Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a Religion?

Appendix 4.  Is there a Confucian deity?   Is tian heaven, god, or sky?


In the past, some western scholars said no, probably based on lack of reference in Chinese texts to a personal god and the historical association in China with ancestor veneration and local folk religions. But from the time of the earliest writing (circa 1300 BCE, much later than in the fertile crescent and eastern Mediterranean) 上帝 Shangdi - the Shang dynasty term for supreme deity of the Shang – was mentioned.

Sections to follow –

God - Potent, but not Omni-

Transcendence and immanence


The secular as sacred

Is there afterlife?

Is there a personal relationship with the deity?

Can one be a Confucian Christian?

What is the relationship of man to the universe?


When the Zhou dynasty conquered Shang, they changed the name of god to天 tian, to avoid identification of a name of god with the defeated dynasty. More recent scholarship is adamant that tian, interpreted as heaven or god, suffices as the term for god in Chinese. Modern Chinese will reference the god in everyday conversation, and it is not a surprise or hidden topic. “Tian” is a common exclamation. One hears 天道 Tiandao, the way of heaven (in Taiwan – forbidden in the PRC), 天人合一tianren heyi, heaven and humanity in harmony. 

Tian is not a term for creator of the universe.  The best known approximate term for that is Dao, meaning path or way or guide, and generally familiar to westerners today as the flow or pattern of the universe. The Dao generates taiji, the supreme polarity, from which yin and yang, 陰 and 陽, forces dark and light, female and male, emerge. These are not Confucian ideas. They are primarily Daoist and Buddhist. 

The unity of opposites, the blending of one into the other, the grand unity, is a fundamental theme in eastern religion. This is a difference from western thought.  From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on Chinese Metaphysics -

Positing a single source (of creation) had a decisive influence on Chinese thought, as it implies an underlying unity and connection that easily threatens differentiation and division…. One of the most persistent metaphysical concerns is the ontological status of difference and individuation…. This orientation is the opposite of that in philosophies based on dualisms or ontologically independent substances, views that were dominant through most of European intellectual history. We can say that European metaphysics has tended to focus on problems of reconciliation (how ontologically distinct things can interact), while Chinese metaphysics has been more concerned with problems of distinction (what grounds individuation).

Consider the Book of Changes (the Yi Jing) and the Bible. The Yi Jing tells of the constancy of change and the lack of a single teleology or ultimate destination for humans. In the Bible, there are stories of good and evil, all happening under the view of one god in heaven. The goal is to be with god in heaven. Chinese metaphysics, in these terms, needs to address the unique, the individual, and how it can be apart – how fundamentally the same things can be different, since one thing is continually blending into the other.  European metaphysics, in these terms, needs to address the fundamental unity of nature – how different things can be similar – how good and evil can be part of one created universe.  


God - Potent, but not Omni-

Daoism and Buddhism see Dao, the way or path, as the source of the universe, the generating force of all religions. The Dao changes and requires attention from man to remain functioning.

Confucius did not discuss god or spiritual life very much. When Confucius was asked about serving the spirits of the dead, he replied, "While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?" This suggests that the spirits, the ancestors, should be honored but kept at some distance. The spirits are not controlling of human affairs.  In the same Analects chapter, Ji Lu added, "I venture to ask about death?" He was answered, "While you do not know life, how can you know about death?"  (Analects Xian Jin 12)  Later "Respect the spirits, but stay away from them" is his advice in Analects (Yong Ye 22).  Filial piety demands respect and veneration for ancestors, but no need to overdo it.

Confucius respects the Dao, the path of wisdom, but not as a deity. One should follow the Dao by self-cultivation and humaneness. The concepts of qi energy expressed in yin and yang forces is not part of Confucian texts, and Daoism’s desired emptiness and lack of directed energy is clearly not part of the Confucian idea, which requires active engagement with the world.

Both Daoism and Buddhism focus more on spiritual life. Daoism differs from Confucianism in focusing more on physical and spiritual cultivation, to go beyond suffering. For Buddhism, life is suffering. Confucians are concerned with moral life in the here and now. Suffering exists, one tries to minimize it, but there is no necessary reckoning for the good and the bad in some future existence. Confucians may pray - not to Confucius, but to a god of their choice. So Psalm 23:6 still has relevance - Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life …. The spiritual Confucian, like the spiritual Christian, will try to understand and follow the path for oneself.

