Will Agape Enter the Next Axial Age? by Brayton Shanley“Have you ever heard of Wayne Teasdale?” I asked newly arrived Matt Riddle, an intern in his late twenties. I was pointing to a photograph of Wayne and Bede Griffiths, Benedictine monk who went to India as an experiment in Hindu Christian community. In the photo, Bede was celebrating a Hindu Eucharist, a sacrament symbolizing a unity of mysticisms–Hindu ritual prayer merging with Jesus’ body and blood. Wayne had invited Bede to come to Massachusetts in part to meet Suzanne and me to discuss our lay monastic community dedicated to nonviolence. Wayne explained that Bede believed that the future of monasticism was not in the monastery, especially not cloistered and could very well be in a community of lay people. Bede came to the states to experience new forms of monasticism. Suzanne and I met with Bede alone after the “Hindu Eucharist” and he shared with us something that we had never fully appreciated before: “There is no better spiritual strength at the center of a community than a family.” We have a precious photo of five year old Teresa presenting Bede with an icon of St Francis. Wayne and I were both in the class of 1970 at St. Anselm College. We were “intellectual friends,” occasionally talking philosophy and unpacking the jewels we were learning in our theology classes. We graduated and twenty two years went by. Paul Gufstason, a volunteer at Agape, told me he was going to India, and I insisted, “You must go to Shanti Vanam, a Hindu Christian community founded by Bede Griffiths.” In six months Paul was back, moved by the experience, adding that he met Wayne Teasdale at Shanti Vanam. Within months Wayne would travel back to the US with Bede, meet with Agape folk to begin to discuss with some other monastic communities the future of religious community, the role of laity and how East will meet West. A year later Fr. Bede died and my contact with Wayne fell off. In 2002 I called Wayne in Chicago to get some advice on who to contact on a trip I was taking to Rome and to see how he was. I offered praise for his recently published book The Mystic Heart as the “most comprehensive book on Christianity, religion, and mysticism from an Interfaith, Interspiritual perspective I have ever read.” Wayne thanked me and then his voice grew heavy, “Oh yes, I have some serious cancer.” I expressed my concern, promised my prayers and we bid each other farewell. Not long after, my mystic-loving friend, Mike Boover, sadly informed me that Wayne had died. Little did I know that Wayne’s ideas of “interspirituality” and Bede’s “new monasticism” were animating the spiritual currents of young spiritual seekers across the country. Our millennial intern, Matt, did in fact know all about Wayne Teasdale and Bede Griffiths. Matt was reading young writers who were paying homage to Wayne’s notion of interspirituality contained in The Mystic Heart. Although Wayne had remained “Catholic,” an intuition revealed that “spiritual not religious tendencies in the young” was in fact “interspiritual” and not a sign of religious demise, but the new religion of the next millennium. “The entire religious experience of history has been one single experience,” Wayne often said. The young seekers were enthralled. I was familiar with some of the interfaith, mystical terms holding that reality is composed of not one but many expressions of ultimate truth: “interreligious” from Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating, who organized interfaith convocations in the 1980s– serious meetings of representatives from all religious traditions to discover and reinforce their sense of oneness; “religious pluralism” from the Dalai Lama, that all religions are incomplete as isolated bodies, can learn and be changed by the genius of the other traditions; “inter-being,” the essence of Thich Nhat Hanh’s metaphysics , asserting all existence is one interacting, interdependent life. Integration is the idea whose time had come. We are living, in fact, in dizzying times of integration; religious ideas with secular, science with religion, human with earth. The convergence of all these life forces pressures us to new levels of thought and inner experience. First Axial Age Karl Jaspers wrote of the first Axial Age in his The Origin and Goal of History. This was the six hundred year period from 800-200 BCE. The spiritual patterns and forms of thinking established today were formed by the dramatic shift of consciousness begun by those such as Lao Tzu and Confucius in China. Before these historic “inner revolutions,” human cultures were primarily tribal. We humans did not imagine ideas or ways of being outside the boundaries of our “people.” We reached out and up to unite ourselves with the cosmos and nature within a collective human consciousness, evolving only within the borders of the ethnic and religious community we found ourselves in. Now individual revelation began to shape our thinking and understanding of life, our belief in ultimate things or God, thus forming a new world apart from the limits of tribe. This Axial period gave us the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah followed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Then Buddha added his spiritual genius, joining the established Asian religions of Hinduism and Jainism. Two centuries later Christ and Christianity would enter, informed by the Greeks followed by the birth of Islam by the 5th century ACE. New Monasticism Since the beginning of our teaching college students at Agape, many of the young who were baptized Catholics no longer considered themselves Catholic or bound to any religion, in the name of any God. Then around 2006 young Catholics who came to Agape began to talk about a “new monasticism,” coming out of Protestant denominations and people like Shane Clayborne, a young Evangelical Christian from Tennessee. