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5.2: Differentiating Specific Criteria and Generic Criteria within a Tradition

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    In any religious tradition in which a given way of being religious is allowed to emerge and persist over time, practice of that way by different individuals and groups in different times and places will never be the same in all respects. Not only will there be variation in style, emphasis, and detail of practice-occasionally with considerable creativity, sometimes with none at all-but also there will be qualitative variation in practice.

    There will of course be a question of rightness, correctness, or authenticity of practice, setting roughly the boundaries of permissible variation. Rightness, correctness, and authenticity are normally a question of fidelity to the tradition's authoritative sources and to models or paradigms of practice specified within those sources. Faithfulness to the sources requires establishing, in the face of any question as to its faithfulness, that the practice in question is at least fully consistent with, if not dictated by, the core system of authoritative symbols-for example, establishing that it agrees with scripture. A sectarian tradition, by definition, is a subtradition that rejects the rightness of the practice and/or beliefs of an earlier tradition or traditions from which it has differentiated itself in terms of a different conception of what constitutes fidelity to its sources; it draws the boundaries of permissible variation differently and usually more narrowly. Heresies or heretical practices, by definition, are variations in teaching or practice that a tradition has established (for itself) to be unfaithful to the core system of authoritative symbols, to be beyond permissible boundaries. At times these matters are a source of considerable controversy within a tradition.

    Within the bounds of permissible variation, there remains room for considerable variation in quality of practice for any way of being religious-variation that is deemed acceptable if not always respectable. Consider, for example, the performance of an elaborate ritual-say, the Zen Buddhist Tea Ceremony or the Muslim Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. There are, for each, certain boundaries of permissible variation established in part by authoritative texts and in part by the word of respected, more or less authoritative elders who are regarded as embodying the tradition in question and specifically a practical knowledge of how things should and should not be done.

    In the Tea Ceremony, for instance, one does not do anything that would embarrass one's guests; nor can the ceremony take place in a busy, crowded, noisy location; nor are matters of heated controversy allowed to be the subject of conversation. On pilgrimage, the Muslim is forbidden to engage in sexual relations, to wear any but the proper garments, not to be "standing" on the plain of Arafat on the proper day, etc. But within these limits, persons carry out these rituals more and less well. Sometimes mistakes are made; sometimes the performance is flawless. Sometimes the ritual is done awkwardly, sometimes with grace. Sometimes it is performed mechanically, sticking strictly to the rubrics (guidelines for ritual practice); sometimes it is performed with appropriate improvisation and style. Sometimes participation is sincere and meaningful; sometimes it is simply a matter of going through the motions. Sometimes it is done with generous and hospitable concern for others, sometimes in an inhospitable and uncaring manner. To an outsider observing an instance of any one of these rituals, it is unlikely that any of these variations would be observed at all, let alone discriminated as to how well or how badly the ritual would be judged to have been performed in the manner of a knowledgeable insider. Qualitative discriminations are nevertheless made by insiders and can be made thoughtfully and consistently on the basis of sensible and appropriate criteria, though the criteria be quite informal.

    What is interesting in this connection is the respect in which many of the criteria employed, though not all, are remarkably similar as one moves from one tradition to the next but stays with instances of the same way of being religious, whereas they are importantly different as one moves from instances of one way of being religious to those of another, even within the same religious tradition. These criteria have to do with what in Chapter 2 were called commonsense considerations. Why call them "commonsense"? One reason is that they involve considerations that involve little or no specific reference to the central core of authoritative symbols, little if anything to do with being specifically Zen Buddhist or Muslim, and little if anything to do with a specific conception of ultimate realit]?. They are for that reason not theologicaf considerations. Indeed, they tend to translate well from one tradition to another without threat of challenging the boundaries of permissible practice. They involve considerations having to do with common aspects of being human involved in this sort of religious practice, this generic way of being religious. In that sense they are not common sense for all ways of being religious (though perhaps some considerations are), but common sense among persons at home with any one way of being religious, whatever be their tradition. Each way, as it were, has its own commonsense considerations.

