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De-centering the self: teaching philosophy, religion, and culture.

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. (Deutsch xi)

Moving, philosophically, from West to East and from East to West, and back again, is worthwhile if we are to ever transform the smallness of our perceptions.

With the aim of teaching how cultural orientation shapes religious imagination and how religious imagination shapes cultural orientation in a philosophy of religion course, two questions are worth posing:

1. How can I know something is real, moral, good, beautiful or of value? 2. How can I convey my position to another? It is well known that people from various cultures give dissimilar answers to such basic philosophical questions. In the early days of comparing cultures among religious scholars and historians at the Parliament of World Religions (1893), Western philosophers would often foster the crippling idea that these different cultures operate not only according to different logics (something that this essay illustrates) but live in wholly different worlds (something that this essay rejects).

A little more than a century after the Parliament of World Religions, we have the work of comparative philosopher Henry Rosemont who encourages us to ask more mutually empathic and respectful questions of tradition, for instance "How might an intelligent and thoroughly decent human being come to be, or remain, a subscribe to one or another of the world's faiths?" (2) We also have the good fortune of learning from comparative philosopher Thomas Kasulis, author of Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference (3) who invites us to discover how differences between cultures reflect the particular aspects of human life that a culture tends to emphasize, enhance, and place as central. In other words, to understand "what is foreground in one culture may be background in another" (Kasulis 20). Kasulis poses two basic cultural orientations useful for teaching comparative philosophy of religion: intimacy and integrity. A culture's basic choice between these two orientations is then reiterated in its approach to meaning making, styles of argument, art, ethics, politics, and constructions of "the self' thereby generating broad and mutually supportive cultural patterns. In broad strokes, Kasulis traces these patterns in ways that illustrate very different constructions of the self:

1. Intimacy is objectively verifiable, but personal rather than public.

2. In an intimate relation, the self and other belong together in a way that does not sharply distinguish the two.

3. Intimate knowledge has an affective dimension.

4. Intimacy is somatic as well as psychological

5. The ground of intimacy is not generally self-conscious, reflective, or self-illuminating. (Kasulis 32)

Buddhist religion and philosophy often articulate the self in ways that mesh well with Kasulis' description of intimacy. In Buddhism, the world of human beings (and the self) and the world of nature are understood as interdependent and yet equally subject to change, that is, both are transitory, mutually influencing, and transmigratory. Emancipation from the cycle of human birth and death is not to be achieved until a person can eliminate a more universal problem, the transience common to all things in the universe. Here we see that the basis for Buddhist liberation or salvation is not personalistic, as in an "I-thou" relationship with God, but cosmological and thus impersonal and trans-anthropocentric. Human beings have a special significance among creatures; it is only humans who, endowed with self-consciousness, can go beyond anthropocentrism and reach an awareness of communion with all things, not just other human beings.

Comparative philosopher Masao Abe claims this "cosmological basis of Buddhist human salvation could offer a spiritual foundation which could solve one of the most pressing problems of today's world--the ecological problem of the destruction of the natural environment which is inextricably connected with human estrangement from nature. Environmental destruction results from anthropocentrism when people regard nature merely as a means to realize selfish goals and persist in seeking new ways to exploit and conquer it." (4) He continues, "What is necessary for the present day is not a new humanism but a new cosmology. There must be a cosmology which is extricated from anthropocentrism and yet which can provide humankind with its proper place in the universe. It is not an objective cosmology but an existential and personalistic one" (Abe 70). Kasulis and Rosemont would agree with Abe and Kasulis might be inclined to agree with me calling this new way an "intimacy-sustaining cosmology."

As we move to the integrity orientation as presented in chapter three of Kasulis' book, we find the following descriptions of integrity:

1. Integrity is impersonal, public verifiability, not the expert, is the basis of authority.

2. Integrity has a "belonging to" rather than a "belonging with" orientation.

3. Integrity is purely intellectual, not introspective or intuitive.

4. Purely conceptual.

5. Knowledge is based on data collecting, reasoning and verifiable facts that can illuminate error. (Kasulis 53-70)

How the Christian tradition might illustrate integrity features is seen when attention is given to its theocentric concerns. In this tradition, human beings are viewed as lacking the integrity of their creator who is pure, transcendent, and unknowable in his divine perfection. This ruler of the universe is worshipped as the only God. For many who believe Jesus is God's son, this integrity reaches further and one is either for Him and therefore saved or against him and therefore damned. In light of Kasulis' work, I offer an approach related to philosophy of religion by focusing on ethics across cultures.

(1) An ethical orientation of integrity tends to focus on the agent's responsibility: one ought to respect the integrity, autonomy, and the rights of others.

(2) An ethical orientation of intimacy, on the other hand, tends to focus on the person's responsiveness: it involves developing the ability or skill to feel the pain of others.

