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Gaia and a Second Axial Age

A planet-wide near death experience
Gaia and a Second Axial Age

By Sean Kelly

Philosopher Sean Kelly posits the recognition of Gaia as an autopoietic meta-subject, an “emerging planetary identity.” Thinking through figures such as Hegel, Jung, and Teilhard, Kelly composes Gaia as a concrete universal toward which the aspirations of Spirit over the last 2,500 years find their fulfillment: “We can discern in Gaia, and in the advent of the Gaianthropocene, something of the telos of the entire Axial Aion.” Along the way, Kelly engages critically and constructively with Bruno Latour’s Gaia project and with the discourse of Big History. - Bruce Clarke

For the first time in sixty-five million years, the Earth community is being drawn into a collective, planet-wide Near-Death-Experience (NDE). While NDEs are known to occur spontaneously, they (or their experiential or symbolic analogues) have also been intentionally cultivated in all traditional societies as an essential moment of rites of passage or initiation. In all such rites, the initiation and its confrontation with death are not random events, but intentional processes, guided or lured by a specific goal. They are, in technical terms, teleological in nature (from telos: purpose, goal). For individual initiations, the purpose or goal involves the emergence of a new identity (whether of shaman, healer, chief, warrior, etc.), an identity molded to serve the interests of the wider community. Something similar is happening in our times with regard to the threshold on which the Earth community now finds itself poised. In this case, however, we are dealing with the emergence of a radically new kind of identity or subject on a planetary scale. I use the word Gaian here as it seems, more than any other I have encountered, to be a kind of strange attractor for many of the more creative manifestations of the emerging planetary identity.

Though accelerating in our own times, the emergence of this new identity has in fact long been in the making. Over two centuries ago now, Hegel announced that “ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labor of its own transformation….” (Hegel, 1807) We are still in this period of transition, but the pace has quickened and the stakes are higher than Hegel could have imagined: not only the five-thousand year old fabric of civilization, but that of life itself on a planetary scale. With runaway climate change and the mass extinction of species well underway, we can legitimately say that we live in end times (eschaton). Whether or not, on the other side of the eschaton, a better—or at least a viable and potentially flourishing—world awaits us, depends upon how we navigate the next decade or so.

Hegel was not the first to announce the dawning of a new age. He stood quite consciously in a long line of prophet-seers, from his immediate Enlightenment predecessors (Kant, Condorcet), through the mystic Jacob Boehme and the pivotal figure of Joachim di Fiore, all the way to St. Paul and the “veil-lifting” (apocalypsis) claims of the New Testament. (see Loewith) I have argued elsewhere (Kelly, 2010) that the birth and ongoing transformation of the modern period, or Planetary Era, is prefigured in certain central Biblical symbols which act, in Blake’s expression, as the “Great Code” not only of art and literature, but of the deeper patterning of world history. Whether or not one agrees with my argument, one can perhaps grant the deep resonance between our planetary moment and the New Testament’s heightened sense of living in end times with a longing for a New Age.

Though falling outside its assigned limits, the Christianity of the New Testament is nevertheless a hybrid product of the earlier great transformation that Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age. So much of what was to become the foundations of the world’s great religions, major philosophies, and dominant worldviews were laid down from the 8th to the 3rd centuries BCE, the period Jaspers assigned to the Axial Age. With the near simultaneous emergence around the 6th century BCE of the first Greek philosophers (from Thales and Pythagoras to Plato), the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, and Lao Tzu, the great Jewish prophets (Second Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah), and possibly Zoroaster, this period “gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity.” It is during this period “that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being.” (Jaspers, 1) If Jaspers were alive today, he might see our own times as straddling “the most deepcut dividing line in history.” He might as well have come to believe, as many do today, that we are witness to the dawning of a Second Axial Age.

