II-26 Christianity:The Universal Vision
of human spirituality, gives some of the intellectual basis for
his ecumenism and openness to all the forms of spirituality.
It appeared under the title "On the problematics of the
Axial Period.(on the dialogue between culture and religion)"
posthumously in 1992. It is long and I am copying out so
it will not be here completely for some time but will try to
keep it going in. Elizabeth Roberts, who put the now out of
print book together, notes that the more is available the
better so have copied it out
CHRISTIANITY: THE UNIVERSAL VISION
In Russian society today favorable processes are at work including a
serious re-evaluation of many opinions formerly taken as axiomatic.
In particular the significance of our spiritual inheritance from the past in
the contemporary world is hotly debated. Until quite recently, this inheritance
was said to be something that had gone forever; at best it was regarded as
a survival, respected but lifeless. Even artistic treasures such as icons and
church architecture were not understood(at the beginning of the century
the art historian Petr Gnedich characterized Russian iconography as a
primitive, 'backward' form of art) It was easier still to disparage the religious
philosophical and ethical traditions which have come down to us from the
Ideas like this are not only a product of the twentieth century. They arose
as early as the Enlightenment, and were elaborated in Auguste Comte's
theory of the three phases of the development of thought and in other
nineteenth century doctrines in the philosophy of history. Up to a point,
this attitude was caused by the impression made on people's minds by
the progress of natural science which had begun in the seventeenth
century. As a rule,the new scientific discoveries replaced much of what
had been there before. Unconsciously(but sometimes consciously) an
analogous principle,legitimate in the study of nature, began to be applied
to the sphere of the spirit: that is,to philosophy,aesthetics, religion and
However, there is a qualitative difference. Even if chemistry meant the end
of alchemy,and modern biology made ancient and medieval concepts
obsolete,it would be rash to conclude that twentieth-century ethics has no
need of the rules worked out in previous times.
The first step towards overcoming this arrogant attitude to the spiritual traditions
of the past and of the non-European world was made in the field of aesthetics.
Early in our own century we find the beginning of 'rehabilitation' of primitive,
archaic and African and Asian art, which gradually ceased to be seen as
'barbaric',or 'unskilled', having nothing in common with 'advanced'
However, this tragic century of world wars, with its cruelty,destruction of the
sense of law,its disastrous effects on the natural environment and its lack
of spirituality,and the ensuing spiritual and ethical crises,has induced many
people to ponder the reasons why this has come about. The realization then
dawned that people,having hastily discarded the ideals of the past and
declaring them to be fossils, had cut themselves off from cultural sources
which were important for life.
Among various efforts to overcome this disastrous split, a prominent place
belongs to the theory of the 'axial period'(Aschenzeit) put forward by the
German thinker,scholar and publicist Karl Jaspers(1883-1969). This theory is
distinguished first by the conviction that the ancient and spiritual heritage of
East and West is relevant today, and secondly by the effort to find a
basis for the unity of mankind.
What was the 'axial period'?
Jaspers' theory is neither speculation nor an abstract scheme imposed on
history. He himself emphasized that he had reached the idea of the
'axial age' empirically, from the study of established facts which were well
known before the appearance of his book "The Origin and Goal of History
[Von Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte,1949)." All that he did was to
focus attention on the common starting-point from which the paradigms of
thought in East and West had arisen.
What Jaspers had in mind were the events which happened simultaneously in
the vast area between the banks of the Yellow River and the Greco-Roman
area in the middle of the first millennium BC. This was the time when Buddha,
Confucius,Zarathustra and the biblical prophets were preaching; that was
when the Upanishads,the books of the Old Testament and the earlier parts
of the Avesta and Mahabharata were written; then it was that the thinking
of the ancient philosophers and tragedians,of the Jains,and of the
representatives of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy, the
'darshanas' originated and flourished. All this comes under what Jaspers
calls 'the axial period.'