Kasulis' point is that although one's cultural orientation of self-hood may seem full-proof to one's own worldview, it may seem to be a grave mistake in thinking from another's worldview. What may appear to be commonsense from one orientation, that is, Shakespearian values of "To thine own self be true," may seem cruel and insensitive from another perspective. The philosophical orientation of self-hood that a culture does not follow can nevertheless be appreciated and accessible as a background or an underemphasized aspect of its own world. The two gestalts are not necessarily incommensurable conceptual schemes but rather can complement each other.

One way to offer students an experiential way of beginning to appreciate this double-gestalt way of seeing is by showing them the image Kasulis employs of either the old woman with a kerchief or a 1920s young Gibson Girl (Kasulis 21). Are they looking at a young woman whose head is turned away in one-quarter profile and whose chin, nose tip, and eyelashes are all we can see of her face or are they looking at an old woman whom we see in full face and whose large nose dominates the picture?" Although many may already be familiar with this image (or the equally useful image that is both a vase and two faces in profile), one can guide them to realize that they saw one image spontaneously and had to "learn to see" the other. This discussion can segue easily into how much of reality we have been taught to see or taught to see in a particular way. This exercise illustrates how perspective shapes what one sees. By describing the features of each image, they have the opportunity to look for the alternative image by making a special effort to see these alternative features. Some are never able to see the second image or are able to see it only after considerable tracing of features, but even this failure is helpful for consciously to "see how we are seeing" takes a kind "first-perspective bracketing" and by cultivating these skills we can facilitate a better understanding of difference among philosophical self-orientations.

Another way to illustrate how these philosophical orientations of self-hood operate differently in divergent cultures is to draw from current events that illustrate cultural misunderstanding of primary orientation. For instance, a site of mutual misunderstanding on the nature of the self that is being negotiated currently is the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights (UNDHR). This document is an integrity-based-self-oriented and rights-based document created by mostly educated European professionals in the late 1940s and many cultures resist signing onto it. For those who claim to understand the language of rights, some say they are not able to persuade their communities to adopt them as vehicles for organizing themselves and their governance.

Kasulis claims that this "human rights" problem is more than just a misunderstanding; it is a problem in cultural persuasiveness around the nature and primary of the self. The language of rights presumes a privileging of individualist or integrity values and this privilege does not translate well in cultures that orient themselves around relationality or intimacy values. This cultural persuasiveness, or lack of it, is a matter of cultural orientation as Kasulis points out.

When I speak of cultural orientation, I am not trying to make any essential claims that would inflame Edward Said, author of Orientalism, that say something such as "All Asian people are like X." Rather, I am suggesting that when comparing cultures in terms of their religious similarities and differences, we might find it helpful to watch for certain general patterns that might have heuristic value. This will aid our concern for the possibilities and limitations of cross-cultural analysis, communication, and cooperation. This heuristic value may be useful in examining how the language of the UNDHR might be translated and misunderstood across cultures.

In the context of this essay and by following Kasulis' lead, I use the term "culture" as being broadly construed to include not only national cultures, but also subcultures within these national cultures and even subcultures that may cut across national cultures, that is, marked, for example, by gender, economic or social class, and ethnicity. Two serious mistakes we can make in teaching the philosophy of religion are the universalizing error and differentiating error.

Universalizing Error

Universalists presume we are living in an increasingly globalized context where cultural differences can be recognized and negotiated via the universal acceptance of common, perennial values. The present call for an international recognition of "human rights" is of this sort: whatever the differences among us might be, the assumption is that if we can agree on a few basic universal ideas, mutually beneficial cooperation will follow. Religious leaders espousing this approach include: the Dalai Lama, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Ba'hai Faith. In his book, God Has Many Names, Christian theologian John Hick proposed his "Copernican revolution" in theology by emphasizing the necessity of a "paradigm shift from a Christianity-centered or Jesus-centered to a God-centered model of the universe of faiths." He continues, "One then sees the great world religions as different human responses to the one divine reality, embodying different perceptions which have been formed in different historical and cultural circumstances" (Abe 42). This tendency to look for unity or essences in religion seems to be a search for a neutral symbol that can exist over and above the names of the various religions. Raimundo Panikkar, author of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, claims, "the divine reality is many names and each name is a new aspect, a new manifestation and revelation of it. Yet each name teaches or expresses, as it were, the undivided Mystery." (5) The error of this view is that all religions are united by being reduced to a single principle; diversity in pluralistic situations is lost in a homogenizing thirst for commonality.

