This Could Be Axial Age 2.0
In which I explore the messy, often confusing status of religion and spirituality in the United States today
We first met the Golden Oracle in 2013. She had just finished a 90-day juice fast and looked, in the farmers’ market where we saw her, a little bit shaky, if also rather wild. Back then, her name was just Angela, a woman fairly recently departed from LA, and around the time we left Joshua Tree, in March 2015, it was still Angela.
It was only later that she became the Golden Oracle, only later, and unbeknownst to us, that her divine services in the forms of sacred nourishment, womb chakra healing, oracle readings, sacred pregnancies, and cacao ceremonies would be readily on offer. Only then would she address her readers as beloveds whom she loved.
Something, therefore, happened to Angela on the way from LA to J Tree, and that something, it seems to me, cannot be understood apart from the birth of, and rapid explosion of interest in, the Spirit Weavers Gathering, an annual event in celebration of the divine feminine.
Earlier in the spring, Alexandra and I had packed up our car and traveled cross country from our cabin in the very Eastern tip of Appalachia to a house nestled beneath the redwoods of northern California. From there shortly thereafter, we would head back down to LA — to Topanga and Mount Washington for an important interview.
Rural Appalachia was where we’d bivouacked after we had left New York at the end of 2012. Why there? Ostensibly to “suck out all the marrow of life” and to “live life deliberately,” “front[ing] only the essentials.” (Both quotes, you know, are from Thoreau.) In retrospect, Appalachia was the place where our searching — for what? for whom? — began.
On our way through California, we had stayed at an Airbnb in Joshua Tree for a night or two. This was weird, alien country, what with its golden sands and moon rocks and its angling yuccas. We didn’t expect to return, and surely not the way we did. Alexandra, then a high-end handbag designer, was being interviewed for a position at BCBG in LA. She was a shoe-in; she nailed the interview; she didn’t get it. We were back in Joshua Tree when we received word and it was in Joshua Tree that we stayed.
We had come out West. For what? For whom?
This, again, was early 2013, only four years after the housing crisis that spilled over into the second home market in Joshua Tree. We rented a spacious unfurnished two bedroom house, therefore, at just over $1000 a month and thought that we’d take the six months there to regroup. The property had a large koi pond and desert garden out back and, sitting in a bowl-like valley, was tucked in close to the rocks. We had no furniture and, during our tenure there, bought none. Save for a blowup mattress in the master bedroom, four meditation cushions, two yoga mats, some kitchen supplies, and some rocks that would serve as indoor decor, the house was sparsely decorated and, excepting our cleanliness, looked rather as if it could have been squatted in. We were no longer in New York.
The desert floor woke up with the sunlight expanding across it. The sandy roads, surely the products of past homesteaders, were visited by coyotes and Gambel’s quails, by the occasional desert tortoises and, in recent times, by runners’ footfalls. Each day in the high desert was many days, was many seasons, perhaps many lifetimes before the sun fell and the moon rose and the stars flung themselves across the sky and hung there until morning. To meditate, to contemplate existence, to marvel — what else was this high desert for?
Indeed, what brings people from civilization out into the desert? Is it to be in solitude as Edward Abbey thought? Is it to vanish? To be transformed? Is it to find God? Or to find a place where one can melt away, for sorrows to partially mend or painfully heal? Is it to wait for something inconceivable yet unmistakable to make it all make sense? Or perhaps just to pray for unspeakable peace? Surely no one knows exactly when one arrives; surely not. We didn’t and we were into being honest with ourselves.
From the late 60s to the early 70s, writes Fred Turner in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), numerous communes cropped up in northern California, were scattered about in different parts of Colorado, and took root in some remote areas of northern New Mexico. Then, just as suddenly, they vanished, most of them anyway. Many were gone within five years, often less.
When, in the fall of 2017, Alexandra and I were living for a couple of weeks off the grid some miles outside of Santa Fe, one former hippie, in fact a woman who was once the disciple of Osho at the Oregon commune made famous — or infamous — in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country (2018), almost belligerently asked us over dinner: “So, what are you going to do?” Meaning: “We hippies advanced the political agenda and the spiritual cause. What is your generation going to do, huh?”
