Race and Axial Consciousness

Q: How do you address racism in your work?

Ilia DelioIlia: Our question this week asks about racism within the evolutionary paradigm. This is an extremely important question that, I must admit from the start, I have not attended to in the way religion scholars J. Kameron Carter, Vincent Lloyd and others have analyzed; hence, my remarks are more general rather than analytical.

The question of race is so overwhelming, especially in light of current political and social fractures, that the starting point tends to be existential and anthropological. However, I wonder sometimes if the anthropological analysis is self-limiting. I would like to situate race within the broader framework of axial consciousness. As I indicated a few weeks ago, our species homo sapiens is currently thought to have originated in Africa about 140,000 years ago, eventually migrating to northern territories and spreading out. The pre-axial age marks the emergence of the tribe or the collective, which could extend as far back as the Neanderthals to 64,000 BCE.[i]  Ancient civilizations looked at the physical and human worlds as interdependent. An imbalance in one sphere could result in an imbalance in the other. Pre-axial consciousness was a level of religious-mythic consciousness that was cosmic, collective, tribal, and ritualistic. Social and political behavior in the human sphere reflected cosmic life. Hence cultures were intimately related to the cosmos and to the fertility cycles of nature, giving rise to a rich and creative harmony between primal peoples and the world of nature.

While the early humans were closely linked to the cosmos, they were also closely linked to one another. One gained one’s identity in relation to the tribe. There was a rich and creative harmony between primal peoples and the world of nature, a harmony which was explored, expressed, and celebrated in myth and ritual. Myth was a way in which humans gave meaning to their world through the context of stories, which contained essential truths. They felt themselves part of nature and experienced themselves as part of a tribe. It was precisely the web of interrelationships within the tribe that sustained them psychologically, energizing all aspects of their lives. What is interesting about pre-axial persons is the way religion functioned in their lives. The belief of gods or spirits in nature influenced human action and, in turn, human action (and ritual) had its effects on nature. Rituals reenacted the primordial sacrifice to maintain cosmic order and ensure the continuation of the life cycle. Libations were performed in the home, for example, of water or fire to return these vital elements to the gods to support them and a perpetual fire was kept burning. The sense of the whole was a sense of belonging to a web of life guided by supernatural forces or deities.  All things shared the same breadth of life—animals, trees, humans–all were bound together.

German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the phrase “Achsenzeit” (“Axial Age” or “Axis age” in English) in 1949 to describe a time between approximately 800–200 BCE when the spiritual foundations of modern humanity were established. The  “axial period” differed from pre-axial consciousness in that it was marked by the rise of the individual and religious cultures. The question of race begins with the rise of axial consciousness and the emergence of the human person as individual and autonomous. Modern humans are thought to have arrived in Europe from Africa around 40,000–45,000 years ago. Axial persons were in possession of their own identity but the cost of self-identity was the loss of organic relationship to nature and community, severing the harmony with nature and the tribe.

Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist speaks of a cognitive split in the ancient brain which can be located in the rise of the axial person. According to McGilchrist, the right brain hemisphere [the dominant hemisphere connected to the wider world] became disassociated from the left hemisphere [the analytical brain]. As the lines of consciousness shifted in the axial person, from interconnected wholeness to the self-reflective individual, relationality became distorted in so far as connection to the wider world of nature was replaced by self-reflection and self-identity. This loss of connection to the wider cosmos had far-reaching consequences that we are experiencing today, including environmental apathy, racism, genderism, consumerism and political factions.

Jaspers suggested that this  “axial period” amounted to  “a new departure within mankind,” meaning  “a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.”[ii] Jaspers and others hold that the intellectual and spiritual achievements of this time inspired most of humanity, since the foundations of all major world civilizations were laid down. He writes:

What is new about this age … is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteneness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence. [iii]

William Thompson states “what makes this period the ‘axis’ of human history, even our own history today, is the fact that humans emerged as ‘individuals’ in the proper sense.”[iv] Axial consciousness generated a new self-awareness, including awareness of autonomy and a new sense of individuality. The human person as subject emerged.The awareness of the self in the present brought with it awareness of the self after death. People began searching for more comprehensive religious and ethical concepts, and to formulate a more enlightened morality where each person was responsible for his own destiny. The sense of individual identity, as distinct from the tribe and nature, is the most characteristic mark of axial consciousness. John Cobb states that what lies at the basis of the axial period is the increasing role that rationality came to have at this time.[v]  There were now strong communities based on intellectual assent to certain forms of behavior and/or propositions. In general, postbreakthrough societies had a greater capacity for social organization, harmony, and long-term stability.

During the axial age, a new mode of thinking developed almost simultaneously in four major areas of the world: China, India the Middle East, and Northern Mediterranean Europe. Hence in the axial period the world religions as we know them today emerged with a sense of divine transcendence, moral order and longing for fulfillment.