While the idea of a Second Axial Age seems originally to have been proposed by Thomas Berry, the first extended treatment in print was by Ewert Cousins, who summarized his understanding as follows:

Having developed self-reflective, analytic, critical consciousness in the First Axial Period, we must now, while retaining these values, reappropriate and integrate into that consciousness the collective and cosmic dimensions of the pre-Axial consciousness. We must recapture the unity of tribal consciousness by seeing humanity as a single tribe. And we must see this single tribe related organically to the total cosmos. This means that the consciousness of the twenty-first-century will be global from two perspectives:

1) from a horizontal perspective, cultures and religions are meeting each other on the surface of the globe, entering into creative encounters that will produce a complexified collective consciousness;

2) from a vertical perspective, they must plunge their roots deep into the earth in order to provide a stable and secure base for future development.

This new global consciousness must be organically ecological, supported by structures that will ensure justice and peace. In the Second Axial Period this twofold global consciousness is not only a creative possibility to enhance the twenty-first century; it is an absolute necessity if we are to survive. (Cousins, 10)

The dominant strands of first Axial traditions tended to emphasize the transcendent pole in the vertical dimension (as we see in Platonic and the later Cartesian dualisms; Christian otherworldliness; Hindu and Buddhist views of the “wheel of life” as illusion or trap; in Chinese cosmology, the immovable Pole star as symbol of Heavenly power and virtue, or the Taoist immortals). In the extreme, according to Robert Bellah, these dominant strands involved “the religious rejection of the world characterized by an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true and infinitely valuable.” (in Bellah and Joas, 194) At the same time, while the first Axial Age involved a new consciousness of the universal in its noetic, cosmic, and ethical dimensions, the several axial epiphanies of the universal remained rooted in the exclusive (ethno-linguistic) particularities of their respective culture spheres, and therefore in both of these senses the universal was abstract. “Great as the major figures of the axial age were,” as Bellah would note in his last and greatest work,

and universalistic as their ethics tended to be, we cannot forget that each of them considered his own teaching to be the only truth or the highest truth, even such a figure as the Buddha, who never denounced his rivals but only subtly satirized them. Plato, Confucius, Second Isaiah, all thought that it was they and they alone who had found the final truth. This we can understand as an inevitable feature of the world so long ago. (Bellah 2011, 602)

A central task of the Second Axial Age, by contrast, involves the articulation of new forms of universality which could mediate between the particular culture spheres and help them confront their shared predicament: the threat of planet-wide ecological and civilizational collapse.

Despite the astounding synchronicity of first Axial age, it was not global or planetary in extent, and its various representatives were largely unconscious of the parallel developments outside of their own culture spheres. At the same time, however—and as I have argued in detail in Coming Home—it was the destiny of one late, hybrid, shoot (Christianity) of this first axial mutation to become the symbolic catalyst or lure for the eventual emergence, some fifteen hundred years later, of the Planetary Era (more commonly designated as the modern period). It is with this specific genealogical line that we can discern an answer to the question of the relation between the two Axial Ages: The central symbols of Incarnation (of Spirit into matter, of the Logos into Cosmos, of the eternal into time) and of God as Trinity (the Absolute as internally differentiated) prefigure the deep structure of the movement from the first to the second Axial Age, with Modernity as the middle term between both Ages. The first Axial Age sets up the conditions of possibility for the eventual emergence of the second. These conditions include the reflexive and critical consciousness associated with “metacognition/theoretic culture” (Donald), the “disembedding” (Taylor) of culture from the cosmos and of the individual from the collective, and the lure of the universal (Voegelin, Assmann). At a deeper level, both ages can and should be seen as the two poles of a single process, or rotating axis, moving from the abstract to the concrete in three broad phases:

1. an initial identity (in this case, structured around the central myth/symbol of Incarnation wedded to the Greek intuition of the universal as logos/cosmos);
2. a movement of differentiation—and later, dissociation (leading to the birth of modern science, the modern disengaged subject, and the broader processes of secularization; all of which bring about the birth of the Planetary Era and the accelerating planetary crisis);
3. a new Gaian, or Gaianthropic identity (see Kelly, 2015) in the making.

