Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Traditions deepen our grasp

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily) Updated: 2011-12-16 08:12

Traditions deepen our grasp

The revival of traditional culture has become a hot topic in China today. So what can we learn from tradition? "I think people need to learn something valuable in their traditions that lie behind our present cultures," says Robert Bellah, a leading US sociologist who specializes in religion and morality studies. "That will not only deepen our understanding of who we are, but will also help us in understanding where we want to go," says the 84-year-old American scholar.

And we need to "genuinely understand other traditions rather than only one", he added, emphasizing that certain values are shared by the major moral traditions of the world, which offer a good basis for mutual understanding and joint work to deal with the problems we face today.

Bellah, who first drew attention in the 1960s with his "civil religion" and has authored books such as Habits of the Heart, shared his views on moral traditions with China Daily in Peking University, where he was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the Beijing Forum.

His visit gave Chinese readers a precious opportunity to understand his newly published book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, a fruit of half a century's research. In the book, he emphasizes the role of religion as a moral binding force, and uses sociology, evolutionary psychology and even biology to trace the deep roots of the moral senses that have accompanied human beings even their predecessors all the way.

The book lays emphasis on the study of the "Axial Age", a concept propounded by Germany-born philosopher Karl Theodor Jasper, to refer to the period from 800 BC to 200 BC, during which four great moral traditions - Judeo, Hellenistic, Buddhist and Confucian -were born and gradually evolved.

As a review of his book goes: "It (understanding the traditions) holds a mirror up to our modern selves in a vivid comparative-historical perspective that illuminates our modernity and its meaning in coherent, wholistic way."

"If we look at our moral resources today, we will find that they draw on traditions of the Axial Age," Bellah says. There are certain shared values behind the different traditions with different characteristics, although they "may seem a million miles away" from each other. Today's widely accepted principle, "equality of all human beings", is one.

Equality of all men was first inscribed by American revolutionaries in the Declaration of Independence, and was traced by many to the teachings of Western Judeo-Hellenistic traditions. But, in fact, the Confucian tradition has a similar teaching from Mencius that "everyone is potentially a sage", and should be treated with inherent respect. The ancient Greek thinkers shared the same belief, while Buddhism went a step further by claiming "universality of all beings".

We can find the same love and concern for human beings among the moral traditions. In the Western Judeo-Hellenistic tradition, God is depicted as a powerful protector, but more as righteousness and love, who provides moral rules to and participates in the sufferings of human kind, he says.

Confucianism echoes it by teaching that "the ruling heaven takes care of lives". Both Confucius and Mencius advocated the virtue of "mercy", or the cherishing of human lives, as a central commandment.

While many scholars claim Western traditions to be the source of the modern concept of rights and obligations, Bellah says that similar themes exist in Confucianism. "Confucius urged the exercise of power through li, not through punishments, which will only encourage the people to be devious."

An essential element in Confucius' social design, li is emphasized by Bellah as a rights pattern, a mutual obligation between rulers and subjects. While justifying the ruler's right to rule, li also requires him to do good to and take care of the ruled. The ruled are asked to maintain order, but they also have the right to choose another ruler if the covenant is broken.

Of course, the great morality traditions have their own unique characteristics and different emphasis, which makes it necessary for us to "genuinely understand many traditions, rather than only one", Bellah says. A Christian himself, Bellah learned ancient Chinese language, earned his Ph.D. by doing research on religion in Japan, and did his post-doctoral work in Islamic studies. Needless to say he has read other scriptures, too.

He is deeply impressed by the Confucian tradition, especially by its strict self-regulation of "questioning yourself, reflecting yourself and watching yourself while staying alone". That is shared by most traditions, but Confucianism especially focuses on it because it is a "this-world" rather than "after-world" tradition - not to withdraw from this world, but to change the way we interact with it, he says. It makes them actively participate in making a better world.

Buddhism, too, has "broad dialogues with others, and does not attack them", offering a good channel for interaction.

None of the traditions can be affirmed without critical appropriation, he says, because they have been distorted throughout history. Dynastic rulers were especially guilty of distorting Confucianism to justify their rule. The hierarchical relationships enumerated by Mencius to regulate people's behavior, which place the husband above the wife and the father above the son, are very rigid, he says.

That's why it is necessary for us to learn from different traditions, he says. Understanding each other's traditions is still a problem for us, especially in the Information Age, because people are divided by what they selectively read "online" and "live in different worlds", isolated from each other. We need to learn more about what the great traditions have in common so that people can talk about the same thing, although with different opinions.

"If China and the US can work toward the re-appropriation of their deepest traditions, they will find them much more in harmony than in opposition", Bellah says. Understanding each other's traditions can help the two great nations more than ever before to work together to solve the problems the human race faces today such as nuclear proliferation, climate change and social unrest. Without their cooperative leadership the future of the world is bleak indeed.

No country, China and the US included, can play the leading role in development forever. Drawing a zigzag line in the air, Bellah says: "The straight line will come down one day". So it is the task of global intellectuals to recover their traditions and explain what they still have to teach us, and more importantly, understand and interact with other traditions, so that we can find ethical grounds for working together to create hope in a world that often seems hopeless.

Bellah concludes with a line from Confucius: "Since a gentleman behaves with reverence and diligence, treating people with deference and courtesy, all within the Four Seas are his brothers."

(China Daily 12/16/2011 page9)

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