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Is Confucianism a Religion or an Ethical System?

The Debate Goes On


In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a dispute between Jesuit and Dominican missionaries in China about whether or not Chinese converts should be allowed to continue practicing traditional rites and ceremonies that were rooted in Confucianism, such as ancestor worship. The Jesuits said they should be allowed; the Dominicans said no.

This dispute was known as the Rites Controversy and, after some back and forth in the 17th century, Pope Clement XI settled the matter in 1704, issuing a ban on Chinese converts participating in traditional rituals. As one might imagine, the Chinese emperor was none too pleased and soon placed restrictions on the Catholic Church in China. Pope Pius XII reversed the ban in 1939.

At root was the question of whether or not Confucianism was a religion or merely an ethical system. Fast forward to today, and we see evidence that the debate goes on.

Last year Gregg A. Ten Elshof wrote a book titled Confucius for Christians: What an Ancient Chinese Worldview Can Teach Us about Life in Christ, published by Eerdmans.

Here is the description from Amazon:

This unique book explores ways of using resources from the Confucian wisdom tradition to inform Christian living. Neither highlighting nor diminishing the differences between Confucianism and Christianity, Gregg Ten Elshof reflects on questions and issues in the Christian life with the Confucian worldview in mind.

In examining such subjects as family, learning, and ethics, Ten Elshof sets the typical Western worldview against the Confucian worldview and considers how each worldview lines up with the teachings of Jesus. Pointing to much that is good and helpful in the Confucian tradition, Ten Elshof shows how reflection on the teachings of Confucius can inspire a deeper and richer understanding of what it really means to live the Jesus way.

This month the online journal Themelois published a review of the book by Andrew Song, describing Ten Elshof’s views as “confusing, problematic, and misleading.”

For example, sociologist Anna Sun (Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013]) has argued that Confucianism is much more similar to Greek and Roman religions prior to Constantine. In other words, Confucianism is less institutionalized as Christianity or Judaism, as there is no membership or sacraments required for Confucians. Furthermore, Confucianism is neither monotheistic nor monolatrous. Sun observes that it is common for a Confucian to worship Taoist Caishen (“god of wealth”) and Buddha together. Thus, it is syncretic for Ten Elshof to propose the identity of “Confucian Christian.”

In response to that review, Jackson Wu took to his own blog at Patheos to offer a critique of Sung’s review, asking (among other things) if it really is, as Song asserts, syncretism to be a “Confucian Christian.”

Song thinks “it is syncretic for Ten Elshof to propose the identity of ‘Confucian Christian.’” Unfortunately, Song seems unaware of how intertwined are some cultural and religious/philosophical terms. In the West, unlike elsewhere, a person’s “religion/philosophy” is routinely separated from one’s identity in the larger culture.

There’s that question again: is it a religion or merely an ethical system?

Finally, in a post to this site on August 10, Brent Fulton writes:

With all the talk of a “changing China,” it is easy to assume the Middle Kingdom has moved beyond its cultural moorings, deeply imbedded in the nation’s long history. Much has changed, yet where gospel and culture intersect many of the questions remain the same.

What goes around comes around!

Correction: Andrew Song was wrongly identified as Andrew Sung in the original post. 

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio