CSQ Article

Might Christians and Confucians Actually Agree about Human Nature?

Theological Contextualization in China


It is commonly thought that Christians should be wary of the influence of Confucian ideas on the grounds that Confucianism is too optimistic about human nature and inconsistent with the Christian understanding of sin. What follows is a reflection on that worry.

A Parable

A well-known puzzle in theoretical physics concerns the fact that some properties of light suggest that it is wave-like while others suggest that it is particulate.

Wayne has spent the better part of his now-decades-long career working with a large research group aimed at reconciling these two seemingly opposed characteristics of light. Early on, a fundamental methodological split emerged in his group. Some in the group (Wayne among them) emphasized more heavily the wave-like characteristics while trying to do justice to the data suggesting that light is particulate. Others emphasized more heavily the particle-like characteristics while trying to account for the data suggesting that light is wave-like. What has always unified the group, though, is the attempt to do justice both to the evidence suggesting that light is wave-like and to the evidence suggesting that light is particulate. The work of the group is animated by a certain conviction. They believe conversation between researchers on both sides of this methodological divide will conduce to a theoretical reconciliation that accommodates all of the data.

One day, Wayne runs into Patricia and learns that she too has spent the better part of her now-decades-long career working with a large research group on this same problem. He learns, moreover, that Patricia’s group is divided along the same lines as his own. Some emphasize the wave-like characteristics of light and some emphasize the particle-like characteristics. However, Patricia’s group is less evenly divided. While there are voices on both sides of the divide, the most promising and prominent research has emphasized more heavily the particle-like characteristics of light—all the while trying to do justice to the data suggesting that light is wave-like.

Patricia, enthusiastic to learn about the work of Dave’s research team, suggests that the two groups meet and collaborate. Since they have worked independently on the same problem for decades, they might learn from one another. Perhaps one, or both groups, have discovered things that have escaped the notice of the other. But, having learned that the most promising and prominent research coming out of Patricia’s group emphasizes the particle-like features of light, Wayne declines the offer. He insists that the emphasis on the particulate features of light, which dominates Patricia’s group, represents so fundamental a flaw as to make unlikely the prospects of a fruitful collaboration.

Patricia is understandably confused. Why, she wonders, is Wayne so sanguine about collaboration in his own group, where there is a long-standing split along these methodological lines, but so pessimistic about collaborating with her research group? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the two groups, which have worked independently on the same theoretical problem for decades, might have things to learn from one another?

Christianity

For millennia, Christian thinkers have labored to reconcile two families of ideas. Both are very clearly articulated throughout the Christian scriptures.

On the one hand, the Christian tradition has been unambiguously committed to the idea that there is something unspeakably good, beautiful, and valuable about human persons. We bear the image of the God of the universe, a fact that confers upon each and every human person an unspeakable value. As image bearers, we manifest an untrained recognition of good as good and evil as evil. In our hearts, we tacitly perceive the attribute of the eternal God. It is this image of God resident in the human being that underwrites the possibility of redemption and the possibility of glorious union with the Divine.

On the other hand, the Christian tradition has been unambiguously committed to the idea that something has gone terribly wrong with the human race. We are broken, twisted, and badly in need of rescue, redemption, and repair. As a consequence of our brokenness, we seem impulsively bent away from the good and capable of the most despicable mistreatment of one another.

Christian theologians have long wrestled with the problem of reconciling these two streams of thought. They have tried, that is, to craft a coherent and comprehensive view of the human person that does justice to these two facts:

  1. There is something unspeakably good, beautiful and valuable about the human person; something redeemable in the human person that recognizes, reflects, and reaches out for good.
  2. Something in human persons is terribly broken, twisted, and in need of repair since folks seem impulsively bent away from the good.

The Christian witness is not uniform, though, when it comes to the details of this attempted reconciliation. Some streams of Christian thought seem to emphasize (1) more strongly than others, all the while trying to do justice to (2). In the Protestant traditions, perhaps Wesley and those in his intellectual wake can be fairly described this way. Other streams of Christian thought, though, seem to emphasize (2) more strongly, all the while trying to do justice to (1). In the Protestant traditions, perhaps Calvin and those in his intellectual wake can be fairly described in this way.

What has always unified the group, though, is the attempt to do justice both to the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei and to the doctrine of the Fall. The historical Christian discussion is animated by a fundamental conviction. Christians have believed that conversation between thinkers on both sides of this difference in emphasis will conduce to a reconciliation of these theoretical differences. They seek to accommodate the whole of the biblical witness as well as our experience of ourselves as, at once, glorious and broken.

Confucianism

For millennia, Confucian thinkers have labored to reconcile two families of ideas. Both are very clearly articulated in the classical Confucian canon. On the one hand, the Confucian tradition is unambiguously committed to the idea that there is something unspeakably good, valuable, and beautiful about human persons. There is something about the human condition that grounds the possibility of discovering and living into a Way (道) of harmony, peace, justice, and goodness.

