Religion in Human Evolution:

The return of the grand narrative

posted by Yang Xiao

In a previous post, the author gives a brief summary of Bellah’s book and argues that Bellah’s approach goes beyond the reductive naturalist account of religion—ed.

The subtitle of Bellah’s book, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, indicates that it is about religions between the Paleolithic and the axial ages. Bellah explicitly states that this is “not a book about modernity,” and that he plans to write another, smaller book on modernity. However, I want to suggest that in a very important sense this book is about modernity as well. This is because Bellah believes that there are necessary links “between past and present,” and that “nothing is ever lost.”

In fact, the idea that nothing is ever lost is the guiding heuristic device of Bellah’s project. For instance, this is very much the idea that guides Bellah’s discussion of individual developmental psychology: nothing in the early stages of an individual’s psychological life is “ever lost” in the later stages. And this is also the case on the level of human history. As he puts it, “the view that ‘nothing is ever lost’ can, as we shall see, also be brought to bear on religious history.” Indeed, this heuristic guides Bellah’s discussion of Merlin Donald’s thesis that human culture has evolved through three stages: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic. Bellah argues that the early stages are never lost in the later stages.

For example, when he discusses Mesopotamian culture, which is supposed to be a “dead civilization” (a phrase that appears in the title of Leo Oppenheim’s book on Mesopotamian civilization), Bellah insists that “[I]n an important sense, all culture is one: human beings today owe something to every culture that has gone before us. Mesopotamian culture certainly had an influence on its neighbors, notably Persia, Israel, and Greece.” While discussing the gods in Egyptian religion, Bellah says, “Since ‘we’ are the product of all previous human culture, we have, at some level ‘already’ experienced those gods, as we have ‘already’ experienced the powerful beings of tribal peoples. If we are truly to understand ancient Egyptian religion (or any religion) it will be part of our task to ‘remember’ what we have forgotten, but which in some sense we already know.”

The idea that nothing is ever lost is also the guiding heuristic in the chapters on the axial religions. What makes the axial religions axial? How should we understand the axial age? According to Bellah, there are two defining features of the axial age: the emergence of a reflective and critical standpoint (what Jaspers calls “reflexivity,” what Momigliano calls “criticism”), and the emergence of theoretic culture (especially “theory-construction”). Bellah makes a compelling case for a general similarity amongst the four axial religions, which is that all forms of culture—mimetic, mythic, and theoretic—co-exist in all the axial religions, and they form a “hybrid system” even after the emergence of theoretic culture. In other words, the first two forms of culture are not replaced by the theoretic culture, which is the last stage. Instead, the theoretical culture “grows out of and significantly criticizes, but never abandons, the early stages [of mimetic and mythic culture].” I shall call this Bellah’s “hybrid system” thesis. This is obviously a particular version of his more general “nothing is ever lost” thesis.

In the case of early China, Bellah’s “hybrid system” thesis makes perfect sense. Here are two of many pieces of evidence: First, narrative is a major part of almost all Chinese texts in the axial age. Second, most of early Chinese thinkers in the axial age argued that ritual was indispensable. In other words, after the emergence of the theoretic culture in axial China, mythic culture (narrative) and mimetic culture (ritual) are not being replaced. Unlike in the case of ancient Greece, it is relatively much easier to show that ancient China is a cultural “hybrid system” that includes all three cultures at once. However, when we move to Plato, we tend to assume that philosophy as theory-construction has completely replaced myth and narrative. This is perhaps why Bellah devotes a substantial part of the Greece chapter arguing that the “hybrid system” thesis applies to Plato as well. As he puts it:

My point is that the power of Plato is his reform of the whole of what Donald called the cultural “hybrid system,” the system that includes mimetic, mythic and theoretic in a new synthesis, but not the replacement of mimetic and mythic by the theoretic alone. Such a replacement is an experiment that no one central to the axial transition in any of the four cases undertook; that awaited the emergence of western modernity in the seventeenth century.

*  *  *

Bellah’s reading of Plato is just one example of what may be called Bellah’s “friendship-based hermeneutics,” which is practiced throughout the book. Here we are using Aristotle’s definition of friendship: a friend is another self. In this sense, Plato is still our friend, and this may be the reason why he is still speaking to us today. Bellah believes that there is “friendship between the ancients and the moderns”:

This book asks what our deep past can tell us about the kind of life human beings have imagined was worth living. It is an effort to live again those moments that belong to us in the depths of our present, to draw living water from the well of the past, to find friends in history who can help us understand where we are (emphasis added).

The last phrase is an allusion to a passage from Mencius, which Bellah uses as one of three epigraphs for his preface. In this passage, Mencius is essentially saying that the right way to read the writings of the ancients is very much like “finding friends in history.” This Mencian hermeneutics is further illustrated by a moving passage in Bellah’s acknowledgments:

It perhaps goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that I owe much to the friends in history that Mencius talked about, not least to Mencius himself, but to all the creators of the great traditions that I deal with in the later chapters of this book, as well as to the reciters of myth and the dancers of ritual in the tribal and archaic traditions, who must remain anonymous, but who have been, not merely my examples, but my teachers in this enterprise.

