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Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Great Transformation: Chap 01 - The Axial People

Some notes and thoughts as I read Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation". I've read articles and heard Karen speak (via the internet) several times and have always found her interesting and informative. I've only read one other book of hers and that is "A History of God". This is one of my all time top 10 favorite type books, so I have high hopes for this book and so far it's delivering. Karen's life story also fascinates me. She was a nun for several years and then (I believe) became an atheist. Now I believe she is a believer of some sort but I'm pretty sure it's not something that belongs to any specific denomination. People who know a lot about religion in general and the Bible in particular who go from atheist to believer hold a special fascination for me. If I ever become "spiritual" in some sense I predict it will be because of her influence. But don't hold your breath.

The book is about the "Axial Age" which is a period during the 1st millenium BC in which ALL major religions today can trace their start. The religions in question: Judaism (also Christianity and Islam), Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and probably a few others. The basic gist seems to be that all of these traditions were developed as a reaction to turbulent and violent times.

Each of the 4 main groups that this book will follow (Greeks, Israelites, Arayans (Indians) and Chinese) lived in societies for which there was a long period of peace that was abruptly ended by the sudden growth of warrior cultures. Another commonality seems to be the introduction of an intermediary to act between god and the common man. It's as if each culture's sky god grew more and more distant until a gap was formed that need to be filled to maintain the connection.

Zoroastrianism seems to to have foreshadowed many of the elements that would later appear in the axial age religions but some how it never took off. Perhaps the world wasn't ready for these ideas yet. The rest of the book will be outlining what in fact the axial age religious innovations were.

There is a lot of interesting historical background about the different cultures but as usual the most interesting bits for me were about the Israelites. Some random tidbits:

- There is no evidence of Israelites ever being in Egypt. The current consensus seems to be that the tribes that banded together to become Israel were simply people who fled the deteriorating cities on the coast to start a new life inland. Likely
the Egypt story grew from a yearly festival/rite based on a crossing of the Jordan river.

- Originally El was considered the main overseer god and Yahweh was one of the sub-gods (along with Baal and other tribal gods). This helps explain why the Israelites were always found worshiping other gods - they hadn't fully developed the idea of monotheism yet. I'm guessing this point will be elaborated on in detail as the book continues.

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