1. Human nature
One of the most important areas in which Confucianism exerts an influence on the faith of Chinese Christians is anthropology – that is, what we believe about the nature of human beings.
Our anthropology is important because what we think is the nature of people influences all manner of things: it influences how we preach to people, how we do evangelism, how we believe people grow as believers. And so it’s important for us to get our anthropology right!
In this post we’re going to consider the anthropology of Confucianism. We’ll do this by firstly considering Confucius himself, before we also look at Mencius and Xunzi, two significant Confucian writers. This will give us a good handle on the kind of things that are in the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism.
2. Confucius – silence on human nature
Confucius (551-479 BC) taught his disciples very clearly about the use of rites to train oneself to become a virtuous man. As he went about doing this, his focus was not at all on theoretical questions such as original nature of humans. Instead he concentrated on practical questions such as how one perfects oneself. In 1.15 of the Analects, we find the Confucian metaphor of carving horn, sculpting ivory, cutting jade and polishing stone – metaphors that describe the process of perfecting oneself. In that string of metaphors, the important factor is the process of caving, sculpting, cutting and polishing – processes which are equivalent to learning and observing the rites.
But what did Confucius believe about that original nature of humans? did he believe that we are originally good in nature? or that we are originally evil? It’s not clear what Confucius thought, as this was one of the areas that he remained quiet about. Here is a famous passage from the Analects:
Tzu-Kung said, Our Master’s views concerning culture and the outward insignia of goodness, we are permitted to hear; but about Man’s nature (xìng, 性) and the ways of heaven he will not tell us anything at all.”
Analects, 5.12 (tr. Arthur Waley).
As a result, there is great debate among scholars, with some finding slender threads of support in the Analects for one position or another (eg. Analects 6.16-17). But really, the closest Confucius ever seems to get in talking about nature are passages such as this one:
The Master said, “By nature (xìng, 性) , men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”
Analects, 17.2 (tr. James Legge).
Even in this passage you can see that his focus is very squarely on practice – and not on nature. And so when it comes to human nature, the consensus is that Confucius never really gave a solid answer, but simply left the question open.
3. Mencius – the goodness of human nature
After his death however, the question of man’s nature became a point of debate between the disciples of Confucius. One of the foremost disciples of Confucius was Mencius (372-289 BC), who believed in the essential goodness of human nature. He believed that humans become evil when they fail to develop that potential, or cultivate what goodness there is. He taught that the seed for the virtues (such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge) are already inside us at birth, and only need to be encouraged.
The feeling of commiseration belongs to all men; so does that of shame and dislike; and that of reverence and respect; and that of approving and disapproving. The feeling of commiseration implies the principle of benevolence (ren); that of shame and dislike, the principle of righteousness (yi); that of reverence and respect, the principle of propriety (li); and that of approving and disapproving, the principle of knowledge (zhi). Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished (duan) with them.
For Mencius, virtue was not a far-off goal to journey towards, but the home (or ‘tranquil habitation’) to which a person is to return:
To say—”I am not able to dwell in benevolence or pursue the path of righteousness,” is what we mean by throwing one’s self away. Benevolence (ren) is the tranquil habitation of man, and righteousness (yi) is his straight path. Alas for them, who leave the tranquil dwelling empty and do not reside in it, and who abandon the right path and do not pursue it!
In 6A.8 Mencius makes use off the analogy of a mountain that was once covered with luxurious trees – but which is now bare because people from a nearby town constantly cut down its trees, and by the constant grazing of sheep and cattle. He comments that,
People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of the mountain? Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. When the trees are lopped day after day, is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?
The point he is making is that like the tree-covered mountain, humans begin life as essentially good persons, and it is only by exposure to bad examples that a person turns bad. Yes, if you look at people now they appear bad – but that is not their original nature.
How then can a person be made restored to his original goodness? Here Mencius picks up on Confucius’ thought much more explicitly, believing one can perfect oneself through proper education. Here is Mencius again, carrying the metaphor of the mountain further:
Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.
For Mencius, the rites (li) were the means by which humans preserved and further cultivated that goodness that already resides inside of them.
4. Xunzi – the evil of human nature
However Mencius was not the only one who attempted to fill the void left by Confucius. In stark contrast to Mencius, another disciple named Xunzi (312–230 BC) believed that human nature was essentially evil. He lived and taught just after Mencius, and explicitly interacted with Mencius’ belief in the essential goodness of human nature.
Mencius states that man is capable of learning because his nature is good, but I say that this is wrong. It indicates that he has not really understood man’s nature nor distinguished properly between the basic nature and conscious activity.
Xunzi taught that humans are born with natural instincts – evil ones – that, if not guided and controlled, led to bad behaviour and social disruption. He writes unequivocally that,
Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity.
The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.
He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.
Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into license and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost.
Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.
However Xunzi believed that it was possible for humans to be transformed through observing ritual practices (li), so that harmony rather than disorder would prevail in the world. According to Xunzi, these ritual practices served to restrict and control human appetites and desires that rage within ourselves, giving them their proper, orderly expression.
