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Religious Colonialism 4

posted by Scot McKnight

Prothero.jpgStephen Prothero’s newest book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter, seeks to educate us all on the world’s great religions.

One of his more important points is method: How do we analyze another religion? The fundamental problem is that we tend to analyze it through the lens of our own religion or beliefs. So, even calling other religions “religion” at times creates a problem.
Which is the case with Confucianism. The essence of Confucianism is about a Way of Life through ren and li,  or through human-heartedness/compassion/love, etc and orderliness or propriety — learning to be the sort of person you should be and observing behaviors according to where you are and what you are to do. 
What have you read in Confucianism? Do you see signs of Confucianism? Where? Do you consider Confucianism a religion? What do you think are Confucianism’s distinctives?
In other words, Confucianism’s most salient connection with Judaism and Christianity, something Prothero badly misses, is the Hebrew Wisdom tradition connected to Solomon.  What emerges then is respect and reverence for tradition, devoting oneself humbly to education and learning, and a life of virtues that are shaped by interaction with others. Confucianism is anti-individualism.

Confucianism’s concerns are not classically religious for Western Christians: not so much into God or the afterlife, but instead into the current life and how to live out one’s heritage. Prothero likes the idea of Confucianism being a religious humanism.

Its problem is chaos; order is the solution; one finds order through education in the ancient wisdom and its virtues of ren and li. Hierarchical orders matter deeply.
He has a nice sketch of the life of Confucius, who lived at the time of the Greek philosophers and later Jewish prophets.
His sketch of Confucianism was much more sympathetic than was his sketch of Christianity.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 7:57 am

I don’t know much about Confucianism but I am interested in the boundary between an ethical system and a religion. I’m also interested in response to this piece from the WaPost at addresses Steve Prothero:
Religions are siblings but not twins
Q: Are all religions the same? The Dalai Lama, who just celebrated his 75th birthday, often refers to the ‘oneness’ of all religions, the idea that all religions preach the same message of love, tolerance and compassion. Historians Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith agree that major faiths are more alike than not. But in his new book “God is not One,” religion scholar and On Faith panelist Steve Prothero says views by the Dalai Lama, Armstrong and Smith that all religions “are different paths to the same God” is untrue, disrespectful and dangerous. Who’s right? Why?
Are all religions the same? Of course not. Nor are my three biological children, even though they came from the same parents. While sharing many common characteristics, our two daughters and one son are as different as can be in many respects – religiously, politically, vocationally, temperamentally.
But my wife and I focus on our deep love of each, irrespective of those differences. We love no one of them more than the other; favor no one of them more than the other. We recognize the biological similarities, their common interests in living meaningful lives, their desire to be loving partners, and their devotion and love for us as parents. They have the same hopes and fears that any human beings have: anxiety about job security, health, their children’s lives, the future….
I think of the world’s religions in much the same way. Products of human beings who are biologically descended from the same “parents” yet subjected to different cultural forces and even the whims of those “parents” at any given time, religions develop differently in response to those differences.
Yes, there are many similarities in the world’s religions. As I developed a curriculum on world religion for a Quaker school in Palestine recently, I was struck by how many common elements each of the eight major traditions I included have. All religions have to deal with life and death, hope and desire, fear and the need for acceptance. And each has come up with a system to offer meaning to humanity in a world that ultimately kills us. The elements of that system are very different in many respects. Codes of ethics are often very different.
But as brothers and sisters, offspring of the same “parent,” we can find common cause, celebrate the richness of each other’s discoveries of meaning, share in each other’s quest for more Light. Will there be family fights? Of course. Can there be reconciliation and a fun time at the family picnic? Yes.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 15, 2010 at 8:04 am

I’m not sure where your comments are. Is all of this from Prothero?

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Ray Ingles

posted July 15, 2010 at 8:39 am

It seems to me that a the defining characteristic of a ‘religion’ is that it includes a supernatural element of some kind. Something that’s explicitly defined as outside of human ken.
Confucianism and at least some forms of Buddhism don’t include that, and many people regard them as ‘ethical systems’ or ‘philosophies’ or ‘worldviews’ – but not ‘religions’ – for that very reason.

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Travis Greene

posted July 15, 2010 at 9:47 am

The interesting question to me in this area is how do we then interface with (particularly) Eastern “religions” that are not really offering different answers than Christianity but are often answering different questions entirely. Christian faith is clear about idolatry; you don’t worship Baal or Zeus or Odin. But would it be missional or syncretistic to seriously engage with, say, Taoism? Would it be any different than the way Aquinas and others synthesize Christianity and Plato?

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posted July 15, 2010 at 11:06 am

There are, at times, a number who have commented here with real experience in Asia in general and China in particular. I wonder what they think of Confucianism with respect to Christianity. Is it a conflict of religions, or wisdom to be integrated and viewed through the lens of the gospel.
After all, our western view of Christianity doesn’t require a world view that dumps Aristotle and such into the trash bin. Would Wright cast “After You Believe” (with Aristotle and the classical virtues) in a different, but still Christian, form if he was writing from a Chinese rather than classical European perspective?

