This, of course, is a highly contested question. Google searches on this question bring up a variety of answers. But here, I propose to offer the definitive answer – not really. What I really want to do is ask the questions that are behind the question. Why is this even a question to begin with, and how are the ways this can be answered? In particular, should Christians (Chinese or otherwise) be concerned about this question at all?
First, the question itself, if asked in English, is framed around an ‘-ism’ – that is, a comprehensive system of thinking. It assumes that Confucianism is a cohesive whole. But this is not so. If we follow the notion of the three epochs of Confucianism as proposed by scholars such as Tu Weiming 杜维明 and Mou Zongsan 牟宗三, there is ‘classical’ Confucianism (traced back to early thinkers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi), Neo-Confucianism (during the Song and Ming dynasties), and New Confucianism (dating to the 20th century). Classical Confucianism has very few religious sensibilities and is described by many as a humanistic tradition – very much concerned with the here and now.1 Neo-Confucianism grew out of an engagement with Buddhism and Daoism and developed a metaphysical undercurrent which, in fact, moves it much more into the realm of what modern Western thinkers would describe as religiosity. The third current, New Confucianism, is one that arises in a 20th century context of China’s rapid modernisation (what is known as the May Fourth movement) and, on the one hand, engages with certain Western thinkers such as Kant and Hegel and, on the other hand, engages with Buddhism and Daoism to further develop metaphysical understandings from within Confucianism.2 In some ways, the question needs to be better framed: In what era of Confucianism are we speaking of?
Secondly, if this is asked in Chinese, the term used to render ‘Confucianism’ needs to be seriously considered. Is it rujia 儒家, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian school’ (or technically, the ‘school of scholars’)? This would perhaps be best descriptive of the earliest forms of Confucianism. Or is it ruxue 儒学, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian study’ – giving the possibility for a more distant, academic understanding of the subject. Or is it rujiao 儒教, meaning roughly ‘the Confucian religion’. This last term is perhaps often tied to the cult of Confucius – a practice that some have argued originated in a veneration of Confucius in the Kong family, but later, as he became revered for his civil teachings, resulted in veneration practices of local magistrates. In the last few decades, a number of individuals have been trying to resurrect this understanding of Confucianism and assert it as a ‘sixth’ religion in China, promoting it as a teaching to be embraced once again as part of China’s state orthodoxy. So we need to consider both the era and the branch of Confucianism we are speaking of.
Thirdly, I think it is important to consider historically why this question has arisen. This has been hotly debated in the 20th and 21st centuries mainly because Western modernity has developed a dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘philosophy’ which was beginning to influence the discourse in China. Today, most philosophers consider themselves atheists; but historically, this is not so. Consider how the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle had complex understandings of cosmology and metaphysics. We get this sense even more in the New Testament, where in Colossians 2:8, the Apostle Paul speaks about not being captive by ‘philosophies’ (φιλοσοφία) which are expressed in forms of gnosticism and mystery religions. But in the Chinese context, words for ‘religion’ (zongjiao 宗教) and ‘philosophy’ (zhexue 哲学) were only invented in the late-1800s and early 20th century – precisely the time when China and other parts of East Asia were trying to modernise themselves in order to engage with the West. Afterall, to follow a ‘religion’ is part of the feudal teaching with no scientific background; to follow a ‘philosophy’, such as communism, is noble and acceptable.
Finally, what does this have to do with Christianity? With the ascent of China, we see a growing interest amongst Christians to focus on Confucianism as a philosophy, and one that can be useful to formulate a Christian theology.3 If Christians in the past have been able to engage Plato and Aristotle as handmaidens of theology, then surely Christians today can do the same with other philosophies such as Confucianism. But perhaps more important is the conversation that Chinese Christians have in terms of how one reckons with a cultural background that is largely shaped by Confucianism. In the context of Africa, Andrew Walls put it this way:
Africans ask the same question as the early Greeks: “Do we have to reject our entire history & culture when we become Christians?”
Do we employ theological methods of engaging ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ to identify whether or not Confucianism can or should be embraced by Chinese Christians? Perhaps an even greater challenge is the reality that most Chinese Christians (or ethnic Chinese in general) do not really consider themselves ‘Confucians’, yet certain Confucian ways of thinking continue to percolate up through their Christian practices. This latter challenge really beckons a more intentional engagement with Confucianism in the variety of its forms. The question should less be whether or not Confucianism should be engaged in theological reflections, but whether it is to be the handmaiden of theology or the mistress of theology.
Perhaps a more balanced approach would be to say that Confucianism, along with Aristotelean and Platonic thought, is a philosophical tradition with religious qualities. Therefore, Chinese (and non-Chinese) Christians need to consciously consider various Confucian teachings and modes of thinking and negotiate those aspects with their Christian faith.
- This is not to say that classical Confucianism is ‘secular’. See Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (Prospect Heights, Il: Waveland Press, 1972). ↩
- As a major proponent of Confucianism as a ‘world tradition’ and advocated of New Confucianism, Tu Weiming argues that Confucianism has at its core a view of transcendence. He calls the anthropocosmic nature of humanity, saying that humans are co-creators of the universe alongside Heaven. This is captured in the Chinese phrase Tian ren he yi 天人合一. ↩
- One recent example of this is the book Gregg Ten Elshof’s Confucianism for Christians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015). ↩