Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson, author of the upcoming The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao interviews Prasenjit Duara, a leading thinker on religion in Asia and (in this section) personal salvation and efforts to save the world, for the New York Times.

Ian Johnson:

This brings up an important idea in your current work: the idea of “transcendence.” You argue that religions try to effect more than personal salvation. They try to save the world as well.

The idea originated with Karl Jaspers’s theory of the Axial Age, which refers to the rise of key religions or thinkers among Jews, Hindus, Chinese and Greeks in the sixth century B.C. Before that, religion was mainly based on worldly exchanges with ancestors or gods. They might be apart from the physical world, but they played a role in your everyday life: I will sacrifice, so you will give me a son, or I’ll say this prayer 1,000 times and you give me a first class in the exam.

The transcendent idea says there’s something beyond that in another realm. It might not help you immediately in the here and now, but it gives you moral authority to do what is right. This was a time when big states and empires were forming and you needed a view that is larger than your own community. Transcendence is an idea of something beyond the here and now.

This idea spread around the world, but in Asia you see a unique development. You use the adjective “dialogical” to describe it. What does this mean?

It refers to the idea of a dialogue. It is the idea that you can accept other notions of how to achieve that transcendental state. So there are transcendental ideas, but not just one path to get there.

So it is more inclusive.

Yes. The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is they come to be formed like nation-states: us versus them. We believe this, they believe that. We have to convert them. It doesn’t easily allow for a dialogue.

Of course, some have moved away from this, but under certain conditions, these ideas pushed the formation of the nation-state and colonialism. We celebrate the nation-state in large part because it is the engine of competitive capitalist success and modernity.

As the nation gradually dropped the religious dimension, it also removed the barrier to the conquest of nature and global resources. It does not know where and how to stop. It’s bringing about the dystopia of modernity.

So you see traditional faiths in Asia as being more suitable for solving today’s problems?

The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is their idea of an absolute truth. Buddhism or these other pluralistic religions don’t have as much confidence in a substantive, transcendental truth, which comes with the idea of an absolute god. An absolute truth brings about reform movements that are very radical because they always want to get back to the pure and the true — such as in fundamentalist Islam, or early Protestantism. This leads to the idea of expanding your nation, or your prosperity, even if at the expense of others.

Much more in the New York Times.

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