The human mind at that time broke through the limits set by geographical,cultural,
ethnic and temporal frontiers. Indeed,even in our own time, Christianity and Islam,
the teachings of the Far East and most secular doctrines have some hereditary
connection with the cradle of the 'axial period.' We find in it monotheism and
materialism,abstract mysticism and the search for a just social order, in aesthetic
ideas and codes of morals. The question was whether the cradle should be considered
to be only a monument of the past, or recognized as a vital reserve of spirituality,
which is needed in the modern world. Jaspers attempted also to establish how far the
heritage of the 'axial period' is universal, or whether its values are capable of
nourishing no more than local currents of culture.
In his answers to these questions, Jaspers argued the case both for the
relevance of the past for our own time, and for the universalizing tendency
which lies at the heart of the 'axial period.'
One point must be made clear: when Jaspers gave priority in history to the spiritual
sphere,he was not narrowing or impoverishing the question. Whatever the socio-economic
correlates of the 'axial period' were, its spiritual wealth concerns that dimension
of human existence which forms the very core of history. The true nature of humanity,
that which raises it above the animal level, becomes apparent whenever we find
achievements and discoveries of the spirit. of course,people also 'humanize' processes
which are common to them and to other living beings, but the content of their spiritual
activity has no parallel in nature.
In a certain sense, the 'axial period' was a global revolution in consciousness.
'Mythological', undifferentiated thinking, as found at the beginning of history--
the period which Jaspers regarded as the prelude to the 'axial period'--did not
distinguish man from the universe. In the early literate civilizations of China,
India, the Near East and the Aegean, an outlook on things which may be described
as 'magism' held sway. Magism reaches back to pre-historic culture ,when the
universe was conceived to be a grandiose system of relationships in which the
human race had quite a modest place. These relationships were seen as
manifestations of the divine Nature, which had given birth to gods,people,
animals,plants and the elements. All that people had to do was to submit
obediently to the eternal cosmic order, of which they considered their own
rituals to be part. However, since they knew its 'laws', people could make use
of them with the aid of magic for their everyday purposes(hunting,war,
The magic view of the world lasted thousands of years in a great variety of places
on earth,creating stable and in many ways similar traditions, even in countries
completely isolated from one another. In itself this similarity has not
yet been satisfactorily explained. Even harder to understand is the fact that
the events of the 'axial period' occured synchronically, since the period lasted
only a relatively short time in history. It is true that in the first millennium BC
numerous inter-cultural links were already at work, but,as Jaspers rightly noted,
they were still too weak to explain this mysterious phenomenon.
We may take as an example of what is called 'apophatic theology', that is the
doctrine of the ultimate reality as a principle which cannot be adequately
expressed by any intellectual concepts. It is easier to say what that principle
is not than to give it an exhaustive definition. This was the teaching of
Taoism in the tradition running from Lao Tse and Chuang Tse, of Brahman, in
the Upanishads and Mahabharata, Nirvana in Buddhism, of the Highest Good
in Plato, of the One Who Is in the Israelite prophets--and in general the
'axial period' is characterized by the urge to overcome polytheism and
find faith in one God. In all this, there is not the slightest reason to
suppose the Chinese thinkers knew anything of Greek ideas, or the prophet
Isaiah anything of the Vedic texts. The same can be said of the astonishing
interchagability of the moral maxims formulated in that period. Ethical values
prove to be immeasurably higher than ritual systems, while the utilitarian
psychology of magism gives way to a reverent search for truth and to
mystical vision and prophetic faith.
Jaspers, being an existentialist philosopher, particularly emphasized
that in the 'axial period', human beings became conscious of their
separateness from the natural world and of the tragic quality of their
existence, that is ,they found themselves in a 'frontier situation.'
[Man] experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness.
He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for
liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits he
sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the
depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence.
It is a fact that soteriological doctrines, 'religions of salvation'
arose precisely during the 'axial period'.
According to Jaspers, the 'axial period' began about 800 and ended
about 200 BC. Christianity thus falls outside it, and becomes
something secondary. 'From an historical perspective' he writes,
'Jesus was the last in the series of Jewish prophets and stood in
conscious continuity with them.' Given that interpretation it is
hard to understand,then, why Jaspers could not have extended the limits
of the 'axial period' to the middle of the first century A.D. However
this is a topic to which we shall return; all that we need to note at
the moment is that in Jaspers' eyes the 'axial' heriatage is far from
exhausted, and is capable of giving mankind new impulses for
In this age were born the fundamental categories within which we
still think today, and the beginnings of the world religions, by
which humans still live, were created. The step into universality
was taken in every sense...
