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A Critique of Rationalism in Modern World Ideologies(II): Ultimate Faith (4-5)
By Sherwin Lu
2019-06-01 07:53:31


This article was first posted on this website on 2016-04-01 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(2) The object of ultimate faith: being symbolic, intuitive, and necessarily pluralistic. 

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 a “brick” cast here to attract “jade”, as the Chinese saying goes, and initiate some meaningful discussion.


For the abstract and outline of the whole essay see:  


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:


The Text


II. Ultimate Faith (continued)

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

II-4(1) Fundamental unverbalizability

This unverbalizability has been understood and explained by thinkers of various schools of thought in the East and West. For examples:

Laozi said, “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao…” (Trans. by Ch’u Ta-Kao.)

One of the Buddhist classics is entitled Pointing to the Moon with the Finger (tentative translation by the author), which compares Buddhist discourse to the finger and the ultimate reality/truth to the moon. The story behind the title runs like this: When Huineng (慧能), a Buddhist master, was asked by a nun “Since you are illiterate, how are you able to interpret classics?”, he replied: “The truth has nothing to do with written language. It is like the moon in the sky while the discourse one’s finger pointing to it. The finger can point out where the moon is but it is not the moon.” In other words, the whole voluminous collection of Buddhist classic texts function only as the finger, not able to present the very ultimate reality/truth as it is, which is beyond reach (via language) like the moon. This fact indicates the very unverbalizability of the ultimate truth.

Confucians believed in the “Heavenly Dao” but Confucius himself seldom talked about it. Why then? Sima Qian said, “Confucius seldom talked about the mandate from Heaven (i.e., the Heavenly Dao – note by this author), because it is difficult to verbalize.” Confucius taught students in accordance with their aptitude. He passed on his insight in the supreme Dao only to highly talented disciples. (翟玉忠:《性命之学》,中国编译出版社,201415-16, Zhai Yuzhong: The Learning of Human Nature and Destiny, PP. 15-16.)

In the West, in answering the question “How can human beings recognize God?”, the 15th century schoolman Nicholas of Cusa came upon the idea of “knowledgeable ignorance”. He said: “In that knowledgeable ignorance I try to grasp the ungraspable in a non-verstehenden approach, that is, in a way that transcends what invariable truth the human kind has come to know.” The ungraspablerefers to “God” or supreme being or ultimate reality. The reason why God is ungraspable is because He is not something finite. According to Cusa, human knowledge is a kind of judgment about what is unknown from what is known and “every inquiry is a comparison in the use of the analogical method.” But analogy is not applicable to the understanding of God as no comparison is possible in terms of essence between what is known about finite things and what is unknown about the infinite. “Because of this, the infinite as something not finite is beyond our recognition since it is outside of and beyond all comparison.” In other words, scholarship with God as the object of cognition, in the final analysis, is a kind of ignorance. The more knowledge we have, the more we recognize that what is inherent in the infinite is inexhaustible… Our knowledge about God is a kind of learned ignorance. (赵敦华:《基督教哲学1500年》,600-601.)

Obviously, thinkers in the East and West speak the same language on the unverbalizability of the ultimate truth/reality.

Why is that? In the final analysis, it is because any verbalization is preconditioned on the artificial split between the verbalizing agent and the verbalized, i.e., between the ultimately indistinguishable mind and matter.

II-4(2) Necessity and limited possibility of verbalization: “Finger-pointing at the moon”

Although it is difficult to speak about the supreme truth, it is a necessity for people to compare notes on it; and history proves that proper exchanges of such views are helpful in facilitating people’s understanding of the ultimate reality if only nobody imposes his/her own views on others. By “limited possibility” is meant the two related implications: There is possibility; but it has limits, i.e., it is more or less short of the ultimate. In a word, the ultimate unverbalizability should not be presented as an excuse for denying the necessity and possibility of exchange of views on the ultimate.

Furthermore, the above near dilemma would also inevitably lead to the potential possibility for discourses on the ultimate truth to be somewhat misleading.

