Religious Imagination As The Future Unfolds

Planetary homeostasis will be the new ground of the sacred.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Futurists who leave the spiritual condition of humans out of their prognostications of the times ahead end up foreseeing a world as it will not be. This is especially true of secular apostles who dismiss religious imagination as a credulous relic of the past in the age of generative artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and astrophysics peering into the birth of the universe. 

On the contrary, such far-reaching advances in science and technology are bound to resurrect the religious imagination precisely because they raise anew the most profound questions of our origins and destiny as living creatures. The more science reveals, the greater the mystery of what we don’t know. It is up to the poetic imagination to express wonder over “the breath that at first gives life its form and then corrodes and withers it,” in the words of Vicente Huidobro.

Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish philosopher best known for his intellectual journey from an early humanist interpretation of Karl Marx to his later disillusion with materialist thought altogether, was not wrong in his observation that “religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation.” 

As he put in it a conversation at All Souls College in Oxford in 1991, questions such as “Who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death?” don’t go away despite all that humans have achieved. No matter how large our language models, how unlimited their data inputs and how smart the algorithms, so much of human becoming and being dwells between and beyond lines of code.

At the core of the religious imagination is a sense of the sacred, a “reverence for being,” in the phrase of the Nobel-winning poet Czesław Miłosz, which respects the deeper pattern that connects all things beyond their appearances. However ineffable, it confers transcendent meaning and purpose to existence. It shapes the parameters of moral order, defining the values and norms of what is permissible and what is “set off and restricted” — as its Latin root, sacer, conveys — in order for the tribe, the society, the civilization, the species or the whole planet to survive and flourish.

“Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense,” says Kołakowski. Absent a sense of the sacred in the age we are entering, all that is left is a lethal brew of nihilism and technological prowess that will end badly both for humans and the planet.

The First Axial Age

Karl Jaspers was best known for his study of the so-called Axial Age when all the great religions and philosophies were born in relative simultaneity over two millennia ago — Confucianism in China, the Upanishads and Buddhism in India, Homer’s Greece and the Hebrew prophets. Jaspers saw these civilizations arising in the long wake of what he called “the first Promethean Age” of man’s appropriation of fire and earliest inventions. Writing in 1949, he thought the world was entering the “second Promethean Age” with the spread of industrialization and other advances in technology and science, notably the nuclear bomb. 

Even before the advent of AI or bioengineering, Jaspers saw the impetus of another pivotal shift in the religious imagination gestating but doubted then that our civilization was up to the spiritual challenge posed by our scientific advances. He felt that “the dissolution of modern thought has not been able to offer anything of real content out of its own origin to overcome it — because the simplicity of depth does not exist in any new shape, and could hardly assert its new shape if it were to come into being without having preserved the former content” of the Axial Age awakenings. 

Paradoxically, it is the further advances in science and technology that may end up resolving Jaspers’ doubts.

For Charles Taylor, the first Axial Age resulted from the “great dis-embedding” of the person from isolated communities and their natural environment, where circumscribed awareness had been limited to the sustenance and survival of the tribe guided by oral narrative myth. The lifting out from a closed-off world, according to Taylor, was enabled by the arrival of written language — the stored memories of the first cloud technology. This attainment of symbolic competency capacitated an “interiority of reflection” on the basis of abiding texts that created a platform for shared meanings beyond one’s immediate circumstances and local narratives.

Long story very short, this “transcendence” in turn led to the possibility of general philosophies, monotheistic religions and broad-based ethical systems. The critical self-distancing element of dis-embedded reflection further evolved into what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “theoretic culture,” to scientific discovery and the Enlightenment that spawned modernity. For Bellah, “Plato completed the transition to the Axial Age” with the idea of theoria that “enables the mind to ‘view’ the great and the small in themselves abstracted from their concrete manifestations.”

The New ‘AIxial’ Age

Today, a case can be made that we are on the cusp of a new pivotal age as Jaspers intuited but could not then foresee how it might unfold. What has changed is that the highly advanced quality of transcendence and theoretic culture enabled by the epoch of written language is both surpassing and turning in on itself, marking a decisive break from the first Axial Age legacy. 

What Peter Sloterdijk calls “immunitary reason” — the survival-protective impulse of the species — has recognized that climate change, one consequence of Anthropocene arrogance derived from human dis-embeddedness from nature, now threatens the basis of existence. It is a dialectical irony that this new awareness is only possible because a new symbolic competency has arrived on the scene through planetary-scale computation, enabled by artificial intelligence, that unveils the Earth to the heretofore limited scope of human apprehension as one self-regulating organism sustained by the entwinement of multiple intelligences, from microbes to forests as well as humans.

As Benjamin Bratton puts it, “The models that we have of climate change are ones that emerge from supercomputing simulations of Earth’s past, present and future. This is a self-disclosure of Earth’s intelligence and agency, accomplished by thinking through and with a computational model.” 

This self-disclosure implies a “re-embedding” of the axial transcendence that nourished the religious imagination millennia ago back into encompassing nature and relational community, this time out of knowledge instead of ignorance, if human civilization and the planetary ecosystem are to survive. In short, the comprehending amplitude enabled by AI portends that it may play a similar role in fostering a “New AIxial Age” that written language did the first time around.

Such a reincarnation necessarily decenters humans in the cosmos and opens the way to “planetary sapience” — the synthesized intelligence of all lifeforms that are part and parcel of one self-regulating system and to which human technological capacities must align.

Here, “planetary reason” conjoins with the religious imagination in what we might call the quest for “planetary homeostasis” as the new ground of the sacred. Drawing from the work of Antonio Damasio on the biological origins of culture, just as all organisms strive to survive by seeking equilibrium with their environment, on a planetary level this entails the evolved impulse toward equilibrium among all lifeforms that allows the ecology of existence to flourish. My speculation is that this revelation will anchor the spiritual condition of humanity in the centuries to come.