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A Critique of Rationalism in Modern World Ideologies(II): Ultimate Faith (1-3)
By Sherwin Lu
2019-06-16 07:43:42

This article was first posted on this website on 2016-03-01 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a section of the author’s new book DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, §I-3(3-6) Two tiers of ultimate faith: Principled faith and contract faith, etc.

DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISM: One with real Chinese characteristics 
(Table of contents)


Editor’s Note: This essay is based on the author’s original one in Chinese. It deals with the two contending ideologies of capitalism and communism from a metaphysical point of view. Western Christian advocates of capitalism usually label communism as “atheism”, which is synonymous with “evil” in their diction, while believers in the latter defend their ideology as “scientific socialism” and criticize all religions as “superstition” and “opium” serving to numb people’s mind. Confronted with the reality of today’s world plagued by wide-spread loss of faith, ideological confusion, and all sorts of crises, it is urgently necessary to examine and clarify such basic concepts as “faith”, “rationality”, and “ideology” and their relations with each other. The author hopes this essay can serve as abrick” cast here to attractjade”, as the Chinese saying goes, and initiate some meaningful discussion.

For the abstract and outline of the whole essay see:

    Faith vs. Reason: A Critique of Rationalism in Ideologies


Outline: II. Ultimate Faith

II-1. Principled faith vs. contract faith

II-2. Mature vs. immature ultimate faith

II-3. Social functions of ultimate faith

II-4. Ultimate unverbalizability of the object of ultimate faith

II-5. Symbolic and intuitive nature of ultimate faith and justifiability of its pluralism


For preceding text:

    A Critique of Rationalism in Modern World Ideologies(I): Ultimate Rationality


The Text


II. Ultimate Faith

What is ultimate faith? It is belief in the ultimate reality of all existence viewed as a transcendental whole and confidence in it as the ultimate support for spiritual sustenance. It can appear either as worship of some deity or deities in religion or as conviction in and adherence to some abstract notion about supreme being or ultimate truth such as secular Daoism and Buddhism. In other words, ultimate faith is not exactly the same as religious faith, for it can be either religious or non-religious.

II-1. Principled faith vs. contract faith

Conventionally, ultimate faith is distinguished between theism and atheism, and the former between monotheism and polytheism. But there is a more important dimension, that is, distinction between principled faith and contract faith, the former in rough correspondence to atheism and the latter to theism. What, then, is the point of coining the two new concepts? It is because the “correspondence” is only “roughly”, i.e., not exactly or totally. Furthermore, the pair of new concepts has more significant meanings which will be discussed later.

First about theist faith. Polytheistic worship of multiple deities was a more primitive kind of faith prevalent in ancient times both in the East and in the West. Deities worshipped by ancient Greeks and Romans included Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, Dionysus, Demeter, Chaos, Gaea, Eros, etc., each representing a realm of nature or human social life. This system of representation is very similar to that in ancient Chinese mythology, which was headed by Shangdi (上帝, or Heavenly God, 天帝) , who commanded a family of minor gods representing celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon and other stars; topographical features such as mountain, river, and ocean; natural phenomena such as wind, rain, thunder and lightening; and realms and roles related to human life such as farming, animal husbandry, wealth, local land, family kitchen, the hell, sages of old times and ancestors. Even more primitive ancestor worship can be traced back to mythological legends from even remoter times about such figures as Pangu (盘古), Nu Wa (女娲), Shen Nung (神农), Fu Xi (伏羲), Hou Yi (后羿) etc. All these were primitive, plain and immature forms of quasi-ultimate belief systems.

Later in Europe, polytheist worship was replaced by monotheist religion. Since then, those who did/do not believe in the one God or believe/d in other gods have been considered evil and persecuted or fought against as enemies. Life-and-death struggles have always been rampant even between different sects within a same religion.

