Confucius for Christians (Gregg Ten Elshof) -- A Review

CONFUCIUS FORCHRISTIANS: What an Ancient Chinese Worldview Can Teach Us about Life in Christ.  By Gregg A. Ten Elshof. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Vii + 102 pages.

Tertullian may have asked what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, but the fact is as the Christian faith moved out from Jerusalem it took root in particular cultures. That meant that it had to be translated not only in to the language of the receptive communities, but their world views as well. We’ve struggled with this reality from the very beginning of the Christian movement, and it’s not unique to Christianity. Nonetheless, if Christianity is incarnational, it will be reframed in conversation with those world views. For the earliest Christians, that context was Greek. In Acts 17 Paul sought to frame his message within the parameters of Greek thought. While it didn’t work quite as well as Paul had hoped, he didn’t repudiate the effort. Since then, for better or worse, Christian theologians have recast the faith in conversation with the receptive communities. Yes, there have been moves to go back to the pristine foundations, but unless we all start speaking Aramaic and live in a first century Palestinian world, we’ll have to engage the world in which we live. That is, whatever the "biblical world view" might be, it will have to be understood in light of our own cultural dynamics. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that American Christianity can reflect an Enlightenment world view.

If Plato and Aristotle offered workable worldviews, what about Confucius? That is the question asked by Gregg Ten Elshof, a philosophy professor at Biola University, a relatively conservative Christian college in Southern California. Ten Elshof believes that there is much in Confucian thought, as made known through the Analects, that is compatible with Christian faith. To get there he distinguishes the Confucian Wisdom tradition from the religious components that might surround it. He suggests that Confucianism is less a religious tradition, though often placed in a religious category, and more a philosophy (akin to Platonism). 

Through his encounter with Confucian thought Ten Elshof has found helpful insights for the Christian life that have enabled him to live more fully the Christian faith. He suggests that what he's trying to do here is "mine the great traditions of sincere human reflection on the human condition for anything that ca be of assistance in our attempt to understand deeply who we are, how our world works, and how best to fulfill the biblical mandate to promote human flourishing" (p. 7). 

Beginning with the argument of the possibility of a Confucian form of Christianity, he picks up several avenues of exploration. He starts with family, and notes the Confucian emphasis on family—especially the expectation that children will submit to their elders—not just during younger years, but throughout life can be a helpful tonic to modern Christian visions of family. There is a conservative patriarchal aspect to this emphasis, which may have some resonance within the conservative evangelical community, but Ten Elshof sees more than this. With regard to family, he believes that Westerners can learn something important from Confucius about the importance of respecting one’s elders and the emphasis on “filial piety,” that is a strong connection to family. By being rooted in our own family, we are prepared to live beyond that family.

The second lesson concerns the importance of learning. For the Confucian learning is continual. No one fully masters a subject. Therefore, accumulation of knowledge is not the focus, but rather the process of learning. Thus, with regard to the Christian faith, it’s not enough to know the material. One needs to be in continual conversation with it, so as to live out the knowledge we are gaining. You might call this an emphasis on orthopraxis that emerges out of orthodoxy. From Confucius he discerns a middle ground between a fastidious holding to the right concepts and a wild freedom with no grounding.  In other words, it’s not enough to know what Scripture has to say about life, if one is unable to live it.

Since learning requires the practical, it should not surprise us that he finds wisdom in Confucius regarding ethics. This was one of the best chapters. While he uses Confucian thought to address some of the problems posed by the western Christian tendency to systematize things, he suggests that simply learning the rules won't lead to flourishing. Ethical life needs to be contextual. It's not relativism, but the recognition that different situations require different solutions. Simply having a set of abstract principles doesn't work. He tells the story of Ethan, who is committed to living by biblical principles. He’s studied them closely and has tried to implement them in his life. The problem is that putting things into practice in real circumstances can be difficult. He uses the example of tithing. He’s committed to it, but then is forced to deal with the question of “before or after taxes.” Further complicating things is concern for a neighbor in need. Should he lessen his tithe to help, try to do both, or nothing? Further, friends suggest that giving money to the church is not the best way of living faith. Instead, he should go green and sell his less expensive car and get a more expensive hybrid. Conflicting needs and concerns complicate life. Trying to be slavish to principles becomes frustrating. Confucius suggests that context will guide application, which proves helpful to him.

I know that ritual is often ridiculed as being out of step with modern sensibilities. We want to be spontaneous. Confucius, however, speaks of a disciplined form of spontaneity. In pursuing this form of spontaneity, ritual can be helpful. In his chapter on ritual, Teb Elshof contrasts the characters of Javert and Jean Valjean. Javert has a disciplined moral earnestness. He views life through a very rigid and inflexible lens. There is only black and white, with no room for anything else. Valjean on the other hand has a moral seriousness to him as well, but it is much more spontaneous. Unfortunately, Valjean’s morality lacks discipline. It’s spontaneous, but not focused. In Confucian thought ritual provides opportunity for a trained form of spontaneity. Trained spontaneity allows for "a life that is both informed by a Way that is not our own and spontaneous, natural, and free." (p. 78). Such a vision can move us from a focus on big ethical issues to a focus on forming the daily life. 

The final chapter of the book tells the story of Sam, a Christian who struggles with family, work, and his faith. He wants to do what is right. He studies the faith and seeks to avoid breaking any biblical principle. The problem is that he falls prey to a severe legalism. Rather than enhancing life, it makes it more difficult. Like Ethan he becomes frustrated and judgmental. It affects all aspects of his life, from work to family. He becomes judgmental and unlikable. According to Ten Elshof, Sam began to experience a new sense of freedom in his faith that enhanced life when he began to view the Christian life through the lens of Confucianism. Confucianism has broadened his vision as a Christian by making it more contextual. He had struggled with family issues, but the emphasis on filial piety helped him place greater emphasis on family and less on work. He might not make as much money or gain promotion, but family would be stronger, and his faith would be more fulfilling as well.

The book is interesting. Being that I'm not well-versed in Confucian thought I cannot critique his use of this ancient wisdom tradition from China. Nonetheless, he opens up the conversation about how the Christian faith can be understood in light of various worldviews and philosophical systems. No one system is in perfect sync, but it appears that Confucianism can help provide for a well-ordered but spontaneous Christian life that is in harmony with what we learn from Scripture about God and life in God’s creation. 

No world view is perfect. Confucianism places emphasis on family, which can be good. It can also be problematic if we don’t take into consideration the patriarchal elements present there, even as they are present in the biblical text. We will need to be wise and discerning when we attempt to incarnate the gospel in a new context. Nonetheless, this looks promising.

It is good to hear an evangelical philosopher make this attempt at incarnating the Christian faith in a world view different from what has been the norm. So, perhaps not only does Jerusalem have something to do with Athens, but also Beijing. This is an increasingly important conversation in light of the increasingly globalized nature of the Christian faith. This is especially true of the growing presence in Asia, where Confucianism remains prominent. At the same time, by reflecting on our faith through this lens we might become more aware of our own reframing of the faith, so that we can pursue the question of what Jerusalem has to do with London!


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