True, Jaspers did find something like a second 'axis' in the culture of
the West after the Renaissance, which evoked a response in all mankind.
Europe's exceptional spiritual achievments from 1500 to 1800,
that outshine science and technology--Michelangelo,Raphael,
Leonardo,Shakespeare,Rembrandt, Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, Bach,
Mozart--challenge comparison with the Axial Period of two and
a hal millenia earlier.
But Jaspers himself admits that this second 'axis' came fairly
quickly into an impasse, which turned into a protracted crisis(we must
remember that Jaspers wrote his book on the philosophy of history soon
after the Second World War).
Jaspers saw the way out of this crisis in the openess of the European
post-Reanissance mind, with its inherent pluralism and its receptiveness
and sensitivity to other traditions. This is generally a fair judgement,
if we do no mare than recall the part played by Japanese art in the
development of Western painting, and by Indian ideas in Schopenhauer's
philosophy. We may also recall what the East meant to writers nad thinkers
as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer, Herman Hesse and J.D.Salinger.
Jaspers' work has become a pointer for our times, which are marked not
only by confrontations and explosions of chauvinism, but also by
strivings for the unity of all mankind. The increasing interest of
the West in the East is an eloquent witness to this. As has been rightly
The ideologists of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment took as
their standard classical man; the Romantics of the early nineteenth
century turned to the world of the Middle Ages in their search for an
ideal ; although nineteenth century man, convinced of the triumph of
reason, evolution and progress, discovered for himself the world of
the Far East, he was nevertheless inspired by classical antiquity; but
people of the twentieth century, and especially of the second half,
are paying more and more attention to ancient eastern man.
Following Max Muller, Radhakrishnan and Schweitzer, Jaspers held that
Western culture and spirituality needed to be supplemented by something
which could be found in Asia.
Unless the East had emerged from its seclusion, and the West had renounced
its Eurocentrism which for so long it thought was the only possible model,
this question and this way of thinking would not have arisen.
OVERCOMING CULTURAL EGOCENTRISM
Although Christianity, which came from the East and was established in
the West, bore within itself a mighty impetus to universalism, the
medieval European and the inhabitant of ancient Russia identified the
area of their own Christian culture with the actual historical world.
Beyond the frontiers of this area, began the incomprehensible, dark and
sinister 'world of the pagans.' A special exception was made for Islam,
with which both the West and Russia entered into very close contact, and
which was regarded as an anomaly, or as a deviation from something
familiar, almost as a Christian heresy. In a certain sense that is what
Islam really was, for the Koran rests on the same biblical Old Testament
basis as Christianity does(even if the biblical basis were given a rather
free interpretation) Moreover the Moslems always revered Isa the son of
Mariam, namely Christ, as a great propher. Judaism ws regarded as a
similar deviation, adhering to the Old Testament but suppmementing it
with its own later traditions.
However at the time of the great geographical discoveries of the fifteenth,
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was brought face to face with
the ancient highly developed 'pagan' civilizations, of which it had
previously no knowledge at all, or only the vaguest idea. To judge by the
memoirs of Afanasy Nikitin, this meeting caused a real shock. Nikitin a
merchant from Tver' who was one of the first Europeans to go to India
and Ethiopia at the end of the Middle Ages, recounts his inner struggles
to remain a Christian while living among people of other faiths. Yet
contact with these people gave him ideas which were certainly not
intolerant. 'What is true faith?' ,he writes: 'God knows. But the true
faith is to know the one God and to call upon Him everywhere and in
purity of heart.'
The encounter with new worlds put the Christian missionaries who had gone
to African, Asian and American countries in a difficult dilemna: either
to bring the gospel to the 'natives' as the 'religion of the whites', or
to study and take account of the cultural and religious inheritance of the
indigenous peoples. For a long time, the first of these models prevailed.