Many Chinese today honor Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion, mercy, and love. She is the East Asian equivalent of Avalokiteśvara. Guanyin is not a creator, but a physical and spiritual savior. She is a goddess who can receive and respond to prayer.

Guanyin is one of many gods and goddesses in Buddhism and Chinese folk religions, far more than can be discussed here. A Confucian can follow any of those as well as following Christianity.


Transcendence and immanence

Two concepts are thought to separate the Christian idea of religion from some others - transcendence and immanence.  Transcendence, a going beyond, refers to a concept of god that is apart from the world, removed from the world, and beyond all understanding. Immanence refers to theories of god in which the divine is present in the world. Most Christianities defines God as both immanent and transcendent – a god beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless present in the world in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Transcendence of the Judeo-Christian god is quite clear. The peace of God passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7) and Augustine tells us that the City of God is not attainable in this world.

The notion of immanence can be expressed in Luke 12:6 - "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God."

Immanence in the form of the human Jesus is expressed in St. Paul's letter to the Philippians 2:2 where he writes - who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

For most Christians, immanence is present in Jesus and the Holy Spirit and of course, the world is god’s creation. Confucians see immanence in nature and the physical world. Thus stewardship of earth and its resources can be a mandate in both Christianity and Confucianism, though immanence is less often expressed with regard to earth and nature in Christianity.

Often transcendence and immanence are thought to be mutually exclusive – God is either Out There or In Here, but not both. But Tu Weiming and other New Confucians find a notion of immanent transcendence in Confucianism. The attributes of transcendence, such as eternity, infinity, and oneness, are made part of the trinity of heaven, earth, and man. The relation between heaven and man is expressed in the phrase, tianren yiyang – heaven and man are one. 

Tu - The notion of inner transcendence … means that the most generalized level of universality (Heaven) is rooted in concrete and specific acts in the everyday lives of human beings. The extension of immanence to earth, nature, and indeed, the cosmos is expressed in Tu’s word “anthropocosmic” – that man’s responsibility to the Dao is larger than loving one another, but includes stewardship of all creation.

Therein lies Confucian immanence of God. We are not separated from heaven, but a part of it now, and the Way is available to all humans. Tu again - The Zhong Yong makes it explicit that the profound person’s knowledge of the Way is shared and practiced by men and women of simple intelligence as well. (Zhong Yong XII)

Tu Weiming. Centrality and Commonality – An Essay on Confucian Religiousness, 1989

Tu goes on to clarify – “… the three dimensions – self, community, and the transcendent – must all be present as integral parts of an anthroposcosmic vision ….” Tu now uses the term spiritual humanism for New Confucianism.  (He argues strongly against a western secular humanism that has no spiritual basis).

Tu Weiming.  Response to Questions in Confucianism between Tradition and Modernity, Religion, and Secularization: Questions to Tu Weiming.  Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 7:4, Special Issue: Tu Weiming and Confucian Humanism.  December, 2008.  Available at



Confucianism has nothing to say about creation of the universe. Confucius references the Dao, and lets it go at that. There are many ancient Chinese creation myths as well. Confucius seems to adopt Wittgenstein’s admonition in the Tractatus – Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

But creation need not be a one-time event. It can be continuing, in the manner of the Dao, as an unfolding. Tu Weiming sees heaven as the most powerful creative force in the universe. It is creativity itself. Perhaps this idea can be illustrated in human invention. At one point, there is a pile of material substance and perhaps some plans. With creativity – which is nowhere physical or mental in a way we can describe – the material substances are combined to make something.  Something has arisen that did not exist before.

In a similar vein, Christopher Hedges expresses the Thomistic idea that creation is not a thing that happened, but that creation happens continually. (Hedges, When Atheism Becomes Religion, p 71)  The similarity goes further. Hedges cites Aquinas that god is not a thing or being, but the continual act of something arising from nothing.


