Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Different Religions, Different Visions

I recently had an involved conversation with my significant other about the differences between Christianity and Daoism. This stimulated a lot of thought and I thought I'd share one particular idea that struck me.

In chapter 19, story number 8 of the Zhuangzi you come across the story of Kongzi meeting an old man who has gained the ability to swim safely in a torrent that "fell from a height of thirty fathoms" and where no "alligator, fish or turtle could swim". When Kongzi speaks to this man, he says:
No, I have no special way. I began with what was innate, grew up with my nature, and completed my destiny. I enter the very centre of the whirlpools and emerge as a companion of the torrent. I follow along with the way of the water and do not impose myself on it. That's how I do my treading. (Victor H. Mair trans.)
By way of a contrast, consider Chapter 14, lines 24 to 33 of Matthew from the Gospels. In that story, the disciples are in a boat on the sea in a storm. Jesus has been left on shore, but he walks on the water out to meet them. They are as surprised as Kongzi at what they see. Indeed, they are afraid that they are seeing a ghost, so Jesus calls out to the "Take heart, it's me! Don't be afraid." Peter replies that if it's really Jesus he should order him to come out of the boat and join him. Jesus agrees and asks him to come out.

And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But with the strong wind in his face, he became afraid. And when he started to sink, he cried out, "Master, save me."

Right away Jesus extended his hand and took hold of him and says to him, "You don't have enough trust! Why did you hesitate?" (Scholars Version, Five Gospels)

These are somewhat similar stories, but they differ because the two religious that they are trying to explain are based on very different ideals.

In the case of Kongzi and the swimmer, the issue at hand is to take what seems stupendously miraculous and explain it in a "matter of fact" way. It is amazing that this man can swim in the cataract. But he can do it because he understands the way water and currents operate, so he doesn't expend any energy trying to fight them. He also understands that even in a vicious undertow, there is always a return current that will take him to the surface. The "miracle" is that he has developed the consciousness that has allowed him to master his fear and completely understand how the water works.

Matthew's story is very different. There is no mastery involved, just a question of faith in the ability of one man, Jesus, to suspend the laws of nature. Moreover, there is no subtlety to the story vis-a-vis the psychology of faith. Jesus seems to have no sympathy at all for Peter's inability to sustain his faith in Jesus' ability to simply violate the laws of nature. When Peter starts to sink into the water, he says "You don't have enough trust! Why did you hesitate?" Well duh, Jesus. Every single event in Peter's life is telling him that its bloody impossible to walk on water. He's the only guy who even got out of the boat. It was his idea to get out and join you in the first place. What the heck do you expect?

What's important to Kongzi's swimmer is learning how things work, both the water and his own abilities. This is totally irrelevant to Jesus. It doesn't matter whether or not Peter has any understanding of the world around him or how his thinking works---all that matters is whether or not he has faith in Jesus.

How different!

I suppose that at one time it was possible for someone to build their life around total and utter submission to faith in the existence of both God and Jesus. And if one did so they would find their lives calmer and easier to live. But I don't think that that is possible anymore without creating a crazy feeling of cognitive dissonance . If you are a fundamentalist, you must accept "on faith" that evolution is a crock. But what must someone who thinks this feel when they walk through a museum and see galleries of dinosaur skeletons? Similarly, if you are a Catholic and must accept Papal "infallibility", how must reading about sexual abuse scandals make you feel? Indeed, how can one believe in God and life after death when just about every experience we have tells us that neither one exists?

I think that, like myself, increasing numbers of modern people find it pretty much impossible to make that "leap of faith" anymore. No matter how much we might want to just jam our reasoning minds into some sort of theological prison, they find some way of escaping. And just was we are reaching out hands out to Jesus, the water we are standing on turns back to liquid and we begin to sink beneath the waves.

I suspect, however, that a lot of people are not happy with simply rejecting God and Jesus out of hand. They want some sort of religious framework to build their lives around. I know that I do. That's why I am a Daoist. The story of Kongzi and the swimmer is just as rich with meaning as the one of Jesus walking on the water, but it is totally compatible with the modern world. Moreover, I think that societies need religions to create the sort of unity needed to deal with the big problems that face them from time to time---like our present environmental crisis. Again, I think that something like Daoism is desperately needed in order to help us work together and learn how to live in harmony with Nature.