Confucianism - Freedom and Democracy 2.0

Is Confucianism a religion?

Appendix 2.  Confucian Spirituality   Incantations and deep mysteries?

Let’s get some things out of the way. No, there are no incantations or deep Asian inscrutability. Confucianism is not some weird Asian thing. A Confucian spirituality is grounded in the here and now and in daily life – just as in Christianity.

Sections to follow -

What is spirituality? 

Some spiritualities 

Confucian spirituality 

Similarities with Christianity 

Some differences  

Credit where credit is due; and spirituality without religion  

The caveat  

Varieties of spiritual experience – Christianity and Confucianism   

The commitment – advice for progressives and religious conservatives  



A trinity and a call to those SBNR  

Following the Dao and following Jesus 

How Confucianism can help those who are progressive and SBNR  

Can one be a Confucian Christian?  

Good works and spirituality in practice  

Descartes, modernity, Christianity and Confucianism 


There is a lot of material following. I am no scholar of spirituality, though I have tried to read to the point of finding confirming views across a number of authors. These are notes to myself, of course subject to change.


What is spirituality?

Buddhist-Christian scholar Frederick Streng defined religion as "a means to ultimate transformation." The transform implies a flawed human condition, a telos or goal to be achieved, and a path to the goal from where one starts.  

Spirituality is the commitment to follow such a path. Another definition - spirituality is one’s engagement with the transcendent, whatever that may be.


Some spiritualities

There are many sources on this broad topic. For Christian spirituality, most seem to agree that spirituality is a way of life, belief in the doctrines of the Church and most particularly love of others, denial of self, and hope for a future redemption. This spirituality avoids mysticism and overly intellectual approaches. It is a way of connecting with the transcendental.

The origins of Christian spirituality are in Jewish and Christian scriptures. Christian spirituality entails following the example of Jesus and a personal transformation (the commitment) to the mission to build a worldly kingdom of love.

Of course there are similarities and differences in the notion of spirituality across religions. For example, humility is important to both Christians and Buddhists, but the ultimate goal is different. Christians obviously believe in God and seek help from Jesus in attaining the ultimate goal of heaven. Theravada Buddhists don’t believe in God, and there’s an enormous reliance on one’s self as the transformative agent—as the one who seeks nirvana - a state of perfect quietude and freedom, the highest happiness and liberation from worldly suffering.

That’s the ultimate end; where Christians seek to be in union with God, Buddhists seek nirvana after cycles of birth and rebirth.

Jewish spirituality seems close in concept to that of Confucians. Jewish spirituality is about human purpose and meaning in this world – and that is what Jesus preaches as well. Tzvi Freeman at describes Jewish spirituality, like all of Judaism, as aimed towards the ultimate perfection of all the creation through our human efforts in partnership with the Creator, in the messianic times and after. Ultimately, one is not seeking to rise to a higher place in heaven, but to bring heaven down to earth.  He describes the body of Judaism as halachah meaning “the way”—the way we live, the things we do, the things we are careful not to do.


Confucian spirituality

Confucianism is not a religion, as most of us define it. There is no necessary acknowledgement of a creator God, no salvation, and no life everlasting. Confucianism is a spiritual practice, however.

A modern Confucian spirituality will be different in important ways from the spiritual, imperial, or folk interpretations mentioned above. The name for this version as described by most modern scholars is New Confucianism, characterizing the thinking since the early part of the twentieth century. While it borrows significantly from both Daoism and Buddhism, it also must address issues of modernity, globalism, and rights, including roles of women and attitudes to hierarchy. New Confucianism makes few metaphysical claims and is entirely concerned with the here and now of human relations.

As Julia Ching notes in Confucianism and Christianity: A Comparative Study, Confucian spirituality is a personal rather than a community endeavor. There is no church or group prayer and there are no sacraments or feast days. (There were temples dedicated to Confucius but these were mostly meant to honor the teachings rather than the man). Confucianism takes spirituality to focus on self-improvement rather than any group activity.

Julia Ching explores meditation and quiet prayer and “just sitting” as elements of a Confucian spirituality, but these all derive from Buddhist or Daoist practice. Confucian spirituality concentrates on the ability of the individual to become more and more junzi – the superior man – more benevolent, more wise, more caring of others. Meditation and prayer may be part of the individual’s lifelong search, but they are not required. Confucius made no demands – to “follow me” or “do this in memory of me” as did Jesus.

Confucian religious scholar Joseph Adler has a detailed consideration of Confucian spirituality at Varieties of Spiritual Experience: Shen in NeoConfucian Discourse (in Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Confucian Spirituality, vol. 2, 2004).


Similarities with Christianity and Judaism

These passages remind one of the daily ethic of a mindful Christian –

Fan Chi asked about benevolence. The Master said, "It is to love all men." Analects 12.22 (Yan Yuan 22)And

Zi Zhang asked Confucius about perfect virtue. Confucius said, "To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue." He begged to ask what they were, and was told, "Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness. If you are grave, you will not be treated with disrespect. If you are generous, you will win all. If you are sincere, people will repose trust in you. If you are earnest, you will accomplish much. If you are kind, this will enable you to employ the services of others." Analects 17.6 (Yang Huo)And

That which an exemplary person follows as his nature, that is to say, humanheartedness, rightness, ritual propriety, and wisdom, is rooted in his heart, and manifests itself in his face, giving it a sleek appearance. It also fills his torso and extends through his four limbs. Though he says nothing, his four limbs express them.  Mencius 7A21 (Jin Xin 1.21).


