Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Wendell Berry, American Confucius

posted by Rod Dreher

wendell-berry.jpg
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.



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Hector

posted June 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm


Confucian culture also gave us the wonders of foot-binding, the subjugation of women, really creative methods of torture, execution by slow slicing, the oppression and immiseration of millions and millions of coolie labourers and peasants, and imperial courts which lived in unheard of luxury inside the Forbidden City, eating swallows’ nests and shark’s fin soup, while peasants starved to death in the countryside and were happy if they could scrounge together a few morsels of rice. All within a civilisation that gradually declined from being the most technically advanced in the world to becoming backward and insular. I would be very careful about extolling the glories of confucianism if I were you.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 9, 2010 at 1:50 pm


C’mon, Hector, why do you insist on throwing straw into this? Was it “Christian culture” that gave us burning at the stake, multiply creative forms of torture (like the Iron Maiden), and a how-to manual for using peasants as cannon fodder (several of the Crusades)? Do I need to list the several other examples?
It was Chinese culture, not “Confucian”. It was European cultures, not “Christian”.



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Turmarion

posted June 9, 2010 at 2:10 pm


I think Confucius himself would have been apalled by many if not most of the things Hector mentions. The so-called “first” emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (the one portrayed in a boot-lickingly flattering way in the Jet Li movie Hero), is infamous for his book burnings and attempts to suppress Confucianism. Part of the motivation for this was the imposition of many of the very draconian laws mentioned, which Confucianists tended to oppose. I’d also point out that many of the customs Hector mentions long postdate Confucius himself. Footbinding, for example, became popular in the 10th Century AD, fifteen hundred years after Confucius!
Yes, Confucianism has blood on its hands (though often it’s more a matter of Chinese culture than Confucianism per se)–but all religions do. I’d gently remind Hector that diatribes about all the evils of Christianity and how it has failed to live up to its claims are not uncommon and have often been seen at this blog!
Anyway, Confucius tends to get short shrift in the West, which tends to prefer his supposed contemporary Laozi (author of Daoism’s foundational text the Tao Teh Ching, or in Pinyin, Daodejing). Westerners prefer the mysticism and purported antinomianism of the Daoists to the rectitude of Master Kong (Confucius’ Chinese name is Kong Fuzi or Kongzi), “Master Kong”). In China, though, they are seen as poles–Confucianism shows one how to relate to others and be a good member of society, while Daoism gives one the basis for mystic communion with the Divine when on one’s own time, so to speak.
The great American Zen master Robert Aitken-Roshi said once that the older he gets the more Confucian he becomes, and while at 46 I’m much younger than his 92, I still see as I get older what he means.
For Rod or anyone else who’s interested, a good introduction to the thought of Confucius is D. C. Lau’s excellent translation of the Lunyu or Analects for Penguin.



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kenneth

posted June 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm


I would be interested in exploring similarities and differences between Confucianism and neo-pagan traditions. As pagans, we to tend to focus on the connectedness of individuals to other, and more broadly, to every other living thing and even the land itself. Perhaps we don’t tend to subsume the individual identity as much as Confucianism and I’m sure there are other stark differences. I don’t know….



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Allen

posted June 9, 2010 at 2:36 pm


I’m glad you brought up Laozi, Turmarion. I’m definitely one of those Westerners who philosophically prefers Daoism to Confucianism. But over time I’ve come to realize that both traditions are indeed wonderfully complementary, and I’m not sure I could adequately explain some of that richness. To be a bit over-simplistic, it seems that Confucianism is a map to understanding man as he appears to be, as he acts in the world, and therefore how best to act in accordance. The Dao is a map to understanding man as he most basically is, what he has the potential to be in his fullness.
I’m sure I’m missing a great deal, coming from a Western humanist perspective, but insofar as I understand the two traditions, I find them bountifully enriching and true.
Hector’s list of horribles above is indisputably accurate, but as others have pointed out, it’s exactly the sort of of thing he and many others decry as unfair and misunderstood when directed at Christianity.



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Bill Logan

posted June 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm


Rod, you may be interested in the book by T.R. Reid, “Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West.” Reid was the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post for five years. The book is his look at Japanese society as a lived expression of Confucian virtue and how that contrasts with American society.



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Jane Schreck

posted June 9, 2010 at 3:18 pm


Guy, guys, you’re missing the point: Just how cool is Wendell Berry!



