Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World's Religions

Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World's Religions

By Robert Ellwood
Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2003, Paperback, viii + 215 pages.

In Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World's Religions, Robert Ellwood, a retired professor of world religions, proposes a common developmental framework of five stages, lasting roughly five hundred years each, for the world's major extant religions-Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and the Chinese religions Confucianism and Taoism.

In this detailed and wide-ranging book Ellwood is careful to distinguish his framework from the historical meta-narratives and predictive schematizations of many social philosophers who, he declares, often reveal "more about the hopes and fears of their own age than about the veiled future." Rather than depending on a "grand mystical idea of meaning in history or the evolution of Absolute Spirit," Ellwood declares that his outline is based simply on "rational, empirical observations of how religions work and by extrapolation will work in historical time."

Ellwood notes that the great traditions emerged in response to the sea change of consciousness and culture that marked the Axial Age, a period beginning around the fifth century B.C.E. and characterized by the advent of urban culture and empire; heightened emphasis on individual salvation and the consequences of free will; the invention of writing; and, through its correlate, recordkeeping, the "discovery” of history that shifted humanity's religious focus from an emphasis on cosmic realms and connections during prehistory to a much greater concern with temporal events.

The first period Ellwood describes is characterized by the appearance of a charismatic founder (Hinduism lacks this aspect) and the development of sacred scripture and organizational structure. The second phase witnesses the co-opting of religion by empire (e.g., Christianity and Rome), and the expansion of religion's political and geographical base, and its doctrinal exaltation into the sphere of the timeless. This period is followed by one of "statues, temples and pageantry" in which religious expression experiences a burgeoning of forms. The fourth, or reformative, stage finds religion asserting its waning power by attempting to "rediscover what its essentials were and press them to the exclusion of all else." During the final stage, Axial religions, as entities in time, die  “in historical time and under exposure to historical awareness," and the cosmic impulse finds primary expression in the quasi-tribal realm of family and community where faith is informed by myth, mysticism, and personal experience. Ellwood writes that this last stage may very well last indefinitely, but he makes no conjectures about a possible sixth stage.

Ellwood contends that Buddhism and the Chinese religions are just now finishing the cycle, Hinduism and Christianity are at the beginning of the final period, and Islam is in the reformative stage.

Writing that during its period of reform a religion experiences deep anxieties about its place in the world and is often inclined "to let right prevail by might," Ellwood asserts that Islam's "bloody borders" may be more convincingly explained by its stage of development than by the charge that it is an inherently violent religion. It should be stressed that Ellwood does not intend his framework to apply to religions in general, but only to those that came of age under a particular set of historical circumstances (Zoroastrianism was on course to join their ranks until it was overcome by the Islamic conquest of Persia; also, Ellwood writes, that "Judaism always seems to be the exception to every rule."). He notes that the modern world is so radically different from the preceding age that any new world religion would likely be unrecognizable according to our present definitions.


March/April 2005