The Axial age was a pivotal time in human history when human beings began to reflect for the first time about individual existence and the meaning of life and death. Increasing urban civilization initially brought about under the leadership of a priestly ruling class, encouraged trade and brought different societies closer together. But as urban life accelerated and expanded, it disrupted the old sense of order. This new way of living generated unprecedented social and political conflict and an increase in violence and aggression. People began to question their own beliefs once they came into contact with others whose beliefs were different. They were challenged to look at themselves in different ways and entertain new ideas or cling steadfastly to their old ones. With a rise in population and the mixing of cultures, more people were exposed to the realities of life, such as, sickness, greed, suffering, inhumanity and social injustice.  As a result, people began to experience themselves as separate from others for the very first time. In this new age, Jaspers claimed, “were born the fundamental categories within which we still think today; and the beginnings of the world religions, by which human beings still live, were created.”

Anthony Black states that not all parts of the world shared in this axial breakthrough. In fact, the determining factor in the rise of organized civilization was religion. Black writes: “Primitive societies, such as sub-Saharan Africa and pre-Columbian America, suffered severe drawbacks when they came into contact with the mentally more developed societies.They seem to have lacked, among other things, a sufficiently unifying set of beliefs and practices. Societies that were advanced but had no breakthrough of the kind. . .found themselves engulfed by new, more “advanced” ways of thinking; they were successively Hellenized, Christianized, Islamicized.”[vi]

So axial consciousness brought with it significant changes: from deep, cosmic relationality to individual introspection and self-identity, from communal, religious myth to religion of the individual in pursuit of perfection, from communal identity and cooperation to competing societies and territorial power.

The difference between pre-axial and axial periods is the way religion functioned in the structures of community and power. In the axial period, the Judeo-Christian tradition played a significant role in how religion gave rise to racism.Two things I want to point out here is: 1) the severing of deep relationality to the cosmos eventually culminated in the metaphysical dualism of Descartes and 2) the concept “image of God” functioned as a license for unbridled white, male power. The Incarnation meant a chance to participate in God since the original Adam, created in God’s image, was immortal, but lost the divine character in the fall. This was a vocation for men only. Since Eve was the root of the problem she could not be part of the quest for perfection. To be restored in Adam was a male endeavor and it meant to have dominion over nature, which translated into white, male power ruling over non-whites, women and nature itself. A closed system mentality of clericalism—don’t ask, don’t tell—was built into the Adam myth. Whether or not one was ordained, the divine right to power was pervasive. Failing to achieve divine perfection drove the white, European male to conquer and divide at all costs. Severed from the wider cosmic community, the white male felt empowered by God to be God-like or risk death and nothingness. If axial consciousness gave birth to the human person as individual, the religious trajectory of axial consciousness unraveled the human person as relational. Axial individualism, the difference of color [and gender], and the quest for God-power all fueled the unbelievable horror and tragedies of racism and genderism. The Enlightenment consolidated power in the white, European male. The death of God and the rise of Nietzsche’s ubermensch (“superman”) meant the final blow to the relational human. Race and gender became determining factors of who counts as a human person and who does not.

This religious trajectory of axial consciousness became so distorted with regard to race that J. Kameron Carter’s expression, the “politics of melanin,” is pivotal.  If we follow the evolutionary trajectory, the human race began dark-skin and eventually lightened with migration to northern climates, that is, away from the equatorial sun. That is, the human species began rich in melanin, which eventually diminished with less sun and colder climates. The politics of melanin is both fascinating and frightening.

I cannot help but note the efforts of many white people who aim for dark tans in the summer sun because dark is beautiful. We might call this “the politics of tanning”. What is going on here?  Why do thousands of white people risk skin cancer to get a deep, dark tan?  Because I think there is a vestigial linkage to our melanin roots, an embedded melanin-rich DNA so to speak in every member of the species, homo sapien; the beauty of dark skin is the beauty of our origins. Whiteness is, in a sense, an aberration of our original roots; being pale and lacking color is out sync with nature itself. So we have both a longing and a fear of our deepest roots.

The early 21st century is experiencing the final phases on racism and genderism that emerged in the axial period. The advent of computer technology and the internet have rapidly shifted the lines of human consciousness, away from individualism toward hyperpersonalization. We are at the beginning of second axial consciousness and posthuman life. In the second axial period, personhood is being liberated from individualism, as new types of relationality emerge. The first axial individual is coming to an end and giving way to the second axial person, as lines of consciousness shift from the vertical individualism to the horizontal and globalized hyperconnected person. The second axial person is best described as “posthuman,” a term which signifies the end of the liberal subject modeled on the white European male.The posthuman is not readily identified because there are no real physical changes. Biological diversity belonged to evolution’s expanding phase, which is now over. What is changing is the level of human consciousness in relation to the environment; and this shift of consciousness reflects the need to overcome ontologically defined boundaries.

