Richard Madsen at Hedgehog Review:
Bellah’s richly informed vision of the varieties of transcendent yearnings found brilliant expression in his final masterpiece,Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). The book culminates in long, detailed chapters on the religious civilizations of ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. In Bellah’s telling, Hebrew monotheism, Greek philosophy, Indian Buddhism, and Chinese Confucianism are each unique, the product of many historical contingencies. What unites them is not the sharing of some common essence of “religion” but their connection to a “deep past,” to a common historical story that extends all the way back to the Big Bang.
The epigraph to that book is from the Chinese sage Mencius: “When one reads the poems and the writings of the ancients, how could it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence one should try to understand the age in which they have lived. This can be described as ‘looking for friends in history.’” For Bellah, thinkers such as Confucius and Mencius were not simply creators of systems of thought; they were friends in history, conversation partners. The same was true of Socrates and Plato, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the Buddha, and more recent thinkers like Kant and Hegel, Weber and Durkheim. Bellah did not simply study about them. He argued and searched together with them for answers to the great questions of how we ought to live and how we think about how to live.