We felt the sting of her cryptic question and wanted to retort: “All right, you’re implying that our generation is just going along with the status quo as the world burns and as the bourgeoisie becomes more deeply entrenched. The earth is dying, and consciousness ain’t being raised, certainly not en masse. But then what, really, did you do back then? How come you pulled up stakes and were quite ready to ‘sell out’ when push came to shove? Why did so many of your experiments in alternative communal ways of living end so abruptly, and at that so chaotically?” In truth, we said nothing.
Today it feels as if being a genuine seeker — that is, someone who has staked his life on grappling with matters of ultimate concern and on experiencing ultimate truths — means going it alone. Alexandra and I are lucky because we have each other, but in our experience in New York, California, and the Southwest we’ve yet to discover anything like a genuine, vibrant set of movements oriented toward collective waking up (in the Buddhist or Advaita sense) nor have we found any vibrant intentional communities grounded as much in ecology and polis engagement as in the search for enlightenment. “A tall order to fill?,” you think. Yes, but counterculturists of the 60s and early 70s didn’t think so.
Consider the case with which I’m most familiar: Zen Buddhism burst on the American scene in the 60s with the arrival of Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco and Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles after that. A force until the late 80s, Zen Buddhism in America as nontheistic religious alternative is now pretty much dried up. Sex scandals and gross ethical abuses have discredited certain Zen masters, no doubt many Sangha members stopped practicing when word got out, and the stern discipline of, plus exacting rituals in, Zen don’t seem to command broad support from Gen Y, millennials, and iGen. Alexandra and I now meditate for a couple hours a day — alone, at home.
Curiously, also sadly, and quite tellingly, our twenty-first century cultural hero is not Krishnamurti but Jordan Peterson. One urged us to seek liberation, the other to “clean up our rooms.”
I don’t know exactly, but what I do know is that uncertainty is out of control today. Climate change, the upsurge of nationalism (in response, in part, to economic instability), declining church attendance, widening economic precarity, the imminent arrival of specific AI, disillusionment with life scripts surrounding marriage and child-rearing, the idolatry and hegemony of Total Work, the possibility of superintelligent AI (a.k.a. the Singularity): these and other forces here unnamed have made this stage of modern life more unstable, less comprehensible, and vastly more unsettled. You would think that they would give rise any day now to some religious and spiritual upswells, but so far underground developments seem to be du jour. Meanwhile, no perceptive observer could possibly overlook, outside of Evangelical circles and other niches to be sure, the withering away of organized religion.
I’m sure there are plenty of people who still go to churches, synagogues, and mosques regularly or semi-regularly, but I don’t know of any myself. I was raised Lutheran and my wife Catholic, and neither of us attended service or mass regularly once we started high school. I know an American medical doctor, a conversation partner in my philosophy practice, who is a believing Muslim but who doesn’t go to mosque. I know also of other conversation partners — a Jew who was raised secular, another who was raised Catholic yet who is now raising his children in a secular way, a third who was brought up in the Eastern Orthodox Church but who’d probably call himself “spiritual,” and so on — with similar profiles. Of all the Jews I met while I was living in New York, only one I knew observed the Sabbath without fail. As I write, I’m struggling to recall any practicing Catholics among my acquaintances.
When Alexandra and I revisited the Christian faith from 2015–16 with a view to being “God open,” we saw mostly older people and some families with younger children in attendance at church. The former tended to outnumber the latter not by a little. I doubt that many of the younger children will keep their faith as they enter more fully into a secular culture abounding with the uncertainties mentioned above. Not much makes sense these days and, worse, not much within certain religious paradigms is making sense of all this. I just don’t see how, for many, keeping the faith will be possible. Perhaps Rod Dreher is right, and some will exercise the “Benedict Option” in hopes of safeguarding orthodoxy through countercultural measures.
And, honestly, I don’t know what we’ll make of these houses of worship once they become relics, ruins, fossils, and afterthoughts. At some point, imams, pastors, priests, rabbis, and rectors won’t be able to pay for the upkeep and these buildings will, like malls throughout the United States, sit vacant and cold. Philip Larkin already presaged this event in a poem, “Church Going,” he published less than a decade after the end of World War II. While I’m not so fatuously nostalgic as to believe that the Lutheran Church of Peace in Platteville, Wisconsin, the church I attended while I was growing up, is worth salvaging for it was a stuffy, stiff, and dried-out place indeed, I can’t help but observe nonetheless that it has been in these houses that matters of ultimate concern have been held fast to as if they were open secrets. Here, the spirit has been moved and here too it could rest.
