Confucius Says: The Powerful Influence of Confucianism in East Asia :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

Confucius Says: The Powerful Influence of Confucianism in East Asia

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Around the beginning of the fifth century B.C., Zerubbabel and the Judeans who had repatriated with him were sweating it out under the hot Mediterranean sun, digging the foundation for what would be their rebuilt temple. But half a world away, a foundation of another kind was being laid: the cornerstone of a new worldview that would eventually grow to influence billions of human beings and shape the way that people would live for centuries to come.

It was happening in the school of a man named Kong, whom the world would come to know as “Confucius.” Though he did not establish a religion, his thought has become a center of gravity for not only China but all of East Asian culture and still powerfully resonates through many societies today. Even a basic understanding of the legacy of Confucius can be helpful for those who are ministering or considering ministry with Chinese peoples and other East Asians. That information provides a lens which can clarify values that Westerners often find strange or jarring in their Asian friends and colleagues. Whether we look at family, society, politics, religion, or education, we see echoes of the teachings of Confucius.

The Focus of the Teachings of Confucius

Though you can visit places called Confucian temples today, Confucius himself was not a religious teacher. Instead, like the landmark Greek philosopher Plato, Confucius occupied himself with questions of how people should live together in society. In fact, Confucianism as a religious movement is very much like what might have happened if Western people had decided to begin venerating Plato as a minor deity. Plato centered his view of how human society should function on the city, but Confucius focused on the family—on the way that fathers and sons or elders and youth ought to relate to one another.

In these relationships, little could be more important than loyalty and family respect. Fathers ought to have a deep concern for the well-being of their sons, and in return, sons should show extraordinary deference and humility toward their fathers. By extension, this same relationship should exist between rulers and subjects (or even managers and employees). Leaders are understood to be at the top of a stable hierarchy, such as patriarchs with a vast family, and to be concerned with the flourishing of their people. In return, those in the lower position are obligated to show great respect and honor for their superiors—to “give face” to them and to deal with even serious differences with great caution and tact.

The Legacy of Confucius has Endured through Communism

This emphasis on family respect (sometimes rendered as “filial piety” in English) binds families together tightly, so that for many Asian people, it is the most natural thing in the world for three or even four generations to live together. How else will you respect your parents and care for them when they are old? And despite the modern devastation wrought by Communism in China, the legacy of Confucius still animates a powerfully traditional impulse in their society. What is old and time-worn is respected; what is new may or may not be that great.

Confucianism = Conservatism in Many Asians

For Anglo peoples, accustomed as we are to associating “conservative” with “Christian,” it can be shocking to realize that Chinese friends and contacts are dismissive of the Gospel, in part because of their conservatism. How, goes the thought, could they jettison the ancient traditions of their people to follow this foreign religion, like some kind of radical deviation—to say nothing of the fact that their parents would disapprove?

The family respect, demand for reciprocal loyalty, and conservative impulses of Confucian thought may at first appear to be ideally suited for gospel outreach. But in societies that are not themselves Christian, these things can form a powerful seal, preventing the message of Jesus from taking hold in the lives of those who might otherwise be receptive to it. This emphasis on familial piety also prompts the question: if we are truly concerned with respecting and honoring our parents, how can we shrug off the possibility that we are disrespecting our true Father: God?

The Gospel is Strange to Confucian-Informed Ears

The core concept of Christianity – that we are alienated from God and that Jesus came, lived, died, and returned to life to reconcile us to him—is one that sounds strange to Confucian-informed ears. Like Plato, Confucius was a humanist. Though he was greatly concerned with the proper practice of religious ritual, and though he believed that the natural order of all things was ordained by heaven, he had no interest whatsoever in spiritual questions.

In one revealing story, he is approached by a student who asks about spirits and life after death. Confucius dismisses him, saying “You can’t yet serve men effectively, so why ask about spirits? You don’t yet understand life, so why inquire about death?” In this, Confucius takes a perspective that is not dissimilar to his contemporary Gautama (usually called “Buddha”), who regarded questions such as “From where did the world come?” as dangerous distractions from the real issue, which is, “How should people live right now?” That pragmatic mindset persists in much of China and East Asia.

Ancestral Spirits and Materialism

To the extent that many people (particularly in top-tier Chinese cities) think about spirits, the afterlife, or the like, they think of their ancestral spirits, or of their relationship to their own descendants in the afterlife. The direction of spiritual consideration is often toward one’s family, rather than out into the created world or the mysteries of the universe. When combined with the erosive effects of achievement orientation and state materialism, these elements produce a kind of general disinterest in anything spiritual.

I have many times asked a friend or a colleague a big question about their beliefs, the broader purpose of life, or the existence of God, only to be met with vague bemusement. Often at the end of such a conversation, my friend will tell me that this is the first time they have ever talked about these subjects with other people. For that reason, we often approach the gospel “ethics-first,” beginning with how God tells us to live our lives, and, moving back from there into the fuller teachings of the Bible.

The Solution Confucius Gave to Society’s Problems

This is a natural pivot to make, because Confucius was also deeply concerned with the problems he saw in society around him. His diagnosis, however, was not human brokenness and divine estrangement—instead, he believed that the problem was poor teaching. Confucius taught that human beings were basically good by nature and that they could be easily misled. The solution, as he saw it, was education: if a person studied the right things and truly applied himself to them, he could someday become a man of distinction—perhaps even the greatest of all human beings: a sage.

Social problems were to be addressed in the same way; if every city, province, and kingdom had officials who were correctly educated, all places would be peaceful and enlightened. Later, this Confucian–inflected respect for learning became formalized in the imperial examinations—a system of testing that controlled access to government positions for nearly 1500 years, and which still exists in an altered form today.

Positive Effects of Confucianism for Gospel Ministry

This history lies behind the famous Asian emphasis on academic achievement and behind stereotypes of Asian parents berating their children for failing to be at the top of their class. It is still evident in the harshly demanding Chinese college entrance exams and the cult of academic achievement.

More positively, it also creates opportunities for the wisdom of God to be seen in the witness of the Bible. Where Westerners may be indifferent or even hostile to the idea that we should carefully study God’s word and learn from its message, many from Confucian–influenced societies see that as a natural and proper activity—once they are willing to look to the Scriptures at all!

It is difficult for any of us to grasp the ways in which our societies influence us and shape our thoughts and values. That is true for both East and West. But as we work to know and love God more deeply, and to love our neighbors with the truth of the Gospel, a little bit of insight can sometimes go a long way. If we realize that we really do have a lot to learn, and not only a lot to contribute, we will be better positioned to speak and act in ways that communicate the good news to those around us—wherever we are!


Photo credit: zhang kaiyv from Pexels