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Jason Lee

posted July 15, 2010 at 12:19 pm

…interestingly, many Chinese Evangelicals (in America) readily retain many aspects (perhaps most) of Confuscianism. For detailed discussion of this, see the work of Fenggang Yang (at Purdue in the the department of sociology). RJS’ comparison with Western Christians’ use of Aristotle seems very appropriate to this discussion.

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Scott Morizot

posted July 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I wasn’t going to comment on this post at all, but I made the mistake of coming back to read the comments. I’m not a native to any of the Asian cultures, but I have actually practiced some of the religions in question and have explored more. I also grew up with some close family friends who were native first or second generation in some of the cultures in question. (I will note that most of them were scientists who had largely shifted to more agnostic or atheistic perspectives, so my cultural experience and understanding is largely separate from my spiritual experience.) From that background I have several thoughts spurred by the comments above. I will note that of all the Asian religions, I’m probably least familiar with Confucianism, which is another reason I wasn’t going to comment.
First, it’s not unusual for different religions to eschew the label ‘religion’ for different reasons. While I find the modern expression that Christianity is “a relationship not a religion” rather shallow and semantically meaningless, when you study ancient Christianity you do find more detailed and reasoned arguments that in the Resurrection, Christ demonstrated the falsity of all other religions and that Christianity is thus the end of religion, at least in the sense that it had existed. Buddhism is not merely a discipline or system of ethics. It is predicated on the metaphysical concept of the tranmigration of souls. The Dalai Lama is actually chosen through a concept system of reincarnation.
And that’s a clear example of one place that Christianity and many Eastern religions part company. While I know many Christians today report that they believe in reincarnation, that simply illustrates the extent to which they don’t understand their own faith. If there is a way to truly reconcile the transmigration of souls with resurrection, I was unable to discern it — and I would have preferred to syncretize the two rather than drop my prior belief in reincarnation. They are extraordinarily different perspectives on the nature of reality and the human being. I believe some of the same principles drawn from a perspective on the transmigration of souls informs Confucianism, but I’m not sure.
In Eastern religions, I would say the Tao Te Ching comes closest to a view of reality like that found in Christianity. It is not Christian, but there are shadows of Christianity found in it. (I’ve been considering buying the book, Christ the Eternal Tao, for a while now.) The others have less connection. Of course, we share with Buddhism its emphasis on compassion and ascetic discipline. But we would say we act from different reasons and toward different goals. The same is true in many other places where some ethics and actions might be similar, at least on the surface.
I also find the idea that Christianity syncretized with Greek philosophical perspectives on reality oversimplified. A significant number of early heresies actually came from such syncretic efforts. The Cappadocian fathers and a host of other ancient writers were very familiar with Greek philosophy. In places they reused language because that was the language available and understood. But they often altered the specific way the terms they adopted were used (and explained how they were using them). On balance, though, they rejected a lot of the central Platonic ideas. Later, as they relearned Greek philosophy (often filtered through Islamic scholarship curiously) Thomas Aquinas and others were somewhat less discriminatory. (Though it wasn’t unique to later people. Augustine, for instance, goes too far toward his neo-platonic roots in places. That’s why I said on balance. You see the distinctions in the ways the majority put it.) Although Thomas Aquinas is often called Aristotlean, a number of his basic ideas about God are more Platonic than anything. And they accept as descriptive of God things that earlier Christian thought had, on consensus, rejected. (Divine simplicity is one example of such an idea. And as well as I can understand it, that idea led to the idea of ‘created grace’ and a diminishment of the meaning of the Trinity.)
Given that, I would say that you don’t want to dump Lao Tzu, Confucius, Gautama Buddha, or anyone in the trash can (I certainly haven’t), there are many places where, from a Christian perspective, you simply have to refute what they say about the nature of reality and say something different. As with some of the Christians interacting with Greek philosophy, it would be very easy to go too far.
Ray, I’m not sure that ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ are particularly useful terms from a Christian perspective. For one, they lack any clear definition beyond ‘natural’ perhaps covering anything we presently understand to a greater or lesser extent and ‘supernatural’ something that does not or cannot be subjected to scientific understanding. But the divide is not God, miracles, demons, angels, etc. on the ‘supernatural’ side and other things on the ‘natural’ side. The Christian perspective of the divide is between the created and the uncreated. (And only God, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is uncreated.)

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posted July 15, 2010 at 1:55 pm

I was struck when reading this by a few similarities with Aristotelian ethics. I came to RJS’s conclusion when reading this description.
Captcha: “continued frescoes”

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Ron Krumpos

posted July 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

There is a quote in my e-book that I like:
?The Tao is the law of nature, which you can?t depart from even for one instant. Thus the mature person looks into his own heart and respects what is unseen and unheard. Nothing is more manifest than the hidden; nothing is more obvious than the unseen. Thus the mature person pays attention to what is happening in his inmost self.? Tzu-ssu (483-402 BCE)
Note: Grandson of Confucius, founder of a philosophy and doctrine of humanism…unlike the religion of Taoism.
Confucius is coming back into vogue in as depicting the moral values of China. The Chinese government is opening Confucius Institutes in many other countries. See this recent article:

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Ray Ingles

posted July 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Ray, I’m not sure that ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ are particularly useful terms from a Christian perspective. For one, they lack any clear definition beyond ‘natural’ perhaps covering anything we presently understand to a greater or lesser extent and ‘supernatural’ something that does not or cannot be subjected to scientific understanding.