However there were exceptions. We may mention among them the sixteenth
century missionaries Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili. It was to such
people , who called for respect for oriental 'pagan' traditions and for
account to be taken of them, that Europe most frequently owed its first
information about the cultures and beliefs of Africa, Asia and America.
These were the ones who prepared the way for further re-orientation of
the Christian understanding of 'paganism'.
The eighteenth century saw the first translations of the sacred books of
the East into European languages,including Russian. However the Eurocentric
outlook still prevailed. For instance [the German writer] Johann von Herder
[in his history of mankind 1791] thought that although history began in
the Orient, the oriental period was wholly pervaded by stagnation,
despotism and superstition.This attitude did not change even after the
archaeological discoveries in Egypt and Jean Francois Champollion's
deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics(1822), which made Europe aware of
the cultural treasures of the land of the Pyramids. G.W.F.Hegel in his
Philosophy of History(1830) relegated his cursory sketch of Egypt to the
part dealing with Persia, on the grounds that it was only the Achaemenid
dynasty who built an extensive empire(which included Egypt) in the Near
East. For the same reasons, in the name of statism which he proclaimed,
Hegel gave a place in his philosophy of history to China and India; but in
general his evaluation of Eastern cultures reflects a semi-contemptuous
Eurocentric view of the East.
In particular Hegel enshrined the four-stage scheme of history which
continued to be accepted after him, according to which the first stage
was the unchanging East; that was followed by the brilliant age of
Classical antiquity, after which came the Middle Ages, and then the
modern era when the 'Christian-Germanic spirit' became dominant. Thus
Hegel considered the Eastern element in world culture as the lowest.
By contrast, Hegel's contemporary and adversary Arthur Schopenhauer
came to recognize the profundity of Eastern wisdom, expecially Buddhism.
However in coming to his conclusions,this pessimistic thinker was guided
more by consideration of metaphysics than of the philosophy of history.
It was only Friedrich Schelling who, in lectures given in the later period
of his life, made an attempt to find something lasting in the pre-Christian
consciousness of the East by looking at it in the context of the religious
and historical process as a whole. In these ancient Eastern and Western
teachings Schelling found constituent elements of that universal truth
which had been revealed to mankind in the Gospels during the decline of
classical antiquity. According to Schelling, the distinctive feature of
biblical religion as a whole, which distinguishes it from other faiths,
is its historicism. Christ proclaimed the gospel at a particular and
fateful moment of history, and everything that preceded his coming was,
in its way, a preparation for the New Testament, 'Christianity before
The information on the East available to Schelling was far from complete;
but after the work of Friedrich Max Muller, and Paul Deussen, many
Europeans began to learn about the Eastern tradition, which they saw not
as a stage of history wholly past or something exotic, but as a participant
on equal terms in the spiritual creativity of the world. The development
owed much to the English translation of 'The Sacred Books of the East' which
came out in 1875, edited by Max Muller, and to Deussen's exposition of the
basic ideas of Indian philosophy(until then the history of thought had
begun with the Greeks). Russian orientalists too, such as Iakinf Bichurin
and Aleksei Vinogradov, made a considerable contribution to our knowledge
of the East.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the study of culture began
to acquire a secular positivist character. If Max Muller valued the
traditions of the East for their spirituality(which did not prevent him
from remaining a Christian), many of his contemporaries already regarded
the East from a purely ethnographic standpoint. This was the key to the
abandonment--whole or partial--of the old Eurocentrism. In any case it is
symptomatic that in two popular 'Universal Histories' published
at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hegel's fourfold scheme was
discarded, and large sections were devoted to pre-Columbian America and to
Asia and Africa.