II-1(1) Principled Faith

In China, however, theistic and non-theistic faiths have never been antagonistic to each other and, moreover, they might even believe in or worship the same image. There have been Buddhists who worship Buddha as a godly figure for protection and other favors and Buddhists who do not look up to Sakyamuni as a god but as a sage and spiritual guide and follow his teachings as his disciples committed to self-cultivation. Such is also the case with Daoism as a religion vs. Daoism as a metaphysical school of thought, with followers of the latter respectfully calling their founder “Laozi” and believers of the former worshipping him as their “Supreme Lord Laozi” (“太上老君”) with his full title 32 characters long (“一气化三清 太清 居火赤天 仙登太清境 玄气所成 日神宝君 道德天尊 混元上帝”). And also there have been trends of thought, social institutions and activities going on in an attempt to deify Confucius and make his school of thought a religion. For the non-religious practitioners of the above three schools of thought, they believe in the respective founding masters with the same kind and degree of veneration and fervor as religious people show when worshipping but not the same kind of expectation – they do not see the masters as godly figures or source of protection and support but as great teachers or source of truth and wisdom; they do not worship and pray for favor but study and practice the latter’s teachings as supreme guiding principles for their life. This is of course a kind of ultimate faith but not theistic. In this sense, it can be called “principled faith” (as in contrast to “contract faith” or faith in exchange for favor).

The ancient Greek concept “deity of reason”, though not quite the same as the kind of principled faith cherished by some religious believers, was also meant to propagate a kind of principled faith. Though modern people tend to pit the concept of “god” against that of “reason”, ancient Greek philosophers, such as Xenophanes, advocated “deity of reason” while repudiating anthropomorphism in religion by saying that “a deity with human personality lacks the qualities of absoluteness, perfection and transcendence that are indispensable to divinity. Hence his conclusion: ‘There is an only God, the greatest of all divine and human beings, who does not resemble ordinary human beings either in appearance or in thinking.’ ‘God is all-seeing, all-knowing and all-hearing.’ (Trans. from Chinese version by Lu.) Later Greek philosophers mostly adopted this deistic standpoint, which referred to ‘God’ as one without human personality but rationalized. The existence of God was postulated by reason as its starting point or destination. God was either equated to pure spirit… the supreme ideal… or the quintessence of nature…” (李维武:《20世纪中国哲学本体论问题》,湖南教育出版社,1991PP. 62-63.) This kind of “reason” as “supreme ideal” will be called “ultimate rationality” in later discussions, so as to be distinguished from instrumental rationality.

II-1(2) Contract Faith

In contrast, some other people worship the worshipped as a deity with the purpose of securing some kind of favor, such as prosperity, longevity or a smooth official career, instead of trying to understand and live up to what their spiritual master teaches. This is the same sort of faith as in theistic religion, a channel for people to exchange “devotedness” for the favor of being admitted to the paradise after death. It is just like a deal. Even if the requireddevotednessimplies compliance with religious principles, they do not put their heart into an understanding of the hows and whys of such principles, but are only trying to meet the terms of a contract in appearance. Hence, to distinguish this from principled faith, it can be called “contract faith”.

Obviously, contract faith belongs to a lower, immature level of faith. But so long as it shares a same object of worship in a same social environment with a mature ultimate faith, it is still an ultimate faith with some positive significance. (See II-3(1-2) in “II-3. Social functions of ultimate faith” further down.) Any principle to be complied with must imply “dos” and “don’ts” and, hence, some kind of reason, i.e., hows and whys. On the other hand, religious doctrines usually go beyond ordinary people’s daily experiences and relate to metaphysical questions and answers regarding the truth of ultimate reality and, hence, more abstract or, if implied in figurative or symbolic narratives such as fables, miracles and saints’ life stories, more implicit, obscure, ambiguous and beyond the majority of not well-educated bread-winners’ easy grasp. These people have to be content with the next best thing and embrace a contract faith, so long as it can satisfy their minimum spiritual need just as cheap food can fill a hungry stomach.

In this sense, contract faith can be roughly considered as commoners’ faith whereas principled faith as elites’ faith (“commoners” and “elites” in the spiritual sense), the former being the social base while the latter the guider. This is, however, not saying that no politico-economic commoners can go beyond the “contract” level and all social elites have really ascended to the “principled” height. All those, whether “commoners” or “elites”, religious believers or atheists, who are strictly self-disciplined in one’s own moral character cultivation and selflessly dedicated to bringing benefits to others and to the society in general are true saints or sages. And all those who seek to achieve personal “success” and climb the social ladder on others’ shoulders in the name of certain religious or non-religious faith would only end in becoming intellectual accomplices for the privileged special interests. This is why religion can at the same time serve both/either as the oppressed people’s spiritual home and life support and/or as spiritual “opium” used by the privileged ruling class to numb people’s spiritual senses (Actually the physical “opium” also has both positive and negative functions, i.e., to relieve patients from physical pains or to induce spiritual paralysis) .

