Monday, September 06, 2004

recurrent terms (4)

The following are some very superficial explanations of recurrent terms in my discussions of religious pluralism on this blog. My purpose is to provide readers with a bit of background in order better to understand my and others' arguments for and against various forms of religious pluralism. Note that not all scholars (or non-scholars) will agree with how I've laid these concepts out; as a pluralist, I accept such disagreement as a simple and unavoidable fact of human discourse.

This entry marks the final post in the series.

"tradition" in place of "faith" or "religion"

Plenty of religious scholars use the term "tradition" in place of "faith" or "religion," so I simply picked up the habit of doing likewise. I suspect the reason is that, while "tradition" can be a vague term, it's less vague than "religion" and also has a more explicitly historical valence. Many religious scholars aren't theologians or practitioners; to speak too often of "religion" is to bring up issues of religious reality, i.e., the ultimates underlying and pervading the religions.

This isn't, I think, an attempt to avoid the word "religion" altogether; my own experience among scholars has been that "religion" gets tossed around with gleeful frequency. So if I (and other scholars) say "tradition," it's more out of habit than because of anything deep-- but with the tacit understanding that to speak of "tradition" is to speak in a more historical (and therefore empirical) mode.

essentialism and nonessentialism

If you're an essentialist, you believe in essences. If you're a nonessentialist, you don't believe in essences. For an essentialist, things "boil down" to something. Essentialists speak of "true nature," or "soul," or "substance," or some X that represents the most fundamental element(s).

Nonessentialists often use essentialistic language, but when they do so, their language generally has a self-subverting quality. "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao" places the Tao outside the linguistic and conceptual field of essentialistic thinking, for example. The Tao can't be reified (note, however, that the TTC goes on to talk about the Tao at length!). Philosophical Buddhism denies essences (even though plenty of Buddhists, such as Masao Abe, will speak of The Absolute or of "true nature" or "pure mind," etc.). Core Buddhist terms like sunyata, anitya, anatman, and pratityasamutpada all point to a nonessentialist way of thinking.

A postmodernist example of nonessentialism might be found in the work of Jacques Derrida. For Derrida and others, language (or "text") is a field where we see the eternal play of "signifiers." We never reach a "transcendental signified," i.e., some fundamental bit of language that stands as the absolute bedrock of all language/text. Words and ideas are always and forever defined in terms of other words and ideas. There are historical reasons why some folks say "bread," while others say "Brot" or "pan" or "pain" or "bbang," but historical reasons aren't absolute reasons. Those words don't arise from a "transcendental signified for bread."

[NB: Whatever you do, please don't lump me in with the PoMo crowd. While there's some overlap between PoMo thinking and my own beliefs, overlap isn't the same as total congruence. I think most PoMo thought is either badly rehashed philosophy, a limp critique of rationalism, or completely nonsensical and over-politicized.]

Essentialism goes by many different names, some of which are foundationalism, reificationism, and substantialism. When you start off by saying, "Well, basically..." or "What it comes down to is...", you're probably about to make an essentialistic utterance. But only probably.


John Hick, a self-proclaimed religious pluralist, has been accused of crypto-inclusivism (by fellow pluralist S. Mark Heim and other critics) because his pluralistic hypothesis is a metatheoretical schema into which all the great post-axial traditions are expected to funnel. Critics point out that this is little different from the typical inclusivist strategy of saying "your religion Y is simply a different form of my religion X," where X represents the most highly-developed religious path, with other paths funneling into it.


From the Greek meta, one of whose meanings is "change"; and the Greek nous, meaning "mind" (or even "heart"), metanoia refers to a fundamental change of mind/heart. It's an important New Testament concept, and is often translated as "repentance." It can also mean "conversion."

"philosophical Taoism" as opposed to just talking about "Taoism"

The term "Taoism" refers to a lot of different sub-strains of Taoism, many of which have intermingled over the centuries because of a prevalent tendency toward syncretism in East Asia. I use "philosophical Taoism" in contradistinction with "magico-religious Taoism." Many scholars have different typologies for distinguishing different Taoist strains. Huston Smith, for example, uses a threefold typology, if I recall correctly.

Philosophical Taoism survives in Zen Buddhism. Zen's tendency toward simplicity, spontaneous naturalness, and love of nature are all evidence of the philosophical Taoism at Zen's heart. While I disagree with writers like Ray Grigg who feel that Zen is philosophical Taoism with an extraneous Mahayana Buddhist cortex (Grigg's being way too simplistic), I agree that the this-worldly philosophical Taoism of the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu, along with Confucianism, greatly changed the character of the predominantly world-denying Buddhism that entered and settled into China.

China itself (and other countries as well) still plays host to magico-religious Taoism. The Barnes and Noble crowd in America is probably thinking of philosophical Taoism when they say "Taoism." This is certainly where writers like Benjamin Hoff have led them. Many of these "nightstand Taoists" would be surprised to learn what Taoism actually means in China, and would cringe at the ubiquitous "superstition" shot through it. The same goes for Buddhism: many Westerners persist in an essentialistic view of the religion, disrespecting its status as a phenomenon in process and attempting to reify it into a limited set of procedures, propositions, and experiences, beyond which there is only "false Buddhism." The similarities to monotheistic fundamentalist thinking should be obvious. However, having said that, it's only fair to note that Asian Buddhists (and Taoists, etc.) also engage in such reificationism, unjustified though it be. Rivalries between Korean and Japanese Seon/Zen practitioners, for example, lead to silly debates over "whose Zen is deeper" or "whose way leads more quickly to enlightenment." Nondualism is hard to come by in such debates.

the notion of the "anonymous Christian"

The idea comes from Catholic priest and theologian Karl Rahner, who played an influential role in Church theology and policy during the 1960s (Vatican II, 1962-1965). An anonymous Christian is a non-Christian whose life manifests Christian virtues: love, honesty, charity, faithfulness, etc. The anonymous Christian might not worship the triune God of Christianity, but because that God is at work in all religions, the various traditions can indeed serve as ways/vehicles of salvation to the extent that they manifest those Christian virtues.

I hope this series has been of some help to the uninitiated. I'm something of a broken record on this blog; these terms all come up with some frequency in my writing. Feel free to peruse essays on my sidebar. If you're still scratching your head about how a person so interested in religion can also be so vulgar, then you haven't gotten it yet. Keep trying. It'll come to you eventually. Heh.

Previous entries:

recurrent terms (1)
recurrent terms (2)
recurrent terms (3)


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