Stephen Bannon fancies himself an apocalyptic prophet. According to articles in Time and The Nation, White House strategist Bannon is a big fan of a theory of American history put forth by Neil Howe and William Strauss in a book called The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1997). Although their theory isn’t widely taught or discussed in the media, it may very well be a cornerstone of the new administration’s worldview.
Called “amateur historians” in Time and “pop historians” in The Nation, Howe and Strauss identified an 80-year cycle in American history, punctuated by cataclysmic crises that destroy the old order and create a new one. “There is a major war brewing, a war that is already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”
Like all apocalyptic writing, The Fourth Turning addresses people who feel that they are under attack and offers them hope in the midst of their persecution. His 2010 movie Generation Zero ends with both warning and hope: “When you get into a crisis era, literally anything can happen. The restraints come down. These are the eras of revolution. These are the eras of reigns of terror. But the question of what the new order will be is up to us.”
As I read about this, I couldn’t help comparing this worldview with that of those who think we’re in the beginnings of a paradigm shift, a new axial age. In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, I come at this idea from a religious/ spiritual perspective. However, it’s actually based on social theory. The word axial comes from German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ use of the German word ‘achse,’ which means pivotal. The theory is that during certain periods of history there have been major shifts in the political, philosophical and religious systems of the world.
Catholic theologian Ewart Cousins called the end of the 20th century the beginning of a Second Axial Age. In this new era, humanity is coming to understand the world and human responsibility in global, not local terms. This shift is the impetus for working together for the betterment of the world. Professor Leonard Swidler of Temple University wrote:
Like the first (axial age) it is happening simultaneously around the earth, and like the first it will shape the horizon of consciousness for future centuries. Not surprisingly, too, it will have great significance for world religions, which were constituted in the First Axial Period. However, the new form of consciousness is different from that of the First Axial Period. Then it was individual consciousness, now it is global consciousness.
The first Axial age ushered in a radically new form of consciousness and the great religions of the world are the product of that period. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Judaism all took shape in their classical forms during this period; and Judaism provided the base for the later emergence of Christianity and Islam. Karen Armstrong, whose 2006 book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions chronicled the development of religion in the First Axial Age, has written:
All over the world, people are struggling with these new conditions and have been forced to reassess their religious traditions, which were designed for a very different type of society. They are finding that the old forms of faith no longer work for them; they cannot provide the enlightenment and consolation that human beings seem to need. As a result, men and women are trying to find new ways of being religious. Like the reformers and prophets of the first Axial Age, they are attempting to build upon the insights of the past in a way that will take human beings forward into the new world they have created for themselves.
What are some of the main characteristics of the emerging paradigm?
- It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total.
- It’s an age of dialogue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponents, but in order to listen, share and learn from one another.
- It’s characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth.
- It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today.
I believe that a lot of the anxiety among the apocalyptic crowd is due to the fact that shift is happening.
Is your worldview apocalyptic or does it embrace paradigm shift?
Which do we want our political leaders to embrace?