Rivers of Something
David Noel Freedman et al ed. The Rivers of Paradise. Eerdmans 2001
First, let's get our bearings. Eerdmans is not a scholarly publisher, but a Biblical publisher. The preface to the present volume is by a noted Christian theologian, Hans Küng. Against that background, we are going to hear about "Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad as Religious Founders." Is everybody all set?
The anomaly of Confucius in this list is finessed by Küng, who in his Preface refers to "the prophetic Semitic religions" (including three of those in this book), "the mystical Indian religions" (including Freedman's Buddhism but also Hinduism, which might be difficult to place in the Freedman paradigm), and "the Chinese wisdom religions, Confucianism and Daoism." So before the book even begins, we encounter the problem of Confucianism: is it a body of terrestrial wisdom, as Küng gently implies, or a doctrine of supernatural aspiration, as Freedman and company are presently going to argue? And what is the relation of the historical Confucius to that tradition?
As if these questions were not enough trouble, we also have the Max Weber paradigm. It is the backbone of the book's thinking. But Weber was talking about religious leaders, whereas the figures in Freedman's book are put forward as religious founders. Surely there is a difference. Indeed, the contributors, in their effort to pull the hypothesis together, get tangled up in just that difference. I will here evaulate the five Freedman figures as what they are said to be in his book: religious founders. The evaluations are not entirely reassuring.
Five Supposed Religious Founders
Moses. The only religion with which Moses can be said to be involved is Judaism. The question then becomes: Was Moses the founder of Judaism? The Scriptures of Judaism do not take that view. They take, in fact, several views of Moses: (1) the infant hero of an "abandoned baby" legend, (2) a prominent figure in the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt, (3) the transmitter of God's laws to the Jews, and (4) a violator of God's rules, who is accordingly excluded from the haven into which he has led the rest of the Jews. Perhaps the most promising of these for "religious founder" paradigm purposes is #3, Moses the Lawgiver. But as recent research has shown, the earliest lawcode which the Jewish Scriptures attest is derived from that of Hammurabi, so the God part is going to have to be interpreted as a legend also. That leaves Moses as a leader of the Jews, but not as a founder of their beliefs. Says the author of this section, in the book's Final Thoughts chapter, "Hence, I have attempted to present Moses as a conglomeration of different images, reflecting the ideology, theology, and needs of an evolving faith community." With such a conglomeration, it is not surprising if the requirements of the most confused paradigm can be successfully met. But meeting it tells us nothing, other than that the book is working with a confused and thus omnivorous paradigm.
Shakyamuni. The chapter subtitle is "Buddhism's Founder in Ten Acts." The chapter itself begins with the introduction of Buddhism into China, and follows with its (earlier) patronage by Asoka, all of which are phenomena of interest, but chiefly for their respective periods, none of which is within a hundred years of anything that might refer to the historical Buddha. No more is the third "act," which is an action of the Dalai Lama at Madison Wisconsin in July 1985. Moving on, we are told that Shakyamuni is a nebulous historical figure, but that "another way of saying that Shakyamuni is Buddhism's founder is to say that every Buddhist culture, tradition, school, and society delights in his sacred biography." But delight is not evidence. That Shakyamuni lies at the source of something in which later ages take sacred delight may be conceded for purposes of argument, but it does not prove the case. The cargo cultists of Melanesia may take sacred delight in their replica of a DC-3, but that does not make the DC-3 itself an originally sacred object.
The key document here is likely to be the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a long narrative of the Buddha's last days. It is mentioned only once in this 112-page essay, and then only to say of it, "This rule is given in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the story of the Buddha's last days. But immediately after Shakyamuni proclaims the abiding importance of the rules of conduct, he then issues an order permitting monks to suspend petty rules and minor precepts as they see fit. Talk about ambivalence!" Indeed. Scholars of Pali literature have long pointed out that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is a stratified text, and called for its analysis, but with few takers so far. (Outside of present company, G D Pande seems to be the only one). Analysis would show that these and other seeming contradictions are artifacts of text growth, one layer being introduced precisely to meet a need not envisioned in the core text, or to correct a solution to that need offered in an earlier layer. At present, the various rules and doctrines (such as the Eightfold versus the Fourfold Noble Path) lie stacked on top of one another in the text. Only a reading of the text which is sensitive to the process of its formation is likely to show what really happened in the last days of Buddha and the years not long after his death. Going instead to the pious Jataka tales of later centuries is really no substitute.
Confucius. Few less tractable subjects for the "religious founder" paradigm can be imagined than poor old Confucius, who in the Analects turns aside disciple questions about the supernatural, and focuses them instead on the here and now of personal and dynastic politics. For some reason, however, presumably one involving departmental turf wars, departments of religion (not, be in noted in passing, departments of philosophy) keep making the attempt. The attempt in this book takes 76 pages, and covers familiar ground in a familiarly contorted way. Confucius, for example, is said to be "an expert in ritual," and if we seek to ascertain the content of "ritual" in Chinese context, we cannot do better than to go to the Chinese ritual texts, either the early short one that makes up Analects 10, or the vast later ones that constitute the Yi Li, the Li Ji, and the Jou Li. Leaving aside the obviously bureaucratic rules, these have a lot to say about conducting funerals, but nothing to say about the afterlife. They have a lot to say about how to behave at a state banquet, but nothing to say that suggests a sacramental content to that banquet. Like the Analects, these texts respect others' beliefs, including most prominently the ancestral sacrifices and state ceremonials of the ruler, but they very conspicuously do not propagate beliefs of their own, filial piey always accepted. The earliest strata of the Analects show Confucius as concerned with civil service protocol, and with the code of the traditional gentleman, but there is scarcely a word about ritual. The nearer to Confucius we get, the thinner grows the evidence for Confucius as concerned with ritual, let alone with any supernatural realm.
