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In Bellah’s view, the nature of evolution as it applies to capacities for human meaning is never “out with the old, in with the new” triumphalism. New modes of understanding always arise in dependence on existing conditions. Theoretic culture arose in dependence on mythic culture, which in turn arose in dependence on mimetic culture. And new capacities don’t supersede the old ones. “Nothing is ever lost” is a Bellah signature refrain. Rather, he insists, when a new capacity arises, it takes its place alongside existing capacities; they work out a new way to interrelate and, to the degree that this succeeds, a new integration. Theoretic culture didn’t get rid of mythic or mimetic cultures; rather, it caused them to be reorganized and repurposed.
Worldviews shift in a similar manner. When Buddhism arose out of India’s Vedic religion, the Buddha didn’t oust the Vedic view entirely. Rather, he kept its key elements, taking conventions such as “dharma,” “samsara” (and liberation from it), and “karma” out of the service of social status and putting them into the service of ethics; that is, he told a new story. The Buddha even maintained the ideal of “being a Brahmin,” but he redefined that status from one of caste to one of moral integrity. The Buddha repurposed ritual to ethical ends in a similar way when, for example, he founded the monastic community.
Bellah can at times seem to be giving a long-winded answer without a question. Throughout the book, you have the sense that there is a lion of a moral imperative lurking in the shadows. Occasional rustlings sound, as when he writes, “Technological advance at high speed combined with moral blindness about what we are doing to the world’s societies and to the biosphere is a recipe for rapid extinction. The burden of proof lies on anyone who would say it is not so.” From time to time, a paw extends visibly from the bushes, then retreats. Bellah states, “Modernity is on trial,” but continues, “I cannot in this book give an account of that trial. All I can do is call up some very important witnesses.” Once, the lion roars. “Some have suggested that we are in the midst of a second axial age, but if we are, there should be a new cultural form emerging. Maybe I am blind, but I don’t see it. What I think we have is a crisis of incoherence and a need to integrate in new ways the dimensions we have had since the axial age.”
The “need to integrate” is clearly the answer (hence deep and wide history); the “crisis of incoherence” must be the question. But then, in what way have we stopped making sense?
It takes a little reading between the lines, but a sense of the problem begins to emerge. Theory has spun loose from our other modes of knowing. (It is worth noting that theory itself is not the problem for Bellah—nor is science. Bellah isn’t anti-reason. The problem is in the spinning loose.) “Once disengaged theory becomes possible, then theory can take another turn: it can abandon any moral stance at all and look simply at what will be useful, what can make the powerful and exploitative even more so.” This abandoning of a moral stance in turn sets a stage: “Theory in the sense of disengaged knowing, inquiry for the sake of understanding, with or without moral evaluation…has given humans the power to destroy their environment and themselves.” When theory gone rogue also becomes the only kind of meaning-making that counts, then we are radically, deeply, and dangerously dislocated.
Since theory is the source of trouble here, the crisis of incoherence is not going to be solved by coming up with a new theory, any more than alcoholism could be cured by inventing a new kind of drink. But more than that, this is actually not a problem on the order of theory, not a problem of the type that could be corrected with more knowledge: new facts, or a convincing argument. It is a problem in self-understanding. The correction needed is on the order of self-transformation. And that requires a therapeutic process—which is the domain of narrative, of story.
“Narrative is at the heart of our identity,” as Bellah understands it. “The self is a telling.” Personal and social identity reside not in our theories about the world but in our stories. Bellah knows well the difference between theory and narrative, and the types of power each hold. He is well aware that mythic sensibility is still operating within us (remember, “nothing is ever lost”). But Bellah is working within the conventions of his profession. Theory is the only authoritative discourse available to him as a social scientist. So he does something tricky, and herein lies brilliance. Using theory, Bellah tells a new story about theory and, by doing so, shows a way to Ricoeur’s second naiveté.
Employing the tools of history and science, Bellah simultaneously undermines our unexamined confidence in the absolute authority of reason and increases our confidence in other kinds of truth. By putting the rise of theoretic culture in the context of earlier periods of cultural history, he exposes both the historical contingency of rational knowing and its indebtedness to, and grounding in, its genealogical predecessors. Then he demonstrates that even in an individual, the ability to think abstractly comes only after enactive and symbolic knowledge give us something to think abstractly about; in this view of human development, we are first embodied knowers, then storytellers, and only then analytic thinkers. Reason comes not first but last—it is the newest member of an established team, not the captain but a co-player.
Having reorganized our different ways of knowing meaning under the metanarrative of evolution and history, the past, our traditions, “speak again.” And we start to be able to hear them. With this, one recognizes that the book doesn’t just say a lot of things; it does something. It doesn’t just tell us how we came to be; it shows us who we are.
We start to be able to enter into these axial worlds, and we resonate with the character of each as though seeing it from the inside. Indeed, Bellah admits, “In the course of writing this book, which is a history of histories, and a story of stories, I have become involved with many of the stories I recount to the point of at least partial conversion.” Upon leaving the axial worlds, we return home and see our own world anew—we understand in a different way what it means to have religion, a belief system, or a worldview. Having a religion is not like carrying around a map of true or false propositions that we hold up against reality. Rather, meaning systems are embodied and contingent: what we can think or believe is utterly bounded by what we can say and do—and what we can think, say, and do all shape each other. And further, all these possibilities are shaped by our biology, society, and culture.
This shift in self-understanding has implications beyond a newfound respect for the myths, symbols, and rituals of our own tradition. As long as we misunderstand the nature of our own religion, we will also fail to understand the nature of the religions of others. If we imagine our religion to be a set of stand-alone theories, we will imagine theirs to be just theories too. And, of course, our theories will be the right ones; theirs, the wrong ones. But if we can pull off this shift of perspective—accomplished not just by learning a new idea but having a new insight—“that we are all in this, with our theories, yes, but with our practices and stories, together,” a new kind of capacity unfolds to understand the world and find meaning in it. Not a breakthrough on the order of the axial, perhaps, but at the very least, new hope for finding commonalities, and accommodating and perhaps even appreciating differences. Maybe we will even discover a new understanding of what sameness and difference could mean. Bellah would seem to be right: religion is, indeed, in evolution.
Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.