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Robert Bellah: our Relationship with Traditions with Help from Confucius

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Confucius (551-479 BCE) on Tradition[1]

In the Chinese tradition, Mencius (390-305 BCE) was a great follower. Ch’in Hsih Hung Ti 221 BCE /Han Dynasty 200 BCE-200 CE.

Confucius taught us to seek inspiration in our own traditions for humanizing and harmonizing conflicts in the present.

“He who by reanimating the Old can gain knowledge of the New is fit to be called a teacher.” (Analects 2:11)

The latter is one of the most important passages from the Analects. In the course of our lives the challenge presented by tradition tends to break down in two directions: Some tinker with tradition by proof-texting. That way tradition can be made to say anything we want it to say. The verse is yanked out of context and made to point to something alien to it. Those who use this practice are not truly traditionalists. Confucius said, “I have been faithful and respect the ancients.” The challenge is to genuinely love the past and reanimate their traditions.

When we pick and choose from traditions “cafeteria style”, we misuse them. “Take what you want and leave the rest.”

Others, who rigidly and uncritically hold onto tradition, also misuse tradition. They have a ruthless disregard for the spirit of that tradition.

We need to look at the Old

in the light of the New,

letting the Old criticize the New

and the New criticize the Old.

Most of us breakdown on one side or the other in intelligently conventional ways. Some throw out and dismiss traditions altogether, but we cannot accept forms of life en bloc. Much of our lives continues to rest on practices of the preceding age. When we reanimate these traditions then we preserve integrity. We can abandon, reanimate, or reunite with traditions, because they are a living thing. We have to constantly readjust them to the present while being loyal to the past. It is a mistake to take tradition as a fixed thing or throw it out altogether.

[1]From a lecture by Prof. Robert Bellah, Sociology of Religion given 3/19/96 in University of California at Berkeley. The book for Confucius was Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: the Secular as Sacred, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972).



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