    Among such commonsense considerations, some may be directly found in or implied by the central core of authoritative symbols. Thus, guidelines for an ideal pilgrimage, available in the form of a handbook to Muslim pilgrims, are drawn from the advice and example of Muhammad and other saintly figures of Muslim history. That they are so found does not necessarily mean that they are any less matters of common sense that could not be reached on one's own; it merely means that the authoritative sources of the tradition add their imprimatur or blessing to them. Others are simply reached on the basis of reflection on practical experience and refined on the basis of further experience, the pooling of shared practical judgment, and the process of "natural selection" as they are passed on from one generation to another. This is another reason why they can appropriately be called "matters of common sense." They are in principle discoverable by anyone who takes the trouble to get to know well on a practical basis what is involved in an ongoing practice of this way of being religious in concert with other persons and what it takes to realize well (and what is likely to derail or block) the distinctive satisfactions it promises. Above all, they concern what it takes for this way of being religious to serve reliably to draw one (along with others) near to, and into right relationship with, ultimate reality. They are community-based considerations and they will ordinarily be considerations of a community that seeks to persist in these practices over time, from one generation to another, and to benefit from them.

    Consequently, variations of practice that do not contribute to, or are likely to interfere with, the distinctive religious satisfactions promised by a way of being religious, friendly relations between members of the immediate community involved, and the passing on intact of the practice (with the values to be realized through it) to subsequent generations will tend to be regarded as degenerations or vices. Variations that do contribute to these goals will accordingly tend to be regarded as virtues. Taken together, such commonsense considerations constitute, in any one tradition, a fund of pooled practical wisdom for the communal practice of a distinctive way of carrying on religious life. To the extent they are substantially the same from one tradition to the next, becoming familiar with them is requisite to understanding well any one generic way of being religious.

    To what extent are they and are they not the same? That is a worthy subject of comparative study. Indeed, it is a worthy subject of dialogue between religious traditions, for these sorts of things are the very things that insiders of one tradition are most ready to recognize in common or learn from other traditions-namely, how to pursue better and more effectively the practice of the way of being religious they are now pursuing. One remarkable example of this is a dialogue between Buddhist monks and Christian monks pursuing the way of mystical quest, preserved in published form as the book Speaking ofSilence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way.2 In principle, the same sort of dialogue could be pursued with similar results in regard to any of the other ways of being religious. Much remains unexplored or insufficiently explored.

    Most of what is available second-hand in the best studies of different traditions does not treat the subject of quality of practice, at least not directly in any depth. Nevertheless, enough has been turned up to suggest that commonsense considerations regarding virtues and vices in the practice of each way of being religious in different traditions are not just a hodgepodge of maxims and rules of thumb. Many of them, perhaps most, can be grouped around three basicparameters ofassessment (sliding scales of qualitative variation) without overmuch distortion: competence/ incompetence, balance/imbalance of divergent forces, and selflessness/egoism. Each of the three might be said to constitute a generic virtue/vice spectrum.

    Thinking about them abstractly, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the three parameters are abstract constructions devised in the attempt to bring order to a myriad of unsystematic, concrete evaluative considerations. In other words, my hypothesis is that something very much like these parameters lies behind the concrete evaluative considerations regarding quality of practice for a given way of being religious that can be found in any tradition.

    The first of the parameters--competence/incompetence-is fairly straightforward and easy to understand. The practice of any given way in a specific tradition requires a practical know-how, an experiential familiarity, a certain lore, that is acquired to different degrees and is quite different for each way of being religious. This is true not just for the leader or expert in a tradition. It is also true, though to a lesser extent, for the lay participant so far as she is to get anything out of participating and find her existential needs met. Each way calls for a distinctive kind of "spiritual formation," as it is sometimes called. The lore of a priest (and even of a lay participant in an elaborate ritual) is quite different from that of a shaman (and the lay participant in shamanic practices); and each of these is quite different from that of a devotional pastor (and devotee), that of a philosopher-theologian0 (and student), that of a master of a path of contemplative meditation (and novice), and that of a moral teacher-reformer (and disciple).

    Some practitioners of a given way of being religious devote their lives to that way and, among them, a few (sometimes even unlettered lay persons) come to be respected as master sources of authoritative guidance for others, even though they may hold no formal office and receive no remuneration for it. Some acquire sufficient competence to qualify for positions of leadership-for example, as priest, pastor, teacher, or spiritual director. Once in positions of leadership, these individuals may or may not seek to develop further their competence. Of them, some are barely competent, some are extraordinarily skilled and competent at the practice and serve as models for others to emulate, while the rest are spread out in between with varying degrees of competence in carrying out their special roles. Many people pursuing a given way of being religious learn only enough for minimal participation, have no aspiration to learn more, and could not begin to explain what is going on, even if they had to. Accordingly, along the parameter of competence/incompetence, vice is practice that fails to be competent-for example, awkward, uncertain, fumbling, and characterized by mistakes and improprieties-whereas virtue is competent, knowledgeable practice-for example, confident, appropriate, and characterized by minimal flaws and mastery of relevant details.

