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Sundry Reflections on non-Christian Saints and Sages
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-06-08 06:52:47
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David Sparenberg's poetic and inspiring piece on the Chinese sage Lao Tsu a few days ago brought me back to the time, in the '80s, when I taught Ethics and Comparative Religions at St. Andrew of Boca Raton, an Episcopal Prep School. Besides the monotheistic great world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their various branches and denominations, the students were also introduced to Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism.

They were presented with the idea that none of the religions they were studying were superior or inferior to any other, they were all unique and appropriate for their practitioners and believers. They preserve some of the characteristics of the cultural humus in which they originate but tend to be imbued with universal ideas in principle applicable and acceptable to any culture. They all tend to have a moral ethical scaffolding based on the preservation and enhancing of human nature guided by the golden rule, or what Kant later calls the categorical moral imperative: do unto others what you’d wish others do unto you (with the caveat that one is not a masochist, I’d tell the students), or don’t treat others as means to your ends but as ends in themselves. Which is to say, the common denominator of all religions is our common human nature.

But the students were also presented with an even more novel idea: that saints and sages don’t exist in abundance in Christianity only but are to be found in all of those great religions. Many students had heard the founders of these religions described as wise persons or sages, rarely they heard them described as saints incarnating the principles and ideals of a particular religion and the primary exemplar of all that is good and admirable and worthy of imitation. This is in fact even more tangible outside the West. For in the Christian West there exists an unfortunate tendency (due mainly to an extreme rationalism present since the ancient Greeks) to separate great thinkers from great saints and to conceive them almost as mutually exclusive, with the possible exception of St. Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas whom everybody knows and acknowledges as both rigorous thinkers and great saints. In reality there are many more thinkers and saints, especially in medieval times, who are simply not well known in our materialistic unspiritual times; albeit even in modern times we have Kierkegaard and De Chardin and St. Edith Stein, just to mention three.

I’d like to examine a bit more closely this less known aspect of world religions outside of the more familiar Christianity, by briefly relating the life story and philosophy of the men who either founded them or developed, reformed or enhanced them. Their names are mentioned a bit further down. For we are all somewhat familiar, even if we are educated non believers, with the moral giants of the Old Testament: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, David, Ruth and many others. Also the great Jewish thinkers within Western Civilization: Philo of Alexandria (first century AD), Solomon ibn Gabriel (1022-1058), and Maimonides (1135-1204). If nowhere else we studied them in history.

Due to Islam’s great influence on European civilization, especially in the Iberian peninsula, we have all heard of Al-Kindi (801-873 AD), Avicenna (980-1037), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Averroes (1126-1198), Rumi (12th century), again, just to mention a few. Quite a few of those have been already presented in Ovi.

I would wager however that we know much less of the moral intellectual giants of far Eastern religions. Names that jump to mind here, in chronological order, are Lao Tzu (605-530 BC), Confucius (551-479 BC), Mencius (372-298 BC), Zhuangsi (370-301 BC), Li Si (280-208), Nagarjuna (150-250 AD), Gautama the Buddha, Eisel, Dogen, Kukai (774-835), Nishida Kitaro (Japanese, 1870-1945), Aurobindo, Savepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975). Some of those are mere philosophers, many are both philosophers and monks. Here it seems much harder to separate the purely religious from the purely philosophical.

Lao Tzu is paradigmatic in this respect. He wrote in metaphoric and poetic imagery inviting his readers to contemplate for themselves rather than giving them instructions. In 440 AD Daoism was adopted as an official state religion and Lao Tzu was declared a saint. As David Sparenberg has already hinted at. He is a semi-legendary mystic traditionally held to be the author of the main text of Daoism, a Chinese path offering an approach to harmony with nature which has greatly affected Chinese art, religions and philosophies to merge with folk traditions and become an essential part of traditional Chinese culture. Lao Tzu idea of harmonizing with the flow, of not offering resistance but yielding to force until it loses its momentum and of cultivating inner strength had a major impact on the development of martial arts in China. As its own principles dictate, Daoism’s “bent in the wind” and adapted itself to other philosophies absorbing Buddhist ideas while giving some of its concepts to other schools such as the highly analytical school of Confucianism.

Since both Marx and Mao declared religion the opium and the poison of the people, it is doubtful that this sage-saint is very well known and emulated even among Chinese youth nowadays. That would require that one approach Daoism less as a scientific ideology a la Marx and more as a story and symbolism, parable and paradox, poetry and art rooted in legend a la Vico, and that remains anathema to the modern secular mind-set which wishes to relegate religion to the mere private sphere and muzzle its voice in the public square. Nevertheless, the silver lining in all this is that there is today a resurgence of interest in LaoTzu’s ideas, especially since 20th century discoveries in quantum mechanics have shown how similar some of his descriptions of underlying reality are to modern scientific views of the wave-particle duality of matter. The ongoing dialogue between religion and science remains today one of the more exciting and cutting edge interdisciplinary exploration in and out of academia.

N.B. I will relay for my factual information and documentation on a very informative book which is a sort of encyclopedia of the great thinkers simply titled Philosophy: The Great Thinkers, compiled and edited by Philip Stokes. He has already pointed out in various places that he welcomes students of philosophy to freely utilize his biographies and summaries of the philosophy of those great thinkers and has no objection to anybody using those historical facts to make them better known. However, when I make interpretative comments or personal observations and points of views I will so state.

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David Sparenberg2009-07-05 04:55:26
My dear friend and traveling companion, Emanuel Paparella, please join my (other) friends and I on iPeace.com. You will find it a welcoming world community of peace seekers, peacemakers, green thinkers and artists. Would be honored to have you as a friend there.

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