Photo courtesy of Witty Sandle

Ewert Cousins (1927-2009) in his prophetic book, Christ of the 21st century (New York, NY: Continuum, 1992), argues that we are in the midst of a “Second Axial Age”. The two Axial Ages are times of great transformations in consciousness.

The first Axial Age (800-200 BCE) was a radical transformation of consciousness, breaking from “tribal consciousness” and discovering a vertical dimension within life that reached up, from the individual to the universal. While this transformation only happened in four civilizations, the understanding spreads from these origins to more and more civilizations – becoming the explicit self-understanding of the major “world civilizations” (like Europe, or China) and/or the major “world religions” (like Buddhism or Judaism). This vertical dimension was articulated as transcendence, and allowed the individual to emancipate him or her self from an immersion in “the tribe” (which would be whatever group identity – the nomadic tribe, the agricultural community, the city-state or imperial civilization – that defined that individual) to instead a direct personal relationship to the overarching, transcendent universal. In the four major Axial Age civilizations of the first-millennium BCE (Greece, Israel, India, and China) this took the form of individuals (philosophers, prophets, holy men, and sages, respectively) arguing for a spirituality that connected each of us to the transcendent (the Logos, YHWH, the Brahman or nirvana – depending on whether Hindu or Buddhist- and the Tao, respectively). These individuals found small communities of disciples & followers, which expand and grow. Out of this first Axial Age develop the major world religions/thought systems of Greek philosophy, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism; and some centuries later in the ancient Near East, Christianity, and later yet Islam.

Cousins argues we are now in a Second Axial Age, and the transformation in consciousness now is into a global consciousness. This global consciousness is composed of (1) consciousness of the plurality of human being, and (2) consciousness of the Earth. A significant part of this transformation is about correcting the dangerous consequences that ensued from the First Axial Age: an overemphasis on individuality and on an otherworldly or supernatural transcendence have alienated us from a proper relation to other peoples and to the Earth. Cousins argues the transformation of the Second Axial Age is horizontal – emphasizing interconnectedness and focusing on our relation to other peoples and to the ecological. Just as the realization of the individual and the transcendent of the First Axial Age added to and complicated tribal and local consciousness, so too will the realization of the diversity of historical traditions and of an Earth-based, ecological consciousness add to and complicate the vertical spirituality of the First Axial Age world religions.

In this regard Cousins’ considers indigenous spiritualities particularly vital, as they most clearly embody the “horizontal” consciousness of the Earth and its ecology. He argues for “shamanistic epistemologies” as crucially needed ways of knowing rather than the established transcendent epistemologies of traditional theology or scientific objectivity. (He is not arguing against these; he is arguing against their dominance and exclusivism.) His journey into inter-religious dialogue began while he was enrolled in Seminary School. As a Seminarian, he spent summers as a ranch-hand on the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. During his time in Pine Ridge, he learned about traditional Lakota spirituality from Chief Hollow Horn Bear, the last of the Brule Chiefs, who taught Ewert about Lakota spirituality.

Dr. Ewert Cousins taught Theology at Fordham University and was an expert on the lives of St. Francis, Bonaventure and Meister-Eckhart. He was President of the Teilhard de Chardin Association for more than 30 years. Two great contributions Dr. Cousins made to contemporary spirituality were, first, co-editor of the 107 Volume “Classics of Western Spirituality”, and second, as Editor-in-Chief of the 25 Volume “World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest”. He served as Advisor to the United Nations on global consciousness and spirituality, Advisor to the Vatican on Inter-religious Dialogue and was a key organizer in partnership with the Temple of Understanding of the 1975 Spiritual Summit at the United Nations.

Learn more:

One contemporary thinker, Ilia Delio, is exploring and developing Cousins’ notion of a Second Axial Age in a number of interesting ways, through the Center for Christogenesis

One article published by the Center for Christogenesis is by Matthew Wright, which provides another summary of Cousins’ notion of a Second Axial Age, called The Second Axial Emergence

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