In several places Xunzi makes use of the analogy of how a bent piece of wood may be straightened, or how a piece of metal may be sharpened, as a way to explain the role of this moral education. He writes that,
A warped piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape before it can become straight; a piece of blunt metal must wait until it has been whetted on a grindstone before it can become sharp.
Similarly, since man’s nature is evil, it must wait for the instructions of a teacher before it can become upright, and for the guidance of ritual principles before it can become orderly.
If men have no teachers to instruct them, they will be inclined towards evil and not upright; and if they have no ritual principles to guide them, they will be perverse and violent and lack order.
You can see that in line with both Confucius and Mencius, Xunzi also acknowledges the place of education in training a person to become good.
On first glance, it can seem as though what we have here is a debate about human nature that is similar to the debate in Western theology between Calvinism and Arminianism. After all, within Confucianism we seem to have two poles of opinion: one which holds to the essential evil of human nature (Xunzi), and another which holds to the essential goodness of human nature (Mencius).
However it’s important for us to note that this is not really the case. Because both Mencius and Xunzi believe in the perfectibility of the person through means of education. While it is true that Xunzi teaches that human nature is evil, he still believes in the essential rationality of the person, and the ability to choose that which is good. In Xunzi’s thought, evil resides in our passions – but it does not touch our mind.
Here is a contemporary assessment of Xunzi’s teaching about the mind. Notice how the mind is able to choose to do good:
By stressing that human nature is evil, Xunzi singled out the cognitive function of the mind (human rationality) as the basis for morality. We become moral by voluntarily harnessing our desires and passions to act in accordance with societal norms. This is alien to our nature but perceived by our mind as necessary for both survival and well-being.
Tu Weiming, “Confucius and Confucianism”.
By contrast, Reformed Christians believe that the Bible teaches that our will, and even our thinking is affected by the fall (eg. Romans 1:21ff), and so unregenerate people are unable to choose to do good. In theology, this is referred to as the noetic effects of the fall and makes essential the work of regeneration.
And of course Mencius’ understanding of the goodness of humans is clearly at odds with the Bible’s understanding of the fall. Far from being ‘naturally good’, passages like Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5 argue for a much bleaker assessment of the human condition. Mencius’ position actually shares similarities with a Christian heresy called Pelagianism.
Therefore while the poles of thought in Confucianism might seem to be analogous to the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, it is actually more analogous to the differences between Arminianism and Pelagianism.
This means that the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism may actually lead to a tendency towards Arminianism at best – and Pelagianism at worst. Because historically, these have been the classical categories for understanding human nature.
Could this account for preaching and evangelism which only addresses the will? rituals that highlight human decision making? Could this account for preaching styles that holds up moral examples for people to follow?
In any case, it highlights that, at the very least, in discussions about Calvinism vs Arminianism, we won’t simply be contending with exegetical questions. We will also be striving against a long-standing, historical commitment to the ability of the mind to choose to do good…
In a previous post I wrote about the the doctrine of the mean (中庸) and how it might influence Chinese Christian leadership. This is one part of the overall Confucian worldview, and significantly influences how leaders conduct themselves. Here is a key passage that speaks about it:
The Master said, “There was Shun: He indeed was greatly wise! Shun loved to question others, and to study their words, though they might be shallow. He concealed what was bad in them and displayed what was good. He took hold of their two extremes, determined the Mean, and employed it in his government of the people (執其兩端，用其中於民). It was by this that he was Shun!”
Doctrine of the Mean, 6.
Rather than giving themselves to extreme positions, the superior man holds to the mean (or middle position). And the virtuous leader makes use of this in the exercise of his governing.
Here is another quote, this time from the Analects where James Legge translates 2.14 as:
The Master said, “The superior man is catholic (周) and not partisan (比). The mean man is partisan and not catholic.”
Analects of Confucius, 2.14.
The idea here being that the superior man doesn’t take one particular side, but is able to be friendly and conciliatory and understanding of all sides. This is seen as a virtue – the virtue of being zhong (中). In the Doctrine of the Mean, this is spoken of as a “friendly harmony.”
Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak. How firm is he in his energy! He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side. How firm is he in his energy!
Doctrine of the Mean, 10.
It’s important to note that it is not seen as cowardice to avoid either position – it is actually seen as virtue to see all positions, and to be ‘catholic’ (周).
2. The Doctrine of the Mean in conversations
Today what I want to do is flesh out what this looks like in conversations, and hopefully shed light on some of the strange conversation dynamics you might come across in Confucian-influenced cultures. Because it could well be that what is driving your conversation partner is actually the Confucian virtue of zhong (中)!
Notice what happens in the following conversation. In these conversations, there is a conflict between the blue people, and red people. They are at two extremes. But notice what happens when a green person speaks to them…
The green person identifies that there are two extremes – but doesn’t want to take either position. Just like Shun in Doctrine of the Mean 6, this green person has identified the mean and now adopts it as his position. And it’s a position that does not ascribe any real blame to anyone – in this case, it’s just a matter of miscommunication.
But on hearing this moderate response from the green person, the blue person is startled. Why can’t this green person see what is clearly going on? And so they press their case a second time.
