Chinese Philosophy: Religion
CHINESE PHILOSOPHY: RELIGION
The subject of the religious dimensions of Chinese philosophy covers both a vast time period—at least two and a half millennia—and a vast array of religious traditions, including theistic religions like Islam and Christianity. This entry, however, will focus on only a few topics and on two indigenous traditions—Confucianism and Daoism—and those streams of Buddhism often, if controversially, said to be most characteristically Chinese, such as the Chan (Japanese Zen) tradition. These traditions not only share features but adherents of each, even fierce adherents, often adopted ideas and practices from the other traditions in ways that can seem disconcerting to people familiar with only Western religions. (Thus, the truth in the clichés that a person can be a Confucian at work and a Daoist at home or that Chinese Buddhists often employ Confucian ethical ideas.) This phenomenon raises interesting philosophical questions about the meaning, in China, of a religious tradition as well as about the character of an adherent's structure of beliefs, but this entry will treat them only obliquely in what follows.
Another, perhaps more vexing concern is the nature of the relationship between religion and philosophy in China. This subject has often been examined, in both China and the West, in a way that basically reflects the desire to guarantee that Chinese philosophy has none of the baleful qualities that characterize religion (religion in this context usually means folk religion, or put more baldly, superstition and magic). The relationship is, however, complicated, and one can best approach it by discussing the notion of religion as it affects this subject.
The Notions of Religion and Religious Thought
The attempt to define the phenomenon of religion and religious thought (and thereby also specify the forms of various religions and their processes of thinking) is a modern Western project—and one with many critics. It often combines attempts to map out a sphere of human life in a reasonably objective fashion with a desire to improve human life, which usually means to make human affairs more rational. The treatment of Chinese religion, a notoriously messy phenomenon or set of phenomena, exemplifies most that is bad and good in the project.
One is, however, interested in only one facet ofthat treatment, and one can begin this investigation byturning to Clifford Geertz's (1973) sophisticated and immensely influential account (or definition) of religion. For him a religion is: "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men [an ethos] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence [a worldview] and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." Geertz comments at length on this definition, but of special importance is his claim that "a group's ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being … adapted to the … world view … while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of [the ethos]" (pp. 89–90).
This account seems to fit much Chinese religious thought, even to pinpoint crucial features of it. This is especially true if one focuses both on how Geertz exhibits the porous boundaries between elite and popular attitudes and, especially, on how he develops the ways his five elements interact with each other to create a closed perspective, a seamless web of reflection and reinforcement, in which ethos and worldview interact. Daoism is replete with stunning examples of these processes, but they also appear prominently in other traditions.
Moreover, and of special significance for this entry, the religious thought that results is detailed and can even count as rigorous, given its premises and notions of entailment. Furthermore, it often involves cosmological or cosmogonic subjects, many of which include science-like accounts of both natural and human phenomenon. (Correlative thinking, which finds homologies between the natural and human to control the latter through aligning it with the former, is only one of the most prominent and famous instances.) Finally, much of this thinking depicts a universe that is well, even fabulously, endowed with a great variety of beings (e.g., see WangBi 1994; Ko Hung 1966; Robinet, 1997, pp. 115–148, 195–256.).
Such thinking shares, however, few of the assumptions and notions that would make it credible to one's common contemporary experience, much less to one's understanding of philosophy. That is, this thinking cannot be formulated in a way that meets the conditions of plausibility found in an experience informed by, for instance, modern scientific explanation, historical consciousness, and ideas about the rights of all humans. Moreover, it makes difficult any understanding both of changes within a tradition, even if such changes were not always clearly recognized by participants, and of reasoned conversations among adherents of different traditions.
A focus on these kinds of Chinese religious thought, a common focus among scholars today, surely can be justified as a valuable and integral kind of historical inquiry. Nevertheless, this kind of focus also underlies the common perception that almost all Chinese philosophy lacks real analytical rigor, sophisticated modes of inquiry, and evident ways in which to attend to significant alternative views and therefore to reflect critically on given social forms.
