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.


baroness radon said...

Just a couple remarks.

Papal infallibility is a 19th century concept which is about the promulgation of doctrine by the pope. It does not imply that the pope cannot make mistakes or even sin. What we have in the church is an illustration of corporate fallibility, which is what all the sex abuse scandals have really been about. The scandals and the handling of them has been a great source of embarrassment to many serious church members, both lay and religious, but they have not abandoned the church...and it has nothing to do with papal infallibility.

Also I wonder...does anyone say, I want to be a fundamentalist and will then cast aside my common sense
about evolution and science to belong to this group which reflects my values. I suspect it's the other way around. Fundamentalists start from a position of no common sense and join a group which allows them to continue without any. Just a thought.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Yes, you are quite correct about Papal infallibility. I was thinking about birth control when I wrote that bit and then moved on to the sex abuse thing.

I would disagree with you somewhat about how at least some Catholics respond to the abuse, though. My significant other, for example, says that she has family members who have stopped going to mass because of their revulsion about the way the church hierarchy has handled complaints about abuse. It comes down, IMHO, to much the same thing. Papal Infallibility is ultimately about placing respect for the church hierarchy ahead of individual conscience. And that, pretty much, again IMHO, is what the whole abuse thing hinges on to. The problem isn't the abuse, per ce, that happens in other institutions, but rather that it was "swept under the carpet" by authorities who were more interested in the reputation of the institution than the well-being of children.

With regard to fundamentalism---. I grew up in a community with fundamentalists and I know from my own experience that at least some people do suffer from the cognitive dissonance. The bit about the dinosaurs comes directly from someone I knew who was a fundamentalist but had a real problem with the existence of all these skeletons.

The thing is that the overwhelming majority of people who hold religious beliefs do so because they inherited them. If he or she is curious and starts to do inquiry into their tradition, I think the dissonance is almost inevitable. That is where people lose their faith.

baroness radon said...

I am reminded of my cousin, one of the first in the family who went on to higher education, whose "religious fanatic" mother lamented that "he lost his faith in college." And another person who regarded the fossil record as "satanic deception." Sorry, I think he was just nuts to begin with.

And I wonder, is stopping going to mass the same as loss of faith? Does that person still consider him/herself Catholic? I only say this as one who is part of the Anglican tradition, who regards the Pope as just the Bishop of Rome, and as an employee of a Catholic university where the social justice and human dignity concepts are not just talking points and buzzwords, but are lived and practiced.

My point is that the church is just a "corporation", which as we have seen can be highly fallible; faith on the other hand is beyond the corporate. Papal doctrine may regarded as infallible; governance and politics are something else.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

You raise good points vis-a-vis the distinction between still holding a faith and no longer wishing to participate in the community.

I once heard Garry Wills, the guy who wrote Papal Sins, say that he believed that the Catholic church belongs to the members, not the hierarchy. That's a good opinion, but not one held by the people who run the church.

As to the importance of the Mass, that raises yet another issue. My understanding is that the original Mass was an actual meal and that it was all about feeding the poor (similar to the Sikh lungar.) By this reasoning, then perhaps anyone who's life is one where "social justice and human dignity concepts are not just talking points and buzzwords" is the real person participating in the mass and the ritual with wine and wafers is just a empty ritual.

Ultimately, I think we can both agree that no matter how much people might try to nail down exactly what a religion is "really about", we always end up surrounded by fun-house mirrors. Words and meaning come from their relationship with each other---especially ones that are spiritually deep. We still need to fumble towards truth, though.

Thanks for raising these points.

shadowplay said...

In a certain sense I think the development of Christianity is intimately linked to the environmental crisis (see Ellen M. Chen's introduction to her translation of the Tao Te Ching for a sustained argument on this point). Perhaps a growing disillusionment with Christianity is linked to a conscious or unconscious awareness of the crisis, and a rejection of the patterns of thought and behavior that have led up to this point More than likely I am being overly optimistic, but I can't help but wonder (and hope) that beneath the surface of their conscious minds, people are somehow aware of the scale of the destruction currently taking place.

In any case, I agree with you that if human societies are to survive the coming centuries and millenia, they will need to adopt ways of being in the world that emphasize harmony with the natural communities of which they are a part.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Yes, I think Ellen Chen's introduction is very apropos. (My significant other turned me onto her translation and commentary---it's now my favourite one.)

I once heard an Anglican priest give a lecture on the state of religion in the USA. She is a liberal and said that she had become very disheartened by the influence of fundamentalism. She did some reading in the sociology of religion and says that if you follow the objective research (instead of politics and the popular media), American religious views are morphing into something she called "American Hinduism".

That is, she thinks that a new majority worldview is emerging that is much more tolerant, environmentally-engaged, and no longer has any time for fundamentalism. As evidence, I suppose you could cite the new majority of Americans who support gay marriage.

I suspect that as the crazy weather from global warming gets worse, people might actually start thinking about the environment again. When people start to take it seriously I think it will lead to a revolution in how we all think about ourselves and how we relate to the universe.

Tao1776 said...

I read your post about a week ago. And I have mulled it about like an undigested meal not knowing what to say. You cannot compare the writings of the outer chapters of Zhuangzi - which are a direct pointing to the way - to that which is but a portion of a much larger story. Teachings come by way of both Kyosaku and by the way of a finger pointing the way.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


Well, strictly speaking, I can say anything I want. It is my blog, after all---. ;-)

It is true that the stories are very different. As memory serves me, there is a scholarly opinion that the "point" of the walking on the water is to score points against Peter. The argument is that there was some sort of internal dispute within the early Christian community and some of the Gospels record stories of Peter's lack of faith in order to weaken him as an authority in disputes between the two factions.

As you say, teaching can come from both the finger and the stick. But teaching has to be a "live" experience---adapted to the here and now. So no matter what the story of walking on water was "ultimately" about, my experience is that a lot of modern Christians read them simply as miracles that prove that Jesus literally was a God. The only point I was trying to make was that this is pretty hard to accept for many modern people. Zuangzi's story, on the other hand, is much easier to swallow.

Tao1776 said...

Sir, no intention of discourtesy - Yes, you can say whatever you want. I was giving you a gentle poke.