The blue person wants to argue the green person over to his side – but for the green person, there is no virtue in that. Instead it is actually virtuous not to hold either position. It is virtuous to remain in the middle, exhibiting the virtue of being zhong (中).
Notice also that when pushed further, the green person now begins to assign blame – and it’s to the one who is arguing forcefully. He is the one who is seen to be causing trouble. Frustrating for the blue person – but it makes sense within the Confucian worldview.
Notice now what happens when the green person goes over to speak to the red person. In a similar way, the red person puts forward his view, painting the situation in polar extremes. How will the green person respond?
The green person responds in the same kind of way – he notices the extremes, identifies the middle position, and adopts it – which appears conciliatory and virtuous. And once again, it’s a position that doesn’t assign blame to anyone – he affirms that both parties have a good heart.
However it’s not always the case that your conversation partner will take the middle position. And it has to do with whether you ‘belong’ with them or not. If they think you don’t ‘belong’ to their group, then you are essentially seen as an outsider – and they will play the Doctrine of the Mean game with you to be virtuous. But if you are seen as an insider, then you already belong in their eyes, and they will not feel compelled to play the Doctrine of the Mean game. Instead they will feel free to echo what you feel.
In this scenario notice how the dark red conversation partner doesn’t feel the need to identify and embody the mean. And it’s because they already belong. They are already part of the group.
This also means that the way in which someone speaks to you can also tell you a lot about how they see you – whether as an insider, or as an outsider to their group.
This dynamic could mean that adopting a more moderate position yourself in conversation might lead to quite different outcomes. In the following conversation we are back to the conversation between the blue person and the green person. But this time the blue person identifies with what the red person says. However the green person is smart enough to identify that there are two extremes at play – and the position the green person adopts is much more helpful.
3. Differing values in conversation
This dynamic may help explain what is going on in otherwise strange conversations. It could be that conflicting values are at play – on the one hand the arguing for and scoring of logical points, and on the other hand the identifying of the middle ground and embodying the virtue of zhong (中). And so you may find that conversations become less about rightness, and more about position. And you may find that discussions are concluded less on evidence, and more on moderation.
Should the virtue of zhong (中) play the determining factor in the making of decisions? should it subvert the place of evidence and good argumentation?
From the Christian point of view, I don’t believe so. Because ultimately the form of revelation given to us does not discount evidence and good argumentation, but instead has a good place for it. Paul is at pains to lay out evidence for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The apostles are careful in their argumentation in the letters. The apostles went to the temple courts and reasoned with those who would listen (Acts 17). The form of God’s revelation to us shows that good reasons and sound thinking do take pride of place.
At a supporting level the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean does alert us to the relational aspect of conversations. It’s not just a matter of winning the argument – but of winning over the other person. And so in this regard it’s interesting to see how Paul’s strong command to stop the false teachers in 1 Timothy 1 is paired with his strangely quiescent encouragement in 1 Timothy 4 to win over his detractors by his exemplary manner of life. It doesn’t negate the public directive in chapter 1 (and even in chapter 4 he is to “command and teach these things” v.11) – but at a supporting level Paul is aware of the power of personal example.
Yet in Christianity this never gets in the way of speaking the truth, and having discernment in church matters. In Christianity there is truth that exists irrespective of the positions people hold. And in Christianity we are never meant to exemplify zhong (中) - but instead to choose. To choose gladly that which is good, to love fiercely that which is good, to proclaim passionately the one who is good.
In imperial China district magistrates were placed all over the empire in order to administer the realm. Their position combined both judicial and administrative roles – and as such, these local magistrates collected taxes, settled disputes, tried criminal cases and ensured public order.
But because of the very size of the empire, these local officials held considerable power in their area. By and large, their word was law. And so if you had a problem with your district magistrate – if you felt they were corrupt or abusing their authority or levied unfair taxes – who could you go to?
Nevertheless there was an awareness that local officials were not always going to be fair and impartial in the exercise of their duties. And so if a citizen felt that they could get no justice in their part of the kingdom, they had one recourse open to them – and that was to petition the emperor directly through the petition system (xinfang, 信访).
Petitioners would travel from the countryside to the court of the emperor and present their petition before him as a last resort. It could be the case that the official in your village was corrupt – but at least the ruler, the one endowed with the mandate of heaven, at least he would have the fairness to hear your case. At least he will have the power over the local official to bring you justice.
And the place where people with grievances would go to present their petition? That is known as Tiananmen Square (天安門). That is the significance of Tiananmen Square for the Chinese – traditionally, it is the place where you would bring your complaint before the emperor.
While it has its origins in imperial China, the petition system was revived in the 1950s under Communist rule as a means for people to make suggestions, find redress for their grievances against local authorities, and highlight corruption. The modern xinfang system includes a whole network of petition bureaus in provincial centres, and the idea is that people can seek help at the local level, and then at the provincial level, before heading in to the capital. They may do this through emails, calls, and faxes, or meet an official in person. And today many petitioners still travel from the countryside in order to have their grievances heard.