The connection between humanity and heaven is a key part of Confucian spirituality -

"Heaven and humanity are one," and Heaven produced the virtue in me" (Analects 7:23), "What is given by Heaven is human nature" (zhongyong 1, in the Liji, the Book of Rites).

I wrote about virtues in a prior section. Early Confucianism assumed the existence of a God that looked over and after humanity. Humans have a special relation to God by virtue of their ability to reason and conduct themselves morally. Humans are equal before God by virtue of their common human nature, ability to discern good from evil, and a common heart-mind xin. In Analects 18.6 (Wei Zi 6)

"It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I associate not with these people - with mankind - with whom shall I associate? If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state."

Confucian Spirituality, edited by Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, explores this spirituality in depth. Tu has worked for many years on defining Confucian spirituality, which we can think of as a search for personal meaning. Self-transformation is key to this Confucian spirituality, and the means are found in the virtues of ren (humaneness), li (ritual propriety), yi (righteousness or justice, or the moral disposition to do good), xiao (filial respect), de (moral character), zhi (wisdom) and xin (trustworthiness). These are qualities that every person is obliged to seek. Spirituality evolves as one uses these virtues in daily life. The Confucian gentle man, the superior man – the junzi - exhibits these traits.

Confucian spirituality is not different from the following statement on tolerance in Judaism –

… the universe is a complex whole, but basically it is characterized by order, reason and purpose. ... Apparent contradictions, inconsistencies and irregularities fall into place as complements rather than incongruities. It is not a static universe, for all its parts are interdependent and interacting. ... The world is for all men, not only for one kind. It is made up of good and bad, male and female, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, Jew and Gentile. There is no ideal of homogeneity in human beings, for each has his place and all are part of the original design. The ideal is not to make all men into one kind or to convert all to one faith. There is no attempt to change the existing order or to upset the basic design. The shtetl displays no urge to missionary activity, no proselytizing. If one is a Christian, it says, then let him be a good one. Good Gentiles will also find a place in the real world (the world to come, paradise; i.e., will be saved.)

Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. Life Is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl. New York: 1952.  Cited in Evan Zuesse, Tolerance in Judaism: The Medieval and Modern Sources, The Encyclopedia of Judaism: Second Edition, eds. J. Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William S. Green (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2005).  Available at and at Internet Archive

Joseph Adler . Varieties of Spiritual Experience: Shen in Neo-Confucian Discourse. From Tu Wei-ming and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Confucian Spirituality, vol. 2 (New York: Crossroad, 2004). Available at

Note the focus from the passage above on tolerance in the lived world, the interdependencies, and the lack of a need to impose belief. There is a Way, and all should find the Way in their own way. Pluralism is an accepted fact, both within Judaism and in the world. The Confucian ren, benevolence or humaneness, is more than philia (brotherly or friendship love) and probably less than Christian agape (love of God for man and man for God.)  It is easy to see an Augustinian uncertainty, a tolerance, in this statement as well. No one knows the path of another person toward God. To assume we know or to impose a belief is really a form of blasphemy, or at least arrogance. Humans are equal before God, and judgment is not our prerogative.

At the practical level, Erin Cline parses the similarities in spirituality between Catholicism and Confucianism in Reimagining Confucianism with Ignatius of Loyola.  She imagines Confucian contemplative practices in a contemporary setting and available for everyone. She sees compatibility with Ignatian practices that are aimed “not at eliminating thoughts or desires or becoming awakened to the unity of all thing, but at helping one attend to and cultivate one’s desires, thoughts, and feelings in order to create and nurture relationships.”

This is a tradition that demands much of us, from the standpoint of Confucian self-cultivation.  We are to cultivate a wide range of virtues, and this involves not only acting in the right ways but having the right feelings, attitudes, and intentions as well.

Erin Cline. Reimagining Confucianism with Ignatius of Loyola. Chapter 7 in Confucianism and Catholicism – Reinvigorating the Dialogue.  University of Notre Dame Press, 2020. Available at

This suggests a similarity between Confucian spirituality and the Christian need for faith, if  works are to be truly worthy.


Some differences

Christians know that theology and morals are inseparable. And per the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 3-5) and the separation of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:34-40, Christians are exhorted to care for the least of their brethren. This is a tough standard, and there is no similarly direct language in Confucianism.

For Confucianism, there is no theology as we normally understand it, although there is spirituality and a sense of the sacred. On the ground, I maintain that lack of a theology does not get in the way of Confucian humaneness and benevolence and even loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  There are sufficient structural parallels in the virtue ethics of Christianity and Confucianism (and Aristotelianism and MacIntyrianism, for that matter) so the theological and philosophical differences need not get in the way of modeling the Good Samaritan.