The secular as sacred

A few Confucian scholars in decades past saw attention to ritual as paramount, of greater concern than benevolence or harmony. This was rites understood as obsequious attention to leaders and elders, and made the Analects a stuffy etiquette book and get-ahead guide rather a universal guide to morality.

That is no longer considered a reasonable view. Tu Weiming and others show that Confucianism has a spiritual dimension, making it distinct from secular humanism. Tu calls Confucianism a spiritual humanism. That is, the secular can be sacred in a non-theistic sense, but the secular is far more than attention to ritual.

The spirituality is expressed in attention to rites and rituals, li. We often make use of rites and rituals in our civil religion in current day America. We shake hands; we hold doors; we give up seats on the bus; some of us even use sir and ma’m and please and thank you. We have rites in church and in sporting events. We honor those in uniform. We observe ceremonies in weddings and funerals. Some ceremonies and courtesies were derided as politically incorrect or without meaning since the 1960s, but no society functions without rituals. In 1967 Robert Bellah told us about an American civil religion of rituals and beliefs that honor American foundational texts, the founders themselves, and a special relationship between America and God. A society without rituals would really begin to look Hobbesian. 

Herbert Fingarette is one scholar who made the case for the paramount importance of rites in Confucius - The Secular as Sacred (1972). He saw rites as more important than benevolence or self-cultivation. Although the dominance of rites has fallen from favor in Confucian thinking, rites do remain important. Fingarette sees human community as a holy rite in Confucianism.  But it is not only Confucianism. When we gather together – in a minyan or in Matthew 18:20  (“ For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them”) we have rituals, and we form rituals if we don’t already have them. We start meetings with a prayer or a pledge, and we put a hand over a heart or we stop talking – for a moment. Sometimes we bow heads.  Those rituals remind us of what we honor, but they also give us a moment to think in times of crisis and a way to respond to unexpected rudeness.

To say rituals are unimportant is to ignore community. People may get angry when rituals are ignored because it is a violation of that sense of community. As in Confucianism, so in American society now – rituals are sacred in America too. We stand for the national anthem, salute the flag, say “good morning” to family and neighbors and people on the street. It is good to acknowledge that.


Is there afterlife?

Not in the manner of remade physical bodies, floating around in a cloudy dream state.  Confucian ideas – or, better, Daoist ideas - about afterlife are based on Daoism and folk religions of the Warring States period.  There is a soul in one version of Daoism, in fact a pair of souls. Other versions posit a larger number of souls, up to ten or twelve. In some understandings, the p’o or yin soul remains with the body after death; the hun or yang soul leaves the body and becomes the ancestral spirit. In other interpretations, the two souls reunite at some point. The p’o needs food and drink for survival; the hun depends upon qi, the life force from heaven. 

The concepts of soul are complex, and in any case do not determine anything about the validity of Confucianism as an ethical system.  As one researcher put it, there was little Chinese conflict over the hazy nature of soul, and little need for abstract reasoning about a nonexistent problem.

In Christianity, one generally thinks of heaven as a place to go, and you join in with the crowd.  In Confucianism, one thinks of tian as a place you can create, along with others. In the ideal human world, if all people could be harmonious and benevolent, then the world could reach the state of datong, the great oneness.  One can think of this as a heaven on earth. One is reminded of the cities of God and man, the one perfect and eternal, the other always humanly imperfect and contingent.

In Confucian culture the afterlife exists in remembrance by future generations, and is not confined to family members. The good father, the good mother are venerated by generations, and the good ruler or public servant is venerated by all.  In China, one can see sculptures to competent and loyal public servants of a thousand years ago.  In a thousand years, will anyone see a sculpture to honor the 1990s water commissioner in Chicago?


Is there a personal relationship with the deity?

Nope. In Confucianism, heaven has bestowed norms upon humankind generally, through cultural norms and virtues.  Heaven is depersonalized in that way. The individual should look to ancestors, or other human exemplars from the past, for guidance.  Each person remains responsible to build upon and expand the Dao. 


Can one be a Confucian Christian?

There is no barrier to Confucianism for a believing Christian. Robert Neville points out that there is no Confucian membership, only a following, so there are no outward symbols like donations or feast days or necklaces or churches to stand in the way of a Christian follower.