Because there are implications for local authorities when groups of people petition at higher levels (shangfang, 上访), this practice is actively discouraged by local authorities. Large signs have been spotted in the countryside warning people against “illegal petitioning” (see below). Hard men loiter around railway stations to identify and waylay people from the provinces who are coming in to the capital to petition the government. And petitioners who do eventually make it to the capital often find it an unbearably slow process.
It is a sign of desperation that people pursue the petition system. But for a man who has unjustly lost his livelihood due to some corrupt dealings, or whose only child has been killed by a careless official, this is often their avenue of last recourse.
It is interesting to reflect that the ancient xinfang system reveals an awareness that local officials may still be prone to moral failure, and consequently the need to build a kind of check against the abuse of authority. Much of Confucian society is predicated on the essential goodness of humans – yet here is one instance where that is not the case.
At the same time it also reveals an overwhelming trust in the uprightness and willingness of the ruler to step in and act justly. One can see that this reflects the doctrine of the mandate of heaven (tianming, 天命) – that the ruler alone is entrusted with a divine mandate to rule. And as such, there is the implicit trust that he will always be right, and can do no wrong. That is why the petitioner appeals to him – and not a jury of his peers.
What it also reveals is the strong awareness of injustice, and a yearning for justice, even if it means going against cultural norms – leaving one’s village, going over the head of the local official, creating trouble in the capital… We are built to want justice. However it is doubtful that petitioners always got the justice they sought after – both in ancient and in modern times.
Despite our longing for justice, and the structures that we build – both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western – it is a reality that evildoers sometimes do escape justice on this earth. Often they dine well, often their sleep is untroubled, and often they die a comfortable death. Despite our best efforts, justice is often elusive. This is the harsh reality that Asaph so hauntingly gives voice to in Psalm 73:1-14.
For those who long to see justice done, the news that there is a judgment after death can in fact be welcome news. This is partly why the message of the New Testament is such good news. Because it is good news that there will one day be a righteous judge who cannot be corrupted. It is good news that there will be a judge who sees every hidden act, and who will judge the world with justice (2 Timothy 4.1).
In the end it will be the Son of God – and not the Son of Heaven (tianzi, 天子) – who will bring us the justice we have long for on this earth.
A recent table on the OMF Facebook page has stirred up a lot of interest – I’ve seen it reposted in multiple places (original post here). It compares the Western and Eastern worldview in a whole series of areas, and shows how both must ultimately be transformed by the gospel. Here it is:
In this post my focus is just on the blue and pink column (and not the green column). And I think that the table does a pretty good job – although I don’t entirely agree with some of the elements in the pink column. In particular, I think it doesn’t quite get it right when it talks about ‘community’.
It is true that Confucius himself was much more civic-minded in his teaching than the Confucianism that we see lived out today – “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” And so much of his teaching was actually designed to ultimately influence the state as a whole.
However his focus on the virtue of filial piety had the unintended consequence of shrinking the circle of concern from the entire state, down to one’s own family/clan/village.
And so I’d suggest that the following modifications to the pink column might better represent the Eastern worldview:
To a Westerner, the Eastern perspective may seem highly community-focussed, in comparison to the individualistic West. And so it may look ‘communitarian’ – however by and large it is more correct to think of the family as being a person’s circle of concern. The Easterner is ultimately concerned about fitting in well into their family - rather than the fortunes of people who live down the road of their village (‘community’).
In addition, ‘family’ is thought of in quite a different way from how a Westerner would view family. Because we are not talking about the nuclear family unit of father-mother-children. We are talking about the extended family of aunties and uncles and grandparents. But more than that when the Easterner thinks about ‘family’ they are also talking about ancestors (in the past) as well as future descendants (who are yet to be born).
In the diagram above notice firstly what is included in the conception of ‘family’ in both East and West. On the left the focus is on father-mother-children (and grandparents, aunties etc. will still play a significant role) – but on the right, much more is included in the circle. And it even includes deceased ancestors and future unborn descendants.
Note also that what has primacy in both diagrams. On the left is the father-mother-children of one particular family unit (in bold) – but on the right, what is emphasised is the whole line of ancestors – of which I am just a small part. It is the family, considered as a long unbroken line, that has primacy.
It is because of this focus on the ‘family’ (rather than ‘community’) that family members may be very generous to others in the same family – yet distance themselves from the poor in their own village. It’s because of this that corruption sometimes takes the form of an government official only employing people from their own village, and passing over better qualified candidates from other places. And it’s because of this much larger conception of ‘family’ that a Chinese person might not make a fool of himself in public. Because it is one thing to face the disapproval of one’s spouse – but it’s another thing altogether to bring shame on both your ancestors, and succeeding generations of family members.
This orientation towards ‘family’ is massively significant in the Eastern worldview, and you can see that it actually touches many of the elements of the modified table. It influences one’s identity, how one behaves in society, what gives someone satisfaction – and even how one judges what is true!
However OMF’s table is very right to draw our attention to the green column. In the end it’s not a matter of Western or Eastern – but of transforming every corner of our lives and thinking and values in light of the word of God!
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”?
Providence teaches that God is not absent, but really is active in the world today. But ironically, one of the features that flow from a flawed understanding of providence is a relative quickness to attribute things to God’s hand.