The aim here, in contrast to the kind of historical inquiry just noted, is to show the ways in which many religious dimensions in Chinese thought are imperfectly captured by such criticisms and therefore have a claim on one's philosophical attention. Indeed, by examining three topics at length, and mentioning several others, this entry will illustrate how one can enrich an understanding of both philosophy and religion that, understandably, arises mainly from Western examples. One can, that is, be involved in the distinctive sort of intellectual exercise in which one tries to place oneself within a world that is much larger than the world one normally inhabits, a world the modern situation has, thankfully, forced on one. Before beginning that, however, one needs briefly to examine a different approach to the idea of religion.
The word religious refers of course to many phenomena, but most important in this case is the reference to an orientation that differs from and judges many features of the ordinary world, even if it also underlies other features of that world. (It is the latter feature that Geertz's  examination usually emphasizes.) The religious, in this sense, rejects commonplace approaches to human fulfillment because normal life contains too many apparently insurmountable difficulties and because a marvelous spiritual actualization is possible.
The dialectic of great need and grand fulfillment means this orientation fits within what can be called a discontinuous or nonameliorative type of religion. This type of religion is, in many ways, fundamentally discontinuous with the activities and expectations of normal life; it seeks far more than just to ameliorate the problems ordinary life produces, and therefore it makes a substantial break with normal life rejecting attempts to build on what is already present. In contrast, in an continuous or ameliorative religion people work within the framework normal life provides. Their aim is to deepen and extend the best ideas and practices people have. The latter applies bandages to what are perceived as minor wounds, while the former calls for major surgery. The latter, of course, labels that kind of major surgery mutilation, while the former labels the mere application of bandages malpractice.
The distinction between discontinuous and continuous religion is not a simple binary one. Rather, the two types define the ends of a continuum and specific features of a religious tradition will fit at places within the continuum. Significant features of Confucianism, for example, fit on the continuous end and significant features of early Daoism and Chan Buddhism on the discontinuous end. (Moreover, many of the most substantial debates among and within these traditions are illuminated by understanding where on the continuum a disputed feature, such as meditational activity, fits.) Nevertheless, all of them have pronounced discontinuous elements, and they appear prominently in their most able philosophical thinkers (e.g., see Mencius 1970, Book 2A; Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 76–93; Hui-neng 1967, #28–#47, #149–#174; Graham 1958, pp. 67–91).
These traditions may lack many of the discontinuous qualities that characterize theistic religious, but they also share other features, if often manifesting them in a distinctive way. Put schematically, three discontinuous religious elements are especially important in these traditions. One is a focus on a sacred realm that is related to but differs dramatically from the human realm. This realm provides thinkers with a perspective from which they can evaluate ordinary activities in ways that most people find perplexing at best and insulting at worst. Another is a belief that kinds of empowerment occur that exceed what appears in ordinary life, are crucial to people attaining any true flourishing, and can produce people who transcend the limits of ordinary understanding. Specifying exactly how this empowerment operates and how sacred and human realms interact, even how independent they are, is difficult enough, however, to demand special uses of language. (As it will be seen, despite its theoretical imprecision the needed language aids rather than impedes the fundamental spiritual discipline of self-cultivation.)
A final discontinuous element is the distinctive quality of members' adherence to the traditions of which they are a part. These thinkers recognize that traditions contain regenerative powers individuals alone could not produce and yet also can be a source of debilitating false fixities. This recognition leads them both to treasure their traditions and to be extremely sensitive to the dangers present in false teachings, misleading authorities, and the communities that gather around them.
Topics in Chinese Religious Thought
One can now turn to three subjects that illustrate the distinctive contribution to philosophy that religious elements in Chinese philosophy can provide. One is the subject of ritual, a second the differences and similarities between normal and religious excellences, and a third the need to employ various genres to present religious realities persuasively, a topic that helps one understand some distinctive, formal features of Chinese philosophy. Before beginning that examination, however, one should briefly note six other topics that illustrate the range of pertinent material that could be examined. This entry will, if telegraphically, describe each of the six; provide one paradigmatic, and accessible, instance from early Chinese thought; and then note resemblances to Western materials, thereby risking the embarrassment brief generalizations can produce.
