Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Arrive without traveling

So my only really real talk this term (the other three have all been class visits of one form or another) went well, I think, despite its silly name -
a day ago I wasn't sure it would all come together. Here are some highlights, with some of what my friend G calls my "very Zen" powerpoint slides, but have a listen first to this. The Beatles' "The Innner Light" - B-side to "Lady Madonna"! It sounds Indian, but the text is straight from (a translation of) the Daodejing [Tao Te Ching]. I found out about it from the anthology which was the focus of my talk, the just-appeared Norton Anthology of World Religion, large chunks of
which my research assistant at Lang copied and sent me. As you'll perhaps recall, one noteworthy feature of this massive 4000-page reference work is the displacement of Confucianism by Daoism as the "world religion" from China. What were they thinking? I used this as pretext to describe the book's approach in general, and to Daoism in particular - both of which turned out to be pretty interesting. Here are three antecedents claimed by the main editor, Jack Miles, in his history of comparative religion (in the West). The significance of Bernard and
Picart's Ceremonies and religious customs of all the peoples of the world and of the Parliament of the World's Religions is clear. What Miles calls the "Renaissance Rehearsal of Comparative Religion" is more idiosyncratic. It grounds the literary endeavor of the anthology as a whole (primary texts valuable for religious as well as literary reasons, and for readers with literary as well as religious interests), including the idea that religion can inspire even if we think it fiction. It also prefigures the rationale for canonizing "Daoism, lost and found."
I didn't say much about the Daoism section itself, all 760 pages of which I cannot say I read (or even tried). I was more interested in the rather shabby way in which Confucianism was despatched in Miles' Preface (its texts are already available in English, the Chinese state doesn't list it as a religion, and we don't want to enter the debate if Confucianism is a religion), the sense of adventure in sharing elements of the Daoist Canon that had almost completely vanished - and the interesting selections for the last century (including the Beatles song).
I'll spare you the section on problems with the categories of "religion" and "world religions," though I sense that this material was new for the UHK audience. I said I was unhappy that "world religions" keeps its hold in works like the Norton Anthology, in the process making interreligious hybridity and interaction seem late and difficult rather than constitutive elements in the history of most religion; but I was hopeful that the anthology's impressive scope would show religions to be the wild woolly things they are. My speculative concluding section was the most fun:
What might the apotheosis of Daoism portend? Supposing the Norton Anthology to succeed in its effort to establish a canon for religious studies, I suggested six possible results: more people studying Daoism; more Western folks taking up Daoist practices; the development of new ways of being Daoist in traditionally Daoist lands, partly in conversation with the western Daoists (I suggested several analogies with the unfolding of "Buddhist modernism"); further complications for Confucianism; the appearance of Daoist ideas in broader discussions of power, change, politics, etc.; and finally "a Daoist theory of religion." No idea what that would be, but I'm interested to find out!

All in all I think I did pretty well talking about Daoism (which I don't pretend to understand) and the new Norton Anthology (most of which I haven't read). I mean, the ensuing discussion was good! I take comfort in the words of The Beatles' George Harrison (really Daodejing ch 47):
(This last was not one of the slides for my talk: made just for the blog!)

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