On the other hand, the Confucian tradition has been unambiguously committed to the idea that something has gone terribly wrong with the human race. We are broken, twisted, and badly in need of rescue, redemption, and repair. As a consequence of our brokenness, we seem impulsively bent away from the good and capable of the most despicable mistreatment of one another.

Confucians have long wrestled with the problem of reconciling these two streams of thought. They have tried to craft a coherent and comprehensive view of the human person that does justice to these two facts:

  1. There is something unspeakably good, beautiful and valuable about the human person, something redeemable in the human person that recognizes, reflects, and reaches out for good.
  2. Something in human persons is terribly broken, twisted, and in need of repair since folks seem impulsively bent away from the good.

The Confucian witness is not uniform, though, when it comes to the details of this attempted reconciliation. There are streams of Confucian thought that seem to emphasize number (1) more strongly than others, all the while trying to do justice to number (2). Mencius can fairly be described this way.[1] A dominant metaphor in Mencius for moral formation is that of the sprout. All humans have in them sprouts of goodness that incline them to the Way. But these sprouts are fragile. They require protection and cultivation, the absence of which is responsible for the broken state of the human condition.

Other streams of Confucian thought, though, seem to emphasize number (2) more strongly, all the while trying to do justice to number (1). Xunzi can fairly be described this way.[2] A dominant metaphor in Xunzi for moral formation is that of crafting a straight wood pillar. While the wood has within it the potential to be a straight and strong pillar, it will not grow that way on its own no matter how well protected and cultivated. It must be pressed and straightened against its natural inclinations. It must be formed by forces wholly external to itself.

While there are voices on both sides of this divide in the Confucian tradition, the more prominent thread has been that of Mencius and those in his intellectual wake. They have emphasized the spark or sprout of goodness in the human heart while also trying to do justice to the radical brokenness of the human condition.

Parable Redux

Cal has been a Christian for decades. Familiar with the broad strokes of the Christian intellectual tradition, he recognizes the division in that tradition adumbrated above. Some Christian theologians emphasize the twisted broken condition of the human heart while trying to do justice to the claim that we retain (even in our fallen condition) the Imago Dei. Some, on the other hand, emphasize the glorious potential of human persons (even in their fallen state) insofar as they retain the Imago Dei, while trying to do justice to the radical brokenness of the human condition east of Eden. Cal finds himself more sympathetic with the former threads in the Christian tradition, those emphasizing the twisted broken condition of the human heart.

He recognizes, though, that what has always unified the tradition is the attempt to do justice both to the Imago Dei and the doctrine of the Fall. He is hopeful that conversation between Christian thinkers on both sides of this difference in emphasis will conduce to a theoretical reconciliation that accommodates the whole of the biblical witness as well as our experience of ourselves as, at once, glorious and broken.

One day, Cal meets Merci, a life-long devotee of Confucianism. In conversation with Merci, Cal learns that the Confucian tradition, much like the Christian tradition, has, for millennia, attempted to reconcile the unspeakable goodness, value, and beauty of the human person with the radical brokenness of human life as we experience it in ourselves and in others. He learns that the Confucian tradition, like his own, has had some voices that emphasize the former and others that emphasize the latter. Moreover, he learns that while both voices animate the historical Confucian discussion, the dominant voice in the Confucian tradition has been the one that emphasizes the goodness and potential of the human person.

Merci, enthusiastic to learn from the millennia-old Christian discussion of this tension, suggests that they form a group comprising Confucians and Christians to discuss this issue. Since their respective traditions have worked independently on the same problem for millennia, they might be able to learn from one another. But having learned that the dominant voice in the Confucian tradition is the one that emphasizes the goodness and potential of the human person, Cal declines the offer. He insists that this emphasis on the goodness and potential of the human heart represents so fundamental a flaw as to make unlikely the prospects of fruitful collaboration.

Merci is understandably confused. Why, she wonders, is Cal so sanguine about the value of discussion between Christians on both sides of this split but so pessimistic about the prospect of fruitful dialogue with Confucians? And doesn’t it stand to reason that two groups that have worked independently on the same theoretical problem for millennia might have things to learn from one another?[3]

Notes

  1. ^ Mencius (372–289 BCE) is sometimes called the “second sage” of Chinese philosophy behind Confucius.
  2. ^ Xunzi was one of China’s most influential philosophers from the Warring States period (479–221 BCE). He was one of the first people to help consolidate Confucian teachings into a distinct tradition.
  3. ^ I am very grateful to Jackson Wu for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this reflection.

Gregg Ten Elshof

Gregg Ten Elshof, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. His areas of interest include metaphysics, epistemology, modern philosophy, and Confucianism. His book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009) won the “Christianity Today” 2009 Book Award for Christian Living. He is also author of Confucius for Christians (Eerdmans, 2015).... View Full Bio