II-2. Mature vs. immature ultimate faith

The co-existence of principled and contract faith also occurred in Western Christian Church (“Christian” here in a broad sense to cover Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism). The New Testament, as well as the Jewish Old Testament, was actually a covenant, i.e., a contract between God and its believers, in which God promised to protect them if they kept His law and were faithful to Him. That is why the titles of the Chinese version literally mean “the old covenant” and “the new covenant”. On the other hand, after the second century, theological philosophers under Roman administration made efforts to reconcile Christian theology with secular Greek philosophical tradition so as to maintain Christianity as a state religion for Rome. Later, medieval scholasticism and modern-time neo-scholasticism tried to update Christian doctrines so as to raise them to the topmost height of metaphysical philosophy. Such efforts have never stopped. In fact, some of the theologians treated the image of God as a symbol of the ultimate reality or ultimate truth. Moreover, some Christian hermits tried to perceive God through assiduous self-cultivating practices, in the same approach adopted by Buddhists in the East. Take the 5th-6th century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius for example:

“This is the principle of the mysticism practiced by the author of Pseudo-Dionysius’s writing: Mankind cannot grasp God through the medium of thinking and language. Positive theology describes God’s attributes with categories and nomenclature but is unable to explain the transcendental implications of such categories and designations by using a language. Negative theology tries to trace God’s whereabouts but can only indirectly feel His existence through symbolism and analogy. And mystic theology integrates positive and negative theologies: By applying the negative approach to the categories and nomenclature, it describes God’s attributes by adding the prefix ‘super’ so as to indicate God as ‘supraexistentia’, ‘supragood’, ‘supralife’, etc.. The prefix ‘super’ serves as a reminder that God transcends the world and substance and hence not the object of knowledge. Only through devoted love and assiduous self-cultivation is it possible for people to gain mystic insight, feel the tremors of the heart, see the transcendental nature of God and experience the mystic oneness with God. Mysticism is not a theory but an experience, not an avenue to knowledge but a process of inner self-cultivation. It is the product of monasticism and reflection of the hermits’ spiritual life characterized by a combination of speculation and sentiment, of metaphysical thinking and ascetic practices.” (赵敦华:《基督教哲学1500年》,人民出版社,1994P. 198)

Here is another example from secular life. This author once had an hourly job assisting a retired social worker in taking care of her wheelchair-bound husband with Alzheimer’s. When asked whether she could reconcile evolutionism in science with creationism in Christian faith, she answered that “God is a symbol.” This shows that she did not really believe there had been a God in human form that had literally created the world step by step but only view God’s image as symbolizing the origin of the world. This way of interpretation should be quite representative of many an intellectual at least who are not superstitious. It further indicates that there ARE folks among average people who cherish a principled faith instead of a superstitious contract faith.

The above examples show that, in view of its attempt to reach the metaphysical goal of ultimate reality/truth, though not quite successful on the whole, Christianity belongs to the same level as Eastern religions and non-religion metaphysical faiths and IS an ultimate metaphysical faith, though not quite mature (further discussion will follow).

In Chinese tradition, there have never been foundational incompatibility, exclusiveness and antagonisms neither between Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism nor between the theistic and atheistic variations of each of them, in spite of differences in their symbols of faith and doctrines and of mutual criticisms and reprehensions. On the contrary, while taking distinctively different approaches to the common issue of understanding and representing in words of the ultimate reality/truth, they have been learning and assimilating from and become mutually complementary and integrated with one another, and using the same word “DAO” () as a linguistic symbol of the ultimate reality/truth. That is how they have joined each other to make up the organic whole of Chinese culture under the shared name of, the living soul of Chinese civilization.