II-4(3) Potential risk of misleading ambiguity

As any discourse about the infinite ultimate reality cannot but start from an understanding of finite parts of the phenomenal world and different people usually think and talk about same phenomena in more or less different social-cultural-ideological situations or contexts, what is meant by the writer\speaker and what is understood by the reader\listener through the use of concepts, words and statement sentences referring to such finite phenomena can seldom be one hundred percent the same. In other words, such discourses tend to allow different interpretations by different people. Though some minor differences in understanding may not distort that of the core idea, such initially “trivial” differences might grow into major ones later when the thought system is further developed by different thinkers. This is why all schools of thought are constantly splitting into different sub-schools. And in some other cases, total misinterpretation of core ideas is also possible. Such is the potential risk of misleading ambiguity in discourses on the ultimate reality/truth. Here are some examples:

The wordin conventional Chinese translation of Buddhist literature and its equivalent in Englishemptinesstend to be misinterpreted as “nothingness”. Thus, as many people cannot bring themselves to believe “There is nothing existing in the world”, they choose to stand aloof from Buddhism. (This author does not know Sanskrit, the language used by classical Buddhist authors, and, so, cannot judge if the Chinese and English translations of this word are accurate or not. He himself has been using the word “intangibility” according to his own understanding of Buddhism.) Then, Buddhist scholars have to resort to more, longer and more complex discourses with ever newer and more ambiguous concepts, with a view to help people understand “emptiness” in Buddhist contexts. In doing this, while possibly succeeding in helping some folks seeing the “moon”, they might also be misleading other folks further away from it. The more and longer discourses, the more chances of both success and misleading complexity. That is because, finally speaking, the ultimate reality/truth is beyond any language, any discourse.

The word“天”(heaven) and the Daoist“道”(Dao) in Chinese culture were both native concepts (not translations of foreign ones) representing the supreme being, and yet they are also open to more than one possible interpretations in different contexts and easily get misunderstood. “Generally speaking,“天”represents five types of ideas… (1) …the visible image of the physical sky. (2) …the metaphysical supreme being, a purely abstract concept.” (3) …what is similar to a divine being in religion capable of having human beings feel Its spirit through telesthesia. (4) …a symbol of the supreme spiritual core. (5) …a representation of spiritual sublimation. The word“道”also roughly represents five types of ideas...: (1) …an abbreviated term for the ontological concept of “thing-in-itself” in metaphysics. (2) The general name for all constant and immutable laws. (3) Ethical rules commonly observed in human social relationships… (4) A name for whatever is mystical, unknowable, inconceivable and abstruse. (5) A name for common pathways. ” (南怀瑾:《禅宗与道家》,复旦大学出版社,1991PP. 234-5.)

In the average people’s understanding of the two words, “Heaven” refers to the sky or the “Heavenly God” and “Dao” means “law”, “principle”, or “pathway”. As abstract concepts used in ontological discourses, they are almost beyond comprehension. People tend to imagine the manifestation of “Heaven” and “Dao” in terms of concepts used for describing the physical world, i.e., in terms of fragmentized “time”, “space” and “cause and effect” etc. But actually “Heaven” and “Dao” when used as symbols representing the ultimate reality/truth have to be grasped as one consistent whole embracing both the physical world and the metaphysical one behind it, that is, to be “seen” through the illusive phenomena of the former. If one sticks to the literal meanings of verbal expressions used to describe the physical world, naturally he would never be able to penetrate through it and perceive the metaphysical ultimate behind. This is why Chinese Buddhist masters proposed to “ignore verbal expressions on grasping the meaning” and “ignore the imagery on grasping the meaning behind” so as to directly get to the thing-in-itself and, through the thousands of years’ practice of spiritual self-cultivation, developed a variety of approaches to help the practitioners “break the thread of reasoning, deconstruct the verbalization, replace literal expressions and point direct to the human heart-mind.” (Ibid. P. 1121.)

