Book Review: Christianity and Chinese Culture: Confucianism

This important volume contains so many insightful chapters, with such immediate relevance to all who seek a better understanding of a vital topic, that it deserves extended treatment. The book is divided into two parts; in this review, I shall limit consideration to the first, “Christianity in Relation to the Chinese Religious Tradition,” especially those parts which compare and contrast Confucianism and Christianity. (For some thoughts on a few ways in which Confucianism influences contemporary Chinese Christianity see "The Greatest Threat to the Chinese Church" at“The Goodness of Human nature and Original Sin: A Point of Convergence in Chinese and Western Cultures,” by Zhao Dunhua, tackles the perennial problem of how to relate the Christian doctrine of original sin and the Confucian theory of the goodness of human nature. Unlike most writers, Zhao argues that they are (1) logically noncontradictory, (2) theoretically complementary, and (3) in practice, playing a similar moral role.”They are noncontradictory because (1) Confucianists have generally believed that the essence of human nature is good, while its “sensuous elements” can be quickly turned toward evil. Likewise, (2) Christians have taught that man as originally created by God, though the Fall has tainted us with a deeply-rooted tendency toward sin. The two traditions, in short, are not that far apart.They are complementary in that they emphasize different realities. Christians have historically focused on the difficulty that humans have in exercising their free will in a good direction; it is hard to do what is right, though God demands obedience and, in principle, free will implies the ability to obey. Confucianism, on the other hand, believed that morally good actions flow from a fundamentally good heart; the problem is that “unnatural or pervasive conditions and accidental ignorance” can thwart such good intentions. If you combine the absolute moral standards of the Christian God with the Confucian belief in the natural inclination of men toward what is good, you can arrive at a balanced view.They play the same role in individual and moral life because both Christianity and Confucianism “stress the necessity of perfecting human nature and urge people to meet some moral demands,” which include both purifying one’s own mind and committing oneself to a social career.Not surprisingly, the response by Miikka Ruokanen, though agreeing that both sides can and should continue to engage in dialogue, insists that there are some significant differences to be overcome. For example, Christians agree that human nature was created good, but believe that we are now incapable of obeying God without supernatural help (grace) from God, working in us by the Holy Spirit. We can neither clearly understand God’s moral imperatives, nor perfectly follow them.Unlike Confucianists, Christians also distinguish between soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and ethics. We all stand “before God” as convicted rebels, and cannot save ourselves; in that sense, we do not have free will. In fact, the “kernel of original sin is not a moral reality; it is unbelief, lack of faith…” Unless God intervenes to grant repentance and faith, we cannot be reconciled to him and thus the process of moral transformation cannot even begin. Even that process – called sanctification – is a gift from God.Several other chapters deal with the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity. Zhang Qingxiong, in “Sin and Evil in Christian and Confucian Perspectives,” begins with an excellent overview of the Christian doctrine of sin and evil. He digs deep enough to find the heart of the problem: man’s alienation from God because of unbelief, turning from God toward self, living a man-centered life, which brings evil and suffering into the world.The Confucian documents which he examines teach that evil and suffering result from the ruler’s failure to obey the will of Heaven, which can then lead to a r evolution and change in dynasty. But there is no concept of “original sin” in Confucianism; the emperor, while considered “Son of Heaven,” is only a man, whereas Jesus is God; the emperor is willing to take responsibility for the sins of the people, but he does not provide atonement.According to Zhang’s reading, Confucius believed tyranny to be the greatest calamity that could befall a people. In other words, evil is the consequence of man-made disasters, whereas in Christianity, evil results from the fundamental perversion of the human will. Thus there is no salvation in Confucianism, for there is no personal God who can intervene to bring forgiveness or inner moral transformation; it all depends on human self-cultivation. Nevertheless, with the idea of Heaven, there is a “religious” dimension to Confucianism.Diane Obenchain offers a helpful critique of Zhang’s use of selected sources in his description of Confucianism; suggests some interesting comparisons and contrasts between the Chinese and Hebrew concept of the role of the king as the “son” of God/Heaven; contrasts the Ruist (Confucian) stress upon moral cultivation with the Christian insistence upon the necessity for God to transform sinners to conform to the original image in which they were created.Also responding to Zhang, Svein Rise uses the doctrine of the Trinity, in which there is a “unifying love that flows from the divine persons’ identities as divine beings,” as a powerful antidote