Monday, February 10, 2014

132. Religion and pragmatism
Almost everywhere and always, people have sought religion, in a flight from existential anxiety, pain, suffering, threats and uncertainties of earthly life, into something transcendent. But that was not always God.

In The great transformation Karen Armstrong shows the emergence of spirituality and religion in different regions of antiquity, in East and West. She focuses on the Axial Age, from 900 to 300 BC, so called because it was a pivotal time, an axis around which development of spirituality and religion turned, in a revolution of thought.

From that book I draw the key notion of kenosis: emptying the self of egotism, greed, and violence, and practice of the spirituality of compassion. All religions have shown that, and they all arrived, independently, at the Golden Rule: Do (not do) onto others what you (do not) want done onto yourself. 

One difference is the following. In Christianity and Islam the idea developed that one should begin with belief in God and a doctrine on his being and the divine order, in order to subsequently apply that to spirituality and ethics. In the East, in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the idea was the reverse: practice comes before theory; disciplined sympathy will itself yield intimations of transcendence. That implements the pragmatism that I have pleaded for in this blog: ideas follow action.

I don’t know whether Eastern philosophy has influenced pragmatist philosophers, but the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey did influence developments in neo-Confucianism. Perhaps what pragmatism added was a commitment to active experimentalism, testing ideas for failure.

A second difference, related to the previous one, is that theology, with a written doctrine, in Bible and Koran, was pervasive in the West while in the East it was stringently avoided. Hinduism and Taoism did have an idea of a supreme being or principle (Brahman, Tao) that is the source of all good and bad, is the ‘all’ and ‘one’. But here the view that the ‘higher’ is ineffable, cannot fit into our limited human categories, and is best met with silence, precluded written doctrine. That was part also of early Christianity and Islam but was later inexorably overruled by doctrine and orthodoxy, and what was left was relegated to pockets of mysticism. I also have made the plea for recognition of the ineffability of the higher, in this blog.

Whether or not there is a sense of a higher being or principle, in Eastern philosophy there is a pervasive sense of impermanence, movement, production and reproduction, of change and transformation, and of variety and particularity, in contrast with the Western orientation towards permanent substance and universals, beyond particular individuals. The world and existence are diverse and in flux, in ongoing production, reproduction and transformation. One can rise above it in spirit, on the basis of disciplined contemplation and kenosis, achieving a sense of being at one with the universe, but it mostly remains being in the world.

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