Whether theistic or atheistic, any ultimate faith is in fact a belief system regarding a same ultimate reality of the universe and human life, usually with ample doctrinal principles and compliant practices. While manifesting their different approaches and distinguishing features, all such systems may also share certain beliefs and ways of practice or partially accommodate each other. Hence the possibility of viewing their different symbols of faith such as “God”, “Allah”, “” (Buddha), “” and “天道” (The Heavenly Dao/Way) as referring to the same thing and then, by comparing the different narratives and practices related to each faith and adopting the merits from each system to offset what is short in others, the possibility of integrating them in a mutually complementary and consistent way into a comprehensive and organic belief system. And it would be no big deal which symbol (image or word) to use for it. Such a system might be called “integrated faith”. The key lies in the integration being able to embrace everything in the universe and human life, including the symbol itself and thus commanding from the topmost height of the ultimate without any binary separation, apparent or hidden, such as between existence and consciousness. Otherwise, it could not pass as an ultimate faith but an ideology.

Obviously, the way to distinguish between ultimate and non-ultimate faiths is not the same as that between theistic and atheistic ones. In other words, theistic ones do not necessarily reach the ultimate but maybe just an ideology in a religious form; and conversely, atheists may also believe in some philosophy or understanding about the ultimate reality/truth of all existence. Western tradition has always considered religion as the sole kind of ultimate faith, not aware or convinced of the possibility of atheistic faiths in the ultimate and, what is more, has always been trying to apply its parochial mode of thinking to the understanding of other civilizational entities, so that it is not able to comprehend such cultural phenomenon as Buddhism and to determine whether it is a religion or not.

II-3. Social functions of ultimate faith

II-3(1) Spiritual home and anchor for a meaningful life

According to Classic of History (《尚书》), traditional Chinese faith in ShangDi (上帝), or Heavenly Emperor (天帝), or the more colloquial and cordial appellation “Heavenly Lord” (老天爷), can be traced back to primitive times. (Note: The Chinese title “上帝” was adopted millennia later as the Chinese translation for Christian “God”, but actually the Chinese “上帝” and the Western “God” are representations of very different meanings and, so, this adoption is quite confusing.) The Chinese people’s trust in and worship for “Heavenly Lord” has never ceased in the past thousands of years till quite recently. Ceremonies for worshipping Heaven had been going on all the time till Ming and Qing dynasties. The still existing Temple of Heaven in Beijing was the very location where such ceremonies were held by the royal court to pray for timely rain and good harvest. The folk custom of offering sacrifices for Heaven had lasted till as late as about 70 years ago.

This author still remembers the family sacrificial ceremony on the first day of the Lunar New year when he was a child. The altar table for the Heavenly Emperor is in the center of the room while that for ancestry on one side. Traditionally, people used to read a good or bad harvest as the will of Heaven and place their hope for a peaceful and sufficient life in the Heavenly Lord while following the code of ethics passed on from previous generations as Heavenly principles. And scholar-officials were even more conscientious in practicing such codes, regarding their service to the state and common people as embodying the worthiness of their life. Although no vivid images of god were displayed, no miracle stories circulated and no rigorous organizations set up (not necessarily inadequacies, see later discussions) as in Western religions, the one wordorwas enough to represent the supreme being that embraced and penetrated all existence and served as the highest authority regulating the words and deeds of all individuals, families and states. Hence, it has been an ultimate faith in its full sense and an important spiritual source for the thousands-of-years-long-and-still-alive Chinese civilization.

In the West, the different religions and sects, in spite of their general intolerance towards each other and towards other beliefs, which is a disqualifying attribute for an ultimate faith, also served as spiritual anchors for some social groups in specific historical circumstances, just because they assume the appearance of an ultimate faith. For instances, early Christianity served the Israelites under Roman rule as their spiritual support; And, though it was later transformed into an official religion throughout the Western world, and has functioned as a tool ever since for the slave/serf-owning classes and modern big bourgeoisie to spiritually control and victimize all other peoples, domestic and foreign, the Christian Church has at the same time remained a spiritual home for all the exploited and oppressed peoples, where they have been giving each other comfort and assistance.

Religious faith is a cultural phenomenon full of complexities. Due to the usually long history with copious classic records full of ideological ambiguities and inconsistencies, together with an appearance of holiness, a major religion such as Christianity can attract different social groups by providing rich and jumbled ideological resources from which all different groups can pick out what they need to spiritually empower themselves.