The cultivation of this new identity is a central task of the Second Axial Age, which itself can be seen as the “opportune moment” (kairos) for the actualization of the deeper telos of what we can now discern as the 2,500-year Axial Aion. My proposal for the periodization of the larger arc that encompasses the two Axial Ages is as follows:

Axial Aion (c. 800BCE to present):
First Axial Age (c. 800-200BCE)
Planetary Era (c. 1500CE to present)
Second Axial Age (Gaian epoch or Gaianthropocene) (c. 1945?-  )

My understanding of the Second Axial Age as coinciding with the Gaianthropocene and as the third phase of the (to date) 2,500 year Axial Aion is clearly speculative in nature. While all narrative accounts (and even mere chronologies) of our collective history involve some degree of framing, selection, and interpretation, mine is explicitly teleological in the tradition of such figures as Hegel, Jung, Teilhard, and Gebser. The distinctiveness of my account can be highlighted by considering two recent works, the short but instructive book, The Axial Ages of World History, by Baskin and Bondarenko (2014), and Bruno Latour’s more substantial Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime (2017).

While Baskin and Bondarenko do not say so explicitly, the authors suggest that the 21st Century marks the beginning of a third Axial Age. Their second Axial Age coincides with Modernity. All three Ages are seen as “thoroughgoing, transformational periods of crisis in world history” and share fundamental features and a common developmental pattern. Commenting on the first and second Axial Ages, for instance, the authors note:

just as advancing literacy transformed the axial world, the printing press transformed the modern world; as iron reinvented axial manufacture and warfare, the machine did the same for moderns; and the modern experiments in democracy and totalitarianism, capitalism and nationalism served the same purpose as the social experiments in democracy and advanced bureaucratic government, socio-economic systems and identity building of the [first] Axial Age societies. All those experiments would unfold in both periods, as people relearned how to govern themselves in an increasingly complex social world that demanded they develop a different set of rules. (2-3)

The fundamental features shared by all three periods include the following six-part sequence:

1. Political fragmentation;
2. Social experiments grounded in foundational stories—a vision of cultural success based on its society’s old world story;
3. Intensification of warfare;
4. Appearance of a new world story;
5. Developing commentary of that story, so that the society can amend its approach to unexpected challenges, and;
6. Emergence of empire (15).

I must refer interested readers to the text for details concerning these shared six features. The common developmental pattern they discern is characterized in very general terms in the language of dynamical systems where the Axial Ages represent “phase transitions” which punctuate more stable states (see 98 and 104). In my understanding, as we have seen, the fundamental pattern of process or development (identity, differentiation, new identity) is expressed through the single, organic evolution of the Axial Aion from the first Axial Age, through Modernity, to the second Axial Age. Though both patterns are formally triphasic, the one I appeal to is teleological as well as formal. It is not merely a case of paradigm shifts or of one worldview or system following upon the collapse of the previous one. In retrospect, at least—in the mirror of speculative recollection—we can discern in Gaia, and in the advent of the Gaianthropocene, something of the telos of the entire Axial Aion. From this perspective, instead of being an Axial Age in its own right, Modernity coincides with the phase transition between the first and second Axial Ages. This phase transition, however, though involving a negation of many constitutive assumptions of the first Axial Age (otherworldly transcendence, institutional and text-based authority, for instance), nevertheless shares the same commitment to the ideal of (abstract) universality.

