Christian Confucianism

A while back I blogged about the basic concepts of Confucianism. Through this, I have come to realize that for many years I viewed the Bible through the lens of the ideas taught by this “Chinese ethical and philosophical system“.

I also came to realize that Confucian thought had become a barrier that hindered my writing of messages, testimonies, etc. I could never quite grasp the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Where did I pick up Confucian ideas in America? Certainly such thoughts came from a Korean version of Confucianism, perhaps mixed in with Taoism and Buddhism. Today I would like to delve into this a little deeper. This is a big topic, and one to which I expect to give more thought. In the future, I plan to examine the 12-point UBF spiritual heritage in light of these Confucius teachings. At first glance, the heritage lines up well with Confucius ideas.

Example: The Lens of Li and Junzi

The main ideas of Confucianism are (as I understand them from my research)… etiquette (li), parental piety (hsiao), humanity (ren), loyalty (chung) and nobility (junzi).

For many years, these ideas were the lens through which I viewed Scripture. When I wrote a message or testimony, the content was judged as “good” or “bad” based on how clearly these ideas were presented. So my worldview was shaped by these things.

Now all of this was unspoken and implicit. Never was I told explicitly: “Write a Confucian message!” But these unspoken values became woven into the fabric of my faith.

Here is an example from one of my messages I wrote on John chapter 3.

John 3:1-3  1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

My concluding paragraph about verses 1 through 3 was this:

Now consider Jesus’ words, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”. This is very controversial.  At the same time here is the greatness of Jesus. In the presence of Christ, all the worldly greatness is gone. People face this reality check, “Who am I?  Do I see the kingdom of God? Do I experience God? What is my future?”  These words of Jesus make me to think about myself.  Have I been born a new?  Do I see the kingdom of God?  Like Nicodemus I have devoted myself to Bible study. I have tried to live an honorable life with the best I can. I have now become a man of modest accomplishment in this world. If Jesus were here today, would I come to him?  What would I do if Jesus says to me, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”.  This is true with you.  What would be your response as you hear from Jesus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again”?

Oh how I missed SO many chances to share the good news of Jesus! Instead, I labored to keep proper etiquette, to respect the “spiritual order” of parental piety, and to live a loyal, human and noble life!

How did the Confucian ideas affect what I wrote in the paragraph above? Let me explain.

Etiquette:  The teaching called “li” is about “the proper way”. This is a belief that includes ritual, propriety and etiquette. It includes a set of rules for interaction with others. Knowing and finding your role in a system is important. In UBF, I learned the “rules of engagement” for a messenger (and also for testimony writing). The first rule is to accept the thoughts of your shepherd (leader).  The words above? Those are not mine. They were dictated to me, given to me as the words I should present as my thoughts. Because I looked at my life through the lens of “li”… I accepted this as normal.

Nobility:  The teaching called “junzi” is about righteousness, honesty and trustworthiness. A junzi is a nobleman. It was a term used by Confucius to describe his ideal human. UBF trained me to be a “junzi” man. So I became devoted to Bible study, and to whatever activity was presented to me. I tried to live a noble, honest life. Because I also viewed life through the lens of “junzi”, I made the words above my own, and defended them as being my true feelings and thoughts.

The proper lens: Grace

Although there are theological differences among the Christian greats, I have found a common theme. They all looked at Scripture through the lens of grace.  The grace of God is the last word of the Bible; the lasting impression God would leave with mankind.

And not only was grace the lens that the ancient greats used, it is the lens through which modern Christians use:

“In the New Testament, ‘grace’ is a word of central importance – the keyword, in fact, of Christianity. The thought of grace is the key that unlocks the New Testament; and it is the only key that does so. However well we may know the New Testament, we cannot get inside its meaning till we know something of what grace is.”  — J.I.Packer

When I see Scripture from the viewpoint of grace, I see a marvelous fabric of love, hope, faith, joy, peace, goodness, righteousness, holiness and justice! The grace of God melts away all other worldly ideas and restores Jesus as my Lord and King!


3 thoughts on “Christian Confucianism

  1. This post was an unusually encouraging and insightful post. Honestly, more edifying than previous posts because it highlights the work of God’s grace vs. the dirty laundry of a particular church group. But just my opinion. Thanks for this.

    In case you were wondering, one person mentioned about a book written by a Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) which is the first known introduction of the Gospel into Korea sometime in the 17th century. Matteo Ricci tries to use Confucian principles to introduce Koreans to the Gospel. I’m reading it now – sort of a stretch at some places (seems to suggest that Christianity is the ultimate fulfillment of confucianism) but hey, you gotta give the Jesuit priest the respect he deserves. He spent years trying to master the language, and then wrote something worthy of respect by the top Confucian scholars of his day.

    I can barely articulate my thoughts on an online post. :)

    • John, thanks for this example. A Jesuit priest using Confucian teaching to introduce the gospel to Koreans (who understand Confucian teaching) would be an acceptable contextualization of the Christian gospel (if I am understanding contextualization correctly). This is similar to what Apostle Paul did with the Gentiles, at times quoting writings that would have been readily understood in those times.

      I am talking of almost the opposite situation: a Korean missionary adding Christian teaching to his/her Confucian thought in order to introduce the gospel to Americans, Germans, and other Western cultures who do not understand Confucius. My experience has shown me that such “evangelization” is counterproductive and in its worst case, destructive. Eventually, the Christian painting on the Confucian bowl wears off.

      Although much of my blogging will be misunderstood as an attack on UBF or my former shepherd, almost every post is an attempt to purge Confucian thought and legalistic thought from my mind, unbinding my conscience so that I can more clearly embrace the grace of God found in Jesus through the Spirit.

  2. Love the Packer quote!! It’s like JI speaking exactly what and how I have felt regarding grace over the last few years.