to the human tendency towards the tyrannical use of power. He agrees that Confucianism recognizes some sort of divine power – Heaven – but points out that only a Trinitarian God can transform us and evoke our worship.Prof. He Guanghu’s essay, “The Compatibility of Christianity with Traditional Chinese Religions,” includes a section on Confucianism, in which he states his belief that Tian (Heaven) “comprehends everything justly” and in other ways greatly resembles the Christian God. Heaven, he avers, is also absolute – eternal, infinite, unconditional, etc.; and that heaven is holy and righteous.In a long response to He, Paulos Huang carefully distinguishes among different groups of Confucianists who have opposed Christianity, showing their varying reasons and reactions, based upon the different Confucian sources which they choose to employ. His concise survey of traditional and modern Confucian responses to Christianity is required reading for all who want to understand this complex and vital subject.His detailed analysis lays bare the complexities of the situation, in which various scholars may use the same words, such as “transcendence,” or even “Confucian,” in remarkably different ways.He warns that “we should not jump to the conclusion that the Chinese God (or Heaven or Sovereign on High) and the Christian God are the same merely because they both have the feature of transcendence, since their understandings of transcendence differ in many other respects.” Indeed, “features of God’s nature held in common between the two traditions are only contact points in the encounter.”He finishes his fine response with these words: “The important thing is to correctly establish the position and function of various contact points; otherwise people may be misled by the appearance of similarities and ignore the essential differences.” In effect, though without saying so, he thus disagrees with Prof. He’s case for fundamental similarities between Christianity and Chinese religions.Wan Junren argues that “Western Christianity as a religious culture more easily enters Chinese culture than do other religious cultures,” and thus “ can easily become an organic part of Confucian – dominated Chinese culture and produce a corresponding cultural influence on the spiritual world of Chinese society.” To support and illustrate his case, he studies Matteo Ricci’s missionary work in China “in order to focus on the cultural relation between religion and morality,” since Christianity and Confucianism “share the same goal of making morality secular by different routes.”Prof. Wan specifically disagrees with Samuel Huntington that there is a profound clash between Christianity and Confucianism or that there is a basic affinity between Islam and Confucianism.He does not argue from the number of converts to Christianity – there are more Buddhists than Christians – but from “Chinese intellectuals’ reactions to foreign religions… I will take’ Chinese culture’ rather than ‘Chinese society’ as the context of Christianity entering China.” He focuses on Ricci, because he “understood the ethos of Chinese culture that was to be the dialogue partner of Christianity, and thereby found an effective way of enabling Christianity to enter China.” Ricci realized that “missionary work is a matter of culture rather than politics,” and thus decided to “do missionary work through Chinese intellectuals, since intellectuals hold the power to influence the areas of knowledge, culture, and politics.”He further decided to “approach local Chinese culture and its deep spirit” in a “rational and indirect way.” Chinese political theory called for rule by righteous and knowledgeable leaders. Confucianists sought, therefore, to cultivate both their virtue and their knowledge in order to “be given the cultural privilege to influence politics and become candidates for political leadership.” Ricci understood that he must enter the Confucian world in order to influence it with the Christian message. His approach was “cultural, spiritual, or moral – ethical rather than political.” He showed his respect for Confucianism by learning its literature and adopting its etiquette. Perceiving the religion is an aspect of culture, he sought to connect with Chinese culture, especially the dominant stream, in order to make a lasting impact. Wan believes that this is the only way Western missionaries could ever succeed in entering China, “an Easter, nonreligious or super-religious secular cultural kingdom.”“Confucianism is essentially an ethic of morality concerned with society and human ethics. This is why Chinese intellectuals have always sought unification between knowledge and action and have sought to take social responsibility with morality and knowledge.” Ricci understood this, and “through a humanist connection between religion and culture, he started a dialogue between the Chinese Confucian ethics of morality and the Western Christian religion of God.” 9He first “realized the religious feature of Chinese Christianity…” There” was a Heaven that was concerned with the human world…” “ Second… Chinese people, especially ancient Confucians, emphasized the reward and punishment of Heaven, and there existed an idea of a world to come in China. “These three gave Confucianism “a transcendental religious characteristic; thus, Confucianism could also be considered a religion.”Ricci could start a dialogue with this.But also said Confucianism was a “nonreligion, since idol worship remains in Confucianism…, it