    The second parameter-balance/imbalance of divergent forces--is the most difficult to understand of the three but is in some ways the most important. As this author has come to understand it, religious practice, in every case, involves an effort to bring together, reconcile, and hold in some sort of vital tension divergent forces or polarities:3 what is tangible and intangible, what is static and dynamic, what is old and fresh, what is active and receptive, what is temporal and eternal, and what is ordered and spontaneous, what is formed and formless letter and spirit, body and soul, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation, this world and the other worldo, ordinary reality and ultimate realityo. As a kind of shorthand for these polar oppositions but not meant to reduce them all to a single type, we shall speak of reconciling and integrating matters finite with matters infinite, the finite aspects of the practice with the nonfinite aspects. Actual religious practice inherently involves working out and living out some kind of balance between these polarities in the lives of real persons. Many religious traditions place explicit emphasis (though not all in the same respects) on cultivating a virtue of balance, moderation, a middle way between extremes. Buddhism speaks of the Middle Way, Confucianism of the Great Mean, Daoism of balance in all things (especially of yin and yanlf), Hinduism of balance among the four aims of life (pleasure, material prosperity, duty, and liberation), Judaism and Islam of combining enjoyment of the good and struggle against evil (avoiding both self-denial and selfish indulgence), and Christianity of temperance, sobriety, moderation, and "being in the world but not of it."

    Although not all religious conceptions of balance are identical, there does exist between them sufficient overlap to conclude that they recognize in common the good of finding and living a balanced life that avoids certain inappropriate extremes, and conversely that they recognize in common certain tendencies to imbalance in life that result in, or are, a kind of evil and that must therefore be deliberately counteracted. I am not saying that any of these religions teaches that all good is a matter of balance or all evil is a matter of imbalance (though socalled philosophical Daoism seems to come close to this). Even less am I saying that religions generally teach that balance is the supreme good outweighing all other goods so that no other consideration could ever take precedence. Nor am I implying that any two religious traditions would strike a balance in precisely the same way, or even that any two ways of being religious in the same tradition would strike a balance in precisely the same way. Rather, I wish to claim that the different religions teach (or tend on the whole to teach, or at least are prepared on the whole to recognize) (1) that cultivation of balance between the divergent forces identified above is normally one of the primary tasks to be pursued in order to realize excellence in the practice of any way of being religious, and (2) that loss of balance between these divergent forces tends toward evil and is, for the most part, a vice to be avoided. However, even were it the case that a religion did not explicitly authorize the pursuit of balance in this respect, a good case could be made for it strictly on commonsense grounds, as Aristotle has so influentially done (though not specifically in regard to religious practice) for the Western world and for the ethical traditions ofJudaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular. 5

    What are regarded by reflective insiders as healthy, vital, and virtuous expressions of a tradition, whatever the way of being religious involved, in addition to their agreement with the tradition's authoritative norms, will ordinarily involve some kind of balance between the polarities mentioned above. What are regarded as unhealthy, moribund, and degenerate expressions, even though they outwardly agree with the norms of the tradition, will often be so because they lack this balance. Imbalance will generally result in, or be a mark of, what is seen to be degeneration and vice. Balance and equipoise will in general result in, or be a mark of, what is seen to be health and virtue. Any such synthesis reconciling divergent forces has a tendency or liability-which is to say, a temptation-to instability that must be continually counteracted to maintain excellence and well-being. It is easy, terribly easy at times, to lose balance rather than keep it. To strike an appropriate balance, to find a healthy tension between finitude and infinitude, no precise rule, no "answer" in any ordinary sense, will suffice, for such a rule is itself a finite form that would have to be interpreted and applied. And any rule for interpreting and applying that rule would in turn have to be interpreted and applied. The finding of balance requires something in the participant herself, something akin to what Aristotle identified as prudential common sense:6 the crucial capacity for finding appropriate balance between extremes, the integration of polar opposites, that constitutes moral virtue. Whether or not prudential common sense is all that is required to find the requisite balance in religion (note: I don't think it is all and many religions would disagree that it is all), it seems to play a major role. As said before, it all depends on how a tradition is taken up and lived out. Of course, there are no guarantees that a tradition will be taken up in healthy, thoughtful, and "common-sensible ways:"