(1) In each tradition one finds the belief that skillful people, and thus the idea of skillfulness, manifests a religious excellence that tells one much about the character of perfected action, thought, and selfhood. Little that resembles this focus, and the understanding that results from it, has ever appeared in Western philosophical discussions (Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 62–65, 135–142).
(2) Each tradition treats, if often with different results, the question of participation in or retreat from social or political involvement, seeing it as a choice that can be understood philosophically only if one grasps the religious dimensions of each alternative. A version of the question has, of course, been central in the West, but its religious dimensions—and what arises from considering them—has been far less central (Mencius 1970, Books 4A, 5B).
(3) Each tradition sees the purported religious excellence of aimless wandering (you ), powerfully presented in early Daoism, as an ideal that raises the deepest philosophical questions about ordinary ideas of intention and responsibility. The absence of a similar ideal, and thus of the resulting questions, means certain religious challenges to basic ideas about human purposes and obligations are never fully engaged in the West (Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 43–47, 66–75).
(4) An agnostic posture toward many central religious notions is understood by many thinkers in these traditions to be a mark of true spiritual achievement. Neither the implications nor the general importance of this posture are probed in the Western as they are in China, although the attitude surely is not absent (Xunzi 1994, pp. 3–32. 88–112).
(5) Humor is a crucial religious excellence in early Daoism (as well as in the Chan tradition) and the philosophical import of the perspective humor generates is illustrated constantly and occasionally even analyzed at length. With some notable exceptions, humor is rarely a central subject in especially Western theistic traditions (Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 122–125, 207–210).
(6) All these traditions provide myriad illustrations of the ways in which commentaries on texts thought to be religiously authoritative constitute a, perhaps the, major way in which philosophical thinking is both motivated and constrained. The resemblance to traditional practices in the West is close here, but both the elusive character of the Chinese texts commented on and the character of the constraints on inquiry provide illuminating insights (Confucius 2003, Books 4–7).
Any of these six topics could productively be examined at length, but now the focus of this entry will shift to three topics that are especially illuminating for one's inquiry: ritual, the relationship between normal and religious virtues, and the genres needed to present religious realities persuasively.
Ritual, probably the most adequate of the multitudinous translations of the character li, is surely among the most distinctive and complex of all Chinese notions. Put simply, the single notion covers two activities that most contemporary Westerners think are quite different. One activity is solemn, explicit religious activities such as marriage or internment services. The other activity, however, is what can be called etiquette or, more accurately, those reasonable and humane learned conventions that make up the ethos of a culture (e.g., see Xunzi 1994, pp. 49–73; Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 87–93; Robinet 1997, pp. 166–183; Gregory 1991, pp. 41–43, 274–285; Ching 2000, pp. 72–90).
Ritual covers, then, everything from the solemn performance of an elaborate ceremony to the "excuse me" after a sneeze. Explicit religious activities and social activities are, that is, part of one continuum, although there are, of course, notable differences. In specifically religious rituals, for example, the focus is on humans facing thresholds, situations where people move to a new state or respond to what lies beyond their ordinary routines.
The combining of these two senses of ritual is open to the criticism that it displays an unsophisticated kind of thinking that fails to differentiate what can and should be separated. The defense of the combination, one most evident in Confucianism but present in the other two traditions, rests on the notion that social rituals are more than just pedestrian social facts. Social and religious rituals resemble each other, that is, because both are sacred ceremonies that express and foster a spontaneous coordination that is rooted in reverence. Moreover, both exemplify learned, conventional behavior that manifests distinctly human rather than simply animal-like actions. Both therefore promote crucial human qualities and respond to central human needs.
Ritual is, then, a notion of overarching significance in Chinese religious thought and contests about its character and value are frequent. In fact, debates about ritual often served to focus debates among competing visions of life. Seeing, therefore, the various views of ritual (social and religious) that continually appear, if in somewhat different forms in different times and traditions, can help one understand the philosophical import of the idea.
Especially prominent in these debates are three kinds of attacks on ritual and three defenses of it. Put telegraphically, the different positions are as follows. One group attacks rituals as a wasteful, even unjust, use of scarce natural and human resources. Another group attacks them as a social artifice that distorts significant human capacities and reinforces destructive social organizations. A third group sees them as an inadequate form of social control that is best replaced by clear rewards and punishments.