Christianity requires one address many paradoxes – a king who refused to lead, a god made human, promise of a reward in some uncertain unearthly future. Confucianism does not deal with paradox but retains the golden rule. All is focused on the present. “Do what you can with what you have where you are” would be sound moral advice for Christians and Confucians alike.

The following, though brief, is enough to show the fundamental difference between Confucianism and Christianity.

  1. Confucianism began as advice to existing and future government officials; Christianity started as a movement distinct from existing religious and government authority.
  2. Confucius advised keeping a distance from gods and spirits; Jesus and his followers relied on miracles to demonstrate the power of God acting in the world.
  3. Christianity developed organization and hierarchy, and evangelized; Confucianism remained at the level of academic thought and self-cultivation, without meaningful political or religious organization.
  4. Confucius’ family was in the low-level ruling class; Jesus’ father was a carpenter, as was Jesus. Confucius sought to teach rulers; Jesus challenged the position of government officials and the wealthy.
  5. Jesus and his early followers were certainly illiterate – they were peasants in a backward land. Confucius and his followers were certainly literate, and sought to serve rulers as advisors.
  6. Christianity has clear dogma. Confucianism, like Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, is more a spiritual practice with little or no obligatory dogma.
  7. Most fundamentally, I think, Jesus and the Church for much of its history offered an alternative morality to that of prevailing authority. “What would Jesus do?” has been useful advice against government power for centuries. Confucius sought to reform and improve government. Despite the prevalence of Confucian values within Chinese society, Confucius really offered no advice to the poor or oppressed. He offered no salvation, but contentment within the world. No organized Confucian practice ever challenged Chinese government.


Credit where credit is due; and spirituality without religion

Can Christianity credit spirituality in those who are not Christian? It depends. Wisdom traditions including religions tend to promote humility and seeking of an experience outside oneself or transformative of the self. Some Christianities will claim real spirituality only for themselves.

Is it possible to be spiritual without being religious?  Many theologians don’t dispute the point. It’s fair to say its existence is generally uncontested. “Spiritual but not religious”  (SBNR) is claimed by about 25% of the American population in 2017 Pew Research, reflecting the decline in mainstream church attendance. SBNR generally refers to a concern for the well-being of mind, body and spirit, without organizational trappings of church or commitment to texts.

Still, many Catholic and Christian writers tend not to credit those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” It is claimed that such a notion is spirituality without commitment or community.

Pointedly, that commitment is precisely what the Confucian approach to spirituality requires.


The caveat

I know some will find my parallel-seeking too much - banging too many square pegs into round holes. I am unqualified for any in-depth discussion of spirituality, Christian or Confucian. My aim is to point out some similarities and differences. A more thorough treatment would discuss Christian contemplation and prayer, and how to live in service to others. The Confucian and Buddhist concepts of qi, yin and yang, shen and perhaps the four books of Confucianism would need treatment.

Faith in God and salvation do provide a clearer path to the ultimate than Confucian spiritual concerns with the trinity of heaven, nature, and humanity. Christian spirituality and theology as applied to human needs is of far deeper portent, includes greater complexity along with great simplicity, and more comprehensive than anything developed in Confucianism. Salvation in a life everlasting is a bigger goal than becoming the most benevolent man.

But on the ground, in daily life, Christianity and Confucianism require similar efforts and commitment.


Varieties of spiritual experience – Christianity and Confucianism

Varieties of religious practice suggest varieties of spirituality. Some religions support the concept of monks and separate religious communities. Some don’t. Group prayer and meditation are important in some communities. Notions of spirituality change over time as religious doctrine changes. There cannot be a single spiritual doctrine or practice.

Confucian spirituality is derived in part from Daoism and Buddhism. As is true for Christianity, there are many versions of Confucianism, with different ideas about spirituality. At the broadest conceptual level, there are at least three different Confucianisms, differing in attention to particular books and wordings. There is spiritual Confucianism, honoring the classic writings of Kongzi, Mengzi, Xunzi and other Confucian scholars through the ages. This is what we are discussing here. But there is also political Confucianism, or imperial Confucianism, which CCP uses today to bolster support for itself inside and outside of China. One could hardly call this spiritual at all. The third is folk Confucianism, which combines elements of Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and local venerations and practices. Example are Xiaism and Yiguandao in Taiwan.  Both of these latter, by the way, are religious practices with salvationist teachings.

Fan Lizhu, Chen Na. The Religiousness of “Confucianism”, and the Revival of Confucian Religion in China Today.  Cultural Diversity in China 2015; 1(1).  Available at

In their most sincere form, both Christianity and Confucianism require commitment to a path. Spirituality in both traditions is about putting yourself in the service of something larger than oneself. For both, religious communities are important – a common understanding of service makes it easier to serve.

 A definition of transformative spirituality from the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences -

An experience is spiritually transformative when it causes people to perceive themselves and the world profoundly differently: by expanding the individual’s identity, augmenting their sensitivities, and thereby altering their values, priorities and appreciation of the purpose of life. This may be triggered by surviving clinical death, or by otherwise sensing an enlarged reality.