Whatever may have been the case with Confucius himself, there can be little question that he founded a movement, or if not, that one grew up around his name soon after his death. Can that movement serve as evidence for the present question? It is at least a relevant matter. Now, the next great names in that movement after Confucius himself are known: Mencius (end of 04th century) and Sywndz (middle 03rd century). Both of them have left original text; in Mencius's case a dozen interview transcripts (his talks with various rulers of the time), and in Sywndz's case, a huge collection of his own essays expounding his views directly, and attacking other points of view. Here, then, is a question that can be answered by reference to extant and primary material. We might ask it this way: Are Mencius and Sywndz (coming after Confucius) religious leaders, in the unambiguous sense that Paul (coming after Jesus) was a religious leader?
The Confucius essay cites the Mencius only once, as describing the offices that Confucius held in his life, without ever getting the high office that would let him put his Way into effect. It follows that the Way is one that would have benefited the states in question; that is, is was a political program and not a path of personal salvation. Strike One. As for Sywndz, he is unmentioned in the Confucius essay, and little wonder. For his views on higher sanctions for human behavior, we turn to his long and eloquent essay on Heaven (SZ 17), and there we read that the doings of Heaven, while impressive in their way, have nothing to do with Man. Strike Two. Moving on a few centuries to the Confucianism of the Han Dynasty, what about its massively documented opponents? Do they accuse the Confucians of heresy, or for that matter, of superstition? Neither. They condemn them as offering advice irrelevant to the needs of the state, and harmful to the interests of the state. Strike Three. The more evidence we consider, the less evidence we have for Confucius as a religious man, or for his movement as a religious movement, either on its own account or in the eyes of its enemies. If Confucianism was a religion, it was surely the most surreptitious, the best camouflaged, of all religions.
Jesus. Here at last, it may be thought, we are on solid religious ground. The book contributes an essay of 167 pages, virtually a book in itself, on this seemingly solid subject. But the subject does not become the more solid for all that. What was the religion of Jesus? Undoubtedly it was Judaism. What was the position of Jesus within Judaism? To begin to answer that, we have to go to the earliest evidence, just as we need the earliest layers of the most relevant documents to say where Shakyamuni fits into f his time. The author of this essay reviews previous scholarship on Jesus, and says, "the Jesus of history seems more accessible than ever." Maybe. But improved access to that factual Jesus will not be gained by giving equal evidential weight, as the author does, to what are widely recognized to be the late Gospels (Matthew and Luke), and putting aside the widely recognized earliest Gospel, that of Mark. What this means in practice is that one's Sunday-School instinct to privilege the Sermon on the Mount as the authentic Jesus needs to be put on hold, and the best evidence needs to be given its chance. That best evidence, the earliest texts and the earliest layers of those texts, tell a different story. What that story is, this paragraph is too short to contain. But this much may be said: it has fewer cute children, and fewer cute sheep, than your Sunday School teacher might have wished.
Muhammad I pass by. In the present assassination context, only a fool would venture to separate the Mecca and Medina chapters of the Qur'an, and it is hardly fair to fault some mild-mannered scholar for declining to be that particular kind of fool.
At the end, one is reminded of Holmes' dictum, "Hard cases make bad law." The verdict on this book must be, Dubious examples make bad theory. Could the effort have been better directed?
Assuredly. For one thing, it is evident that at least four of the five Freedman figures were national leaders. Moses very probably led his people out of Egypt and up to Canaan. Confucius, by majority evidence, sought to put in practice a formula, a Way, leading to national supremacy. Jesus was crucified by the Roman occupation authorities as a would-be King of the Jews. Muhammad, well, one knows about Muhammad and Arab nationalism. We may end by going back to Hans Küng's essay, so much wiser in its few pages than the huge book that follows, and his remark, "To be sure, we live in a time in which peace is threatened in many countries by every possible kind of religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu." We note the absence of Confucianism from this list: what would "Confucian fundamentalism" be like? And the presence of Hinduism, not justified by the book but amply justified by the newspaper. Notice here the transition from religion as such, to idea systems that link up with nations. If Küng had gone on to add "Aryan fundamentalism" and "Serb fundamentalism" and "Sudanese fundamentalism," he would have had a still stronger case. Religions are only dangerous when they can harness nations to their purpose, and nations are dangerous even if their agendas are not motivated by any specifically religious agenda. Here, and not where Küng says it is, is the real problem of world peace.
Assuming that problem to be solved on its own terms (and what else can one do with it, than make that assumption?), there remains a merely intellectual question: What are religious leaders, and are there any typological continuities to be observed in comparing them? We will not know that until we try, and the most severe criticism to be made of the Freedman book is that it does not make the attempt. Where, for instance, are the figures for whom no argument about their status as religious founders needs to be made, the clear cases? Where is Hammurabi, whose stele shows him receiving his pre-Mosaic laws by divine visitation; or Alexander, with the divine pretensions of his Persian period? Where is Augustus, who mandated his own worship all over the Roman empire? Where is Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), or Joseph Smith (Mormonism), or Kino (Kono Tabi), or Jim Jones? Where are the divine kings of ancient Asia: Cyrus, or Chandragupta, or the First Emperor of China? Where are the Mician opponents of Confucianism, who openly demanded respect for the ghosts and spirits, and reviled the all too secular Confucians for refusing to believe in them?
That is the question with which we end.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page