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Áskesis in the Axial Age from a Cultural Evolutionary Perspective

Panel Chair: Anders Klostergaard Petersen | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m.

In the wake of the renewed interest in cultural evolution - associated with Bellah and Eisenstadt - this panel focuses on cultural evolution in the context of axial age religion. To narrow the discussion further, we highlight the phenomenon of áskesis. Following Sloterdijk, we define áskesis as programs of training. We shall scrutinise a variety of phenomena not traditionally discussed under this rubric. This admittedly more comprehensive scope of the concept enables us to include not only various forms of religiously motivated bodily self-renunciation and mortification but also ethical programs of divine imitation, philosophical training programs, sports, etc. We shall highlight the specific forms áskesis takes on in the context of axial age culture with an eye on previous types in archaic and tribal cultures and with a keen eye on subsequent forms. Thereby, the panel covers all four of the central themes of the World Congress.

Merlin Donald

The Theoretical Background for Talking about Cultural Evolution and the Axial Age

The aim of this presentation is to provide the panel with the theoretical basis for the talk about a cultural evolutionary perspective and the axial age. The contribution concentrates on the relationship between biological and cultural evolution and discusses the major transitions in memory cognition from three to two million years ago unto today with a special focus on the axial age.

Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen

Áskesis in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Israelite religion ‒ or more properly the religion(s) of the Hebrew Bible ‒ is commonly not associated with asceticism at all. In many respects the ‘theologies‘ and religious attitudes may diverge within the Hebrew Bible. But on one issue there seems to be an almost total unanimity: earthly being is in principle conceived of as good, because that is all there is for humans, Israelites as well as all others, including animals. Hebrew Bible religion is a religion of blessing and fertility, and Yahweh is, first and foremost, a deity of fertility. Still, an ‘ascetic-oriented’ approach may help in pointing out some important characteristics of the Hebrew Bible. It will probably also be beneficial in a discussion about what, if anything, an ‘axial age’ or an axial breakthrough has to do with the theologies of the Hebrew Bible.

Bernhard Lang

Ascetic Spirituality and Personal Piety: Two Types of Individualised Religiosity

Traditional Catholic theology distinguishes between the “spirituality” of religious virtuosi and the “personal piety” of ordinary believers. Whereas spirituality (understood in this traditional sense of the term) belongs to the religious elite and is based on ascetic practice that can be taught and learned, personal piety, typical of the masses, seems to arise spontaneously. The paper explores the two types of individualised religiosity with reference to examples. The institutional and formalised nature as well as the life-long commitment of spirituality is contrasted with the non-institutional, informal and episodic nature characteristic of personal piety. The latter is typically linked to the experience of social and personal crisis. By contrast, spirituality seeks to transcend the realm of the mundane, its challenges and crises so as to free ascetic practice from practical concerns by focussing on the divine as an absolute value. Spirituality seeks perfection rather than the solution of pressing everyday problems.

Einar Thomassen

The Question of Islam

How is the emergence and spread of Islam to be understood from the point of view of cultural evolution? This paper will attempt to apply to Islam the parameters characterising the religious transformation associated with the axial age, with special attention to the ideology and practices of self-renunciation in their various forms: in ritual, social interaction and ‘mystical’ exercises and training programmes. How does the emergence of these features in the context of Islam relate to the timeline of religious evolution implied by the theory of the axial age?


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