The commitment – advice for progressives and religious conservatives

Georgetown constitutional scholar George W. Carey - The people will be virtuous only to the extent that the souls of its individual components are rightly ordered… Carey is citing the City of God Book XIX, Chapter 4 -

… regarding the supreme good and evil … we must live rightly….The just lives by faith …for we do not as yet see our good, and must therefore live by faith; neither have we in ourselves power to live rightly, but can do so only if He who has given us faith to believe in His help do help us when we believe and pray.

Augustine gives us a path on earth in his pronouncements about the Peace of Babylon. We live in a world incapable of perfection. We will not solve social problems with technology or rationality or social programs. We must be able to accommodate ourselves to worldly imperfection, even as we strive to do better. First,  Jeremiah 29:7  and then Augustine City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 26. The “path of virtue begins with humility” and “pride is the beginning of all sin” are good Augustinian precepts to remember in a divided, angry age.

John Porter East -  Professor of Political Science and GOP Senator from North Carolina – wrote extensively on conservative political ideas. In The Political Relevance of St. Augustine – he produced a masterful analysis of what we need to do to right our society. If anything, his ideas are more relevant now than they were when he wrote in 1972.

I really can’t do better than to cite East at length. He is referencing Augustine. He might as well be referencing Confucius –

“Temperance,”“prudence,”and “fortitude”are not foundations for a dour puritanism. In fact, they are insurance against that. They are not ends in themselves, but instead assist us to the healthful and joyful ultimate end of man’s right relationship with God, that is, to “Justice.’’

“Humility,”“justice,’’“temperance,”“prudence,”“fortitude,” “right order within man himself,” “master of the inner life”—it all sounds so alien to modern ears. Humility has given way to the rankest forms of hybris. Justice, which in Augustine’s world required the body to submit to the soul and both of those to God, has fallen prey to the utopian claims that Man is the center and measure of all things. There is no God nor soul; there is only Man.

Augustine’s ideas of temperance have yielded to the earthly city’s notions that the only restraints upon the cravings of a man are the size of his appetites. Prudence, which taught us to distinguish between “good” and “evil,” has become irrelevant to much of modern thought, for all values are relative in a secular world in which there is no transcendent morality. Finally, fortitude, which instructed us to bear patiently the inescapable sorrows and trials of life, has often been replaced by the violent tantrums of the alienated souls who lash out in a fit of rage at a complex world that refuses to conform to their tortured visions of utopia.

There is much in the prevailing modern mind that Augustine can assist us in critically evaluating: secularism, scientism, rationalism, positivism, materialism, hedonism, utilitarianism, Marxism, pragmatism, utopianism, and the other “isms” that are the principal components of the contemporary mind. There are common denominators underlying these “isms” which can be subsumed under two broader categories.

First, with differing emphases, each “ism” contributes to the utopian or gnostic temper of the modern mind; the notion that man is the center and measure of all things; and that man with perfected human knowledge can be as God.

No one exceeds Augustine in helping to critically evaluate this temper, whether it is reflected in twentieth-century “liberal” or totalitarian forms.

Secondly, each “ism” tends in its way to view man primarily as a sentient, rationalist, and perfectible mechanism, whose inadequacies are attributable to environmental rather than personal moral deficiencies; consequently, there is no need for inner moral authority of a transcendent nature within the individual. Augustine is invaluable in critically assessing that premise.

Freedom alone is insufficient for our society to prosper. Liberty is not license. Without inner moral authority, and resulting self-mastery, there could not be a well-ordered society; regardless of what form it might take.

Augustine is suggesting that “masters of the inner life” display humility, grace, love, peace, joy, patience, a contemplative mind, discipline, and civility. In contrast, for some of our modern progressive and evangelical fanatics, these qualities are superseded by arrogance, alienation, hate, violence, despair, compulsiveness, mindlessness, license, and boorishness.

Confucius sounding Augustinian -

The Master said, "The superior man in everything considers righteousness to be essential. He performs it according to the rules of propriety. He brings it forth in humility. He completes it with sincerity. This is indeed a superior man." Analects 15.18 (Wei Ling Gong 18)

Hence, when a sage (ruler) would regulate the seven feelings of men, cultivate the ten virtues that are right; promote truthfulness of speech, and the maintenance of harmony; show his value for kindly consideration and complaisant courtesy; and put away quarrelling and plundering, if he neglect the rules of propriety, how shall he succeed? LiJi (Book of Rites) Li Yun 7.18

Mencius said, 'There is a nobility of Heaven, and there is a nobility of man. Benevolence, righteousness, self-consecration, and fidelity, with unwearied joy in these virtues; these constitute the nobility of Heaven. To be a gong, a qing, or a da fu; this constitutes the nobility of man. The men of antiquity cultivated their nobility of Heaven, and the nobility of man came to them in its train. The men of the present day cultivate their nobility of Heaven in order to seek for the nobility of man, and when they have obtained that, they throw away the other - their delusion is extreme. The issue is simply this, that they must lose that nobility of man as well.' Mencius 6A.16 (Gao Zi I.16)

Earnest in practicing the ordinary virtues, and careful in speaking about them, if, in his practice, he has anything defective, the superior man dares not but exert himself; and if, in his words, he has any excess, he dares not allow himself such license. Thus his words have respect to his actions, and his actions have respect to his words; is it not just an entire sincerity which marks the superior man? LiJi (Book of Rites) Zhong Yong 13