So far as I can see, ‘supernatural’ means ‘forever unknowable by humans’, not just ‘not currently understood’. Christianity makes it pretty explicit with the concept of “mystery” (indeed, the Roman Catholic church considers it Mheresy to claim that “through reason rightly developed all the dogmas of faith can be understood and demonstrated from natural principles”).
I fully agree Christianity includes the concept of ‘created’ and ‘uncreated’ entities, but I’d need a lot of evidence to accept that, say, angels and demons aren’t considered ‘supernatural’ entities…

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Scott Morizot

posted July 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Ray, I wouldn’t have any problems with you calling angels and demons ‘supernatural’ (though I don’t know that anything about them is inherently unknowable) as long as you didn’t put God in the ‘supernatural’ category. But as soon as you try to put God in the same category as any creature, you have problems.

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Ray Ingles

posted July 15, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Well, Scott, both “angels and demons” and “God” are both considered to be in the “beyond full human comprehension” category. (How do angels and demons do what they do? What are they made of?)

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Scott Morizot

posted July 15, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Ray, that’s exactly why I object to the natural/supernatural division. Most people use it the way you have and that’s essentially a capitulation to a secular view of reality. Moreover, people have certainly seen, spoken, and interacted with angels and with demons if Christianity is true. The are creatures (created beings) along with humans, animals, plants, and basically all of creation. Given that people can and have interacted with them, I would say they are beyond our present understanding, but I’m not willing to say they are in any way beyond our full comprehension (at least to the extent we are able to comprehend a fellow human being).
God, however, is not a creature. He is the only uncreated. He is indeed beyond our comprehension from any effort on our part. When we look at the natural order of creation, there is all of creation — the embodied and the spiritual — on one side of the divide. And there is God on the other. To the extent they have any real use, categories like natural/supernatural, ordinary/sacred, etc. can only be used to divide creation into categories. As soon as you group God into a category with any created beings, from the Christian perspective you are making a category mistake. The only category division that can truly include God is the created/uncreated divide.
Now, Jesus did cross that divide and take on flesh. He assumed our nature so that through him we might be able to have communion with the uncreated God. It’s not a divide we had any capacity on our own to cross. This is one of the mysteries that is pretty unique to the Christian perspective on the nature of man and the nature of reality.
God is no more “like” an angel or a demon than he is like us. In fact, you could even say that God is now more “like” us than he is “like” anything else in creation. He did not take on the spiritual body of angels. He did not assume their nature. He did that with man. Nevertheless, God remains uncreated and we are creatures, even though we are now creatures with the potential for communion with him.

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Sam Tsang

posted July 15, 2010 at 8:38 pm

i think ‘order’ in confucianism is too mild a term. I think the word Chinese translators who go back to English would be ‘harmony’. I would also say that confucianism has a big down side that is not compatible with Christianity. It tends to put the oppressor in a superior hierachy not unlike the ideal of Roman imperialism. The harmony is often … See Moreachieved by demand to submit to rulers, thus resulting in slaughters of many innocent lives in Chinese history. Sinologists are still arguing whether Confucianism is good for China historically or not.

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Ray Ingles

posted July 16, 2010 at 7:51 am

Scott –

Ray, that’s exactly why I object to the natural/supernatural division. Most people use it the way you have and that’s essentially a capitulation to a secular view of reality.

Well, I do have a secular view of reality, and I doubt we’ll come to agreement on this. But I’ll note that even if we accept your terms, we still have an unknowable element in Christianity that’s not present in philosophies/worldviews like Confucianism and (some forms of) Buddhism. And like I said, secularists are far from the only people to find it difficult to classify them as ‘religions’ because of that.

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Scott Morizot

posted July 16, 2010 at 8:11 am

Ray, I wasn’t really trying to reach agreement, just outlining some of the ways the Christian perspective on reality is starkly different from the secular perspective. (And secularism in turn is often misunderstood as being synonymous with atheism/agnosticism, which it isn’t.) Unfortunately, since our default cultural formation in the US tends to be more secular than anything else, it seems to me that even many Christians tend to view reality in a secular manner and through a secular lens.
As I mentioned somewhere above, I’m not nearly as familiar with Confucianism as I am with other Eastern religions. But I am still confused about your statement on Buddhism. Which form or forms of Buddhism are not built on a foundation of a perspective of reality that incorporates the transmigration of souls. I’m not familiar with all forms, but I’ve studied and even practiced some forms in the past, including the most well-known. From the way you have described the categories you’re using, wouldn’t that be a central “unknowable element” that would place Buddhism in your category of “religion”? Or did I misunderstand the categories you use?

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Ray Ingles

posted July 16, 2010 at 10:54 am

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