of universalism and “the rise of great individuals and the discovery of individuality” (373). Assmann resists reducing axiality to a “consequence” of literacy, preferring rather to treat it as an “implication of writing, an option opened up by literacy of a certain quality, whose acceptance, exploration, and elaboration, however, depends on historical and cultural circumstances” (379). In contrast to his own theory of axiality, Jaspers’s theory is made to look quite simplistic in terms of its attentiveness to history. Assmann identifies the first stage of canonization as the selection of authoritative texts from the body of extant texts. The second stage of canonization, he suggests, entails distinguishing texts that convey the “absolute and universal truth” from those which fail to do so, “which become now excluded as paganism, idolatry, heresy, and error” (390). Reflection on this stage, he observes, may give us insight into Jaspers:

Some of this pathos of distinction and exclusion seems to me still present in Jaspers’ concept of the Axial Age, which in this respect appears as a secularized version of the religious distinction between paganism and true religion. His idea of Axial civilizations puts the pre- and extra-Axial world in a position similar to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic construction of paganism. (390)

To be sure, Assmann is correct that the concept of the Axial Age creates a rift between Axial and non-Axial phenomena, but it is important to note that Jaspers treats the rift created by axiality as a distinction within societies and within humanity as a whole that cannot be overcome through the conversion of all nations (as paganism can in theory be overcome in Christianity) or partially bridged by the construction of a universal, minimal code of ethics (as the gap between Gentile and non-Gentile ethics and nomos is bridged by the Jewish Noahide code).

For Jaspers, the Axial Age is characterized by a struggle between mythos and logos, but logos leaves most human beings just as they were. In Jaspers’s view, during the Axial Age, “[t]he old mythical world slowly sank into oblivion, but remained as a background to the whole through the continued belief of the mass of the people (and was subsequently able to gain the upper hand over wide areas)” (The Origin and Goal of History, 3). Beyond that, Jaspers suggests that myth was neither permanently excluded nor temporarily archived for later retrieval. Rather, “[m]yths were remoulded, were understood at a new depth during this transition, . . . at the very moment when the myth as a whole was destroyed” (3). The majority of people go on being governed by what had been destroyed, because “[t]he highest potentialities of thought and practical expression realised in individuals did not become common property . . . the majority of men were unable to follow in their footsteps” (5).

For Assmann, the life on earth of such figures as the Hebrew prophets or Confucius or Lao Zi in and of itself does not mark a turning point in history. To his mind, “[t]he decisive event is not the terrestrial existence of the great individuals but the canonization of their writings” (399). As he points out, “We don’t know anything about the transcendental visions of shamans, kings, priests, and seers unless they become not only written down but, above all, are received in a canon of sacred scripture” (390). This is true, but it is also the case that transcendental visions don’t get written down or canonized unless the person who experienced them comes into terrestrial existence.

According to Assmann, “[t]here were presumably always great individuals with ‘transcendental visions’ ” (399). On what basis are we to assume that this is the case? Assmann’s important question of whether we are “still living in an ‘age of transcendence,’ and if so, in what sense” (371), invites us to consider his claim about the enduring existence of great individuals with transcendental visions in the context of the present. If there were presumably always such individuals in the past, there should be ones today as well. Who are they? For Assmann, at any rate, “The idea of the Axial Age is not so much about ‘man as we know him’ and his/her first appearance in time, but about ‘man as we want him’ and the utopian goal of a universal civilized community” (401).

For Bellah, it is in the Axial Age that normative-theoretical standards by which the distinction between “man as we want him” and “man as we know him” begins to arise. In Religion and Human Evolution, he picks up on the normative potential of the Axial concept and uses it to bolster one of his overall aims: to articulate a metanarrative about our place in the cosmos, while downplaying a sense of human specialness, in the pejorative, self-aggrandizing sense. He propounds the now-familiar larger lesson that “the earth is not the center of the universe,” and that, as he puts it, “the sun isn’t the center of anything much either” (52). He claims that “We like to think of ourselves, of human beings, as the most successful of all biological species, of our age as ‘the age of man’ . . . whereas in fact we live, as all life for 4 billion years has lived, in ‘the age of bacteria,’ as Stephen Jay Gould has put it” (58).