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Turmarion

posted June 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm


kenneth: Confucius strongly believed in following the li, usually translated “rites”. The rites involved codes of social behavior, obligations towards family members, court ceremonial, etc., and among them were religious rites (sacrifices, divination, etc.). However, Confucius, as it says in the Analects, never spoke about violence (that alone would make him remarkable in such a violent age!) or the supernatural.
A famous quote is that when he was asked about life after death, he said, “I hardly understand life–how am I to speak of death?” and when asked how to serve the gods, he replied, “I hardly understand how to serve men–how am I to speak of serving the gods?”
Like many Chinese of his day, Confucius seems to have had a vague, quasi-monotheistic idea of a celestial power ordering the Universe, which was traditionally referred to as Tian (“heaven”), though the Daoists preferred to call it Dao. Proper human behavior was said to be following Tian or sometimes was said to accord with the Da Dao (“Great Way”) or Tian Dao (“Heavenly Way” or “Way of Heaven”). A righteous ruler was said to have the “Mandate of Heaven”. However, Tian and Dao were both understood in mainly impersonal ways, and rather than a list of specific commandments given from on high, the proper way for humans to live was thought of as being expressed in the totality of moral aphorism and custom that was encompassed in the li and secondarily in the Five Classics (the I Ching, the Book of Odes, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals), which were purportedly compiled and edited by Confucius.
Overall, Confucius seems to have had a vague conception of some kind of more or less benevolent divine principle, but thought that it didn’t interfere in the world much. He also seems to have thought that the value of religious rituals was more in providing social cohesion and stability than in their actual content, about which he was apparently agnostic. His emphasis was totally this-worldly, which is why Confucianism is compatible with various other religions, being itself more an ethic or philosophy.
Allen, I think you put it well. The most ironic example the Confucian/Daoist harmony in Chinese thought is that of the I Ching (or in Pinyin Yi Jing), the famous Book of Changes. It is almost always discussed and presented in the West as a Daoist work or in a Daoist context; and yet it predates the foundational Daoist work, the Daode Jing, and was said to have been edited by Confucius!



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Cecelia

posted June 9, 2010 at 5:52 pm


It was the Jesuits who translated Confucius and introduced the West to him – in fact – the name Confucius is the Jesuits latinized version of his authentic Chinese name (the ius is a hint). The enlightenment authors were greatly influenced by the ideas of Confucius especially the notion of a moral code that did not rely on a deity.
One of the things I have come to think is a great idea from Confucius is the importance of ritual – our ancestors would have engaged in rituals all the time – when planting, when harvesting, when changes in life status occurred, even when things like property was transferred. I think something important about ritual is that it makes us pause and pay attention. For example – harvest and planting rituals reminded us to be grateful for food, to respect the earth that produced the food. As we abandon rituals we also abandon the things the rituals reminded us of – we forget to be grateful for food and the work which produced it, we forget our dependence on the earth etc.
I agree we need to pass on the idea that religion makes people do bad stuff – in that religions emerge out of human experience and generally are an attempt to curb the bad stuff humans are inclined to do. I don’t know if religions fail so often to do that – or if we would be even more cruel and violent without those curbs. But I think we need to apply the rule to all religions – not just Christianity – so I would not blame Islam for the cruelty and violence of terrorists nor would I blame the excesses of Imperial China on religion.



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forestwalker

posted June 9, 2010 at 5:53 pm


Berry isn’t a Confucian. He’s a Christian. Enlightenment/American individualism and libertarianism are so divorced from Christianity (and have so poisoned the dominant American expressions of Christianity) that seeing an American express actual Christian anthropology and sentiment regarding community and obligation/connection makes Prothero say he sounds more Confucian than Christian. It’s terribly sad, and quite the indictment of the rest of us.



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Appalachian Prof

posted June 9, 2010 at 6:13 pm


Why should non-pentecostal Christians be threatened by Pentecostalism?



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Doug Sangster

posted June 9, 2010 at 6:17 pm


Jane, like Wendell Berry you are the voice of sanity in this discussion! Unfortunately, he is often overlooked, and/or ignored. Doug



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MikeW

posted June 9, 2010 at 6:42 pm


…and a pretty darn good poet, novelist, and essayist!
Nothing wrong with American individualism. It may run contrary to some Christian expressions, but calling it a “poison” is off base and certainly undercuts the many examples of individualism — heroic individualism — that has helped energize Christianity throughout the ages. Many of those individuals who refused to go along with the status quo at the time are now considered Saints.
Sincerely,
Mike



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forestwalker

posted June 9, 2010 at 7:25 pm


The heroism (and especially the saintly variety) you describe MikeW are not at all the same thing as Enlightenment/American-style individualism. In reality, there are no individuals. The idea is a philosophical fantasy that is in deep conflict with real human anthropology and, as such, its dominance in our culture is poisonous.
Heh. captcha: next prattle



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Clare Krishan

posted June 9, 2010 at 8:32 pm


Well done, I first encountered the Useless Tree some years ago over at ?? (The Western Confucian http://orientem.blogspot.com/ )
More goodies from Dr Anthony Clark panning Daoism/Buddhism for gold and coming up empty, lauding the ??-accomodationism of Jesuit Matteo Ricci on YouTube here:
http://www.youtube.com/user/SAPIdotORG



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Clare Krishan

posted June 9, 2010 at 8:59 pm


n.b. the Silver Rule – ??? (reciprocity) from the Chinese radical for mother-mouth-heart, ie lead by example not rule by moralisms. This gifted Roman Catholic missionary cannot but have seen the imago dei misericordia of mater ecclesia hidden within the concept of filial duty, no?



