Learning About the Way of Jesus from Confucius

by | Jan 4, 2016 | Book | 2 comments

The teachings of Confucius, who lived about 500 years prior to Jesus, are a hefty part of the philosophical foundation of the East. A big question that arises when looking a Confucianism and Christianity together in a single project is whether or not Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. As any well-rounded discussion of Confucianism will admit, this question is heavily debated.

When I graduated from college, I received a BA in Intercultural Studies with a specialization in Chinese Studies. Those studies were greatly bolstered by the opportunity to spend 3 summers in 4 years in China, learning the language and culture, as well as developing relationships with Chinese university students. In light of the education I received and experiences I had in China, I have come to tentatively classify Confucianism as more philosophy-like than religion-like. Of course, I’m not pretentious enough to suggest that my bachelor’s degree equipped me to definitively make that decision–my conclusion is certainly flexible. However, in the context of Confucius for Christians, Gregg Ten Elshof “interact[s] with Confucianism as a wisdom tradition–more like Platonism than like Islam” (p.6).

9780802872487Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review this book given my educational background and my passion for the Chinese culture. (So, thank you Eerdmans!)

In Confucius for Christians, Gregg Ten Elshof has laid out reflections from his journey to better understand the Way of Christ from the perspective of the Confucian wisdom tradition. Before reading the book, I wondered what it would be like…Will this be some sort of borderline syncretistic book? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. In fact, it was a beneficial and thought-provoking read.

Nestled between an introductory chapter and an exceptional concluding chapter, are four chapters relating various Confucian themes to understanding the Way of Jesus: Family, Learning, Ethics, and Ritual. It is within these chapters that we see the bulk of Ten Elshof’s reflections. The point of Confucius for Christians as a whole, and each of these chapters within the book, is presented in the introduction: “This book, though, is intended neither as a contribution to Christian apologetics nor to Christian pluralism…It rather seeks to experiment with reflection on perennial questions of human interest with the teachings of Jesus and Confucius in mind” (p.5, 6).

The concluding chapter is excellent, and it brings the book to a close in a practical way. Ten Elshof tells the story of Sam–a Christian who has taken the Confucian wisdom presented in the book and has applied it to his understanding of the Way of Jesus. “This [concluding] chapter attempts a kind of snap-shot of a particular life in pursuit of Confucian Christian ideals” (p.83).

As someone with a familiarity with the East, and having been briefly acquainted with Confucius in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Unfortunately there is no mention of Kang Xi and Pope Clement XI. In the late-1600s and early-1700s, Christianity was welcomed within emperor Kang Xi’s court via the Jesuits. Unfortunately, there was controversy over the mingling of Confucianism and Christianity, which led to Pope Clement XI issuing a papal bull condemning the Confucian rites. That led to Kang Xi forbidding Christian missions in China. Of course, there is much more to it than that, but I think this could have generally bolstered the introduction to the topic.

I want to conclude with my favorite quote from the book–seemingly one of the foundations upon which the book is placed upon:

“It took me what now seems like an alarmingly long time to situate myself in those terms — to see and appreciate the fact that the Western wisdom tradition is one among many, and a Christian understanding of the world informed by Western philosophical categories and emphases is one among many ways to understand the world as a Christian. To deviate from stereotypical Western patterns of thinking is not to be unthinking. And to deviate from stereotypical Western Christian thinking is not to abandon Christianity” (p.2)

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