In order to know men, he may not dispense with a knowledge of Heaven. The duties of universal obligation are five and the virtues wherewith they are practiced are three. The duties are those between sovereign and minister, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger, and those belonging to the intercourse of friends. Those five are the duties of universal obligation. Knowledge, magnanimity, and energy, these three, are the virtues universally binding. And the means by which they carry the duties into practice is singleness. Some are born with the knowledge of those duties; some know them by study; and some acquire the knowledge after a painful feeling of their ignorance. But the knowledge being possessed, it comes to the same thing. Some practice them with a natural ease; some from a desire for their advantages; and some by strenuous effort. But the achievement being made, it comes to the same thing." LiJi (Book of Rites) Zhong Yong 20

Sincerity is that whereby self-completion is effected, and its way is that by which man must direct himself. Sincerity is the end and beginning of things; without sincerity there would be nothing. On this account, the superior man regards the attainment of sincerity as the most excellent thing. The possessor of sincerity does not merely accomplish the self-completion of himself. With this quality he completes other men and things also. The completing himself shows his perfect virtue. The completing other men and things shows his knowledge. But these are virtues belonging to the nature, and this is the way by which a union is effected of the external and internal. Therefore, whenever he-the entirely sincere man-employs them,-that is, these virtues, their action will be right. Hence to entire sincerity there belongs ceaselessness. Not ceasing, it continues long. Continuing long, it evidences itself. Evidencing itself, it reaches far. Reaching far, it becomes large and substantial. Large and substantial, it becomes high and brilliant. Large and substantial;-this is how it contains all things. High and brilliant;-this is how it overspreads all things. Reaching far and continuing long;-this is how it perfects all things. So large and substantial, the individual possessing it is the co-equal of Earth. So high and brilliant, it makes him the co-equal of Heaven. So far-reaching and long-continuing, it makes him infinite. Such being its nature, without any display, it becomes manifested; without any movement, it produces changes; and without any effort, it accomplishes its ends. LiJi (Book of Rites) Zhong Yong 26



The commitment to self-mastery is similar. That is what Christianity requires – personal reflection on the wisdom and example of exemplars, and commitment to follow the path. The path comes from consideration of scripture, exemplars, and Jesus’ example – the old, what would Jesus do?” For both Christianity and Confucianism good works alone are insufficient. This is the reasoning.

For one to have sufficient confidence in the value of good works, the works have to arise out of the commitment. Otherwise, it is too easy to be led astray. Following the human law, for example, may not be enough. One must master self-interest and the common advice. Augustine would call it obedience to God; Confucius would call it seeking to become a junzi.

For Augustine, the individual is still empowered by sin. Human law is not of the City of God; it can only be of the City of Men. Only Jesus can break the power of sin that pervades human endeavor. That is, doing what one perceives as God’s will (following the law) is not enough; one must be saved by belief in Jesus as Lord.  Even an exalted person must humble himself to be in service to others. The reference would be to Philippians 2:6-11.

The Christian commitment is obviously beyond anything demanded by Confucius.  But it does align with the requirement to do the moral thing even when it may be to one’s disadvantage. One must have a commitment to follow the Dao. Only then will good moral action evolve.

Perhaps it is good to remember individuality in Confucianism. While some scholars point out there is no term for autonomy or rights in Confucianism (as there is not in Christianity) it is the case that the individual is the source and locus of morality. The term yi righteousness refers to the individual characteristics - ‘‘the dignity and majesty of the self, the demeanor of the self, what is appropriate, right, custom, law, rule of decorum, justice, reason or principle, a path or way, judgment or to judge.” (Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Chinese Language). Justice, then, remains focused on the individual, not family or group. Self-mastery is then a requirement if one is to be just and able to administer justice.



Confucianism is often derided as overly concerned with ritual, meaningless form over substance.  This is not the Confucian way. Confucius stressed learning, thinking, and moral self-cultivation, and these require attention and effort over a lifetime.  Real learning cannot be superficial. "If one is not humane (ren), what can he have to do with ritual? If one is not humane, what can he have to do with music [part of court ritual]?" Analects 3.3 (Ba Yi 3)

There is attention to ritual in Confucianism. But this need not be overly stylized, deferential to the point of obsequiousness, or fake. Confucian scholar Herbert Fingarette overemphasizes the magic of ritual, I think, when he sees ritual li as superior to benevolence ren in Confucian virtue.  Ritual is not the goal, as Confucius noted in Analects 9.3 (Zi Han 3). Ritual serves as a useful reminder of what we share, what we honor. Rituals are important way for people to connect with each other, particularly in difficult or uncertain times. That is why rituals become more salient in war, even in sports events. They are a binding force. American conservatives are not wrong to decry the loss of rituals in society.

We observe rituals all the time. We shake hands, hold doors for others, take turns in merging two lines into one. We play the school song and the national anthem at games and stand when the President comes into the room. Rather than ritual negatively bounding us, it positively binds us together as in kindness, sociability, and culturally. We can consider compliance with law and regulation as observing ritual. We should celebrate with ritual more.  