It is in this sense that I interpret Bruno Latour’s refrain that “we have never been modern.” The first Axial Age and Modernity both give birth to forms of “natural religion” with a transcendent dimension based on the idea of an “Ordering God,” for the former, and on the “Laws of Nature,” for the latter (Latour 173). Latour also has his own version of a third period, dominated by the “new climate regime” and the rise of Gaia as the “Third Estate”. Though he does not appeal to the idea of Axial Ages, there are deep resonances between his evocation of the Earthbound—his name for humans in the Anthropocene—and my reading of the new Gaian identity in-the-making. In contrast to the abstract universals that dominated the first Axial traditions along with their partial negation (secularization) in Modernity, the new Gaian identity exemplifies the real-ideal of concrete universality. This is where I take issue with Latour, however. Though I applaud him for choosing Gaia as the main theme of his Gifford Lectures, and though I find much of what he has to say insightful and generative, Latour’s position falls short of the concrete universality demanded if we are not only to face Gaia, but to behold the true lineaments of her own remarkable face. In keeping with the still dominant forms of deconstructive postmodernism, Latour’s Gaia has “no frame, no goal, no direction,” no “unity, no universality….” (107) Gaia is “only the name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest by manipulating its own environment” (142). In the end, the “result of such a distribution of final causes is not the emergence of a supreme Final Cause, but a fine muddle. This muddle is Gaia” (100). Earlier in the text, Latour proclaims that “Gaia, the outlaw, is the anti-system” (87). Under the otherwise commendable desire to avoid the pitfalls of a totalitarian holism—which he associates with the spheres and globes of modern empires—Latour dogmatically asserts that, when it comes to Gaia, there are “neither parts nor a whole” (95), and God forbid that we should think of Gaia as having a soul! (86)

I do not mean to judge Latour on the basis of his rhetorical flourishes (many of them quite brilliant). Given his considerable influence in contemporary environmental philosophy and in those circles engaged in serious and sustained reflection on Gaia, however, I feel obliged to offer a few more reflections, some appreciative and others more critical. To begin with, I take Latour at his word when he addresses the reader thus: “I beg you not to conclude that I am disdaining the ideal of universality: I recognize, share, I cherish this ideal. But I am seeking a realistic way to achieve it. And, to do so, we have to act as though we were certain that it has not already been realized.” (245) I am in substantial agreement with Latour here. It is in this sense that I referred above to the “real-ideal” of concrete universality. It is a universal always in-the-making. It must, in Latour’s terms, be composed. Responding to the facile epistemological critiques of climate sceptics, Latour notes that it is precisely because of the painstaking manner in which the findings of climate science are composed that they are compelling. “Instead of alternating abruptly between an impossible [abstract] universality and the narrow limits of their own point of view,” he writes,

it is because they extend their set of data from instrument to instrument, from pixel to pixel, from reference point to reference point, that they may have a chance to compose universality–and to pay the full price for this extension. The geologists, geochemists, and other geographers would be less schizophrenic if they agreed to call themselves Gaia-ologists, Gaia-chemists, and Gaia-graphers! (215-216)

But if universality can be thus composed, why not also Earth or Gaia as system? If Latour reminds us that the objectivity of climate science consists in the fact that the communities of experts have “answered all the objections that could be raised against them” (47), why reject the central organizing concept of system by means of which, along with the data, the objections have been answered? The consensus name for the multi- and inter-disciplines in question, after all, is Earth system science. The problem here, I think, is that Latour has allowed his laudable political resistance to all forms of domination to collapse the notion of the whole, of system, and totality into that of an a priori and totalitarian closure. Latour could, however, make a more consistent use of his suggestive notion of the world, and especially the world as Gaia, as a “metamorphic zone”—that is, a zone of “common exchange”(69)—where the bifurcation between Nature and Culture, object and subject, non-human and human, can no longer be sustained.

A more fruitful approach than the false dichotomy between system and anti-system, one that overcomes the bifurcations that have plagued Modernity along with the first Axial traditions out of which Modernity was precipitated, is represented by the integral ecological paradigm of complexity proposed by Latour’s compatriot, Edgar Morin. Morin’s understanding of the principles of the dialogic, recursivity, and holography as key ingredients of complexity allow for a non-reductive grasp of the real relations between individuals, societies, and nature (see Morin 2008, and Kelly 2017). One can celebrate the messiness, the complexity, of the many feedback loops studied by Earth system science without having to jettison in toto the specificity of the agents involved, whether these loops be between physical elements within the Earth system (hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, etc.) or between the physiosphere (Nature) and the anthroposphere (Culture/Society) which together constitute the more complex Gaian, or Gaianthropic (meta-)system. In order better to see, as Latour puts it, how “Gaia is indeed a third party in all our conflicts” (238), we need something like the meta-point of view proposed by Morin. This meta-point of view is not the view from nowhere, the dominating, homogenizing, and globalizing gaze of Empire. Rather, it is an expression of the emergent transdisciplinary gaze of Gaia herself, reflecting herself not only as she is composed, but as we are composed by her in return. After all, what the countless acts of human composition reveal is that we are, as Latour says, thoroughly Earthbound.

