by Vered Arnon
Scholars love to argue about descriptions and definitions of things, as if pigeon-holing various philosophies into one model or another will miraculously reveal some Great Truth or Profound Insight. In fact, scholars seem to engage in such behavior to the point that the end is in the means, and the grand process of defining becomes somehow all-important. Take, for example, the controversy over Confucianism. Some argue that Confucius and his followers’ philosophies are a religious vision. Others argue that Confucianism is a moral view. It hardly makes any difference, since either way Confucianism still stands as a philosophy of some sort, which has a concrete impact on the world. The exact nature of this philosophy is an abstract linguistic or semantic question, and has no bearing on anything outside of the arena of scholarly debate.
In order to evaluate whether or not Confucianism is a religious vision, one first must have a definition of religion. Depending on what definition one selects, the question can go either way. Take, for example, the etymological meaning of the word “religion”. It means “to realign”. Mencius wrote, “Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites, and wisdom are not welded on to me from the outside; they are in me originally. Only this has never dawned on me. That is why it is said, ‘Seek and you shall find it; let go and you will lose it (Mencius, VI A, 6).” Here Mencius is talking about bringing oneself back into alignment with one’s real nature. By this simplistic definition, Confucianism is clearly, without a doubt at all, a “religion”.
Yet, still using this definition, it is equally easy to create an argument claiming that Confucianism is a moral view rather than a religion. Mencius wrote, “… there are ways of remaining alive and ways of avoiding death to which a man will not resort. In other words, there are things a man wants more than life and there are also things he loathes more than death. This is an attitude not confined to the moral man but common to all men. The moral man simply never loses it (Mencius, VI A, 10).” Here Mencius is describing what it is to be a moral man. He is completely distinct and clear. This passage has nothing to do with spiritual “realignment”. It’s describing the attitude of a moral man. In another passage, Mencius writes, “Prince Tien asked, ‘What is the business of a Gentleman?’ ‘To set his mind on high principles.’ ‘What do you mean by this?’ ‘To be moral. That is all (Mencius, VII A, 33).’” Here he is specifically saying that morality is the most important, and the only, thing that his teachings concern.
But the etymological definition of religion is too simplistic. Of course a mere word can be interpreted in whatever way one chooses. To really illustrate how arbitrary and pointless the process of definition is, one must look at a more complicated definition. This is easily done, as the Western scholarly world holds an overabundant supply of definitions. Peter L Berger, author of The Sacred Canopy, offers a conveniently complex model of what “religion” might really be. In one of his typically abstract polysyllabic statements, he writes, “religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant (page 28).” If one wishes to remain at the level of linguistics and semantics, one could propose to define “audacious”, and then proceed to quote passages from Mencius which either are or are not audacious. This would be petty, but not out of character of a typical Western scholar. However, to be truly illustrative, a move from the linguistic level to the logical level is now called for.
Berger’s model of religion claims that it is a dialectic construct to impose nomos on anomy, in order to create an ordered structured world in which humans can live and cope. A religion must necessarily deal with “boundary situations” such as death, in order to protect the fragile human mind from chaos. “Death presents society with a formidable problem not only because of its obvious threat to the continuity of human relationships, but because it threatens the basic assumptions of order on which society rests (Berger, 23).” Taken at face value, scholars may easily assume Confucianism doesn’t meet this description at all. The general view of Confucians is that death isn’t “here”, so there is no need to focus on it. One should instead pay attention to how to live one’s life. One of the principal teachings of Confucianism is the Golden Rule, “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence (Mencius Book VII A, 4).” Death is completely out of the picture. Lacking the component of dealing with the boundary situations between nomos and anomy, Confucianism does not meet Berger’s criteria to be a religion.
This argument can be turned right around, though, to say that by virtue of not dealing with death and not incorporating it into the teachings, Confucianism addresses the issue. Since it can qualify either way, even with one definition and one explanation, two opposite conclusions can be reached. Such fluidity makes the process of definition impactless.
However, if one is to look at some other portions of Confucius’ teachings, a completely different view can be assembled. Confucianism teaches that a Gentleman should follow the Way, and that Way is all-encompassing, so it inherently includes death. Even if Mencius or Confucius never specifically talk about how to deal with one’s own death, they certainly infer, and they also lay down instructions for how to deal with the deaths of parents. “Whether he is going to die young or to live to a ripe old age makes no difference to his steadfastness of purpose. It is through awaiting whatever is to befall him with a perfected character that he stands firm on his proper destiny (Mencius, Book VII A, 1).” Here is described the proper attitude with which one should regard one’s own death. In other passages, such as Mencius Book III A, 2, Mencius lays down details for how one should observe the mourning rites to deal with the death of one’s parents. “Serve your parents in accordance with the rites during their lifetime; bury them in accordance with the rites when they die; offer sacrifices to them in accordance with the rites; and you deserve to be called a good son.” Both of these passages are instructions for how to deal with the most ultimate of boundary situations. In yet another passage, Mencius even explains the role of death in the grand scheme of the cosmos, using the context of “destiny”. “Though nothing happens that is not due to destiny, one accepts willingly only what is one’s proper destiny. That is why he who understands destiny does not stand under a wall on the verge of collapse. He who dies after having done his best in following the Way dies according to his proper destiny. It is never anyone’s proper destiny to die in fetters (Mencius, Book VII A, 2).” True, Confucians don’t emphasise death, but that is specifically how they cope with this boundary situation. According to Berger’s three-fold socialisation process, it could be said that the view of death as part of the Way and destiny is the externalised moral vision. Objectivication occurs in the rites and the proper observance of funerary practices. Internalization is the point at which one becomes a Gentleman and follows Mencius’ teachings as if they were second nature. By this account, Confucianism clearly meets all of Berger’s requirements for the status of a “religion”.
And what does all of this demonstrate about Confucianism? What insight does it offer about the teachings of Mencius and Confucius, or even about the model proposed by Berger? Well, it shows that Confucianism is flexible, and can be molded into any shape to fit any definition. It shows that Berger’s model is abstract and interpretable. Since Berger’s model doesn’t have a definite grounding in reality, and instead rests upon the arbitrary definitions of the words that he uses, it really serves no practical purpose.
When one attempts to define an idea, one must change it. One must reconcile it with one’s own paradigm. At the very least, it becomes coloured by whatever societal or cultural “lenses” one is using. Scholars attempt to be objective and define things in a way that captures and sums them up. Such attempts have no practical purpose, since the focus should be on ideas and philosophies themselves, instead of on what these ideas and philosophies are. A definition is always dependant on the end in the mind of the definer. The end is for Confucianism to be a moral view instead of a religious vision, and that is the result. Conversely, the end is for Confucianism to be a religious vision instead of just a moral view, and that is the result. Definitions and descriptions are distractions from the true essence of things. To use a metaphor, every definition can be a universal glass slipper. If every girl could wear Cinderella’s slipper, then the shoe wouldn’t have been very helpful. Therein lies the futility of the practice of defining.
Mencius. Penguin Books: London, 1970.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy. Anchor Books: New York, 1990.