Similar processes were under way in the East. Even before the rule of
the Great Moguls, Hinduism had been engaged in a dialogue with Islam
and Zoroastrianism. The Mogul Emperor Akbar(1542-1605) tried to bring
about a peculiar religious synthesis, recognizing the worth of various
doctrinal traditions. Many representatives of the Indian renaissance in
religion and philosophy, which began during the English rule, showed an
openness to Western culture. One need only mention the names of Ram
Mohan Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement, the ascetic
Ramakrishna, the neo-Vedantic philosophers Vivekananda and Aurobindo
Ghose. Although their attitude to the West was quite critical, they
knew and to some extent adopted, the values of the Western world. The
extent to which these values entered their philosophy of life would have
to be the subject of special research, but the very fact that their views
included a certain westernization and readiness for dialogue is
significant. There is no doubt that Vivekananda derived a number of his
philosophical ideas and his attitude to social action from Europe.
The same process of dialogue with the West was carried on rather less
intensively in China and Japan, where the main interest in European
culture lay in the sphere of technological development.
THE REVERSE SIDE OF PLURALISM
The end of Eastern isolation and of Western Eurocentrism created the
necessary conditions for a growth in tolerance and in a sense of common
humanity, and for the fruitful mutual enrichment of East and West. But
we must mention two extremely contentious and dubious consequences which
this process was fraught with. One concerns culture in general and
the other, religion.
Already in the nineteenth century, acknowledgment of the equality of
civilizations had led to the idea that each was self-sufficient. One
of the first to express this idea was Nikolai Danilevsky(1822-1885),
a representative of late, 'secular' Slavophiliam. Rightly criticizing
the fourfold( or, in another version, threefold) Eurocentric scheme
of history, he questioned the West's right to claim an exceptional
position, and to measure everything by its own scale. 'What has China
or India to do with the fall of the Western Roman Empire?',asked
Danilevsky. 'Even for neighboring states beyond the Euphrates, the fall
of the Parthian Empire or the rise of the Sassanian kingdom were more
important to them than the fall of the Western Roman Empire.' Every
'type' of culture was created as a distinct ethnolinguistic community,
and therefore represents a complete whole, which cannot claim to
be either eternal or universal.
But if Danilevsky, with his relativizing view of history,nevertheless
recognized some continuity between cultural types, this recognition
was wholly rejected by another historian who was thinking on the same
lines,though he is hardly likely to have known of Danilevsky's work.
This historian was Oswald Spengler(1880-1936) who wrote under the
impact of the First Word War and predicted the cultural extinction
of the West.
In his book 'The Decline of the West'(1918-1922),Spengler--like
Danilevsky--recognized the existence only of separate cultural organisms,
but he thought their morphology was entirely autonomous and sealed off
in itself. He went a good deal further than the antithesis expressed in
the famous lines of Rudyard Kipling: 'East is East and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet.' The West itself, in Spengler's thinking,
is divided into separate impenetrable worlds. Thus he put early Christianity
and the Church Fathers into 'Arab culture', in which there was no place
for the Old Testament, and which was quite disconnected from the West
European tradition. In a word, in Spengler, Eurocentrism was overcome
at a price of completely using any idea of the unity of mankind. In
traditional Christian philosophy of history, represented by Augustine
and Nestor the Chronicler, the historical process is seen as a single
purposive whole; in Spengler cultural bodies absolutely alien to each
other are born, flower and die "in solitude", subject to the inescapable
fate of every living thing.
Spengler's book made a very great impression, since its publication
coincided with the crucial years when the certainties of nineteenth
century were collapsing, and it really was possible to think that
European civilization was coming to an end. But it is a curious fact
that one of the most profound and significant answers to Spengler's
pessimistic prognosis came from Moscow in the 1920s--the same Moscow
which at that time H.G.Wells saw in an almost apocalyptic light.
Even before the second volume of 'The Decline of the West' was
published, a group of Russian thinkers responded in a book of
articles devoted to Spengler. Recognizing the acumen and shrewdness
of some of Spengler's observations, the authors showed convincingly
that there were very solid facts which sharply contradicted his thesis.
These facts for instance include the numerous and durable links that
bind not only the various stages of development of European culture
together, but also the cultures of the West and East. In particular
S.L. Frank ,one of the compilers of the collection, observed that
Spengler ,by ignoring these facts, is further from the truth even
than the supporters of the old fourfold model. Frank writes.
However one-sided,subjective and superficial are our conventional
notions on the course of 'world history',they at least treat
it as a connected whole and try--with varying degrees of success--
to analyze the linkage or continuity between past and present.