A proper grasp of the complex (dialogical, recursive, holographic) character of the relation of physis to anthropos is central to understanding Gaia as concrete universal. More obvious and arguably more fundamental than its socially constructed or composed provenance, the universality of Gaia consists in the fact that it is in and through Her that we live and have our being. Gaia is the ground of what we all share in common (a ground, moreover, that includes the sheltering atmosphere, which acts as a kind of subtle planetary amniotic fluid in which we are all suspended). For the same reason, this universality is concrete, to begin with, in the sense that the physical systems studied by Earth system science constitute the shared, living body of the entire Earth community. It is also concrete, however, in the specifically Hegelian and Morinian sense that it, or She, is auto-poietic or self-organizing (the foundational insight of Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia Theory), which is to say that Gaia is a Subject (as well as a communion of subjects—or agents, in Latour’s terms—and not a mere collection of objects).

The actualization of concrete universality that I see as the guiding spirit of the Second Axial Age will depend upon the successful coordination of multiple initiatives, both theoretical and practical, across the full spectrum of human endeavor. Here I will focus on some key features of the theoretical. If the First Axial Age was associated with the emergence of theoretic culture, with its second-order thinking, metacognition, and radical mytho-speculation, the Second Axial Age is marked by what could be described as third-order metacognition and a new (planetary) radical mytho-speculation. Integrating the critical, reflexive virtues of first-Axial theoretic culture, the leading edge of theory in the Second Axial Age recognizes the destructive potential of the disembbeded, disengaged subject (which reduces the world to a mere collection of objects). It re-embeds the human subject into the living Earth and cosmos—or rather renews consciousness of the fact, and mystery, of its ontological consubstantiality with Earth and cosmos—which are now seen, celebrated, and engaged with as a communion of subjects. More radically, we can say that the radiating center of the second Axial Age is constituted by an awareness—a third-order metacognition—in a growing network of individuals and communities, that “We live in that time when Earth itself begins its adventure of conscious self-awareness.” (Swimme and Tucker, 109)

In the variety of Big History associated with David Christian, Earth or Gaian evolution is conceived as currently poised on “Threshold 9” (the previous eight thresholds are:

1. origin of universe;
2. formation of stars and galaxies;
3. formation of heavier chemical elements;
4. formation of Earth and the solar system;
5. emergence of life;
6. birth of homo sapiens;
7. agricultural revolution;
8. the modern revolution (or what I call the Planetary Era).

Christian has little to say about the new evolutionary threshold (#9), other than underlining its radically uncertain character (which in any case attaches to the emergent properties associated with all new thresholds) and the possibility, at least, of somehow achieving a sustainable planetary civilization. Futurist and Big Historian Joseph Voros concludes soberly that the most likely path ahead involves “a slowly-unfolding collapse or ‘descent’ over a time-scale of decades-to-centuries towards a human society characterized by ever-declining access to sources of fossil fuel-based energy.” (Voros 2013) At the same time, however, drawing from fellow futurist James Dator’s fourfold typology of alternative futures (see Bezold, 2009), Voros leaves open the possibility of Threshold 9 involving an eventual transition to a planetary “transformational society,” visions of which tend to emphasize either technological breakthroughs or the actualization of spiritual potentials (the other three possible futures are: continued growth, collapse, and “disciplined society”). In the latter case, “some new form or aspect of human consciousness emerges and redefines our value systems, such that we become focused on ‘higher’ goals than we currently pursue.” It might be argued, he continues, “that Cosmic Evolution, Big History and other related conceptual frameworks may themselves provide a foundation for a new more integrated worldview, onto which an almost spiritual dimension could be read.” (Voros 2013) Clearly what I am proposing in terms of the emergence of a new Gaian or Gaianthropic identity qualifies as such a new, radical transformation of consciousness.

