Presentation in Groningen

In this talk, which came at the end of a conference on methods for studying Chinese religions, I discuss the idea that conventional sinological approaches to the study of religion operate from within a binary perspective of tradition and modernity. In contrast, I ask what the study of religion might look like if studied from the future framework of sustainability.

This talk was part of a conference held at Groningen University, funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange and the KNAW.

Title: The Application of Daoist Thought to the Cross Cultural Study of Religion and Environment

Abstract: It is well known that since the adoption of the modern category of zongjiao 宗教 in the late 19th century, the study of religion in China has been framed by modern Western understandings of religion. But the invention of the category of religion in modern humanism was also part and parcel of a broad cultural reordering of the imagination of “nature” and “the sacred.” Nature came to be understood as a realm external to human subjectivity, a single process following regular laws, capable of objective understanding through science, and transformation by technology. At the same time religion “retreated” from the “environment” and came to occupy a wholly transcendent and simultaneously personal space within the social imagination.

The very term “environment” is constitutive of the modern concept of nature. It suggests something that is around or about human subjects, and in scientific literature, “environmental” factors are ones that are external to the operation of an organism or organization which may exert some influence over it. In this sense, we may define environmental elements as things that lie beyond the domain of subjectivity of the individual or organism.

The perception of an environment or a “world” that surrounds us is thus key to our sense of self. Our subjectivity, or sense of self, can be defined quite precisely as whatever is not our “environment.” In Cartesian thinking, this distinction between subjectivity and environment is also understood as a distinction between thought and matter. Human subjectivity is bound up with our ability to think, one’s existence, which is one’s sense of oneself as an existing being, is predicated upon the ability to cognize oneself as a self-conscious subject. This sense of self can only be understood by implicit contrast with a non-subjective, material world, which surrounds and limits our own subjectivity. In modern terms, this is our “environment.”

The Shangqing 上清 Daoist and subsequent inner alchemy tradition, however, proposed a way to understand the environment not as something that exists objectively outside us, but as something that “insists” subjectively within us. This way of imagining “environment” is deeply transgressive of our modern, scientific understanding of nature, and of our modern sense of human consciousness and subjectivity. By theorizing religion, environment and the self together from this particular Daoist perspective, this paper will not only reveal some of the specific deficits within Western theoretical approaches to Chinese religion, but also outlines a framework, that for an indigenous Daoist theory of religion and nature.