From this point of view, Spengler's division of the historical
process which embraces and unites the so-called 'ancient',
'medieval', and 'modern' ages, into three completely different
cultures, each locked into itself, and separated from the others...
involves a palpable diminution and distortion of accumulated
It is not surprising that subsequent twentieth century historians, though
they took account of Spengler's idea of the morphological integrity of
individual cultures, had to emphasize the mutual links,influences and
continuity between them. This was the keystone for the classical works
[of the English historian] Arnold Toynbee, who substantially modified
the Spenglerian model, and of the [Russo-American sociologist] Pitirim
Sorokin who pointed out the universal structure of world-views("super-
systems") which are common to the most disparate cultures.
Belonging as they did to the same generation as Jaspers,both these scholars
collected a mass of empirical material, which reinforced the universalist
tendency inherent in the idea of the 'axial period.'
The second, and more serious, difficulty in overcoming Eurocentrism made
itself felt in the interpretation of religion.
Jaspers recognized that 'Christianity in the shape of the Christian church,
is perhaps the greatest and highest organizational form yet evolved by the
human spirit,' and that this church 'proved capable of compelling contradictory
elements into union, of absorbing the highest ideals formulated up to that time
and of protecting its acquisitions in a dependable tradition.' However,
as we have seen, he excluded Christianity from the 'axial period' on the
grounds that the Christianity of the church is 'the result of a later
development', and that the teaching of the prophets, which preceded it,was
more original. However, this is a weak argument, since all the religions
which arose in the first millennium BC also relied on earlier ideas and,
just like Christianity once they had arisen, continued to develop and to
be enriched. Vedantic doctrine, for instance, or Buddhism or Taoism did not
spring up on bare soil, and did not remain static during the period
synchronous with the European Middle Ages; and the teachings of Asvaghosha,
Shankara or Tsonghapa evidently did not induce Jaspers to exclude Buddhism
or Vedantic teaching from the limits of the 'axial period.'
Beyond that,Jaspers wanted to find in the inheritance of the 'axial period'
some homogeneous soil for a spiritual synthesis of the present and the future.
Once again, Christianity proved to be outside his scheme of things. Although
he calls Christ 'the axis of history', his words show that he means the
axis only of religious differences, and proposed an 'eternal' or
'philosophical' faith , which would be able to bring people nearer to the
Godhead irrespective of their specific religious traditions.
This was not a new idea. It had already been expressed in the Bhagavadgita,
and by Plutarch. In the sixteenth century, Akbar worked out an eclectic
kind of religion, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the European
Deists did the same, and were followed in the nineteenth by various
representatives of theosophy and neo-Vedanta. Their 'omnivorousness'
carried with it the danger of spiritual entropy, and in the last
analysis turned faith into something amorphous, which could not match
the creative power of the historic religions of the world. Superficially,
this sort of 'pan-religion' might even seem desirable, insofar as it
could stimulate the unity of peoples and cultures. But historical experience
and a deeper understanding of the essence and practice of religions shows
that this approach is destructive of spiritual values. What happens is a
levelling down, a loss of form, and vital values are deprived of their
unique essence. It is not accident that the Deists' efforts to create a
'pan-religion' led only to the disintegration of the foundations of religion
and to the triumph of a mechanistic view of the world. It is worth remembering
that even in India, the 'temple of all religions' is one of the least
frequented of them all.
In this case, Arnold Toynbee's case is interesting. In developing his religious
and theocentric view of world history, he began by basing himself on
Christianity, then tried to create an equilibrium between Christianity and
Eastern religions. However, he was unable to sustain this intermediate
position and finished up preferring Indian pantheism.
All this proves once more that syncretism cannot give a satisfactory answer to
the problem. For the Christian mind, it is in any case unacceptable. However
Christianity long ago ceased ignoring other spiritual traditions on the
grounds that they were unworthy of attention, and now tries to find room
for them in its own philosophical system.
