De-Centering the Self: Teaching Philosophy, Religion, and Culture

Article excerpt

Teaching Notions of Self

More often than not, when one speaks of Western philosophical foundations for religious study one uncovers the following notions: mind-body problem, the existence or not of the soul, God, will, nature/ essences, and an ethical or virtuous self. Comparative philosopher, Masao Abe claims that most Western religions are based on the idea of one absolute God: Yahweh in Judaism, God the Father in Christianity, and Allah in Islam. In each of these religions, the one God is believed to be a personal God who is essentially transcendent to human prophets and who commands people to observe certain ethico-religious principles. Although we should not overlook some conspicuous differences in emphasis among these three religions, we can say with some justification that each understands itself to be ethical, prophetic, and monotheistic.

For the majority of Western philosophers of religion prior to the 21st century, most have approached traditions in search of the best way of discerning the will, knowing the Truth (with a capital and singular "T"), and defending its accuracy through the right arguments, principles, and laws. Comparative philosopher Eliot Deutsch claims, "The majority of Western philosophers seem to see philosophy as closely aligned to science in its spirit of objectivity if not in its precise methods." (1)

Again, prior to the 21st century, non-Semitic Eastern religions, despite their rich variety, have often been lumped together under a single category, "Asian." Unlike the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which most Western scholars recognize as clearly having common character, such "Asian" religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto exhibit significant differences in their religious essences, and hence cannot be legitimately classified into a single category. In order to bring this point into sharper focus, I take up Buddhism alone from among the Eastern religious traditions and contrast it with Christianity in terms of how each tradition constructs the self and its liberation.

When one makes generalizations about Buddhist Philosophical and Religious thought, in ways philosophers of religion might, one finds different philosophical emphases and concerns: non-duality, heart-mind as one word, impermanence, interdependence, emptiness, insubstantiality, the wisdom of spontaneity, intimacy and intuition, context-driven truths, and self-cultivation through right relationships. Many Asian philosophers have seen their philosophies as easily affiliated and explicated in art and ritual. William James referred to this division in terms of the "tough-minded" versus the "tender-minded" when comparing Western with Eastern Philosophy--this reading of difference is deeply influenced by turn-of-the century ideas about Western superiority.

In the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, we find more philosophy programs opening a dialogue with Asian philosophical thought. Some philosophers and astute university administrators have come to learn that philosophy is not the exclusive province of the West, and that, indeed, non-western traditions have a depth, range, and distinctive character that need to be recognized. As Eliot Deutsch says:

   We need not only to enrich considerably our own philosophical
   background but we also need to understand better our own
   traditions. We now live in a global society with highly
   interdependent cultures and economies, and since many nations,
   including most conspicuously the United States, are rapidly
   becoming multicultural, to be dialogue partners with our neighbors
   in such a situation we need to know a great deal about different
   world traditions. As true lovers of wisdom, we think better and
   more creatively when we understand and appreciate the diverse ways
   in which basic issues have been dealt with, identified, and defined
   in different cultures. …