Confucianism – and the interconnectedness of culture
1. The interconnectedness of culture
The more I explore Confucianism, the more I am struck by the inherent interconnectedness of all its different parts. Yes we can tease out themes such as the mandate of heaven, or the role of rituals, or filial piety and discuss them in turn. However it is important to note that all of these things are deeply connected to one another – and it is almost impossible to change one part, while all the others remain unchanged.
This means that it is very hard for a person, brought up with a Confucian worldview, to replace only a few parts of that worldview – because it leaves his life essentially unliveable. If he does succeed to remove one part of his worldview, the interconnectedness of culture renders him unable to transact socially with confidence, unable to resolve conflicts properly, unable to assess himself reliably.
But not only that, that cultures are not just held by individuals, they are shared by many people in a community. And so one individual might change his understanding of how conflict is resolved – but unless everyone else in his community also experiences that same change of understanding, it means that he is unable properly resolve conflict when he is in that community. He will find that his understanding of his identity will not accord to other people’s understanding of his identity. His exercise of leadership will not be accepted by the rest of his society.
Imagine if we removed the role of the da ren (great man) from a community and instead insisted that everyone should relate to each other in a less hierarchical, and more egalitarian manner. This might be fine – but it also means that suddenly that community has no way to resolve conflicts. Because the role of the da ren was to speak to fighting parties and plead with them for the sake of his face, to stop fighting and get on with each other. The preeminence of his persona plays an irreplacable role in bringing a kind of resolution to what would be an otherwise intractable conflict.
Take also the example of gossiping. Imagine if we removed gossiping from a community and instead insisted that everyone should speak directly to the people they have problems with. Again that might be fine – but we have done nothing to help with the other person’s loss of face, and we lose the role that other people have in moderating the feelings of the complainant (“such a small thing, just let it go”).
Making a change in one part of the culture (eg. the social heirarchy) has consequences for a different part of the culture (eg. conflict) – because all these parts of culture do not stand in isolation, but are connected with one another. Not only that, making a change in one individual causes difficulties for that individual if that same change is not also made in at least some others.
2. The problems it poses for conversion
Conversion, therefore, may often only take place at the superficial level of beliefs. “Instead of praying to Buddha, I now pray to Jesus.” “I have stopped offering sacrifices at the family shrine – I now bring my offerings to the church.” However there is no real change at the deeper levels of how leadership is conducted, how people present themselves to others, how conflict is resolved. There is no conversion of the values and desires of the heart. And instead these things often remain firmly rooted in the original culture, than in any biblical teaching.
Culture, therefore, is not something that we can pick and choose from – a bit of this from this culture, a bit of that from another culture. Because all the parts function as an integrated package – a package which has proven over the test of time to ‘work’. to be essentially ‘liveable’.
The interconnectedness of the elements of culture (such as, but not limited to Confucianism) means that the conversion of deeper elements of one’s worldview will often face great resistance. Conversion through piecemeal change rarely happens. Add a training package at church about leadership in order to change the leadership culture – and people will fall back to the leadership patterns that ‘work’. Add some Bible teaching about conflict – and people will default to behaviours that conform with the rest of their life.
What can sometimes happen, however, is that an individual undergoes a wholesale and radical conversion. In a short space of time all of his life is overturned. Not only does he now call Jesus his saviour, but in all his values, in his desires for his children, in his approach to his business and conversation and in how he deals with conflict and leadership – all of these things and more will suddenly come under the Lordship of Christ. In this case, a large and interconnected segment of culture is being overturned and challenged and replaced.
Imagine a piece of elastic – it can be stretched, and pulled this way and that – but that stretching never really influences the shape of that piece of elastic. It snaps back into shape very easily – the shape it has held for many years. In the same way challenges to just one or another part of culture by itself does not make a great difference. Because that renders that person’s life unliveable – and he will soon default to the original shape. What needs to happen is a wholesale change of all the parts, all at once – much like the heating and remoulding that a piece of elastic must undergo if it is to take on a new shape.
I once had a conversation with a minister of Cantonese congregation, and I asked him how it was that people in his congregation became Christians. How did conversion happen? does it happen all at once? does it happen gradually? His answer was that it was almost always gradual. People may become churchgoers and take on the external practices of Christianity, but he would often not be certain how truly converted many of them were – even after many years!
Now his experience may be unique – but I suspect the gradual conversion he described is much more common than not. However if it is true that gradual conversion is unlikely to produce true conversion due to the resistivity of culture, this seriously calls into question traditional evangelistic approaches among the Chinese. Missiologist Paul Hiebert warns that,
Public affirmations, warm feelings, and verbal decisions are not enough. There must be evidence of repentance, discipleship, and turning to God.
Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews
Further on, Hiebert warns about the danger of a kind of ‘conversion’ that only involves taking on Christian behaviours and rituals:
Although conversion must include a change in behaviour and beliefs, if the worldview is not transformed, in the long run the gospel is subverted and becomes captive to the local culture. The result is syncretistic Christo-paganism, which has the form but not the essence of Christianity.
Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews
What we need in such cultures then is not minor adjustments to the elastic of culture – for it will simply snap back to what it has always been, due to the interconnectedness of culture. What we need is a heating and remoulding of a person’s whole life including their behaviours, but also their values and desires and worldview – this is the kind of conversion that we want to see in people! Perhaps then in such cultures we should place a much higher emphasis on discipleship. So that churchgoers begin to see the implications of the gospel for all of life – how conflict is handled, how leadership is exercised, how one thinks of themselves in relation to others – before they think of themselves as converted.
What we also need is for a new and transformed community that reinforces and watchfully embodies not just Christian behaviours, but Christian values and desires and worldviews. And so perhaps we should also take much greater note of the phenomenon of ‘group decision making’ and ‘multi individual decisions’ which missiologists have noticed in group oriented societies. In these societies, missionaries seek to have the whole group make an initial decision for Christianity, while at the same time delaying baptism until individuals really do convert. These approaches take seriously the effect that social relationships have on individuals, and so perhaps they are better suited to cultures where the social group is more important than the individual, and where social values need to be overturned.
I mentioned before that Cantonese pastor who was doubtful about how many long-time regular churchgoers were in fact truly converted. It is great to see the growth in Chinese churches. It is great to see many people taking on Christian behaviours and Christian beliefs. But in the words of Hiebert, could it be that some have only “the form but not the essence of Christianity”?