Sometimes I find what I want to say already written more beautifully than I could ever hope to express. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction, with minor modifications, of Karen Armstrong’s Great Transformations.
It is frequently assumed that faith is a matter of believing certain creedal propositions. It is common to call religious people “believers” as though assenting to articles of faith were their chief activity. Most of the Axial philosophers had no interest whatever in doctrine or metaphysics. A person’s theological beliefs were a matter of total indifference to somebody like the Buddha.
All the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence.
The sages certainly did not seek to impose their own view of this ultimate reality on other people. Quite the contrary: nobody, they believed, should ever take any religious teaching on faith or second hand. It was essential to question everything and to test any teaching empirically against one’s personal experience.
If the Buddha or Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he would probably have winced slightly and explained with great courtesy that this was not an appropriate question. If anyone had asked Amos or Ezekiel if he was a “monotheist” who believed in only one God, he would have been equally perplexed. Monotheism was not the issue. What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved. Religion was about doing things that changed you at a profound level.
The Axial sages put morality at the heart of the spiritual life. The only way you could encounter what they called God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Way was to live a compassionate life. Indeed, religion was compassion.
We must commit ourselves to the ethical life, then disciplined and habitual benevolence will give us intimations of the transcendence we seek. We must be ready to change. We are not attempting to find a little edifying uplift from which we can return with renewed vigor to our ordinary, self-centered lives.
We must abandon our egotism and greed or violence and unkindness, choosing instead empathy and compassion. And, our benevolence must not be confined simply to our “own” people; our concern must extend to the entire world.
Shall we launch the next Axial Age?