“Imagery” (), “verbalization” () and “meaning” () are the three tiers of the image language unique to China. An image language, as compared with Indo-European sound languages, is more favorable to a holistic representation of the world, because it “imitates and simulates nature through images and presents the world symbolically so as for people to comprehend and grasp the target objects …as reflecting the undivided subject-object oneness.” Furthermore, “In the Chinese image language, there is no formal distinction between the verb, the noun and the auxiliary word, and the user is supposed to comprehend and sense the meaning through the differences in linguistic and situational contexts.” (方立天:《中国佛教哲学要义》,中国人民大学出版社,2002Vol. 2P. 1089.)

In other wordsa degree of formal fuzziness in the Chinese language is favorable for people to grasp the target objects both in their internal holistic oneness and in their external oneness with its surroundings, that is, to comprehend things in their actual linguistic and situational contexts instead of playing with abstract concepts and rules of logic in isolation from actual circumstances. And an overall grasp has been the very characteristic feature of traditional Chinese beliefs and of the whole Chinese culture. This also shows that a language as part of a culture blends with the culture as a whole. (Hence, by the way, some Chinese scholars’ treatment of the Chinese language, that is, dissecting its structure in terms of Western linguistic categories and even attempting to totally Romanize it out of blind worship of Western culture including its alphabetic languages, is a kind of murderous violation of the Chinese culture.)

Since it is necessary to get rid of the interference from such a comparatively more facilitative language as Chinese in the final achievement of an intuitive perception of the ultimate reality, it should be even more necessary to be aware of the even greater interference from other languages without such a facilitative feature. But, the reality is, however, that, since modern times, people have been mechanically adopting academic concepts or “advanced ideologies” from the West in interpreting local Chinese Daoist wisdom, resulting in total distortions beyond recognition and entailing endless troubles to the future of humanity.

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

II-5(1) Symbolization

Given the limited possibility of verbalization and potential risk of misleading ambiguity, visualized imagery is often used in religious practice instead of abstract concepts. For instance, the Christian image of God in the human form is used to represent or symbolize the supreme being or ultimate reality of the universe. (The use of imagery is also a way of expression in a broader sense, though not in the verbal form.) Such is the symbolic nature of religious images, and that is why great scientists with highly developed capability for rational thinking, not to say many high- and middle-level intellectuals who are not superstitious, can also be religious believers at the same time. As a matter of fact, letter symbols such as “”, “”, and “” in non-religious philosophical belief systems can also be used as purely symbolic signs without considering their literal meanings while what is symbolized is to be sought from pertinent textual expositions.

Howevervisual images such as that of a deity in human form have the sensory appeal that pure letter symbols or verbal explanations lack, especially to folks not sufficiently educated to think in the abstract. Therefore, theistic belief systems have their unique advantage in winning the hearts of less educated people, no matter whether the divine image is adequate in representing the ultimate reality. This maybe one of the major reasons why Christianity has attracted a large number of believers among the Chinese in recent years.

On the other hand, blind aspiration after a divine image tends to cover up the contractual nature of such an act of faith, i.e., to expect personal welfare benefits in return for one’s ritual piety without spiritual self-cultivation through conscientious study and practice of tenets contained in the belief system. If such a tendency becomes the main stream gathering to a considerable scale within a certain area, it can be exploited by negative or even malicious social forces or their ideologists; especially when such a tendency is converged with fanatic religious intolerance, it would trigger conflicts and wars between different religious churches or sects. Situations like this have been witnessed by Western history and are still daily happenings today. (In contrast, in the East where theistic beliefs have not been so prevalent and strong, while inquiries into and interfaith debates about metaphysical issues have been no less extensive and persistent than in the West, or even more extended and profound, violent confrontations between different systems of faith and thought have been seldom, still less wars.)

Therefore, theistic beliefs must be guided by mature principled faith in the ultimate reality/truth before they could bring into play their unique advantage (as compared with atheistic beliefs) in a positive direction, that is, really beneficial to the welfare of humanity, not otherwise.