Differentialist Error

Differentialists resist such globalizing as a threat to culturally meaningful difference and diversity. Instead of universalization such cultural critics expect or endorse a manifold of liaisons among people of similar background, experience, values, or interests. Marxism's class consciousness arose from such a model, as do many other forms of racial, ethnic, and gendered forms of self-identification or solidarity. Often the assumption is that those who are not us can never understand who we are; hence we should never allow "them" to define, interpret, or categorize us. The argument is that cooperation, if indeed it is actually possible, should not arise from the oppressive homogenization that universal structures either wittingly or unwittingly support. Instead, the claim is that cooperation should arise from some community of conversation in which people of different worldviews strive together for common goals. Religious leaders espousing this trend include Million Man March organizer, Louis Farrakan, and Feminist Theologian, Mary Daly.

Teaching Philosophy of Religion

Philosophers of comparative religions are challenged to scrutinize how the extreme universalist philosophers of religion fail to appreciate how profound cultural difference can be for philosophical constructions of "the self." For instance, when we think we are talking about the same thing such as "the self' or "human rights," we may think we are in agreement because we use the same words. This, however, does not mean we are valuing the same things at all. For example, in Japan, the term keroshi means "death by over work" and was invented about 40 years ago to help Japanese companies understand that human beings are not machines that can grind away for hours without frequent breaks or adequate rest and relational renewal with loved ones. Although the number one killer in North America is heart attack--often seen as stress-related--there is no such term in our parlance, nor is there an organized effort to combat this work-related stress in the American workplace.

To illustrate another intercultural conundrum, in Japan the term for "rights" is "kenri." This term was invented to translate the newly introduced Western term about 100 years ago. Japanese people generally understand what the term "kenri" means, and its presence in the language may suggest to a universalist that Japan is in agreement with liberal democratic principles. Yet, the sense and use of the term "kenri'--its force, normative functions, relation to other key notions or values, and its use in argument--are not equivalent to the English word "rights." Universalists' eagerness to seek common ground wherever possible leads to misinterpretation. The transfer of words or even ideas from one culture to the next does not entail a shared cultural view of what is important.

In contrast, extreme differentialists, often ignore the possibility of communication across boundaries. They may think translation is impossible; "they" will never understand "us; we're terminally unique!" Translation can at times happen even when we may not want to be understood, sometimes we "others" are comprehended by "them." Furthermore, to claim "they" can never really understand "us" assumes we understand ourselves perfectly and also assumes we understand others well enough to know their capacity to understand us. Without some understanding across boundaries, the very claim about the impossibility of universality is itself a universalization.

As we think through what is right and wrong about these two positions, what we are seeing instead is that the blurring of the distinction between understanding and persuasion is essential. We might understand the other (universalists are right on this count), but still remain not persuaded necessarily by or sympathetic to the other (the differentialists are right on this count). In fact, the boundaries separating cultures or subcultures are often most visible when we understand what the other is saying but do not grasp its relevance. This is the crux of why examining cultural orientations can help us in our communication and comprehension of each religious tradition. It is important to realize that we may understand ethical terms in a technical sense such as human rights, but in a profound sense not be persuaded to make its claims the basis of our behavior. This lack of persuasion is paramount as we look at religious, philosophical, and cultural orientations of the self. We can begin see how orientations toward intimacy or integrity shape how we construct the self.


In teaching philosophy, religion, and culture, students often want to shop--as autonomous individuals--in search of the-perfect-fit religion of their own making. Sometimes they try to find harmonious unity between all traditions. Others avoid opening their minds in anyway to anything that is not fundamentalist Christianity or Islam. To see one's work as fostering close reading as well as thorough listening to the philosophies, rituals, and embodied practices of each tradition is a critical place from which to begin. Kasulis' heuristic of intimacy/integrity offers teachers of religion, culture, and philosophy ways to present philosophy that is not "the view from nowhere," but is a view deeply rooted in cultural assumptions. By using one particular axis of difference, intimacy vs. integrity, Kasulis' work helps illustrate how these two starting points lead to very different worldviews and very different notions of self-hood. Such a methodology for teaching religion and philosophy promotes students to cultivate a deeper awareness of their own cultural orientation and move them toward recognizing diverse patterns of relation that construct culture itself.

I hope students will come to learn to accept that though we may understand each other's terms of "self," we may not be persuaded to draw similar conclusions about how we should live, how we should behave, and how we should orient ourselves. Allowing for this humble gap of respect of these overlapping ways of seeing can foster a kind of stepping back and surveying what about religious dialogue divides and unites the humans. (6)

(1) Deutsch, Eliot, Introduction to World Philosophies, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), xiii.

(2) Rosemont, Jr., Henry, Rationality and Religious Experience: The Continuing Relevance of the World's Spiritual Traditions, (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2001), 10.

(3) Kasulis, Thomas, P, Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002).

(4) Abe, Masao, "There is No Common Denominator," Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995).

(5) Panikkar, Raimundo, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, (Maryknoll, NY Orbis Books, 1981), 42. My emphasis.

(6) I thank Kevin Schilbrack for his conversation on this topic.
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Author:Manlowe, Jennifer
Publication:East-West Connections
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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