A trinity and a call to those SBNR

The fastest growing spirituality in the US is that of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Confucianism calls directly to them.

Confucius described a unity, what Tu Weiming calls a trinity, of heaven, man and earth (nature). This is a mutuality between heaven and human beings, consanguinity between one human being and another, and harmony between humanity and nature. The heavenly principle tianli in all things as well as in human nature enables the human mind to purify itself in a spirit of reverence. In western terms, this can be conceived as natural law – it is the way of humanity. Tu Weiming describes Confucianism as a spiritual humanism. As such, I see Confucianism as a link between secular humanists and secular and religious spiritualists. They will find much on which to agree regarding both practices of and rationale for a connected and responsible life on earth.

Modern Chinese share concerns about environment and resource use that reflect this spiritual aspect of Confucianism. All would find agreement with the now famous “Western Inscription” by Neoconfucian Zhang Zai in the eleventh century -  

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small being as I finds a central abode in their midst. Therefore that which fills the cosmos I regard as my body and that which directs the cosmos I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

Tu says it is blasphemous to think one can achieve complete humanity (as one would blaspheme in thinking one can be the perfect Christian). The true self, the ultimate humanity, is not different from the aspect of divinity that resides in every human being. It is in this sense that Tu defines Confucian religiosity as the ‘ultimate self-transformation as a communal act and as a faithful dialogical response to the transcendent.’ This, he says, is the Confucian prescription for learning to be human. He offers this advice on the Confucian project of becoming - we are not what we ought to be but what we ought to be is inherent in the structure of what we are. You can hear the US Army slogan, which takes unformed but willing young adults and transforms them – ‘be all you can be.’

Tu Weiming.  Centrality and Commonality.  SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture, 1989.  Available at

Yong Huang.  Confucian Theology: Three Models.  Religion Compass 1/4 (2007): 455–478,  Available at

A Confucian spirituality encompasses stewardship of earth and its resources. Man is the mediator between heaven and earth, and is responsible for careful use of earth in advancing the Dao. Man is the necessary link in the trinity. The ultimate is not to be found in transcendent existence, but in the here and now. There is immanent transcendence, as Tu describes it. The tension in Christianity is between the transcendent and the immanent. In Confucianism, he says, it is between the ideal form of human existence datong and the practical.

For Christians, all creation belongs to god and resources should be used for the common good and glorification of god.  Environmentalism and conservation should be a part of Christian ethics, as it is for Confucians.

Confucianism is a virtue ethic, as is early Christianity, and the ethical thinking is not dissimilar. Since new Confucian ethics compare favorably with Christianity, it seems a good way to engage American secularists and suggest an antidote to destructive American individualism.

Confucius felt that what was most urgent was the moral revitalization of the ruling class, and that the way to achieve this was not to court the favor of gods and ancestors but to revive the idealized Way or ways of the benevolent sage-kings who had founded the Zhou dynasty some five-hundred years earlier. One doesn’t have to see racism, sexism, or any other –ism in the need for all of us to practice civility and honor what we all respect.


Following the Dao and following Jesus

Early Confucianism embraced the ancient practice of ancestor veneration. Accommodation of their spirits and ghosts was a big part of ritual practice. Apart from the ancestors and spirits, there is Qi, the “existence force” of all things, living and not, material and not. Qi expresses itself in two forms, yin and yang, the way of heaven and earth, the endless transform of one thing into another.  Chinese are still aware of qi and its expressions, though most people take the spirits and ghosts as reminders rather than influencers of current events. Confucius himself was reticent to engage too much with the spirits, however. He counseled to respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance (Classic of Rites II, 29:30 Biao Ji (note- at 29:27 at Chinese Text Project; also a Legge translation, but different numbering)). Confucius suggested more attention should be on following and enhancing the Dao – a bit of, “let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22). The earnest Confucian should be trying to follow the Dao, and ignore petty concerns.

We find humaneness and benevolence in Confucianism, but the primary aim of Confucianism is not to create a Dao or a universal moral theory. Kantian universals require too much separation of heart and mind, compassion from reason, and Confucians will have none of it.  The primary goal is to offer instructions on living a good life. Christianity quite clearly offers a universal moral theory, based on the two great commandments – love god, and love your neighbor as yourself – and attaches a reward, salvation in heaven, for those who manage. Modern Confucianism provides no salvation or eternal reward.  Becoming fully human lies in the relationships that locate us with our family and community. A Confucian must be engaged with the world. There cannot be a Confucian monk or isolated wise man.


How Confucianism can help those who are progressive and SBNR

It appears that the worldly and spiritual elements in Confucianism would even satisfy Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, who argued that humanism without spirituality is inevitably anti-human. Maritain advocated what he called "Integral Humanism." He argued that secular forms of humanism were inevitably anti-human in that they refused to recognize the whole person. In other words, once the spiritual dimension of human nature is rejected, we no longer have an integral, but merely partial humanism, one which rejects a fundamental aspect of the human person.  (Pointedly, Tu Weiming defines Confucianism as a spiritual, rather than secular, humanism). 