Consider the following statements (drawn from examples given by Paul Helm):
“Far out, I almost got hit by a car on the motorway – I wasn’t really paying attention. God was really looking after me!”
“God has been kind to me. He prevented me from getting the ‘flu all winter this year!”
“You know, I missed my train today – but it meant that I met an old friend on the platform who now wants to buy 5000 units of our product! God made that happen!”
At the surface level, it seems innocent enough. After all, there is an acknowledgement that God is active in our world. And there is a thankfulness for good things come from his hands. What could be wrong with that? After all, in Romans 8:28, Paul promises that God will work in the world for our good!
Romans 8:28 (NIV)
The relative quickness in attributing good out of an event to God comes about because for this person, ‘good’ is simply defined in terms of material gain, physical well being, and social advancement. And so the moment these good things come, we can conclude that God has now worked his providence for our benefit. There is no need to wait because obviously, God has come through! he has brought about good in this situation!
However there are many problems with this approach to providence…
First of all, the good that God works towards is not material gain, physical well being, social advancement. And you can see that when you look at the very next verse that follows on from Romans 8:28. Because verse 29 defines for us the good that God is actually working towards – and it becomes clear that it is not merely about being saved from getting the ‘flu. Paul writes,
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-29 (NIV)
Yes, God is intending to do good for believers in how he orders this present world – but it is not the kind of good that people usually imagine. In verse 29 the good that God works towards is for his people to be conformed to Christ. It is not in providing material well being for his people.
Secondly, the provision of material things and well being – such as a safe journey – these by themselves does not necessarily lead towards growth in godliness. By itself, those things are neutral. In fact it is often more the case that hardships and trials are more useful in producing the result of godliness, than physical safety and well being!
One can imagine that a person, having come down with the ‘flu, and being stretched in his ability to be patient towards others at home while nursing a headache, may have grown more in conformity to Christ because of the opportunity afforded by that ‘flu. By contrast, a comfortable lifestyle may in fact do very little to wean people off the world, and grow in them a longing for their heavenly home.
And thirdly, because growth in Christlikeness is a project that takes a lifetime, it cannot be clear how God intends to use one averted accident, or one business success towards that good goal. Who can say how this car accident or that business venture will lead towards Christlikeness?
Of course all things come about because of God’s sovereign will. But since the ‘good’ that God is working towards only becomes clear towards the end of a life, it should only be with great hesitancy that we read off what God is doing in the world, without the benefit of divine revelation. But if instead ‘good’ only amounts to material blessings – then it can seem that God has achieved his ends of doing ‘good’ the moment that unexpected order arrives.
There are a few more problems as well. But already you can see the main problem revolves around what is thought of as ‘good’. Essentially, people have gladly seized on that word ‘good’ in Romans 8, and have filled it up what they consider to be good: health, emotional wellbeing, family stability, financial prosperity.
It may seem like a very spiritual way to talk – and might be one we’ve grown up with. But the relative quickness to testify that God is doing this only makes sense if the ‘good’ we have in mind is the provision of material things and the protection of health. And as a result you end up with a God whose main preoccupation in the world is to show how strong he is by warding off cancer, preventing car accidents, and holding off the rain.
It’s a great thing that people want to give thanks for God’s providence. But it’s interesting to consider why those things in particular are seen as the ‘good’ that God is working to bring about. Could it be that those things are our idols? could it be that those material blessings vastly overshadow the hope of growing in Christlikeness? Are the same people as quick to identify God’s providence in ‘flus and car accidents – which may equally, if not moreso, lead to growth in Christlikeness?
And so listen out for when people are quick to ascribe God’s providence to something. Notice the kinds of things they ascribe to God’s providence. Notice the confidence they have that God has come through on his promise to do good to us. It may sound spiritual – but it may in fact reveal hearts that see material blessings and the protection of health as the ultimate good.
In a previous post we outlined the biblical doctrine of providence. But we also saw how this doctrine could be misused in some cases – taking the place that the atonement should enjoy at the heart of the gospel.
This can show itself in testimonies as well as evangelistic preaching – and dangerously distorts the gospel. One wonders what kind of Christianity people are being saved to!
Assurance of salvation
But that’s not all. Among Chinese churches, providence can take on an unexpectedly prominent place when it comes to assurance of salvation.
You may have noticed that for some Christians their assurance rests not on the doctrine of the atonement, but on the doctrine of providence. How do they know that God is real? how do they know that they are spiritually alive? why do they have confidence that they belong to God? It is not actually because of the finished work of Christ. Instead their assurance rests on the fact that God supernaturally intervened at several points in their past.
And so what some people instinctively turn to for assurance is not the gospel – but their testimony of how God brought them through a health scare, how God spoke to them and told them they should become a pastor, how God provided in a totally unexpected way in a time of great need. Instead of our assurance resting on the objective work of God in the gospel, it rests instead on the subjective feelings and experiences in my life!
And you can understand that what God appears to do in the here-and-now is much more immediate and observable than the cross of Christ. More than that, it is much more personal than the cross of Christ: “Yes, Christ died for the elect – but let me tell you about how he took away my cancer!” And the idea behind this is that, as one of God’s people, God is now involved in my life! God now supernaturally intervenes in the normal course of events to look out for me!