One defense of ritual sees in it a process that activates transhuman forces and uses those forces to help humans. Another justifies ritual in terms of the innate human capacities for it or even inertial tendencies toward it; human beings, that is, need ritual if they are to be actualized. A last defense believes rituals are sanctified by tradition; they therefore need no real justification and must always be meticulously followed no matter what the apparent price.
Many, although surely not all, of the most sophisticated thinkers from these traditions think each of these approaches is flawed, and they therefore reinterpret religious rituals both to win outsiders' assent and to deepen their own and other adherents' assent. They usually proceed, to focus just on religious rituals, by distinguishing among three different kinds. First are rituals that are useless or even harmful; sacrificing a pig to cure an illness falls in this class. Second are rituals that adorn life in important but not critical ways; rituals to produce rain fall in this class. Third are rituals that provide a crucial service to human life; death or internment rituals fall in this class.
Such reformulations manifest a set of common characteristics, and they are worth noting because of what they tell one about attitudes to religion. Most generally, the overarching goal of all these reformulations is the protection and encouragement of fully flourishing human activity. That goal provides the criterion both for dividing necessary from unnecessary religious ideas and actions and for reforming the meaning of the necessary ones. Second, these reformulations critically examine all simple anthropomorphic descriptions of the transhuman realm and replace them with designations that are symbolic or stress the mysterious. Third, if closely related to the second, they criticize depictions of activities that describe a manipulative relationship between the human and the transhuman. In fact, they often redescribe those activities in terms of how feelings are rearranged and spiritual attitudes are generated.
The grounds these thinkers use to defend ritual tell one much about the role of religion in Chinese philosophy. They usually, that is, presume that one is frail in ways that often are difficult for one to accept. Not only does one live between origins and terminations one cannot control but one also constantly faces the numinous. Moreover, one is prone to primordial reactions, and one must treat them in a fashion that both controls their destructive side and nurtures their constructive side. Stringent limits, then, define what people can do; they cannot immediately form themselves into what simple rational judgment might commend them to be. Ritual roles present, for instance, roles that people have no real choice but to assume, with the role of the mourner, however defined, being perhaps the clearest instance.
Underlying this perspective is a negative judgment about a philosophical approach that rejects ritual because it desires to produce a rigorous and coherent picture of the world that will provide simple, reasonable grounds for ideas and actions. Proponents of this approach reject internment rituals, for example, because to them the principle of noncontradiction is crucial; a person is either dead or not dead. They want to face life and death directly and they put everything into clear-cut categories.
Against such an approach, it is argued that when life is seen clearly, and in the death of others one sees it especially clearly, one can neither make it into a coherent understandable whole, nor respond adequately to it by focusing on simple practical expedients. Human life is too fragile and delicate, too complex and contradictory to capture in simple rational systems. One touches life as it actually is, then, only through the complex pathos, the human contradictions, the struggle to find peace, and the openness to the numinous that rituals exemplify. A related but different kind of judgment on some kinds of ordinary philosophical attitudes underlies the second subject, and to that one may now turn.
Religious and Ordinary Virtues
To distinguish between religious and ordinary virtues (or excellences) in Chinese thought might seem to be problematic or even just wrong-headed, but investigating the subject can illustrate, among other things, the usefulness of examining apparently inapplicable Western ideas in the Chinese context. The relevant Chinese thinkers never, of course, make any formal distinction between normal and religious virtues, except when discussing those virtues that bind only those adepts who adopt monastic rules. Moreover, their general conceptual framework does not lead them (and probably literally could not allow them) to distinguish between what, say, Catholic Christianity calls natural and supernatural virtues. They surely would, that is, reject any distinction that rests on a clear-cut differentiation between what humans cause and what a deity, distinguished by the quality of aseity or being unmoved, causes.
