Gotta say I’m really enjoying BU religious studies prof Stephen Prothero’s “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter,” which I initially blogged on yesterday (read that entry, which leads to an interview with Prothero, to understand what he’s trying to do in this book). It’s comparative religion for a general audience, and if you know much of anything about, say, Christianity or Islam, you probably know as much as you’re going to get here. But nobody really knows what they don’t know. While I didn’t learn much new from the Islam chapter, Prothero’s discussion of Sufism was informative and enlightening — and made me understand why many mainstream Muslims find Sufis to be threatening. In his chapter on Christianity, I was genuinely shocked to realize how Christianity in the Third World/Global South is even bigger than I thought. And I understand better now why Pentecostalism, with its primacy of individual religious experience at the core of its belief system, is so well-suited to thrive in the world as it is today. (And why that ought to worry us non-Pentecostal Christians).
For me, though, the book really opened up with the chapter on Confucianism, about what I know almost nothing. Confucianism is not really a religion, but a powerful ethical system intended to cultivate individual virtue and social harmony. Here’s Prothero:
Are we made and sustained in isolation or in relation? The Enlightenment notion of the self as an independent free agent makes no sense from the Confucian perspective of the interdependence of all things. Just as Confucians say no to the secular/sacred divide, they creatively confuse the boundaries between self and society. The self is not an isolated atom, they insist, but the center of a vast web of relationships with family, community, nation, and world. Without this complex ecology of overlapping networks of mutual obligations, there may be an ego, but there is no self.
Although unapologetically communitarian, Confucianism is not opposed to self-cultivation. In fact, self-cultivation is essential to the Confucian project. Confucians insist, however, that we become ourselves, and transform society, through others. The path to social harmony runs through human flourishing, and human flourishing is made possible through right relations with other human beings.
Prothero goes on to discuss how deeply un-Confucian the American mentality is, and how he is personally highly suspicious of the social conformity Confucianism requires. But, he says, he has come to appreciate Confucius more over the years:
Individualism is one of the glories of modern Western civilizqation, but one of its evils is our cult of narcissism. Like the Buddha, Confucius saw the ego as a weapon of mass destruction that horribly distorts our ability to see things as they really are and kills by flattery along the way. So Confucius redirected our collective attention from the solitary individual to the person in community.
Do we have anybody attempting to do that right now in America? Why, yes we do, says Prothero:
The contemporary American poet-farmer Wendell Berry has argued that we become human by participating in a “beloved community,” which he defines as “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.” American storytelling, Berry observes, is replete with examples of sensitive individuals overrun by overbearing communities (think Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter) and therfore of solitary individuals justifably on the run from this overbearance (think Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). But only in community, he argues, is it possible to become fully human. Only in the midst of community propriety (and impropriety), community goods (and evils), can we experience “our partiality and mortality” and our many connections to place and past, the quick and the dead. Berry defines himself as a Christian rather than a Confucian, but he comes closer to the Confucian spirit than any English-language fiction writer I know. These words — “living is a communal act” — were written by Berry. But they sound like a “Confucius says.”
I don’t particularly wish to discuss politics on this blog, but you might want to check out James Kalb’s 2004 essay arguing for a Confucian politics in contemporary America. I came to it through a fascinating blog I’ve just discovered, “The Useless Tree,” dedicated to applying ancient Chinese thought to modern American life. I’m going to bookmark it.