However this is a false view of providence. God does not providentially care only for Christians – his providence extends over all people, and at every time (Acts 17:22ff). And so it is wrong to build our assurance on providence – since God providentially cares for both non Christians as well as Christians. Our assurance should rest on the objective work of Jesus on the cross!
Expectation of blessings
You may also find that the normal expectation for the Christian life also becomes one of blessing: because we have come to him and made him our God, he will look after us. It may not happen in ways we would expect, but the God that we have pledged ourselves to will in turn bless us in physical, material, and emotional terms. Our families will get along more. We will succeed in life. God will bring healing into our lives.
And of course he may – God is sovereign over all the things in this world – car accidents, near-misses, exam questions, beautiful scenery, crying children. But there is often an unwarranted expectation of blessings in the here-and-now, and not a longing for the glorious freedom of the children of God that will one day be revealed (Romans 8:18-23). There is an expectation that blessings will be material or emotional things, and not so much spiritual realities (Galatians 3:14). But more than that, there is little said about the expectation of persecution (2 Timothy 3:12), loss of relationships (Matthew 10:34-36) and loss of material goods (Hebrews 10:34).
As a result it puts forward an expectation of the Christian life that may be attractive – but which is clearly different from what God has promised to believers. Paul Helm, in his book on providence, writes:
We can see from this how mistaken and misguided are those who teach that a well-ordered Christian life will be a happy life, or a long life, or a prosperous life or a healthy life. A survey of the lives of the saintliest of the people of God provides no confirmation of such claims. There are no promises of God which guarantee any of this; and in fact there are teachings of Scripture which suggest that it is impossible to discern a pattern to the lives of believers.
Paul Helm, The Providence of God, 126.
One danger of all this is that it sets Christians up with unrealistic expectations for the Christian life. This might work itself out in a suppressed disillusionment when blessings do not readily materialise. Or in people feeling compelled to manufacture and embellish experiences in order to fit in with others. Or people’s assurance of salvation being shaken when their business fails!
But a more serious danger is that it dishonours God. Because he is thought of merely as the provider of good things for us to enjoy – rather than the one who himself is good, the one who will one day be the source of our eternal joy. He is dishonoured when the blessings his people delight themselves in are the material blessings in the present – not in his own majestic goodness.
In fact you could say that the promise of success, harmonious family relationships and material prosperity have much more in common with the desires of most non-Christian Chinese than it does with biblical Christianity! In the language of CS Lewis, believers are being told that God will give them better mud, with which to make wonderful mud pies in the slum – and their eyes are never lifted to see the glorious offer of the holiday at the sea…
The doctrine of providence has to do with how God works in the world today: how he guides people, how ministry decisions should be made, how we should expect ministries to be funded, what meaning may be derived from historical events.
In the West, providence has primarily centred on discussions about the problem of evil, Deism, and the efficacy of prayer. Today, providence doesn’t get much airplay. At college we didn’t have many lectures on it. It doesn’t feature on many confessions of faith or doctrinal statements. And when did you last read a book on it?
However I believe that those involved in Chinese church ministry must be ready to challenge deeply held misconceptions on providence…
The basics of providence
God reveals to us in Scripture that he sustains the world (Col 1:17-18), and is involved in every detail of the world’s running (Matt 10:29-31, Psalm 147).
Moreover, his work in the world is not random, but purposive – it may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, but he uses all things for his own ends (Rom 8:28). And in this, God is sovereign over both blessing and disaster (Isa 45:5-7).
God’s providence extends over the hearts and actions of individuals (Prov 16:9, 21:1). And within this, one special part of providence has to do with predestination: his divine choice of who will be saved (Rom 9).
Like ‘Trinity’, the word ‘providence’ itself does not appear in the Bible. However theologians use this term to refer to the present work of God in creation. The Shorter Catechism defines providence in this way:
God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.11.
The doctrine of providence gives Christians confidence that God’s purposes will prevail, in what may appear to be a chaotic and hostile world. And it also means that God should receive worship from his creatures for his work in the world.
The gospel of providence
While the gospel centres around the doctrine of atonement, for some Chinese Christians the gospel actually centres around the doctrine of providence.
Listen carefully when someone does an evangelistic talk and you will notice that the emphasis will often be on the promise that God will look after your life: he can help you cope with your illness, he can give you confidence and direction when you lack it.
Listen carefully when when people share their testimonies, and you will also notice that the content of their sharing centres around God’s providential care now: how God helped them through a health scare, or gave them a sense of calm. And by contrast, the atoning work of Jesus on the cross simply doesn’t get a mention.
Of course God does providentially care for his people – but a dangerous and fundamental switch has taken place: the effects of the gospel are now being confused with the gospel itself.
This happens for a number of reasons. Firstly, sin is minimised (see previous posts on the Chinese understanding of sin, parts 1 and 2) – and as a consequence, the main problems that confront people is no longer the expectation of future judgement on account of sin – but instead the present difficulties in living – such as lack of confidence, physical illness or inability to get a job. And secondly the pragmatic nature of Chinese culture lends itself to a gospel that has immediately tangible benefits.