Nevertheless, a crucial feature of much Chinese philosophy is the conviction that some virtues (or unnamed features of some virtues) have a special character. They produce actions and attitudes that both differ from normal virtues and change a range of normal actions in profoundly important ways. In fact, a number of traditional Western ways of theoretically distinguishing religious and normal virtues seem to be implied. Examples include sharp distinctions made among the kinds of objects pursued, among the goals of the intentions manifested, among the precise forms of behavior produced, and among the kinds of empowerment displayed. Moreover, and perhaps even more striking, many think humans are susceptible to transformations so total as to make some individuals fundamentally different from the rest, to make them, for example, the possessors of truly extraordinary abilities to affect the natural and human world (e.g., see Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 96–99, 143–150; Yearley 1990, pp. 144–168; Gregory 1991, pp. 255–274; Graham 1958, pp. 96–118).
A simpler example of such transformations concerns the role of distinctive kinds of belief in adherents' lives, a role that both resembles and differs from the role of faith in some theistic traditions. These beliefs go considerably beyond the evidence that would, and should, compel assent in normal affairs, and they often play a prominent role in guiding action. They include beliefs about the significance of certain books and historical figures, but most revealing may be beliefs about the role of some virtues and perspectives.
Two straightforward but illuminating examples of these latter beliefs come from what is probably the earliest part of the earliest (and arguably most important) book in Chinese thought, Confucius's Analects (Lunyu): "Virtue (de ) never dwells in solitude; it will always bring neighbors" (4, 25), and "The Master said 'In the morning hear the Way (Dao ); in the evening, die content'" (4, 8). Each passage represents a dramatic enough claim to be considered religious, as well as, of course, a claim that can be, and was, probed philosophically.
Indeed, beliefs like these are often at the center of debates with those people who lack them because they find them either unintelligible or unjustified. The religious perspectives that define each of these traditions, that is, are far from self evident to everyone. They include attitudes and confident judgments about many matters that seem problematic or even bizarre to many people outside the tradition. Moreover, adherents within a tradition also entertain questions about their own beliefs; they are not inoculated against the queries and doubts that other people manifest. One crucial spiritual dynamic in all these traditions, then, is to see obvious problems in their own position, if one uses either ordinary standards or another tradition's standards, and yet continually to reaffirm specific, central beliefs.
These Chinese ideas on religious beliefs, as well as on other virtues, reflect an ontological perspective in which the sacred realm and the ordinary realm are closely intertwined, in which an organismic, an interrelated and in-terdependent, cosmology operates. Indeed, Chinese religious thought manifests in its own fashion the ontological principle that guides the analysis of this topic in, say, Aristotelian Christianity: The sacred does not destroy but presupposes and perfects the normal. Unlike many traditions the ordinary is not, that is, eradicated by the religious and replaced by something fundamentally different. (This feature probably most clearly distinguishes discontinuous Chinese religious traditions from most other discontinuous traditions.) Rather, the ordinary provides the basis that is developed into a more actualized form. In fact, one can even argue that Chinese thinkers are able to develop this principle more fully than could Aristotelian Christians because they lack those theological ideas that impede a full development, notably the notion of a natural order created by a God distinguished from it by aseity.
These ideas lead Chinese philosophers to understand (perhaps even more clearly than do their counterparts in other traditions) that treating religious virtue well involves a kind of balancing of opposing demands. On the one hand, religious virtues are virtues where one cannot draw on too many normal presumptions and arguments to defend, or even to make plausible, the virtue else it ceases to be a religious virtue. On the other hand, however, one cannot simply disregard normal presumptions and arguments else the virtue ceases to be a plausible option for most people. This activity involves balancing on a tightrope, a posture that recalls Ludwig Wittgenstein's comment that an "honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker … [who] almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air … [because his] support is the slenderest imaginable … [and] yet it really is possible to walk on it" (1984, p. 73e).
The balancing act involves not falling into either of two dangerous alternatives. On the one hand, the religious virtue must not rely on notions that no reasonable person can really entertain seriously. The claim that only through sacrificial rituals is one able to appease a spirit's anger or a dead person's perturbation is an example of such a notion. The virtues cannot rest, then, on what seems to sensible people to be implausible ideas. On the other hand, if the virtue is truly a religious one, it must not rely on such common and sensible notions that most people would, with little thought, accept it. The idea that one should help others if the help causes neither pain nor dislocation would be an example. The virtue cannot, then, simply repeat the conventional wisdom of the day. The need for this kind of distinctive balancing when presenting religious materials leads one to the genres such an approach demands.