lacks a professional religious clergy and official liturgy, and there is no doctrine of creation, etc.”The first allowed him to engage in dialogue; the second allowed him to maintain the need for Christian missionary work.Ricci entered into the discussion of whether human nature was good, and agreed with Wang Yangming’s view. Because man was created good, his nature was essentially good, though he had fallen into sin and needs salvation. He also, acknowledged that Confucianism has always had “a transcendental ideal spirit of moral perfectionism.” Christians believe such moral transformation must come from God, whereas Confucianists says it relies “on the human search for morality and ethical practice.” Both are seeking human perfection, however.Similarities between Christian religious ethics and Confucian morality include: benevolence and love; reverence for perfect men and for God; appreciation for political ceremonies and Christian obedience to the state; Confucian loyalty and forgiveness and Christian righteousness and mercifulness; unity of knowledge and morality; idea of immortality; etc.Wan believes that dialogue is needed now, not conflict of civilizations. Christianity has played a role in modernization: the market, politics, freedom, etc. but like Confucianism it has been criticized. After two world wars, however, we see that a world without God will fall into disaster and disorder. People in China are looking to Christianity again. Likewise, Confucianism has experienced revival in China. It has played a part in recent modernization and is playing a role in social and cultural customs. Thus, both beliefs offer ethical religious culture to modern social life.The last chapter we shall consider here is the comparison and contrast of Christian agape (love) and Confucian ren (benevolence), by Lo Ping-cheung. Drawing upon Anders Nygren’s famous Agape and Eros, he first reviews the contrast between those two kinds of “love.” Eros – the fundamental Greco-Roman notion – is acquisitive desire and longing; upward movement; man’s way to god; assumes man can save himself; is egocentric; seeks to gain its life; is the will to get and possess; Is primarily man’s love; and is dependent on the quality, beauty, and worthy of its object: “Eros recognizes values in its object… and loves it.”Agape on the other hand, is sacrificial giving; comes down [from God]; is God’s way to man; is God’s grace, bringing salvation; is unselfish love; lives the life of God; is freedom in giving, which depends on wealth and plenty received from God; is primarily God’s love, even when we imitate it; is sovereign in relation to its object, directed towards the evil and the good. “Agape loves – and creates value in its object.”Turning to Confucianism, Lo chooses to study Neo-Confucianism, since, though it is not a religion in the full sense, it has a religious dimension, character, import, or sentiment. The great medieval Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi as the representative of this school of thought and belief, whose delineation of ren matches some features of agape. It is the mind both of Heaven and of human beings, producing both physical and moral life ; it gives rise to love (ai); is impartial; considerate (shu); it is the pattern after which we should shape our lives. Ren is “the fundamental motif of Confucianism.”Po believes that Christian theology must be done in context; in China, that means the context of Confucianism, especially Neo-Confucianism. He states that there is a connection between divine and human love in Christianity, though of course people can only imitate God as they depend on his grace to do so, in response to his love for them. In other words, Jesus is not only exemplar, but Savior.In Confucianism, while there we should pattern our lives after the ren of heaven, as in Christianity, it is assumed that we shall be able to do so without the aid of heaven, since he partakes of the essential nature of Heaven by nature. Thus, ren is quite different from agape. Po concludes with a call for further dialogue on this vital subject.In his response, You Bin agrees on the similarities between ren and agape and the need for dialogue, but questions whether ren “is as metaphysical a concept as agape in Christianity.” He thinks that while theology must operate within a given context, it is also “the logos of God,” and thus “should transcend any locality and temporality, and be a universal enterprise.” He concludes, however, on a different note: Christianity has often tried to create a synthesis with itself and a prevailing philosophy or world view, so perhaps “the dialectic between agape and ren… would bring the power of life for Chinese contextual theology!”


In the first place, we should take note of the sophistication and solid scholarship of these papers; Chinese thinkers are coming into their own as interpreters of Christianity within their cultural context.Second, it is clear that there are many important points of contact between Christianity and some schools of Confucianism, and that these are worthy of further exploration.Third, fundamental contrasts between the two thought-and-belief systems mean that any synthesis will be hard to achieve.Finally, respectful dialogue opens up possibilities for mutual understanding and respect, and enables us to learn important new truths.I cannot recommend this book too highly; the other chapters deserve careful attention, which I hope to provide in coming installments.

ReviewsJason Truell