The new person emerging in evolution does not differ physically but mentally, that is, by the way one thinks about the world and one’s body in the world. The posthuman of the second axial period has a new electronically embedded body with an electronically embedded mind. Ontologies are becoming redefined because meaningful existence now emerges in the “splices,” that is, the spaces in-between where coded information complexifies.The posthuman is increasingly gender fluid, racially neutral and interspiritual. The fluidity of boundaries and the recursive loop of ongoing identity construction means that no category can adequately define personhood. Rather the “self” is an ongoing discovery and creative process of belonging to the whole. Beatrice Bruteau wrote: “The more conscious the individual becomes, the more the individual becomes person, and each person is person only to the extent that the individual freely lives by the life of the Whole.”[vii]

The emerging posthuman/ultrahuman is a new type of person wired toward engagement, communication and shared information. Gen Y and Gen Z populations, in particular, are oriented toward posthuman life marked by shared being and a deep concern for the earth community. Growing up in a networked world means that personhood is a cybernetic process, an ongoing process that embraces pluralities of gender, race or religion. Self-identity is self-creative through self-engagement. What constitutes the “self” is the dynamic and ineffable core constitutive relationship, which is always a particularity in movement, so that personhood is performative; the art of becoming person is a creative act. The body-world relationship is the creative process of self-identity so that purity of skin color does not depend on melanin but on authenticity, transparency and expressiveness. In this respect, white, brown and black skin colors may be complexified with colored tattoos, colored hair and colored nails. Color is no longer an ontological distinction but a hyperpersonal expression of shared being. In this hyperconnected, hypersonalized sphere, interbeing supercedes individual being so that interracial relations, interreligious relations, intergender relations are all part of the normative, creative act of personal identity. To put this another way, the mixture of races, genders and religions is no longer the exception but the norm. We are creating a world of deep relationality because we are being rewired for belonging to the cosmic whole, suggested by the term “global consciousness.” The question of race is a question of personal identity and a networked world is shifting the boundaries of personhood and identity.

A number of years ago, I was teaching Franciscan theology in England and had a group of African Sisters from Nigeria in class. At the final class, I asked the students to say a few words on what was meaningful for them in the course.  One robust African Sister in full habit got up and walked to the front of the class and said, “you have spoken deeply to my heart and I shall never forget this class.” Then she broke out into song and the other African Sisters joined in. For moment, the entire classroom was lifted up into the most beautiful, magical moment of love and there was a palpable unity in our midst.  No longer were we white or black or cleric or American or European—we were one heart united in the song that burst forth from a heart full of love. Not a black heart but a human heart in which every person resonated like a string attuned to the harmony of love.

If we can realign the question of race with the creative forces of evolution (including a new understanding of religion in evolution), I think we will have a very different view of race in the next hundred years; in fact, I think the question of race itself might disappear, Posthuman, techno sapien life is changing the matrix of human relationships and a new type of person is up ahead. To think that skin tones of “white” and “black” are ontologically essential belies modern science. We should never forget the enormous sufferings that the politics of melanin have caused but at the same we need to grasp the reigns of our present forces of evolution and co-create a new world bounded in love.



[i]  Emma Marris,  “Neanderthal Artists Made Oldest Known Cave Paintings.  Nature  (Feb. 22, 2018) https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02357-8

[ii]  Benjamin I. Schwartz, “The Age of Transcendence,” Daedalus 104 (1975): 3.

[iii]    Karl Jaspers, “The Axial Period,” in Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 2; cf. The Origin and  Diversity of Axial  Age Civilizations, ed.  S. N.  Eisenstadt  (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986); Karen Armstrong, in The Great Transformation:  The World in  the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah (London: Atlantic  Books, 2006).

[iv] William M. Thompson, Christ and Consciousness:  exploring Christ’s contribution to human consciousness (New York:  Paulist, 1977), 21.

[v] Ian Tattersall, “The rise of homo sapiens: how  we came  to be human,” Scientific American, special edition (“Becoming Human: evolution and the rise of intelligence”), vol. 16/2 (2006), 66-73; Kate Wong, “The Morning of the modem mind,” ibid., 74-83.  Jaspers wrote that between China, India, and the West, “profound mutual comprehension was possible from the moment they met” (Origin and Goal of History, 8).

[vi]   Black, “The Axial Period,” 38-9.  Emphasis added.

[vii]   Beatrice Bruteau,  “The Whole World: A Convergent Perspective,” in The Grand Option, 102.


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  1. Thomas Telhiard on September 11, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for this treasure trove of heart-mining material. So much challenge to unpack. And Beatrice Bruteau – yes! To realign the question of race with the dynamics of evolution and religion’s untapped core is a hopeful path I hope we more and more head towards. It’s urgent!

  2. Dan Frachey on September 10, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    This is a deeply hope-filled article that points to where we’re headed. LOVE is the destination and the vehicle that gets us there. Thank you for this overview of the human journey!

  3. Marilyn on September 10, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Magnificent! Clearly articulates the process of evolutionary change from the beginning to the present and beyond.


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