    All this will become clearer as we examine more closely what imbalance in the direction of finitude (vice of finitude) or imbalance in the direction of infinitude (vice of infinitude) consists of. Tbe vice offinitude, or loss ofinfinitude, is expressed in a variety of ways, varying to a great extent with the way of being religious that is being pursued. It happens when the animating spark of inspiration of a tradition is lost, and one is left with only outward form, the finite aspects of a religion. All the words, gestures, and actions may be right and correct, but somehow the spirit is absent. The resulting practice is dull, wooden, or perfunctory, with no sense of freshness or life to it, nothing to inspire awe or passion, no depth or sublimity, nothing ultimate or transcendent about it. If it has anything of strong feeling about it, it is marked by obsession with matters of insignificance, sentimentalism (e.g., nostalgia for "old time religion"), or simply satisfaction of the baser human appetites. It is entirely too down-to-earth, too reflective of human failing and finitude; it has no challenge to it, no invitation to change or to transformation. At the opposite extreme, the vice ofinfinitude, or loss offinitude, is also expressed in a variety of ways depending on what way of being religious is being pursued. It occurs when the animating spark of inspiration is allowed to overwhelm one's respect for the finite, this-worldly, human aspects of oneself, one's practice, and one's community, and the result is a kind of denial, rejection, or repression of finitude. One of its signs is loss of a sense of humor. This is where one may find idolatry-where finite form (e.g., symbol, form of worship, method of meditation, moral rule, interpretation, judgment, type of shamanic expression) is invested with the esteem and passion that is due the infinite, and the absolute is misidentified with the relative-and, in consequence, probably most of the evil done in the name of religion.

    With this imbalance one comes subtly and perhaps unconsciously, for all intents and purposes, to equate one's own judgment with the judgment of God and one's own will with God's will. With no sense left of one's own finitude, one becomes immune to the appeal of common sense. At that point, criticism of oneself can provoke the passion of divine retribution. The problem lies not in having a conception of what is absolute (i.e., of what is infinite in value or importance) but in supposing that one's conception of it, one's handle on it, can be something more than finite. Other expressions of the loss of finitude would seem to include such things as (a) extreme ascetic practices that harm the physical body with no significant compensating benefit to the spirit; (b) extreme otherworldly emphases that refuse to ameliorate (either in the short term or the long term) pressing needs of those closest to oneself, of the community to which one belongs, or of the common lot of humanity at large, or that treat others without compunction, merely as means for one's own otherworldly ends; and (c) overemphasis upon change, spontaneity, and dynamism at the expense of continuity, the integrity of communal order, and passing on the wisdom of past experience. Thus, imbalance-especially serious imbalance-either in the direction of finitude or in the direction of infinitude is a degeneration of healthy and vital religion. 7

    Mention should be made in this connection of the oppositional pairing of the six ways of being religious that was discussed in Chapter 3: sacred rite with shamanic mediation, right action with mystical quest, and devotion with wisdom. It may be that a key to health and well-being in religion lies in keeping these oppositional pairs in balance (and perhaps more than any two pairs), such that pursuit of one way combined with some involvement in its opposite tends to counteract the specific degenerations characteristic of that way. Although it is somewhat speculative, it seems plausible that this could be the case. It is possible to find significant and respected writers in different traditions who testify in agreement. For example, the great Muslim theologian al-Ghazzali models and argues for a kind of four-way balance between Muslim theological and legal learning (reasoned inquiry), Sufi devotionalism (devotion), implementation of the divine law in all aspects of life (right action), and the Sufi quest to mystical union with God (mystical quest). 8 Another example in very recent times is the remarkable convergence-mainly among Christians-between many social activists, on the one hand, and many contemplatives, on the other, each coming to see the need for the other's practice (namely, right action and mystical quest) to fill out and balance its own practice. 9

