Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PUSHING THE RESTART BUTTON

I have been away.

My last post was dated January 1. Now, nearly four months later, this blog is back in business.

The reason for my absence is that I have been facing a question that has haunted me since I started teaching Comparative Religion. It is a “Why” question.

Why are there patterns in Comparative Religion? Why is it possible to set forth what I call “the structure of religious traditions,” to say nothing of the cosmogonic myths I’ve been describing and the founder myths I plan to describe?

When I began teaching Comparative Religion, many if not all the books I was reading on the subject avoided the question. The “phenomenologists of religion” (including Gerardus van der Leeuw and Mircea Eliade) were intent on describing the patterns they saw throughout human history. Whether or not it was influenced by Edmund Husserl, the father of philosophical phenomenology, their discipline did not ask causal questions; it was content to study “what appears” (phenomenon=that which appears; ology=the science of).

But can’t we go beyond describing? Can’t we dig deeper? Shouldn’t we try to figure out why there are these and other patterns in religion? Why, for example, are there Buddha myths as well as Christ myths, to say nothing of the stories spun by Joseph Smith and his disciples?

I have been doing a fair amount of digging. One obvious explanation is that even in those relatively primitive times, when the world wasn’t yet wired, or before the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, there were such things as borrowing and historical influence. The Austrian Kulturkreis (culture circle) school of anthropology of a century ago taught that we could explain common patterns of human behavior by assuming diffusion from a central point. Instead of assuming an innate predisposition to devise founder myths, their hypothesis would assume that the ability of a community to come up with a founder myth is a matter of cultural influence.

It is common for Biblical scholars make a similar assumption. Here’s an instance. It is not uncommon for a scholar pondering the creation story of Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 to mention the Ancient Near East context within which it was composed. Invariably, they point to a parallel with the nearby Babylonian story called the Enuma Elish. In doing so, they are ignoring the fact that there have been legions of creation myths throughout human history.

What about the Christ myths, that is, the stories about Jesus that include such supernatural events as voices from heaven, temptations by Satan, and miracles? Are there parallels in the Buddha myths—or, if not parallels, items for comparison? There are. But in this case can we account for one of them by appealing to cultural influence (which would run from ancient India to the Ancient Near East)?

I don’t know. But my ignorance on this point makes me look for another explanation.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

LUN YU

Lun YĆ¼, known to English-speaking readers as the Analects (meaning a gathering of short sayings) is commonly attributed to Kung-fu-tzu, a name that the earliest Jesuit missionaries to China latinized as Confucius.

Historians of ancient Chinese civilization have concluded that, though the Analects appear to contain a good number of Confucius’ sayings, this short collection was edited by later followers of this highly influential man. These editors included many of the sayings of his disciples, some of whom were not his contemporaries, in the Analects.

One of the questions about this text, and about Confucius and Confucianism, is whether they belong within the history of religions or within the history of Asian philosophy. World Religion textbooks consistently treat Confucianism, along with Taoism and East Asian Buddhism, as religions of China; encyclopaedias of philosophy often include Confucius as a philosopher. If we recall that both terms, religion and philosophy, are Western concepts, we might simply point out that the Analects as well as Confucius and his followers are what they are.

If one persists in weighing in on this question, one can easily find reasons for both positions. On the claim that what we are dealing with here is philosophy, we might say that the Analects reads more like Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics than like the Laws of Manu or the Pentateuch. For example, note the following saying, attributed to the Master:

“When natural substance prevails over ornamentation, you get the boorishness of the rustic. When ornamentation prevails over natural substance, you get the pedantry of the scribe. Only when ornament and substance are duly blended do you get the true gentleman.”

Isn’t this an instance of Aristotle’s doctrine of the Golden Mean?

As for the counterclaim that the Analects are a religious text, there is, I think, more to be said. Like Manu’s laws and the first five books of the Bible, the Analects contain moral precepts together with their legitimation through a device of appealing to a past event.

The precepts can be summed up in a pair of sayings:

“The Master said, To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learned, is that not after all a pleasure?”

“The Master said, He who rules by moral force is like the North Star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do it homage.”

The first of these concerns personal ethics: it says that the sage, or the gentleman, is devoted to learning from the past. The second is a large part of political philosophy: it says that the good ruler is a gentleman who bases his actions on an imitation of the ancients, who provide the model for correct leadership.

This emphasis on the past and the ancients is similar to the creation myths we find in the Laws of Manu and the Pentateuch. In all cases the answer to the basic question, “How should I, and we as a people, exist?”, derives from an event that is held to be of a higher order than our own lives.

But isn’t there a vast difference between the Analects, on the one hand, and both the Laws of Manu and the Pentateuch, on the other? Do not the Analects appeal to a former historical order, while the other two conform themselves to a supernatural order?

Maybe. But there is evidence in the Analects that the former historical order has a supernatural grounding. Consider this saying:

“The Master said, A Divine Sage I cannot hope ever to meet; the most I can hope for is to meet a true gentleman.”

According to one interpretation, a Divine Sage is a mythological figure who has been made historical as a ruler, but has divine attributes and powers. As mythological, he has at least one foot in another and superior world.