Challenging Modernity

Columbia Univ. Apr. 2024. 376p. ed. by Richard Madsen & others. ISBN 9780231214896. pap. $32. SOC SCI
Termed by Carl Jung as the Axial Age, the period between the eighth and third centuries BCE saw a cultural shift from the Mediterranean to China. It was said to have underpinned the major religions of that era and their current offshoots. Shortly before his death in 2013, sociologist Bellah (Religion in Human Evolution) embarked on a project based on the work of Ian Morris, a British historian and archaeologist who showed that through most of human history, per-capita consumption remained relatively constant and sustainable, but it increased twofold during the 18th century. Bellah explored whether the ideological and technological hallmarks of modernity are responsible for this uncontrolled and unsustainable growth and whether axial religions could provide a corrective. The editors of this volume have brought together three of Bellah’s last lectures and essays that dealt with this project, along with responses to his thesis. These substantial essays range from the philosophical and sociological to the literary but draw no conclusions.
VERDICT This provocative volume is wide-ranging, and the contributors do not disappoint. Although neither Bellah nor the contributors offer a definitive conclusion, the scope, depth, and coherence of this collection is a brilliant elaboration of what might have occurred.
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