If we contrast Bellah’s “the ancients-as-friends” hermeneutics with the antagonistic hermeneutic approach to the past that is articulated in Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, it is illuminating that we don’t see any “anxiety of influence” here. Much could be said about Bellah’s uniquely calm and generous voice in this book. There is no anxiety in his engagement with the ancients; there is instead magnanimity.

In his 2007 book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor has identified “secularism’s subtraction stories” as the central dogma of secularism and modernism. They are, as Taylor puts it, “stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explains them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.” Obviously, Bellah’s “nothing is ever lost” theme-based Bildungsroman of human religion implies a rejection of secularism’s subtraction theories. In other words, Bellah has an implied thesis about modernity, which is that what has gone wrong in modernity is its dogmatic assumption that theoretic culture can be the only sources of knowledge, representation, and criticism, and that it can completely replace mimetic and mythic cultures.

Since Taylor focuses on telling the stories about what has happened between the sixteenth and twentieth century in Europe, he does not have much to say about the early history of religion in a global setting. From this perspective, Bellah’s and Taylor’s books complement each other perfectly. They will certainly become two landmark texts in our ongoing discourse on modernity and secularism in the twenty-first century.

I have said earlier that the idea that nothing is ever lost is the guiding heuristic for Bellah. I intentionally used the term “heuristic” because Bellah does not take it to be literally true with regard to everything in history. As Bellah puts it, “I also believe that there are types of religion and that these types can be put in an evolutionary order, not in terms of better or worse, but in terms of the capacities upon which they draw.” In the following passage, Bellah explicitly says that the slogan “nothing is ever lost” means that the capacities are never lost:

I have been concerned with the development of new capacities in human culture: mimetic, mythic and theoretic, but I have argued the later capacities do not replace the earlier ones, that all these capacities continue in complex relationships right to the present. That is what I have meant by saying in various contexts that ‘nothing is ever lost.’ A great deal of past is lost, irretrievably lost, but not the fundamental cultural capacities.

This crucial insight allows Bellah to hold the view that there is “progress” in the sense that new capacities are acquired as humankind moves from tribal and archaic religions to axial age religions. Yet he can at the same time reject the view that there is progress in all aspects in general:

Religious evolution does not mean a progression from worse to better. We have not gone from ‘primitive religion’ that tribal peoples have had to ‘higher religions’ that people like us have. […] Religious evolution does add new capacities, but it tells us nothing about how those capacities will be used. It is worth remembering, as Stephen J. Gould pointed out, that complexity is not the only good.

In other words, Bellah is able to take seriously the grand universal narrative of the development of human capacities without falling into the traps of a modernist and triumphalist history of religion, which were popularized in the nineteenth century, often assuming a hierarchy of religions, from “primitive” to “advanced.” Bellah does not assume the teleological primacy of “progress” in religious evolution; instead he pays great attention to the evolution of new “capacities” in each religious tradition on its own terms.

Bellah’s book seems to be a sign that postmodernism is on its way out, and grand narrative has returned. Postmodernism can mean too many things these days, but its initial and defining meaning, as Jean-François Lyotard has claimed, is really its complete rejection and distrust of any grand narrative or universal history. However, as Bellah would certainly remind us, since nothing is ever lost, postmodernism cannot be completely forgotten. What we find in Bellah’s book is critical universal history because it has absorbed the postmodernist critique of the traditional, dogmatic, and provincial “universal history.”

Again the chapter on ancient China is a great example here. It is clear that one of Bellah’s goals is to use the case of ancient China to test his general theory of religion and cultural evolution. However, the China chapter is much more than that. Any reader will be impressed by Bellah’s genuine curiosity and fascination about the historical, social, and cultural details of ancient China, many of which are not necessarily relevant for the purpose of confirming Bellah’s general theories and theses. It seems that Bellah wants to tell the story of early China and its religions for its own sake, trying to do justice to its particularities and diversities. The same can be said about the chapters on the other axial civilizations. The generosity and breadth of Bellah’s empathy and curiosity in humanity is on full display on every page. One will never see human history and our contemporary world the same after reading Bellah’s magnificent book.

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One Response to “The return of the grand narrative”

  1. It is quite remarkable that scholars believe in the Axial Age but find the Age of Pisces (or the Age of Aquarius that is supposed to follow it) a ridiculous concept. In fact, there are some striking parallels between those approaches. Here are three: (a) Both are too vague to be useful categories for historical analysis. (b) Because they are vaguely defined and because there is so much historical evidence that runs against the assumed characteristics, people pick and choose to find fitting examples, or introduce a “saddle period” to iron out discrepencies. (c) Both — implicitly or explicitly — assume an anonymous driving force behind human history. In the case of Bellah’s Axial Age it is cultural evolution (much more difficult to demonstrate than biological evolution); in the case of astrology it is the doctrine of correspondences and synchronicities.
    The major difference between those two is that Bellah links the notion of Axial Age to the theory of evolution and thus to an attribution of meaning to history that is commonly accepted today, while the doctrine of correspondences and synchronicities is not part of accepted knowledge anymore in Western culture. In short, the difference is in discursive mechanisms of the organization of knowledge, not in the quality of the hypotheses involved.

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