THE CHRISTOCENTRIC INTERPRETATION,
Christianity's first attempts to make sense of the religious and historical
process came at a difficult moment for it, when there was a fierce struggle
going on between the church and paganism in its many forms. We can understand
how in the second century AD, the idea expressed by Tatian and Tertullain that
pagans worship demons without knowing it came about. However their own
contemporaries, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, were already taking
a different approach to the problem of pagan thought.
they argued that before Christ, divine revelation was not restricted to the
Old Testament,and that for the pagans their own higher doctrines, which
developed within their own milieu, played the role of the Old Testament. The
pagan world, in this view was not plunged in impenetrable darkness,for it had
been made fruitful by the eternal Logos,which explains why many ideas are
common to classical antiquity and to Christianity.
These arguments are biblically based, and in particular derive from Old
Testament doctrines about the revelation to the gentiles, and from St.Paul's
speech in Athens. At the same time, patristic writers sharply resisted the
attempts by Gnosticism and Manichaeism to create some sort of
'pan-religious fusion' out of a mixture of different religious traditions.
While they recognized that there were elements of truth in pre-Christian
consciousness, the Fathers of the Church never departed from
Christocentrism in their theology and philosophy of history.
Later, in the Middle Ages,there were many church thinkers who did not
reject pagan values. We only have to recall the place given in Christian
thought to Plato and Aristotle. However, this did not in the slightest alter
the original Christocentric interpretation, which became both fuller and
more concrete as the Christian world learned more about other
religions and systems of thought.
it is impossible to go into the details of this process in the scope of
an article. We shall therefore confine our examination to three
representatives of the Christian philosophy of history, who were
older contemporaries of Jaspers: Vladimir Soloviev, Nicolas
Berdyaev, and Christopher Dawson.
The idea of the 'axial period' in the form proposed by Jaspers is not to be
found in the writings of Vladimir Soloviev. He does however, examine and
compare those doctrines which arose precisely in that period of history. He
treats them not as forgotten 'fossils', but as natural moments in the dialectic
of the spirit, which contain a partial or one-sided comprehension of the
Soloviev came to these conclusions while still a young man, after a swift
transition from the nihilism of the 1860s to a Christian world-view. Already
in his first published work, strongly influenced by Schelling, he treated
religious and historical developments as something integral. This essay was
devoted to the earliest times, but in his master's dissertation, 'The Crisis of
Western Philosophy'(1874),he analyzes the crisis fully aware of the latest
findings of European thinkers of his time. He showed how the
development of rationalism had led their thinking into the impasse of
positivism,and how they had found a way out of the crisis by overcoming
their exclusive reliance on reason. In the systems of thought for which
Schopenhauer had laid the foundation, Soloviev saw an indication that
'modern philosophy' was ready to accept 'the very truths which,in the form
of faith and spiritual contemplation, had been established by the great
theological writings of the East(particularly the ancient East, and in
particular the Christian east). In Soloviev's words ,'this modern
philosophy , with its Western type of logical perfection, aims to unite
all the contemplative spiritual perceptions of the East.'
For Soloviev this conclusion meant that the spiritual riches which had
belonged to the East in the distant past had not lost their importance for
the modern era at all. In other words, Soloviev had already in some ways
anticipated Jaspers' view of the course of history. More than that, when
Soloviev was working in the British Museum and in Cairo his writings
are marked by the search for a 'universal religion' which is again
reminiscent of Jasper's theory.
But even then, the Gospels occupied a central place in the thoughts of
the young philosopher, and the 'pan-religious' themes soon disappeared
altogether from his work. Even earlier, in 1873, he had worked out a
plan for a book on the philosophy of the history of religion. The first
draft for this book had been made when Soloviev was an extra-mural
student at the Moscow Theological Academy. 'The aim of this work',
he wrote,'is to explain ancient religions, an explanation which is
necessary because without it there can be no understanding of
world history in general, or of Christianity in particular.'
Soloviev's project was never realized, but it was reflected in a number
of his works on the philosophy of history and on theology('Lectures
on Godmanhood, The Spiritual Basis of Life, The History of
Theocracy, Russia and the Universal Church, etc') The ideas in
these works are among the first examples in Russian thought to take
the patristic assessment of paganism as their starting point.