II-5(2) Intuitiveness

Take Buddhism for instance. There is such a story that goes like this: When asked by a nun to explain some classic text for her, “Zen Master Hui Neng (慧能) replied that he is illiterate. Then the nun said, ‘If you are illiterate, how can you grasp the truth in Buddhism?’ ‘It has nothing to do with written texts,’ replied Hui Neng, ‘So long as I can perceive the truth, what is unusual there in illiteracy?’ The story shows that Buddhism is not a kind of knowledge gained through reasoning, or that the truth in Buddhism cannot be reached through an interpretation of some Buddhist expressions and analyses of Buddhist concepts, i.e., not through rational speculation, but instead through personal spiritual experience and intuitive realization. Comprehension of its meaning lies in the heart-mind (“”), that is, intuitive insight. Practitioners may need to read Buddhist classics, but they also need to transform what is written into personal spiritual experiences, into their own intuitive wisdom, that is, free and independent perception and personal realization of the truth that transcends language and penetrates into the underlying nature of everything.Ibid.PP. 1119-1120The “intuitive wisdom” mentioned here is the same as the “integrated intuition” mentioned earlier.

This is also the case with the word “” in Daoist discourse and with the object of faith of the so-called mystic schools of Christianity and other churches. As quoted above, “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... Mysticism is not a theory but an experience, not an avenue to knowledge but a process of inner self-cultivation.” (赵敦华:《基督教哲学1500年》,人民出版社,1994P. 198) And just like “Eastern mysticism”, such “feel” and “experience” can only be attained through inner self-cultivation, not through verbal discourse or logical reasoning. While verbal discourse, imagery and logic can play the role of a guide or pointer, the final step has to be self-realization through spiritual intuition. In a word, faith-related discourses are both indispensable and not to be clung to at the same time.

II-5(3) Justifiability of pluralism of ultimate faith

The above aspects of ultimate faith -- limited possibility and misleading ambiguity of verbalization, and its symbolic and intuitive nature – inevitably lead to the diversity in ways of presentation and further to necessary exchange of views and unavoidable contentions between different faiths with different ways of expression.

Given the differences in geographical environment, cultural tradition and other subjective and objective conditions, the above-said diversity is not only natural but necessary and beneficial, not detrimental, to the sublimation of human spirit in general. As evidenced by the Eastern history of differentiations, encounters, collisions, debates, and mutual learning and integration between Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism and different denominations within each of them, both as religions and as secular schools of thought, “The elucidation of truth theory and the founding of denominations are mutually interactive, synchronous, inseparable and complementary…” (IbidP. 1200.) Conversely, this confirms the unreasonableness and harmfulness of religious and ideological intolerance regarding ultimate faith. The above single fact from history is already sufficient to show the maturity of Eastern cultural tradition, although some scholars dismissed this maturity as “prematurity” by Western standards.

The judgment about whether a civilization is mature or not is, however, a relative one. Western culture also has its merits worth learning and assimilation by China. But mutual learning starts from some shared understanding about the merits and weaknesses of both cultures achieved through matter-of-fact discussion and communication, instead of unilateral imposition on one party by the other through the use of violence and military strength as has been habitually resorted to by the Western powers in the past.

What is inspiring is that the above truth is being recognized not only by Eastern thinkers but also by more and more Western scholars with breadth of vision and depth of insight. For instance, the contemporary well-known philosopher of religion and Christian theologian John Hick had much in common with Eastern thought on such basic metaphysical issues as unverbalizability of the ultimate and inseparability of mind and matter. He said: Buddhism has a very beneficial doctrine, that is, all religious doctrines, whether of its own or of other religions, are upaya (expedient means) helping people proceed towards awakening or epiphany along different paths… If every world religion treats itself and other religions in the same way, then they would allow people to grow in their different faith traditions and go beyond the boundaries of religious traditions so as to share each other’s spiritual resources. (Back translation from the Chinese version of The Rainbow of Faiths, 《信仰的彩虹:与宗教多元主义批评者的对话》,中译本,江苏人民出版社,2000PP. 6932141-3.) Furthermore, not only there is a new trend of thought among scholars and ordinary people but in the recent years the Holy See in Rome has also been encouraging dialogues between different religions. Hope this is the beginning of the journey towards a great spiritual harmony among the whole mankind.

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