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, his wife Leah and their two children began Rutba House a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina. Jonathan had travelled to war-torn Iraq and returned with an even stronger conviction of anti-war pacifism within the embrace of this Christian-inspired “new monasticism.” I recently spoke to Leah, Jonathan’s wife and shared a dilemma. “Why,” I asked her, “if you are not Catholic or celibate, and live as a family with the poor as nonviolent activists embracing family life, do you call yourselves a new monastic?” She responded: “We want to reclaim the early wisdom of the Desert Fathers (and, she added, Mothers!) and live inspired by these teachings. We follow a daily commitment to spiritual practice and the contemplative disciplines.” These assorted new monastics were discovering an experiential Christianity, not a theology heavily laden with obligatory doctrine, instead drawing on the powerful, simple truth of Christian wisdom traditions. These young seekers want the foundations of tradition but then freedom to evolve these ancient truths into something “new.” They often quote Catholic Hindu scholar Raimon Panikkar: “Our task and our responsibility are to assimilate the wisdom of bygone traditions and, having made them our own, allow them to grow.” I have observed those who resonate with this interspiritual way and watch them draw from the wells of the several Asian contemplative practices. They are very eager to learn yoga, Buddhist mindfulness meditation and learn from the Chinese healing practices and the “Tao Te Ching.” Enter Evolution Religious belief and observance is not static. We are, generation to generation, inexorably changed by the forces of evolution. As Christians, the gospel promises us we will evolve toward “the good,” that is God. I began to notice early in my life how different a spiritual animal I was from my parents and their World War II generation. My choices and attractions seemed vast and intercultural, more complex and morally and philosophically based. I can see some of these same differences in how young people view religion and social acceptance. They make far less of a deal about skin color or sexual preference, even distinctions of what gender you are than their elders. Evolutionary progress once again. It follows then that a New Axial Age will be more enlightened, more unified and makes a higher consciousness more accessible. The evolutionary teachings of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit geological scientist mystic, are helpful here. Teilhard was taken with “complexity” which connects consciousness, freedom, and inventive power to nonliving matter. A cosmic consciousness encompasses the smallest microbe to the billion universes beyond our own. Everything that lives is growing in complexity, unity and interdependence. I am learning a foundational tenet of those that are “spiritual not religious;” their primacy of spiritual truth and commitment to direct experience and not church building on Sunday. One Sunday, our teenage daughter Teresa refused to go to Mass. “I know plenty about the Bible and Jesus,” she said. “I do not need to go to church to learn anything more.” I had sensed that since her first days in church she did not relate well to the religious language or the priest behind the altar. Even the Eucharist did not grab her deeply, although she loved the ceremony of her first communion when she was eight. Then there was the ornate ceremonial church building. With only fifty or so rather unanimated parishioners every week, mostly older adults scattered around the church, now prompted her to propose: “Instead of going to church Dad, let’s go into our chapel here and read the Bible and I’ll tell you what it means.” We did just that, and she confidently preached to me the meaning of the passages. When it came to the central importance of being a compassionate person she got that and did not appear to need or prefer a sermon. We have had fifty or so Catholic families in our extended community over the years. By the time the children were in their late teens, all raised Roman Catholic, it would be rare that any of them would call themselves Catholic or attend Mass on their own. Traditional Christianity in North America is clearly dying back into something else we cannot yet see. Teilhard contributes insight into this dilemma by saying: “We are surrounded by a fear that the world is foundering in atheism. What it is suffering from is unsatisfied theism.” Further insight into generational differences came from my niece Joanna. She offered me a counterpoint to our established methods of social activism: “We are not going into the streets to protest injustice. We will go online and build a movement through the internet.” Since the beginning of the third millennium computers, internet and cell phones have arrived and defined our lives, worldwide. Is this computer technology also an evolutionary stage? Cell phones with 1600 times the memory of the first computer worth $2 million in 1960 can be purchased today for $100. It is clear that digital technology is “connecting” on a massive scale and speed but at the same time keeps us from real, face -to- face “human connection.” It is also a fact that whatever “interreligious” becomes in our future, spiritual seekers will maintain a primary reliance on this technology. Will there be a real collision, the multi-tasking pace of the digital world with the slower paced, uni-tasking spirit world in a New Axial Age? Stay tuned. Who Will Take Up the Mantle Next? Suzanne and I are coming up on the 34th year of Agape. The question arises: How do we set our sights on the next twenty years? What folks from the younger generations will step up and take communities like ours into the unknowns of future consciousness? Whatever brave and brilliant souls end up here, they will be a breed of human from a very different world than the one that shaped their elders. And where do we look for young people to carry this torch? Again intern Matt Riddle shared with us around the breakfast table: “Do not look for the young people who are on their devices all day. Look for the young people on the margins.” In these next years, we must begin to turn our sights from these intentional community “margins of Agape” and look to the margins of our society that hold the readiness of the next generations. Together we may realize a never before experienced religious and spiritual potential into the future. Perhaps as we move into the next twenty years of a world rebirthed into these more interspiritual ways, we will be absorbed into a Second Axial Age. Communities like Agape that have always practiced an interspirituality but need to be rekindled and remade in this new age. As a Christian I continue to believe that Jesus Christ, beyond the bounds of institutional religion, expresses the center of the cosmic universe as no other being. I trust this next enlightened age will maintain the spiritual design of the love, compassion and mercy of Jesus. But a pluralistic spirit will draw in adherents of the many faith traditions, uniting all seekers animated by nonviolent love, not just for the benefit of humans and our planet earth but for the entire cosmos.
Tags: Servant Song
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