This transformation is informed and catalyzed by many distinct, if overlapping, disciplines, including Earth system science, Big History, the various strands of ecological science and environmental studies, the field of religion and ecology, and the emerging transdiscipline of integral ecology. For present purposes, I would single out the generative contributions of Thomas Berry, one of the founders of integral ecology and, along with Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and others, bard or prophet of a more coherent and inspiring Big, or better, Deep History. “We need to think of the planet,” Berry writes, “as a single, unique, articulated subject to be understood in a story both scientific and mythic [and, I would add, ethical and political].” (Berry, 112)

Returning to the theme of initiation, we can note that an essential component during the liminal (“threshold”) phase of many rites of initiation involves introducing the initiate to the sacred stories, myths, and symbols of the community into which they are being inducted. In contrast to the situation in both archaic or indigenous societies and in first Axial traditions, the stories and symbols required for this collective initiation into a new Gaian identity need to include a genuinely common narrative core, regardless of language and ethnicity. The only candidate in this case is the Universe story itself, the major lines, phases, and thresholds of which are, for the first time in the history of our species, well understood and universally acknowledged by the many scientific communities devoted to their study. This is not to say that there is no longer a place for the stories, myths, rituals, and doctrines of the world religions and of indigenous cultures. On the contrary, these should continue to provide inspiration for reflection on the mysteries of the cosmos, of human nature, and the question of spiritual ultimates, including indications of how we might best navigate the critical planetary threshold on which we are so precariously poised. It is precisely to this end that so much fine work is now being done in the field of religion and ecology (see Grim and Tucker).

Of course, we cannot know, or at least we cannot expect to arrive at a general consensus as to whether or not one or the other of the world’s religious traditions might actually have a direct line to the Universal (or Universals) intuited during the first Axial Age. We can and must, however, acknowledge the sacred or enchanted character of Gaia as concrete universal. The story of Gaia is sacred because it tells of our common origin and will include our shared destiny. We can therefore envision the open spaces of this living Earth, in and through whom we literally have our being, as the Common Temple of the Second Axial Age, with the sacred places explored by the world’s religious traditions as so many side temples with their own unique paths leading to the great Mystery.

It is possible that a new, third kind or species of religion might emerge from our gathering in the sacred precincts of this Common Temple. As Edgar Morin puts it, this would be religion “in the minimal sense” (Morin 1999, 141) of the term (suggested in one derivation of the word: from re-ligare: to join back together), at the heart of which would be the fact and ideal of planetary “re-liance” (which we can understand as the binding force behind Latour’s notion of the “Earthbound”). While the first kind of religion arose out the first Axial Age, and the second kind in the Modern period with its faith in this-worldly salvation (the myth of Reason, of progress and “development”), the new religion, by contrast,

would not have promises but roots: roots in our cultures and civilizations, in planetary and human history; roots in life; roots in the stars that have forged the atoms of which we are made; roots in the cosmos where the particles were born and out of which our atoms were made…. Such a religion would involve belief, like all religions but, unlike other religions that repress doubt through excessive zeal, it would make room for doubt within itself. It would look out onto the abyss. (ibid., 142)

The Earth community is being dragged to the edge of this abyss. Faced with the prospect of ever more probable civilizational collapse and an accelerating mass extinction, the human members of this community must learn to think, feel, and act out of their wider and deeper identity as Gaia. There is no guarantee that we will avert planetary catastrophe. There never has been such a guarantee. We can, however, still accomplish the task that has been the secret preoccupation of the 2,500-year Axial Aion, if not of the 4.6-billion-year journey of Earth’s evolution.

Sean Kelly is Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Sean received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa in 1988. He is the author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era and Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path toward Wholeness.

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