Gregg Ten Elshofs’ new book release “Confucius for Christians” is a great opportunity for discussion into how the Confucian philosophy can be adopted by those with religious faith, in this instance Christians. Jackson Wu provides an insightful review of the book, summarising how Ten Elshof “explores how interacting with Confucianism can help us regain many important biblical insights, which are often overlooked in Western traditions.”
Jackson Wu continues to write… So what is Confucian Christianity?
Ten Elshof begins by observing how “most Christians in the West – insofar as their thinking is informed by the Western philosophical tradition – are Platonic Christians whether they’ve heard of Plato or not”. In order words, how might understanding Confucianism expose blind spots and so help us become better Disciples of Christ? The book focuses on 4 main areas: Family, learning, ethics and ritual.
Ten Elshof indicates the tendency among Christians to extract ethical principles from Scripture that might then be applied to everyone in any circumstance. Yet, with Confucian thinking there are some problems that can arise in approaching ethics in such a way. For instance, Ten Elshof summarizes, “The response of the good person, then, will depend both upon the well-formed character of her heart and upon the relational specifics of her particular situation”.
Jesus’ teaching itself must be understood in its own context as addressing the people and circumstances around him. One’s ultimate obligation is always to God but that allegiance will be expressed differently in different relational contexts.
Ten Elshof, in essence, reminds readers that Christian discipleship is about following the example or pattern of Christ rather than “[extracting] a collection of principles from the scriptures [which does] not guarantee that one will actually love one’s enemies”.
Ten Elshof says that Confucian thinking challenges the basic penchant many people have towards individualism. How might a more collectivistic orientation shape us as disciples? Ten Elshof says, “for the Confucian, the better you love your family, the more capable and effective will be your love for those beyond your family”.
This insight no doubt reflects a basic assumption of Scripture. The family is a fundamental paradigm for explaining how God’s people relate to one another throughout the world. Yet, Ten Elshof notes,
“We’re tempted to think that we can somehow manage to love the world without having learned to love well those whom have been given to us as family”.
“To be learning is to be in process”.
This thought catalyzes his discussion about what it means existentially to be human. He does not develop a “doctrine of humanity.” Ten Elshof challenges the habit of mind that sees knowledge itself as power. This mindset regards the mastering of information as the key to autonomy and achieving our ambitions.
He laments the fact that people do not value learning as they should. Confucius saw learning as an essential aspect of character development. What happens is we treat learning as a mere tool for social power and status (after which one can stop learning)? We forsake a basic component of what it means to be human. In particular, Ten Elshof says, we cease living as followers like God designed.
In short, maturity, following and learning stand in contrast to closed-minded orthodoxy that posits theological algorithms for Christian living.
Finally, Ten Elshof should be applauded for addressing the topic of ritual, a term instinctively frowned upon in some circles of the church. However, rituals are simply (or at least) those routine practices or habits that shape our moral thinking. We all have rituals, whether or not we use the word “ritual.”
Drawing on Confucius, Ten Elshof writes, “…because of his insistence on both spontaneity and the need for training, ethical theory in the wake of Confucius occupied itself largely with the discovery of practices that would shape a person in such a way that goodness would be their natural disposition.
Is this not what we see throughout the Bible? Israel’s celebrations and customs served as reminders of the holiness of God, whom their lives were to reflect. Consistent prayer and regular meetings of the church are similarly used rituals in the New Testament.
The original book review of Gregg Ten Elshofs’ “Confucius for Christians” written by Jackson Wu can be found here.