Maritain explores the prospects for a new Christendom, rooted in his philosophical pluralism, in order to find ways Christianity could inform political discourse and policy in a pluralistic age. In this account he develops a theory of cooperation, to show how people of different intellectual positions can nevertheless cooperate to achieve common practical aims. Maritain's political theory was extremely influential, and was a primary source behind the Christian Democratic movement.  

Mencius was quite clear in Liang Hui Wang II.12

There were the old and wifeless, or widowers; the old and husbandless, or widows; the old and childless, or solitaries; the young and fatherless, or orphans - these four classes are the most destitute of the people, and have none to whom they can tell their wants, and king Wen, in the institution of his government with its benevolent action, made them the first objects of his regard, as it is said in the Book of Poetry, "The rich may get through life well; But alas! for the miserable and solitary!"'

Broadly speaking, Confucians believe that humans start out good, may be distracted from the goal of becoming a sage, but have a lifelong obligation to grow in humaneness to advance the Dao.  Christians believe that humans are born sinful, but through the grace of God can be redeemed in the next life. There is a connection between self-cultivation and heavenly grace,  since humans are obligated to work to advance the Dao, which encompasses heaven and humanity.

Arne Redse. Justification by Grace Alone: Facing Confucian Self-Cultivation — The Christian Doctrine of Justification Contextualized to New Confucianism. Brill, 2015.  Available from

Lifelong, Christians develop in spirituality as Confucians develop in humaneness. There is always room to be better. Christians might cite Philippians 1:6 and look outside oneself to proclaim that God is not done with me yet – Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. The Confucian would look inward to find ways to become more ren benevolent.  For the Confucian, education and experience are the path.

This is an intellectual journey as much as a spiritual one.  For the Confucian, there is no genius, as the word is used in Roman religion – the individual instance of a general divine nature in all things, living and non-.  This can be understood as the person having no divine soul, no spark of divine creativity within.  Each person is an individual worthy of respect, but there is not a concept of each individual being unique.  Each person has at least the hun and po souls, but these are not divine creations.

Becoming a complete human being is the lifelong journey.  Speaking at the opening of a high-level Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing in 2001, President Jiang Zemin made the point that “education is the foundation for human capacity building, and learning is the basic means by which to improve people’s capability” (Jiang 2001, p.2).   The government policy in China became “life-long learning.”

There is a lifelong journey for those who are SBNR and for Christians as well.


Can one be a Confucian Christian?

Most readers will have at least some familiarity with Christianity. The question arises whether Christianity and Confucianism are compatible – can one be a Confucian Christian? Robert Cummings Neville, professor of philosophy and theology at Boston University, addresses this question in detail in Boston Confucianism.  He concludes that the cross identification is possible, and rather easy to achieve.  For Confucians, as well as east Asian religious practitioners, “the whole issue of membership is just not very important …. the practical effort and accomplishment are more important than labels.” (Boston Confucianism, p 207More is available at one of the online sites - here  or here.

Robert Cummings Neville, ed.  Boston Confucianism. Suny Press, 2000.

I discussed whether Confucianism is a religion in a earlier section. I agree with most writers that it is not, although a commitment to spirituality, service, and benevolence do provide religious flavor.


Can we be perfect? Can we get to the Dao, or to the City of God?

Whether the individual and the society look to flourishing, union with god, datong (the great oneness) or the “good of a whole human life” (MacIntyre) a virtue ethic wants and needs a superordinate goal for a society and for its individuals.  In the different ethics, no one should be described as flourishing, or achieving ren, or living a good Christian life until that life is over. Edward Slingerland on Confucianism –

The ascription of true virtue to any person or act is therefore problematic, and this no doubt accounts for Confucius’s reluctance in 5.8 (Analects 5.8) to accord the description ren to any of the disciples …. The fact that ren functions as the ultimate telos defining the narrative arc of an individual’s life means that no final judgment concerning whether a given person possesses ren  can be delivered until that life has been completed. Ren is thus often portrayed as the dimly perceived and ever-receding goal of a work eternally in progress….

Edward Slingerland. Virtue Ethics, the Analects, and the Problem of Commensurability. Journal of Religious Ethics 29:1 (2001).  Available at

One is reminded of Augustine’s plea for tolerance in the city of man as we never know what path toward god someone is taking. Respect for others and the peace of Babylon are of more value than any short term victory over a perceived ethical adversary. 

Augustine cites the peace of Babylon from Jeremiah in City of God XIX, 26 -

Miserable, therefore, is the people which is alienated from God. Yet even this people has a peace of its own which is not to be lightly esteemed, though, indeed, it shall not in the end enjoy it, because it makes no good use of it before the end. But it is our interest that it enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon. For from Babylon the people of God is so freed that it meanwhile sojourns in its company. And therefore the apostle also admonished the Church to pray for kings and those in authority, assigning as the reason, that we may live a quiet and tranquil life in all godliness and love. And the prophet Jeremiah, when predicting the captivity that was to befall the ancient people of God, and giving them the divine command to go obediently to Babylonia, and thus serve their God, counselled them also to pray for Babylonia, saying, In the peace thereof shall you have peace, Jeremiah 29:7 — the temporal peace which the good and the wicked together enjoy.