Genre and the Persuasive Presentation of Religious Realities
The delicate kind of balancing we see in the presentation of religious virtues leads directly to the subject of the ways in which religious features affect the genres, the modes of presentation, manifest in much Chinese philosophy. (These choices about genre are, moreover, especially significant because a number of these philosophers were capable of, and well trained in, more rigorous forms of theoretical analysis.) Indeed, the rationale for presenting religious features in different genres provides an excellent way to examine the widespread perception that Chinese philosophy often does not seem to operate as philosophy ought to operate (e.g., see Mencius 1970, Book 6A; Chuang-Tzu 2001, pp. 48–61, 106–107; Hui-neng 1967, #1–#10; Wang Yang-Ming 1963, # 139, #168–#171, #226–231).
It is said, that is, that Chinese thought (as noted earlier) lacks sustained formal argumentation, sophisticated forms of analytic inquiry, and evident ways in which to reflect critically on presuppositions. These criticisms can witness to the kind of disabling parochialism (and circularity) that allows for little discussion, but their more powerful forms focus well the subject of how presentation and persuasion operate in Chinese religious philosophy.
The best way to approach this subject is to look at responses to a simple, deceptively simple, question: How can one persuasively represent a world, a world the understanding of which is crucial to any true human fulfillment, that far exceeds one's normal understanding? Representing that world persuasively is critical because only through such representation can one keep before people realities central to any religious vision but discontinuous with ordinary understandings. Representing that world is exceedingly difficult because it involves presenting realities that differ from, and even challenge, people's ordinary perspectives. The needed kinds of language must therefore persuade people in ways that differ from the kinds of persuasion either logical argument or even ordinary language utilize.
One illuminating instance of such a mode, and one much favored in China, is the use of concise, compelling, and often elusive locutions, such as the two from Confucius noted earlier about virtue always bringing neighbors and about the Way and death. These expressions provide one with a great deal of textured material in a terse, striking form. Indeed, they both arrest and often stay with one because they give one something intriguing and rewarding to which one can return. These statements can, then, embed themselves in one's mind and lead one to mull them over, searching out their various implications and applications to one's own life. Such statements become meditational objects that work on one, as do all meditational objects, in both evident and mysterious ways. A specific literary device like this aims, then, to produce in the reader fascination, sympathetic identification, attentive perplexity, and other even more complex emotional states, such as pretending. All are states that can produce significant personal changes.
Put another way, two features of religious perspectives make necessary forms like these: First, simple rational arguments about such perspectives will only rarely affect those people who most need help, a group that includes most of everyone at different points in their lives. Second, those arguments, or even the appropriate principles they produce, will often not fundamentally affect most people in those situations where they most need help.
Especially important, therefore, is persuading people that ideas, actions, and perspectives they find odd, perplexing, or simply wrong are worth considering, even worth adopting. And that task's difficulty is heightened by the relative absence, in comparison to theistic traditions, either of limpid theological propositions about the sacred's character or of graphic accounts in authoritative texts of the actions of the highest sacred beings.
The problem, then, is how to employ language that is odd, often very odd, and yet still have it be persuasive. (It resembles, therefore, the balancing needed in presenting ordinary and religious virtues, but the scope of operations is much wider.) To attain the needed representation one must stretch language beyond its evident limits and recognizable shapes while one also understands that such stretching seems to violate those forms and expectations that allow language to convey meaning. How can one, that is, represent a world that transcends one's ordinary categories and even reference points in a way that is both realistic and persuasive? The Chinese responses to these interrelated questions, evident more in their practices than in their theories, rest on three ideas, or more accurately claims, that are implicit in their practice.
The first and most obvious involves distinguishing the persuasively presented from the well argued and emphasizing the former. Presentations may, then, fail to fit well the criteria for good argument, indeed may even be instances of reasoned attempts to doubt the value, when the subject is religious, of many kinds of reasoned arguments. (Persuasively presented is, of course, a considerably wider category than is well argued, and utilizing it necessarily involves one, as it will be seen, in the treatment of issues about the character of rhetorical presentation and those subjects that follow in its wake.)