According to Soloviev, spiritual knowledge and revelation have a definable
Just as external nature has only gradually been revealed to
the mind of man and to mankind, which means that we have
to speak of the development of experience and of natural
sciences, so too the divine principle has gradually been
revealed to human consciousness, and we must speak of
the development of religious experience and religious
However, this process should not be identified with Comte's positivist theory,
in which there is a complete rupture between the old and the new. In
Soloviev;s view there is no such thing as a 'completely false' religion
The advance of religions is not a process whereby pure truth
replaces pure falsehood, for in that case truth would appear
suddenly and all at once, with no transition and no progress--
and then the question would arise: why did this sudden
appearance of truth occur at a particular place and time and not
at any other? And if we were to answer that truth could only
appear after falsehood had been exhausted, that would imply
that the coming of falsehood was necessary for the coming of
At the first stage of consciousness, mankind was wholly immersed in
the natural world in all the multitude of its phenomena, and this gave
rise to polytheism. The second stage gave preference to the spirit,
since it drew not on external phenomena but on spiritual experience.
This 'internal liberation from nature in the self-awareness of pure
personality was first clearly expressed in Indian philosophy', whose
last word was apophaticism, 'which understands the unconditional
principle as nothingness', that is, as free from all delimitations.
Jaspers,Toynbee, Radhakrishnan and many others see the solution in the
creation of some universal variant of faith, which would be able to
unite everyone. Similar claims are made today by the so-called
'non-traditional cults' which are spreading quickly in various parts
of the world. Some of them follow the path of syncretism,while other
soffer themselves as an alternative to all classical religons.
The opposite of such tendencies is religious exclusiveness and intolerance,
which can take very diverse forms. Thus,in the opinion of the Protestant
Karl Barth(especially in his early period), the truth is not to be found
anywhere outside the Bible, while for the American convert to the Russian
Orthodox Church Abroad Seraphim Rose, anything outside Orthodoxy is no more
than the machinations of the devil. It hardly needs saying that such a
position in practice has frequently led to religious wars,violence
and reprisals against those who held a different view.
In our view everything should be based on mutual understanding,tolerance
and dalogue, i.e. on what has become known as 'superecumenism.' It would
seem that the views of those Christian thinkers whom we have discussed
above,can be of great assistance here. Based on the patristic tradition,
they saw the history of the spirit as a single if contradictory process,
in which separate stages are linked together. With this approach,
Christianity could ,for instance, remain open to any values which it
could accept, while retaining still its identity and uniqueness.
According to Berdyaev:
Chrsitianity is not a religion of the same order as others; it is,
as Schliermacher said, the religion of religions. What does it
matter if within Christianity, supposedly so different from all
other faiths, there is nothing original at all apart from the
coming of Christ and His Personality; for is it not precisely
in this particular that the hope of all religions is fulfilled?
It is important to note that Christianity has long since ceased to be
'the religion of the whites', and is spreading intensively in contact
with African and Asian cultures. Thus, in India, there are now
Christian monks who include in their life features of Hindu
asceticism. There are a great many tendencies in Christian art
and rituals which have absorbed oriental and pre-Columbian American
traditions. Originating in Palestine, Christianity absorbed
Hellenism and Latinism, and then shaped the culture of Byzantium,
Russian and Europe,though preserving national characteristics. Today
it has crossed even these frontiers, creating 'new churches' in
Africa, Asia and among the Northern peoples.
Today's world crisis shows that there is no future for hostility,
or defensive isolationism, or eclecticism, but that dialogue can
be fruitful for all participants. The followers of the religions of
the world have something to say to mankind. Christianity brings the
gospels, its service, its love. Of course, it is not so easy to learn
tolerance and openness while remaining true to one's fundamental principles.
Christians, though, have never thought that spiritual life was an easy
matter, but rather an ascetic and heroic deed. The whole earth now needs
this deed. On the eve of the two thousandth anniversary of the foundation
of the Christian church, the world has reached a critical frontier. That
is why dialogue has become not a luxury for intellectuals but
a necessity of life.
Working in his office. Note picture of Vladimir Soloviev.