Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Religion in the Age of Enlightenment, Buddhism, Natural Religion


Europe was unusually familiar with the ancient civilizations of East Asia, but however familiar China may have seemed, European missionaries and those who utilized and subverted their accounts in the literature of the eighteenth century made sense of China through their own hermeneutical lenses. David Porter's work Ideographia: The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europeargues that Jesuit missionaries and Enlightenment philosophers imposed upon China their Eurocentric quest for "representational legitimacy;' which Porter defines as "the presence of an originary wellspring of meaning that gives rise to a succession of grounded signifiers in which the living image of the origin is fully and immediately present;' and "the absolute authority of the founding moment would be fully vested in each of these semiotic progeny ... legitimate in the sense of their being entirely free from distortion, slippage, or ambiguity:' "The paradigm of representational legitimacy;' Porter asserts, "was one of the few that could have rendered such a vast expanse of unmitigated foreignness minimally legible to observers at their cultural distance from the scene:" European scholars, in other words, imposed upon China their own early modern quests for a pure, uncorrupted source of knowledge. For Jesuit scholars, as Porter writes, the search for an understanding of the original philosophy of Confucius, free of Buddhist, Daoist, or more modern Neo-Confucian corruptions, was a way not only for the missionaries to understand the baffling unfamiliarity of Chinese culture but for Jesuits to find an original monotheism and moral theology that was amenable to their conception of Christian truth. But the Rites Controversy and Bayle's famous reflections on China in Commentaire philosophique raised the possibility that the original Chinese society had no concept of a transcendent incorporeal deity-reflections that led writers of the eighteenth century to project onto China their conception of natural religion, ban morale, and a natural philosophy uncorrupted by intolerance and superstition.