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As-if-ism: A Confucian Model of Spiritual Humanism

One reason that the dispute about the nature of Confucian spirituality remains unsettled is because Confucianism does not fit into the familiar categories of contemporary religious study. Confucian spirituality is neither theism, nor atheism, nor skepticism or agnosticism. In fact the Chinese spiritual tradition took a subtle but substantial turn through Confucius. Drawing on Confucius’ expression of “sacrificing to the spirits as if the spirits were present” (Analects, 3.12), the Confucian spirituality might be called “as-if-ism.” This “as-if” approach does not focus its concerns on whether certain beliefs are true or false; instead, it focuses on the way of life and the practical implications of beliefs. With this as-if approach, Confucianism turned what was previously a method of gaining access to external deities into a way of generating spirituality from right within humanity. It turned everyone’s relationship with gods and spirits into an internal relationship with one’s own sense of reverence, and thereby allowed everyone to become the very origin of spirituality. At the same time, Confucianism expanded the concept of rite from referring narrowly to the ceremonies for gods and spirits to be proprieties in everyday life. This tradition thereby makes the secular sacred. Understanding this will not only help us see more clearly the nature of Confucian spirituality, as it is represented by the mainstream lineage from Confucius through the book of Zhongyong and the Mencius all the way down to Song-Ming neo-Confucianism, but will also lead to a deeper appreciation of the Confucian model. This as-if approach is not a self-deception of inducing certain false beliefs nor a blind gambling like Pascal’s Wager; instead, it is a conscious application of a gongfu method to enable oneself to develop spirituality from within. It embodies the insight that there is a unity between believing and acting, as one’s beliefs or attitudes have a self-fulfilling function that can directly affect one’s life. Furthermore, the as-if approach offers a practical ground for people to engage in more productive inter-faith dialogue. It opens the possibility of re-enchanting the world without relying on blind faith, and at the same time it allows a realistic ground for recognizing practical functions that faiths may provide. Since as-if-ism does not justify itself on the ground of being objectively true but on the ground of being objectively effective in generating spirituality, it is compatible with religious freedom and pluralism, yet at the same time it does not fall into relativism. Instead of letting people hide themselves behind the “will of god” of their particular religion, or take excuses that their religious beliefs are “at least not irrational,” or stop merely at respecting people’s right to hold different religious beliefs, as-if-ism forces people to take full responsibility of what they believe, and allows us to critically evaluate all religious traditions according to whether they are constructive to humanity or not. With such a basis, spirituality will no longer have to be kept in just the private realms as a matter of personal preference, but can enter the public realm as a matter of vital importance for the construction of humanity.    

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