Providence – and God’s agenda for the world
Is that wrong? you might wonder. Because after all, providence is not an unbiblical doctrine. What could be wrong with giving it prominence? What could be wrong if it means that people will come to God?
Providence is about God’s activity in the world now. But God’s activity in the world is inextricably linked with his purposes for the world in the past and the future – not separate from it. In this world God is pursuing his own agenda – and not ours. It is for his glory to be made manifest in the cross of Christ. But it minimises and misrepresents the glory of God in the cross of Christ for us to announce that God is primarily concerned for our welfare. That he is here to care for us through our health scares and employment difficulties.
And ultimately if people come to God for the sake of their own health or job prospects – they come to God as idolaters. With hearts that have only ever seen him as a useful stick to clear the cobwebs in our path (see previous post). With hearts that have never been reformed, and who have never seen God as glorious and worthy of worship in himself.
Tune your ears to pick up on the underlying theology people have on providence. Listen to what is said, and what is left unsaid in testimonies and evangelistic talks. And distinguish clearly the effects of the gospel, from the gospel itself.
You may not like poetry. But in Confucianism, the ability to handle Chinese poetry is an essential part of being a scholar. And that, together with the history of interpretation of Chinese poetry, can shape how other texts are handled, and the confidence with which people approach those texts by themselves…
2. Xing is greater than Fu
A key concept in Chinese poetry is the distinction between fu, bi and xing. First mentioned in Zhou Li, these terms describe three complementary approaches to reading a piece of poetry.
There is general agreement that fu is the basic surface level meaning of the words. However today there is still considerable debate about the precise meaning of bi and xing - but one account is that bi is another situation referred to in a round-about way through the poetic image (a kind of metaphor), and xing the affection and realisation that is stirred when the first sheds light on the second.
And so for instance:
fu: the description of leaves falling from the blossom tree
bi: the mention of a friend who has long forgotten your acquaintance
xing: the unmentioned sadness of having lost a friend
Again, there is debate about the exact nature of xing. But what is particularly important to notice here is that the cash-value is in discussions about bi and xing – never about fu.
And this is reflected in pre-modern commentaries and discussions about poems from Mao Heng onwards. Fu was simply considered to basic to discuss.
From this you can see two things: firstly, there is a definite hierarchy of meaning, although they are built on one another. Fu is least interesting, bi is more important, and xing is the goal of reading poetry. And secondly, xing is almost always quite different from fu. Yes, the words of the poem may be about a blossom tree – but it is really all about the sadness of having lost a friend.
3. The reader is greater than the author
While interest was in the xing which lay beyond the actual words of the poem, it should be noted that Chinese interpretation of poetry began with a concern about authorial intent. What was important was to work out what the author was trying to convey at the level of xing.
Mencius (372-289 BC), perhaps the next most significant figure in Confucianism apart from Confucius himself, wrote that:
When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence one tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as “looking for friends in history.”
Mencius, 5B8 (tr. DC Lau)
Basically the intention of the author, his historical situation and so on were important in making sense of a piece of writing.
However in the 17th century, the scholar Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692) turned this around and asserted that the author may have intended certain things – but what was important was for the reader to derive meaning according to how they feel. This pre-dates the Western revolt against authorial intent (eg. Roland Barthes‘s The Death of the Author, 1967) by several hundred years!
And so for hundreds of years before the rise of post-structuralism and postmodernism in the West, Chinese scholarship has not been so interested in what the author intended, as what the reader feels.
4. The scholar who can quote poetry is greater than the pleb who can’t
The ability to recite and interpret poetry is highly valued in Confucianism. It marked you out as a distinguished, learned person – distinct from the uneducated folk who cannot. And so a working knowledge of the Odes was essential in becoming part of that elite of society. Consider the place of poetry in the following passages from The Analects:
The Master said: “Draw inspiration from the Poems; steady your course with the ritual; find your fulfilment in music.”
Confucius, The Analects, 8.8 (tr. Simon Leys).
The Master said to his son: “Have you worked through the first and the second part of the Poems? Whoever goes into life without having worked through the first and the second part of the Poems will remain stuck, as if facing a wall.”
Confucius, The Analects, 17.10 (tr. Simon Leys).
Everyone recognised that there was a vast gap between normal village folk – and those who can handle poetry. Simon Leys writes that, “without an ability to recite the Poems and to quote from them with utter versatility, no man could be deemed educated, nor would he have had any means to express himself in ceremonial functions.”
This ability involved more than just the mere reading of poetry – one should also be able to interpret and use poetry in conversation. Consider how poems are used in this conversation between Chen Ziqin and the son of Confucius. When asked what his father taught him, Confucius’ son replied saying:
“Once, as he was standing alone, and I was discreetly crossing the courtyard, he asked me: “Have you studied the Poems?” I replied: “No.” He said: “If you do not study the Poems, you will not be able to hold your own in any discussion.” I withdrew and studied the Poems.“
Confucius, The Analects, 16.13 (tr. Simon Leys).