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Rod Dreher

posted June 9, 2010 at 9:02 pm


Appalachian Prof, the thing that worries one about Pentecostalism is the primacy it places on ecstatic experience and emotion as a guide to the Divine. There is no stable point in that. On the other hand, I can’t say that I am less favorable to Pentecostalism than I am to highly cerebral Calvinism; in fact, I’m probably more inclined toward Pentecostalism, because it is more supernaturally-oriented. Still, I think we have to have balance.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 9, 2010 at 9:36 pm


Ancient Bluegrass sage Wendell-Lucius say, he who drive horse-plow too fast land on tummy and have crack up.



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Hector

posted June 9, 2010 at 10:12 pm


Turmarion,
Well, for one, Confucius has been quoted as saying that a women should obey her father when she is young, her husband when she is of middle years, and her son in old age, so you can fairly blame the treatment of women in China on Confucianism, at least in part.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 10, 2010 at 12:29 am


Prothero’s mentions of Hawthorne and Twain remind me of how thoroughly, to an extent greater than we consciously conceive it, our literary and moral culture lives still in the eternal shadow of that immense and singular mountain consisting of the great American writers from roughly 1830 to 1870, in their term-setting fountainhead amplitude. If you are a spiritual seeker, nature writer, individualist contemplative, or witness to political conscience, you will as you go about your job of work find one stout sibling thread trailing your garment clear back to Thoreau (the Wendell Berry link is obvious, though mutated), and his friend Emerson. If you are a writer fresh out of school with your cardboard suitcase, a walker in the city, and dream of writing the Great American novel, you will have Melville as a sovereign master for your apprenticeship. You want to raise the hairs on your reader’s necks, do your bit to renew the mystery franchise, and set up your own literary “haunts”, Poe will perch over your monitor, chirping “Give it more.” Fancy yourself a poet, and find Dickinson and Whitman easily the first among unequals within your American procession. Want to write on those perennial American themes of sin, guilt and redemption, and the tension between the individual and the community? Back to Hawthorne (Philip Roth made the Updike-Hawthorne connection upon the latter’s death last year, as had I for ages in thinking him a time-traveler from Puritan New England, while adding Gore Vidal’s spiritual displacement from ancient Rome)!
With the radical limitations on time for reading afflicting us all, you could do far worse as a writer than to use that galaxy of writers in teaching yourself the writer’s craft, in that knowing deeply how they turn their tricks is better than knowing ten times as many writers at surface depth – before your own unique internal verbal and structural alchemy, and the very stuff of life laid out before you in all its amplitude crying out to be chronicled, ignite the spark across the gap of necessary renewal as you add your steps to the endless road.



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Clare Krishan

posted June 10, 2010 at 8:41 am


Not a member of a Communio readers’ circle (sounds great tho’) so misseed this event mentioned on their new blog:
http://communionews.wordpress.com/2010/05/10/wendell-berry-in-washington-dc/



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Rombald

posted June 10, 2010 at 12:23 pm


Hector: “Confucius has been quoted as saying that a women should obey her father when she is young, her husband when she is of middle years, and her son in old age”
Is that actually in the Lunyu? It might be, but it sounds more like something out of Mencius, or one of the neo-Confucian writers, such as Yang Ming.
You’re a funny one, Hector. You’re Christian, so it would make sense on one level for you to be hostile to all non-Christian perspectives. However, you always defend Hinduism and indeed Indian society, yet horrors can equally well be pointed out there (satti, caste, etc.)



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Bradley

posted June 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm


Wendell Berry is a Christian and a whimsically, self-described “Kentucky-American”.
His book of essays: *Sex, economy, freedom & community*, includes the essays: “Peaceableness towards enemies” and “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”.
The fact that Dr. Prothero strains to make a link to Confucius is simply … doofus.



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Hector

posted June 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm


Rombald,
I defend Hinduism against the charges that it’s idolatrous and demonolatrous, which are false charges. I certainly don’t claim that everything was good about Hindu culture. If I thought that, I might be a Hindu. The caste system is one of the most inhuman and evil systems of social oppression that the mind of man has invented, and Hindus ought to feel guilt and shame that their religion was used to justify that (the same way that we, as Christians, ought to feel guilt over the role our faith played in fostering antisemitism).
Having said that, one can make decent arguments that both sati and the caste system were cultural as much as religious evils. Sati may have existed inb the more distant past but it certainly became much more common in the late medieval period, and there’s reason to believe the caste system became much harsher over time as well. And there were always Hindus who protested against sati, caste, and other abuses as well.
Having said that, both Hinduism and Christianity are about theology as much as morality. Confucianism is not- it’s a moral philosophy concerned almost entirely with this world- so if the moral philosophy is flawed, there’s not much saving graces elsewhere.



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MikeW

posted June 11, 2010 at 12:04 am


I think Mr. Berry not only celebrates community, but the kind of American individuality that ForestWalker seems to find troublesome. Give his poems, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” a read or “Do Not Be Ashamed.”
Sincerely,
Mike



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buddha

posted July 18, 2012 at 5:36 am


I’m now not certain where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thank you for wonderful information I used to be searching for this info for my mission.



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