Robert Cummings Neville. Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World.  SUNY, 2000

Anyone wishing to profess status as a Confucian Christian should be prepared to defend different symbols however (Neville, p. 208). Confucians do not pray to anyone, and today many Christians don’t have much use for the ancestors, saints and holy personages. Neville’s point is that the two ethics have different intentionalities. Even though both might make use of meditation, quiet sitting, a communal liturgy, and spiritually directed practices, the Christian may be seeking support from outside the self and the Confucian looking inward for resolution. Seems to me satisfaction comes from the looking rather than the source of the support. Both can work.

There are no disagreements as to rationale for action in the world – golden rule, silver rule, benevolence, reciprocity, obligations to others fulfilled not out of duty but out of love. 


What is the relationship of man to the universe?

Again, we should note that Confucius said little about god or heaven, and most ideas espoused by Confucians have a Daoist or Buddhist source.  Erica Brindley suggests that heaven has two definable roles in human life. Heaven is responsible for setting the ultimate norms for human behavior, via the Dao. Second, heaven sends commands tianming that help define the destiny of individuals. These commands are not determinative, though. The connection between heaven’s commands and individual destiny is vague and unpredictable. Bad people do succeed on earth, and good people suffer hardships, and there is no necessary retribution or restoration in this life or in heaven. Confucius does suggest that heaven might punish for some transgression against the Dao, but the settling of accounts in by no means necessarily fair. Heaven is not arbitrary, but we are reminded of Graham Greene, in Brighton Rock - You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. Tian is no less unfathomable.

Contra Christianity, Heaven relies on humans for the Dao to prevail in the world. There is a trinity – a unity of heaven, earth or nature, and humanity, and humanity must intercede between heaven and nature and act as steward, for the Dao to be realized. Heaven needs the assistance of humans to realize the Dao. There must be sacrifice by the individual for the good of all to realize the Dao, but that does not define Confucianism as a collectivist philosophy. But people don’t help sustain or create heaven in Christianity at all.  As Brindley says,

Individuals are to strive for a Dao in keeping with Heaven’s wishes because they understand the awesome and sacred responsibility Heaven imparts upon them: to be participating in and maintaining the success of a civilized, moral, and ultimately spiritual society (Brindley, page 263). 

Erica Brindley.  Moral Autonomy and Individual Sources of Authority in the Analects.   Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 38:2  June, 2011.  Available at

The obligation to help others is not in itself an act of self-sacrifice. Rather, it is a fulfilment of the Dao, and does not necessarily deny oneself anything. Brindley again – Rather, individuals who insert themselves into the moral fabric of the cosmos and society do so in order to consummate their own positive energy in the world. The individual must be free to decide for himself what course of action to take – otherwise, he cannot fulfill his own obligations to self. The Dao is not obvious – it is not written in a book or on a set of commandments. Self-cultivation is necessary for the Dao to be understood. That, too, seems contrary to Christian policy, in practice if not in theory. Self-cultivation is not the same as faith. An individual who studies, who seeks to practice the Dao, enlarges the Dao, or adds value to heaven’s moral authority in the world.

In our age, all religions must address global concerns – environmentalism, climate change, global poverty and persecution, the challenges of science for thinking about the meaning of what is human.  Confucianism is ideally situation to help in such analyses, unburdened as it is by textual or traditional connection to existing religious practices and yet compatible with the ethical views of all.

If a deity is required, then tian is the Confucian deity. Tian is immanently transcendent, in a way that some Christians accept and some reject. There are significant role differences between tian and the Christian God, but in any case these are of lesser concern to the human-oriented ethic of Confucius.

Perhaps the best description of a Confucian heaven on earth is the da tong, the grand unity in the Liji, the Book of Rites (Liji, Li Yun 1) -

When the grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky (tianxia weigong), they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability. . . . Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged. . . . They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. . . . [They accumulated] articles [of value], disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. . . . In this way [selfish] schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. Thus was [the period of] when we call the Grand Union.

No reference to loving God above all else, but otherwise not a bad description for religious or political behavior in the City of Man.