It was here, in other words, that the sacred, the hallowed, the mysterious, and the ultimate could be alluded to, spoken of, and possibly experienced. It was here that the human could, and did, bow before something superhuman — God perchance — if not necessarily supernatural — Buddha Nature or sunyata, for instance. It was here too that basic questions could, in principle, be raised with an unmatched earnestness and timeless urgency: What is life in its essentials? What agental powers apart from human ones operate in the universe? What is suffering, and why do we suffer? If death is real, what is it and is there anything — an afterlife? rebirth? — after death? What do I owe to some, or to many, or to all sentient beings? What is the most beautiful as well as the most loving being or way of being there is? What communion? What would allow us to feel meaning bathing us not because we created it but because we experienced it as a numinous act of grace? Can we speak truly of a “peace that surpasses all understanding”? Oh, why so?
I fear we will forget these questions as well as the generous spirit within and without, the spirit that animates them just as it is animated by them. Some, many have already forgotten; perhaps more shall follow in their train. And yet, even if some don’t completely forget, still, I fear, they’ll feel the urge to coil it all up and bind it all together awkwardly as they go along. To spin a cosmology out of bits and pieces and idle threads.
The latter, in all its weirdness, has already begun. You just may not have heard their song.
Spirit Weavers Gathering, an annual event for women which began in 2013, weaves together a number of disparate traditions: the religious practices of indigenous peoples, the back to the land movements and ethoi of the 60s and early 70s, the medieval guild structure whose exemplar is the master craftsman or artisan, and the New Age spirituality typified, in this case, by the divine feminine which is the object of reverence. It is, you might say, like flash postmodern religion without the shared metaphysical commitments and long-shared religious practices. Why “flash”? Because for three days each year it satisfies, or at least promises to satisfy, many religious longings that are very real indeed before, like a music festival, like Burning Man, it decamps.
And why postmodern? Because, undeniably, it is a syncretistic mashup of magic, paganism, nature mysticism, divine healing, astrology, nostalgia, and motherhood, divine and very much otherwise.
Lest I be misunderstood, my immediate aim is not to pen a takedown or a piece of gotcha journalism. Here, it is not for me to criticize but instead, as a philosopher and sociologist of religion would, to understand.
What, I think, must explain the appeal of this countercultural gathering for certain women can only be (1) the withering away of organized religion (hence there’s no going back for many of these women); (2) the dissatisfaction with bourgeois life (the trappings of career success, biological family, mass consumption, creaturely comforts, and so on); (3) the partial disillusionment with a full-blooded secularism; (4) the loneliness and anomie that are the shadow sides of modern individualism; (5) the yearning for face-to-face community, the kind of belonging not had in modern culture; (6) the desire to participate earnestly in ritual and ceremony; and, not the least, (7) the longing for transcendence and too perhaps a momentary or partial dissolution or quieting of the ego.
To say all this is just to suggest that I do not think that human beings can live assuredly, surefootedly, and perhaps even completely without the sense of a genuine connection — more: filiation, communion, merger — with the cosmos. Before what the eminent sociologist Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world” arising out of the birth and subsequent success of modern science, Western culture unanimously affirmed that human beings could not be understood apart from the Christian story in which their lives invariably unfolded. Even if the picture of a closed, finite Ptolemaic cosmos could no longer be countenanced in light of novel scientific theories and compelling scientific evidence, the loss of the cosmos, of any cosmos (or “closed world”) needn’t have been the logical entailment.
Witnessing this epochal transformation, the Christian and mathematician Pascal was terrified by the alien, infinite space that “encloses me” without making sense to me. I think he was right, at least in broad strokes. We are homeless, somewhat, in modernity.
You might say that all this talk of ancestral wisdom, unique vibrations, and the light of radiant truth, the talk I mean that is in evidence at such events as the Spirit Weavers Gathering, is too weird or patently nonsensical to be taken seriously, let alone to endorse. And you may be right: it may be. It’s fair to say that gatherings like these draw on a critique of secular modernity and industrialization that may be legitimate, only to fall back on a kind of nativism or primitivism that may not be. It’s fair also to be concerned about Schwärmerei, an excessive, sentimental, fideistic enthusiasm expressed in such gatherings, a fervent exuberance against which Immanuel Kant warned. Spirituality that leaves no room for inquiry or pregnant doubts may cause those given over to considerateness to hesitate.