One wonders who, in this age of widely taught anti-anthropocentrism, is included in the “we” who “like to think of our age as the ‘age of man.’ ” Closeted pre-Copernicans or furtive aficionados of Pico della Mirandola’s De hominis dignitate will find this book a hard read. Almost from the outset, Bellah’s universe tends, in the long run, toward an egalitarian cosmos, as secured by the uncontestable hegemony of the overwhelmingly successful “many,” namely, bacteria. The few (human beings), while not pathetic failures, strictly speaking, are scarcely the parties to which any visiting aliens who say “Take me to your leader” should be directed. The age of bacteria, for Bellah, is potentially also the age of Kant redivivus.

Bellah’s book ends on a Kantian note, with a discernible hint of Bellah’s teacher Wilfred Cantwell Smith. “If we could see that we are all in this . . . together, even though we must contend through mutual discussion with abiding differences, we might make just a bit more likely the actualization of Kant’s dream of a world civil society that could at last restrain the violence of state-organized societies toward each other and the environment” (606). For Kant, nature—both in the sense of the state of nature and the perceived depravity of human nature—represents what must be overcome in order to bring about the ideal society, and perpetual peace.7

The presence of Kant in a conclusion that invites us to see that we are all in this together is a bit surprising, given what Bellah earlier describes as Kant’s tendency to divide the world into “us (Europe, later Europe plus America) versus them” (598). Additionally, Kant’s belief (unmentioned by Bellah) that “The fact that the human being can have the ‘I’ in his representations raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth”8 seems to be a parade example of the anthropocentric thinking Bellah seeks to undermine. In the end, Bellah’s invocation of Kant tethers his project more closely to that of Jaspers, whose Origin and Goal of History was explicitly written in the spirit of a Kantian universal history with a cosmopolitan point of view.

For Bellah, nature in the sense of biological history gives us no guidance whatsoever as to how the capacities of living things can be used for good or ill, but, at the same time, it cannot be overcome. His account of nature suggests two moral spheres, even as he posits the possibility that the sphere of necessity can in fact be the sphere of creativity and freedom. In one sense, this sphere is bounded and haunted by the prospect of absolute loss for all species save the most dominant. Particular things are lost all the time, and lost for good. As skeleton casts and models of Dodo birds and dinosaurs may mutely attest, only some of “us” survive. Yet, with respect to human cultural and religious history, Bellah wishes to maintain that “nothing is ever lost.”

Ultimately, “we are all in this together” suggests both division and unity, and exclusion as well as inclusion. “We humans,” unlike bacteria, are, Bellah’s book warns, hurtling toward extinction, but “we organisms” will go on just the same, regardless. “We,” then, both will and will not be lost. To regard as primary our moral membership in the most inclusive “we” would seem to be the condition of the humility and sense of urgency urged upon us in this book. To put it aside would seem to be the condition of keeping Kant’s dream intact, insofar as it is grounded in a belief that rational, autonomous beings that are capable of morality have a monopoly on dignity.


  1. ​On the pressure to reopen German medical schools due to public health needs in 1945, see James F. Tent, Mission on the Rhine: Reeducation and Denazification in American-Occupied Germany (University of Chicago Press, 1983), 58.
  2. Karl Jaspers, “The Rededication of German Scholarship,” trans. Marianne Zuckerkandl, The American Scholar 15 (1946): 181.
  3. Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt, trans. E. B. Ashton (Fordham University Press, 2000), 17–18.
  4. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (Yale University Press, 1953), 1–2.
  5. These three stages are: the mimetic (which begins with the recognition of one’s immediate surroundings and extends to dance and music), the mythic (which depends upon the existence of grammatical language and entails the creation of complex narratives), and finally, theoretic culture (which allows for or depends upon the creation of means of “external memory” [273], such as writing, and for thinking outside of contexts of immediate experience and narrative).
  6. Here, he quotes the widely used formulation of the notion of transcendence from Benjamin Schwartz’s essay on the Axial Age as the “Age of Transcendence.”
  7. Ironically, nature itself is the guarantor of this transformation: “Perpetual peace is insured (guaranteed) by nothing less than that great artist nature (natura daedala rerum) whose mechanical process makes her purposiveness visibly manifest, permitting harmony to emerge among men through their discord, even against their wills.” Immanuel Kant, To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, trans. Ted Humphrey (Hackett, 2003), 18.
  8. Immanuel Kant, “On the Cognitive Faculty,” in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, trans. and ed. Robert Louden (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 15.

Suzanne Smith is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University.

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