This is not a plea for secular pluralism, but it is a plea for tolerance. One may remain religious, or spiritual, but recognize that attempts to achieve the City of God, or the perfect life, are bound to cause misery. Seeking perfection is pointless, if not blasphemous, because that is impossible for men to achieve.

For Confucius, it is heaven tian that establishes the norms for human behavior.  This is part of  the Dao, the way of the universe. The Dao is not always followed, and there can only be a vague connection between the destiny of an individual and heaven’s norms, or the Dao.  One is reminded of Augustine, suggesting tolerance in the face of our ignorance about any one individual’s path to God.  Both justice and vengeance are the province of heaven.

Erica Brindley.  Moral Autonomy and Individual Sources of Authority in the Analects.  Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38:2 (June 2011), p. 259.  Available at


Good works and spirituality in practice

For most circumstances, the golden rule serves as a decent guide to humane conduct – treat others as you would wish to be treated. This does of course presume that one knows how the other person would wish to be treated.  Herein lies the justification for proselytizing – I know that if you only knew how good I feel, well, then, you would want it too. The Confucian so-called silver rule – do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you – is more circumspect about what others want. The difference in this call to action does very broadly speaking illustrate the differences between Christian and Confucian spirituality.  One is a call to the individual to actively bring others into the fold; the other is a call to the individual to consider the wishes of others.

It is frequently pointed out that there are Christian organized and supported hospitals, schools, clinics, universities, and charitable organizations around the world serving anyone who walks in the door. This is care for each other as well as the Other, as required in the great commandment and in the golden rule. There is no such Confucian commandment; nor are there Buddhist or Daoist institutions. In the west, in-patient medical care was a Christian invention. Medieval European hospitals were staffed by monks and nuns, and could serve as a source of income for the religious. 

Much can be written about evolution of generalized trust from particularized trust in ancient tribal and clan societies. Avner Greif and Greif and Tabellini explored the use of intra-clan trust among 11th century north African Maghrebi traders to facilitate long-distance trade. The early Church worked to break up extended family relations in Europe, forcing trust and social policy to migrate toward government and church. This action by the church encouraged development of trust in non-familial institutions. The Chinese cultural tradition was different. In China, family, clan and lineage groups provided education, health care and social services for millennia. There was no scope for Confucian, Buddhist, or Daoist hospitals.


Descartes, modernity, Christianity and Confucianism

The Church has seen Aquinas as the “touchstone of modern liberal Catholic social and economic thought” as East wrote in The Political Relevance of Saint Augustine. Aquinas and Aristotle were seen as fellow travelers in rationality and reason, while Augustine and Plato were seen as more idealistic. East –

In their pursuit of the Perfect, the Good, the One, and the Truth, Plato and Augustine are otherworldly.  Aquinas and Aristotle are of the “tough-minded” tradition; Plato and Augustine are of the “tender-minded.” Weighted down by the orthodoxy of The Fall and original sin, the Augustinian legacy is pessimistic, fundamentalist, even primitivist. Where Aquinas leads to facts, liberalism, change, and modernity, Augustine suggests obscurantism, conservatism, traditionalism, and medievalism.

By the 1890s, the Church began to accept government protection of rights as a social responsibility. In the encyclical Rerum Novarum Leo XIII moved the Church toward Aquinas and away from Augustine as a model theorist for modern times. The Augustinian Peace of Babylon could give way to the perfectionist ideas of modernity and technology. Rational man can master nature and social relations.

I see this movement as the Church aligning with Descartes’ separation of mind and body, refined later in Kantian morality. Reason was to be dominant over emotionality, and modern institutions could eliminate social ills.

The argument within the Church seemed to be that secular rationalists would see the compatibility of faith and reason as described in Aquinas. Augustine, with the focus on original sin and inability to perfect the human world, seemed not so modern.

A hundred years later, a world so beset by world problems, so much conflict and changing mores is more conducive to Augustinian analysis. East, again -  That is, if the standards by which a philosophy is preferred are those of maturity and realism, it is the humble fundamentalism of Augustine which seems more relevant to our irrational, traumatic, and convulsive age, than the shallow, fatuous, and simplistic system building of modern Christian and secular rationalists, who claim to follow in the tradition of Aquinas.

I am not discounting reason and rationality. I do think it has become far too easy to assign responsibilities to organizations in a rational model of service, and thereby ignore direct action to help those needing help. It is too easy to hit “send” on a plea for funds and ignore those around us needing immediate help. This is discounting the role of heart, emotionality, in formulating a humane response. My contention is that use of one’s heart-mind in a particular real situation could help resolve the moral dilemma of a Trolley problem in which reason and emotion are pitted against one another. There cannot be a universal rational solution. We must use our humaneness.

In Chinese philosophy, there is no separation of mind and body a la Descartes. The unity of the Chinese heart-mind xin stands a far better chance of expressing humaneness than does a separation that gets itself tangled up in logical puzzles about helping others. Only a mind artificially separated from heart would worry whether throwing a life ring to a drowning man might encourage him to take more chances when swimming next time.

There is most certainly a Confucian spirituality. It does not conflict with or detract from a Christian spirituality, and would help all of us toward being a bit more humane, a bit more benevolent, a bit more loving of neighbor. What’s not to like?