End times, axial times

The events of last week - the Boston Marathon bombing; the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the earthquake that rocked Sichuan, China - all contributed to the anxiety of a young mother I know.

The events of last week – the Boston Marathon bombing; the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the earthquake that rocked Sichuan, China – all contributed to the anxiety of a young mother I know.

The Baghdad bombings came a few days before Boston’s tragic events. The erratic weather patterns and our lingering winter, plus oil-pipeline bursts or a host of other events, all under the shadow of a faltering global economic system, may have pushed her deep malaise along as well.

Whatever the trigger, this well-educated professional woman literally saw these events all as the latest signs of the coming end of humanity, or at the very least the wholesale collapse of society as we know it. This triggered a flight response in her. Get out of harm’s way.

Where do you find a sanctuary in our increasingly interconnected world? Do you remember the tale of the family that fled the Queen Charlotte Islands for what they believed was the more tranquil haven of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic just prior to the Argentinean invasion there in 1972? The events in Whitehorse on September 11, 2001 should convince us that no matter how far away we may think we are here in the Yukon from global hot spots, it can never be far enough.

The concept of the end of time can be found in all the Abrahamic religions as well as most of the other world religions. Even philosophies like Marxism arguably have eschatologies, doctrines of end times, of a kind. These beliefs often shared common notions of conflict, disasters, confusion and false leaders as signs of the impending last days. Attempts by millennial groups to predict the end times when finally a messiah will reign over a heaven on earth with good government, an end of wickedness, etc. have notably fallen flat since at least the apocalyptic movements and their prophecies in the 10th century.

Maybe what we are seeing is not end times but rather the pain-filled birth of a new axial age. Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions developed the ideas of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers on the first axial age. This they describe as the laying down some 2,600 years ago of the spiritual foundations of all the great world religious and philosophical traditions from Greece to China, India to Israel.

Armstrong wrote that “all the great traditions that were created at this time are in agreement about the supreme importance of charity and benevolence.” Our spiritual ancestors saw, she noted, that “if people behaved with kindness and generosity to their fellows, they could save the world.” Drawing on this Armstrong argues that “In our global village we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision.”

Robert Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley writes in his recent landmark book Religion in Human Evolution; From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age that now there “is an increasing number of serious students of religion who can accept religious pluralism as our destiny without making a claim to the superiority of one tradition.” Just as in the first axial age in which those breakthroughs “led to the possibility of universal ethics, the reassertion of fundamental human equality, and the respect for all humans, indeed for all sentient beings,” so now we might just be on the edge of another breakthrough. In this one, Bellah believes we “must contend through mutual discussion with abiding differences” in the hope of realizing the “dream of a world civil society that could at last restrain the violence of state-organized societies toward each other and the environment.”

Given the option of end times or a new axial age I chose the path of hope for humanity.

One sign of hope in our community is the annual coffee house organized by the Social Justice Clubs of our Whitehorse high schools. It will be held on Friday, May 3 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the CYO Hall at 4th and Steele Street. I hear Morgan Wienberg will be there to share word of her inspirational work among homeless children in Haiti with Little Footprints, Big Steps.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.