But don’t take the easy way out. Don’t simply take the path of the cynic, one who readily dismisses all things spiritual or religious with an air of self-righteous smugness. Even Sam Harris is, in his own secular way that’s informed by Eastern practices, talking about spirituality these days as is the popular science writer Michael Pollan, who, in 2018, published a popular book about psychedelics and spirituality. And in their own ways too, a number of conversation partners with whom I regularly speak, founders at well-funded startups and executives running successful organizations, are going on ayahuasca, are joining men’s groups that involve taking psilocybin, are dropping acid in the woods, are taking part in ceremonies that wed improvisational music with MDMA, and more. Suffice it to say, these subcultures are out there (or down there), and they point to a real spiritual hunger. To become simply cynical about such matters, therefore, is cheap, easy, arrogant, and, in my view, plainly wrong.
Nor should one deny — and now I come closer to the point — that the sources from which these energies spring, those from which the Spirit Weavers Gathering as well as many others arise, are real, genuine, and searching. If nothing else, they are this: fledging turns toward they know not what, early essays at opening themselves to the mystery of existence. In all this, call the position I’m taking charitable openness supported by an equanimous, and provisional, suspension of judgment along with a keen desire to understand. Plus, I’ve already suggested that I’m a seeker too, albeit one grounded more in Socratic inquiry and, more recently, in personal koan and self-inquiry.
There are, I think, three ways to look at where we stand religiously and spiritually today. One is to suggest, a la Steven Pinker, that we blew up all that magical and supernatural superstition and, well, good riddance. Scientific materialism will do, will more than do, thank you very much.
Clearly, I have my doubts about a thoroughgoing secular modernity not the least because I believe its coldness and flatness fail us in ways that we can barely articulate to ourselves. Another, then, is to say that we lost a pretty good thing when we sloughed off full-blooded Western and Eastern religions with their developed cosmologies, cosmogonies, and philosophies of life. In which case, such a one would urge us to mourn for what great good is now lost. Remember that Nietzsche’s madman saw the loss with clear, if frenzied, eyes.
A third is to say that we’re just beginning an experimental phase after, or in the midst of, the collapse of these religions and before the birth of “religions of tomorrow,” as Ken Wilber might, and has, put it. Viewed from this angle, we would expect some pretty impressive weirdness to emerge in the interregnum. In some cases, they may erupt as short-lived dalliances while others may present extended, more considered experiments in the fashioning of religions and spiritualities. If this is so, then through time, experience, and practice, all these upstarts will be tested with a view to seeing whichever will be able to wed sense and vitality to coherence and thus garner a modest home among the living.
This, why not?, could be the beginning of Axial Age 2.0. The first Axial Age, occurring from the eighth to the third century BCE, laid, in Karl Jaspers’ words, the “spiritual foundations” upon which our culture still rests. Jaspers wondered aloud about how such figures as Gautama (who became the Buddha, “the enlightened one”), Confucius, Jesus, Socrates, and Laozi (if such a person ever actually existed) could have been born roughly around the same time, and he noted with fascination that transcendence was one of the great conceptual and cultural innovations of the Axial Age. This was their gift — what shall be ours?
“Bracketing the unapologetic secular narrative, why not see it both ways?” I was just about to get there. Yes, that too might be so. Ours might be a time for mourning and for groping along toward a very different, and novel, spiritual consciousness to be bequeathed to those who may inherit the earth. Ours might.
But it might just as well burn.
Andrew Taggart is a practical philosopher. He asks and seeks to answer the most basic questions of human existence with others around the world. In 2009, he finished a Ph.D., left the academic life, and moved to New York City because he thought the most fundamental question of how to live needed to be brought back into our everyday lives.
According to Quartz and Forbes, he could be regarded as a kind of Chief Philosophy Officer for Silicon Valley executives, someone who helps them to examine what, at bottom, they’re taking for granted. His ideas have been discussed in Quartz, The Guardian, Big Think, Wisconsin Public Radio, TEDx, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
He is also a committed Zen Buddhist practitioner as well as, more recently, a student of Advaita Vedanta, a school of non-dual Indian philosophy. Nomads of some kind or another, he and his wife Alexandra, a painter, are currently exploring the American Southwest.