II-3(2) Transcendental ground and supreme authority for social ethics

The Chinese classic Book of Changes says “Sages base moral education on the Heavenly Dao (“圣人以神道设教”, 《周易·观卦·彖传》)”, i.e., drawing support from people’ transcendental faith as the ultimate source of authority for effective moral education. Spiritual dependence on the object of worship and compliance to its will are two mutually complementary aspects in such a faith. Take Western religions for examples, the Ten Commandments were a set of mandates which the Bible describes as having been given to the Israelites by God via Moses and became rules of faith and life for ancient Jews. The Jewish Church and different sects of the Christian Church in later times have shared the same Ten Commandments as religious and moral norms for their followers to abide by; and such norms are also reflected in the Islamic Koran. And Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism in the East, whether as religion or as secular belief systems, have placed even more emphasis on ethical cultivation as a key social mission of their establishments.

Although social ethics is imbued with traits of a social class or of a nation or of certain historical times (for instances, Chinese tradition has been strongly against greediness; Daoists advocate “always taking a back seat” (“不争”); Islam is opposed to usury), basic moral standards for maintaining minimum social order have always been more or less the same everywhere and all the time, such as filial piety, good neighborliness, honesty, no killing, no stealing, and no adultery. In spite of the fact that such principles have often been purposely prevented from application to macro-level social politico-economic relations and much distorted to serve special privileged classes/interests and, so, macro-scale exploitation and plundering, mass raping and killing, and even conquest of nations or ethnic cleansing have always been happening under the cover of “holy” auras of a certain religious faith, smooth micro-level social relationships free from petty thefts and other crimes are also important and beneficial to people in general and there is nothing wrong in those “basic moral standards”, which would always play a positive role in the macro-history of humanity. What is ironical here is that, maybe because macro-level atrocities are on too large scales for people to observe and perceive directly, they do not seem to belong to the categories of “minimum social order” and “basic moral standards”.


II-3(3) Ultimate criterion for judging and rectifying instrumental rationality in ideologies

An “ideology” is the sum total of all concepts, ideas and viewpoints directly related with a specific social economic-political order, including all forms of social consciousness such as politico-legal, economic and moral thoughts, art and literature, religion, philosophy and other social sciences. This sum total should not be a mechanic hodgepodge of ideas but a systematic combination of thoughts that are logically consistent on the whole and coherent without obvious self-contradictions. All ideologies are results of rational thinking, but there is a distinction between “instrumental rationality” and “ultimate rationality”. (The well-known turn-of-the-last-century German sociologist Max Weber indicated that, besides instrumental rationality, there should be “value/belief-oriented” rationality. So far as its relatedness with ultimate faith is concerned, it can also be called “ultimate rationality”.) Instrumental rationality is meant for utilizing something to gain practical results while “value/belief-oriented” or ultimate faith-related rationality focuses on faith/value-related motivation in doing things. Therefore, the latter overlaps with one’s belief system whereas the former might potentially deviate from one’s specific faith.


In traditional discourse, “faith”, especially religious faith, is thought to be opposed to “rationality”. What is to be set forth in this essay is: A mature ultimate faith, or the ultimate rationality reflected in the principles of ultimate faith, is the supreme criterion for rectifying potential utilitarian tendencies in instrumental rationality.


From the above three social functions can be induced the conclusion that a mature ultimate faith is the necessary spiritual condition for a mature civilization – it can imbue the population with unanimous or compatible spiritual and moral ethos for people to maintain a balanced and healthy state of mind free from impetuosity and extremism so that harmony prevails in social relationships on varying levels and in general social atmosphere. If directed by ultimate rationality, guidelines for social management would be relatively just and fair, producing nearly ideal results, and bringing about balanced and harmonious social relationships and a peaceful and prosperous social order, under which people would generally enjoy a safe and happy life with ease of mind for long years. The Chinese commonwealth which had kept growing during the thousands of years before the 18th century was just such a civilizational entity. Otherwise, if a society lacks or loses a mature ultimate faith and hence becomes ultimately irrational, it would have difficulties in maintaining a peaceful order and would definitely suffer long years of repeated civil strife and foreign aggression, as has been witnessed in China in the past two centuries. So, whether or not having a mature ultimate faith is not a trivial matter but foretells extremely different consequences. What kind of ultimate faith and rationality, then, are more mature? This will be the very central topic of this essay.


To be continued
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