This is because the solemn quoting of a poem can sometimes be enough to settle an argument or make a point. You can see an example of this use of poetry in an interchange between Confucius and one of his disciples:
Zigong said: ” ‘Poor without servility; rich without arrogance.’ How is that?”
The Master said: “Not bad, but better still: ‘Poor, yet cheerful; rich, yet considerate.’ “
Zigong said: “In the Poems, it is said: ‘Like carving horn, like sculpting ivory, like cutting jade, like polishing stone.’ Is this not the same idea?”
The Master said: “Ah, one can really begin to discuss the Poems with you! I tell you one thing, and you can figure out the rest.”
Confucius, The Analects, 1.15 (tr. Simon Leys)
Zigong uses this particular poem to show that the gentleman continues to refine his character. And one can imagine other people in the room being struck to silence at his fluency with poems.
Great deference then is shown to scholars who can wield the Odes in such a knowledgeable and authoritative manner. And reflexively, regular people would feel a great uncertainty in putting forward their own views over against that of a learned scholar.
From all this, you can see that throughout history there is a definite movement away from the text itself. Firstly because xing is quite distinct from the plain meaning of fu. Secondly because for hundreds of years Wang Fuzhi had shifted the attention of Chinese scholarship away from the intention of the author and to the feelings of the reader. And thirdly because great deference is shown to scholars who have mastered the art of poetry – which also generates in common people a great uncertainty in handling a text for oneself…
Troubling, for those of us who want to direct people’s attention to the word of God in Scripture. Who are committed to grammatico-historical exegesis. And who want to give people confidence that they can read God’s word for themselves.
The other soldier cautiously crept out from behind cover, his own rifle carefully trained on the other. He said nothing.
“We’re on the same side really,” the first soldier smiled ruefully. “There’s no need to shoot. Look: I have a rifle – just like you. I wear a uniform – just like you. I have a rank, just like you.”
The other soldier nervously adjusted his aim, unsure what kind of game this was.
“I wear boots – just like you. I have a helmet – just like you,” he continued, lowering his arms and coming forward with a smile. “Bro!”
But the rifle never moves. “Yeah – but you’re in a different army.”
One of the remarkable things that you will notice when you start reading Confucius is how remarkably similar Confucianism is at quite a few points to Christianity. Here are a few of the similarities:
- the need to cultivate virtue
- belief in heaven
- the will of heaven
- leadership through example not coercion
- importance of family
- a kind of ‘golden rule’
- ordering of society
- harmonious relationships
- children obeying parents
And I think the similarities disarm people to culture. Surely that means that Confucianism is good to the extent that it bears similarities to Christianity? Surely we should embrace, perhaps even encourage those elements of Confucianism?
How are we to think of these similarities – or indeed the similarities of any other cultures and philosophies?
The first thing to bear in mind is that these are signs of God’s common grace (Matthew 5, Acts 14). In his kindness human cultures have developed in ways that preserve some of the good in God’s created order and restrain sin. And so in some cultures justice is treasured, in other cultures courage is prized, in still others family is prized.
And when we consider philosophies, we can acknowledge that yes, there are things that post-modernism gets right, there are things that feminism gets right, there are things that hedonism gets right. By studying the world, people can perceive something of the truth of how God has ordered his creation. And so it should come as no surprise that non Christian worldviews will share points of similarity with Christianity.
But secondly while on the surface cultures and philosophies may share some similarities – that is not enough. It doesn’t make Confucianism – or any other philosophy – harmless or neutral. Because at its heart, none of these worldviews or cultures are constructed with the glory of God at the centre of its worldview. Yes, there might be a love for justice – but it is always justice without reference to God. It will instead be justice turned in the service of Man, or perhaps Justice itself as the highest good. Yes, there might be a love for family – but it will always be family without reference to God. Perhaps even Family itself as the highest good… and therein lies the problem.
In Romans 1 Paul makes clear that a love for family, or justice, or pleasure for its own sake and not for the sake of the creator, is not praiseworthy. Instead, it is idolatrous! This is because the glory that should go to him instead goes somewhere else – and actually makes people more culpable rather than less. It is a rifle stolen, and wielded in service of the enemy. A helmet used in rebellion against God. And so Paul’s analysis in Romans 3 is that all people ‘fall short’ of the glory of God.
And thirdly an uncritical acceptance of certain features of Confucianism (or any other philosophy) is dangerous because it will inevitably be bound up with an alien worldview. it will not be just a simple and neutral ‘love for harmony’ – it will be a Confucian-branded love for harmony; it will not be just a simple and neutral ‘love for sex’ – it will be a hedonism-branded love for sex. One that carries with it distortions and a network of underlying beliefs which need to be carefully examined, tested, corrected.
And so those who are followers of Jesus should not be scared to bring the searchlight of the gospel onto their own culture – whatever that culture is. Instead, we should welcome in-depth analysis, wanting in all things to honour him, having a healthy suspicion of all worldviews that do not have the glory of God at its centre.
You can expect that different cultures and philosophies will share similarities to Christianity. It’s a sign of God’s common grace. But a soldier who also has a rifle and a helmet, by virtue of those things, is not necessarily an ally…