Second is a general characteristic of much Chinese religious thought: the judgment that considerations about the deepest religious matters best manifest their distinctive subject matter when understood as treating irresolvable but illuminating and productive tensions. These tensions arise from the presence of apparently conflicting ideas and experiences each of which is irreducible; any resolution, therefore, that even diminishes the tensions must be rejected. Indeed, a resolution need not even be sought because keeping the tension's irresolvability in mind both enables people to understand better the character of religious reflection and presentation and clarifies their relationship to religious realities.
The third notion or claim is a direct corollary of the preceding two: the idea that literalism is the most dangerous of all human deformations at least when religion is the subject, and probably even when life itself is the subject. Literalism can take different forms but at one end of the spectrum is an unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to read beyond a surface meaning—literalism in its most evident sense. At the other end, however, is an unwillingness (or perhaps inability) to do anything but read beyond the most evident sense; the wooden pursuit of allegorical readings displays another, more abstract kind of literalism. The first fails to grasp the import of the representation; the second's easy movement beyond the surface overlooks all the surface's rich texture.
Chinese religious thinkers, then, usually focus less on straightforward conceptual analysis or argument and more on persuasive presentations that work with irresolvable but revelatory and productive tensions, aim to change people's understanding and action, and nurture the avoidance of literalism. That focus helps to explain their use of genres that are, to employ Western categories, more often literary than theoretical.
The use of these genres, genres that aim to present realities that can be made evident or compelling in no other way, means rhetoric is crucial. And that means that one does not simply face passages that are the shadowgraphs of ideas, passages that can be put into propositional forms that leave no remainder. The language used is not the mere adornment of an idea; it is constitutive of the idea. The language used is not just a device to persuade the recalcitrant or intellectually inept. Rather, it is what makes possible any appropriation of the proper perspective.
Processes of persuasion like these can be thought to be problematic for many reasons. For example, the process seems to disregard too many significant, if ordinary, kinds of thinking; the process will often fail to provide warrants for adjudicating differences; and the process is not attentive enough to the need for the theoretical analysis and justification of at least many rhetorical statements.
Chinese thinkers are aware of these problems. They understand they must evaluate rhetoric and that such an evaluation involves both a detailed understanding of how rhetoric works and a grasp of the character and appropriate roles of logical argument. (In fact, they often display a remarkable grasp of different rhetorical modes and therefore also of the ways in which such modes may obfuscate.) Probably most important, however, is a recognition that rhetorical presentations are part of a more general process of self-cultivation that involves teachers, various spiritual disciplines, and participation in a tradition. This remains true despite the difficulties they often see in the ordinary understandings of self-cultivation and of traditions that dominate most communities.
Nevertheless, it remains true that they often gravitate to distinctive genres when presenting religious perspectives because only those genres can produce what must be produced. They accept, that is, a version of the "good person criterion," a criterion also evident in the Aristotelian tradition (Yearley 1990, pp. 62–72). They believe that a person's character determines what can be perceived and understood, and therefore that the ultimate measure of a person or an action's excellence, or even meaning, is the excellence of the person who makes the judgment. Most important here, they recognize that this criterion has dramatic implications for both presentation and persuasion, and they are more than willing to live with the consequences.
Chuang-Tzu. Chuang-tzu: The Inner Chapters. Translated by Angus Graham. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001.
Confucius. Confucius Analects, with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic, 1973.
Graham, Angus. Two Chinese Philosophers: Ch'eng Ming-tao and Ch'eng Yi-Yuan. London: Lund Humphries, 1958.
Gregory, Peter. Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Hui-neng. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. Translated by Philip Yampolsky. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.
Ko Hung. Alchemy, Medicine, and Religion in the China of A.D. 320: The Nei P'ien of Ko Hung (Pao-p'u tzu). Translated by James R. Ware. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966.
Mencius. Mencius. Translated by D. C. Lau. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1970.
Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. [op. 1992]
Wang Yang-Ming. Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings by Wang Yang-Ming. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value, edited by G. H. Von Wright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Xunzi. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. 3. Translated by John Knoblock. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Yearley, Lee H. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.
Lee H. Yearley (2005)