    The third parameter of assessment of practice in ways of being religiousselfl.essness/egoism-is fairly easy to grasp. It overlaps to some extent with conventional notions of ethics and morality and has generally to do with one's relations with others (including nonhuman realities). Virtually all religious traditions reject egoism or self-centeredness, although they understand it in somewhat different ways. Yet all basically agree that the ego or self that insistently asserts the centrality and priority of its immediate interests at the expense of the interests of others-especially the interests of others within the group-ought not be as it is: its centrality is a false centrality and the priority of its interests is a false priority. The different religious traditions generally take egoism to be the locus of most (if not all) of what is wrong with the world, and systematically set out strategies to overcome it-whether to transform and redirect the ego, to dissolve the ego, to harmonize the ego with otherwise competing interests in the encompassing social and natural order of things, or to merge the ego with a larger, cosmic self. To pursue one of these strategies, of course, is no guarantee that members or even leaders of these traditions succeed in overcoming egoism. Virtue, in this connection, is said to be an ideal state of "selflessness."

    While some traditions speak of the ideal of selflessness as a state of having dissolved altogether the ordinary human ego, some as a state of having merged one's identity with a larger, social or cosmic self, others as a state of harmonization of the individual self with other selves, and still others as a state of having become a different, reoriented self, the ideal in each case embodies (and thus persons actively pursuing the ideal aspire to embody) certain very similar traits. These traits include the humility that is ready to grow and be changed by being brought into closer relationship with ultimate realityo, sincerity in the sense of being free of hypocrisy and duplicitous motivation, openness to take in and appreciate what is other than oneself as no less and no more than what it is, presuming no special importance or status of oneself in relation to others (or to the finite whole of which one is a part), not being anxious or (overly) defensive about oneself or one's reputation, not seeking unfair advantage for oneself over others, never treating others as mere means to one's own ends, readiness to see and take in how things are from the other's perspective, respect for other persons' need to see and understand and make up their minds about things for themselves, willingness to hear and respond to criticism honestly and nondefensively, and identification with the welfare of all (indeed, of all life). (Note that selflessness here described should not be confused with disesteem for oneself in preference for esteem for others. 10) At the opposite end of the scale is the generic vice of egoism that would presume to set the immediate interests and concerns of the unreformed self above those of others and above the welfare of all. Here we find such traits as unreadiness to be changed or transformed by coming in relation to ultimate realityo, insincerity as in hypocrisy and duplicitous motivation, being excessively defensive about oneself and one's reputation; readiness to use sacred and holy things for profane purposes, readiness to manipulate the good faith of others to personal and material advantage, treating others as mere means for one's own ends, and closed-mindedness to things and other persons outside one's own frame of reference.

    Though egoism may be condemned and selflessness praised in regard to individuals, not as often do we find egoism criticized and selflessness praised in regard to groups in the great religions. This pertains to the relations between insiders to a group and outsiders, or between a group as a whole and other groups. Egoism in regard to groups is characterized by the immediate interests and concerns of a group being set above the interests and concerns of outsiders and other groups. And selflessness is characterized by the members of the group transcending or setting aside those interests and concerns for the sake of the welfare of all concerned and hospitality to the outsider. Criticism and praise do not often develop at this level. Happily sometimes they do, but there are often powerful social forces ranged against it. It is not easy for commonsense reasoning to be effective at this level, for the respective parties unfortunately may all too easily avoid listening to and having to get along with each other. Even so, selflessness here too remains a virtue and egoism a vice, and they may be considered an extension of the parameter of assessment as it applies to individuals.

    These three parameters of assessment--competence/incompetence, balance/ imbalance of divergent forces, and selflessness/egoism-are not proposed as covering every possible commonsense consideration regarding virtue and vice in the practice of different ways of being religious. Perhaps other parameters can be found. In any case, what they involve in a more concrete way becomes clear only when they are applied to each different way of being religious. Thus, competence in the way of sacred rite is a very different thing from competence in the way of wisdom, and both are very different from competence in the way of shamanic mediation, and so forth. So also, the balance of divergent forces involved in the way of devotion is a different thing from the balance of the divergent forces involved in mystical quest, while both are very different from the balance of divergent forces involved in right action. Although selflessness would seem to be quite similar from one way of being religious to another, what it means in practice will vary in its expression. In this respect we can speak of generic virtues or traits of excellence specific to each of the ways of being religious. Similarly, the vices correlative with these generic virtues vary with each way of being religious--so much so that we can speak of generic vices or degenerations specific to each way of being religious that recur from one tradition to the next.


    This page titled 5.2: Differentiating Specific Criteria and Generic Criteria within a Tradition is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.