In this post, I’ll blog about Chapter 3 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. This chapter is entitled “The Teacher and the Tyrant”. I have two items:
1. On page 28, Marshall states:
“Kindness towards inferiors was not a common attitude in Confucius’ day. Kings murdered to steal wives or even for target practice. The prevailing sentiment was that the best purpose a subject could serve was to die for his lord. Confucius taught that the first duty of a king was to care for the common folk, though.”
Overall, I enjoyed Marshall’s chapter on Confucius, for I had not read much about this particular religious figure up to that point. The reason why that passage on page 28 stood out to me, however, was that it made me think of an implication that Marshall often makes in the books of his that I have read so far. Marshall often points out areas in which the Bible or Christianity is superior to other religions—-superior in the sense that it is more humanitarian, or meets spiritual needs more effectively—-and his implication seems to be that the Bible or Christianity is divinely-inspired and authoritative on account of this. But does a person arriving at a revolutionary insight that we should treat people well mean that the person is divinely-inspired? Would Marshall say that Confucius’ religion was divinely-inspired and authoritative? (See here for an article that refers to Confucius’ other revolutionary thoughts.)
I seriously doubt that Marshall would say that Confucianism is on the same level as Christianity in terms of divine inspiration. In subsequent chapters, Marshall discusses what he considers to be weaknesses of Confucianism, such as Confucius’ God being overly distant, and Confucius’ tendency to ignore women, when husbands “need a teacher who sets an example [of] how to love and respect women—-who cares for virtue in women” (page 43). For Marshall, Christianity does not have these inadequacies of Confucianism, for Jesus bridged the gap between heaven and earth as well as modeled a respectful treatment of women.
Marshall also maintains that Christianity does not have the inadequacies that have resulted from the abuse of Confucianism (abuse that cannot necessarily be blamed on Confucius himself). Marshall praises Confucianism for its emphasis on honoring parents, but, in China, that concept has been abused, as (for example) some believe that a son should die if his father wants him to do so. (UPDATE: Marshall goes on to say on page 43, however, that Confucius thought people should obey their parents even when the parents are wrong.) For Marshall, Christianity has the sorts of positive concepts that are in Confucianism, such as honor for parents and Jesus’ covenant-faithfulness (which is not to say that Confucianism believes in Jesus, but rather that it emphasizes faithfulness to one’s family and obligations). But Christianity also is revolutionary in that it challenges authority when it is unjust.
Marshall obviously believes that Christianity is superior, but is he also open to the possibility that, on some level, people in other cultures and religions can be divinely-inspired, too? He talks at great length about what he considers to be truth in other religions—-a belief in a Supreme God, a hope for atonement, etc. Could that be due to God’s inspiration, in his opinion?
As an undergraduate, I once talked with a religion professor of mine about Christian exclusivism. He was an Evangelical Free pastor, but he also was learned about other religions and open-minded. Our class had just watched The Message, a movie about Muhammad, and it intrigued me that Muhammad stood up for the worship of one God as well as social justice. I wondered if Islam could have been inspired, in some sense, by God. Some of my evangelical friends said that Islam was from Satan and was a counterfeit (and this was years before 9/11), but I was interested in my professor’s take. He essentially said that we do not know on whom God’s spirit can rest. Who is to say that God is not in other religions, inspiring people to know him a little better and to take a stand for what is morally right?
2. Now I’ll turn to the “fact-checking” part of my post, and I am open to gentle correction, since I know little about Chinese religion. On pages 30-31, Marshall says that Confucius hoped for a sheng ren, a holy man or sage who would benefit others and would even be willing to accept death in order to effect benevolence. While later disciples believed that Confucius was a holy man, Confucius did not consider himself to be such. Marshall quotes Confucian scholar Chen Jingpan, who states that this ideal Sage for whom Confucius hoped “was thought of as being in the same category as the Divine Being of whom the Superior Man should always stand in awe.” According to Marshall, Confucius did not believe that he found such a person in his time. But Marshall, of course, thinks that Jesus fulfills that expectation.
I did some google searches, and I found some interesting things. Professor Nick Gier of the University of Idaho states in his notes here that Confucius thought that anyone had the potential to become a junzi, which is an ideal person. Regarding the sheng ren, Gier has the following notes: “Sheng ren sage[;] god-like—-true mediators between heaven and earth[;] Yao, Shun, Yu and King Yen[;] focus: cosmological”. The part about the sheng-ren being god-like and a mediator stands out to me, since that sounds like the Christian conception of Jesus.
Gier refers to places in Confucius’ Analects in which Confucius denies being a sheng ren (7:26, 34; 9:13), but he does believe that Confucius’ deems himself to be a junzi in 9:13 (which I cannot see, but you can check out Confucius’ Analects for yourself here). Bier quotes Zaiwo, who wrote in Mencius that Confucius was superior to Yao and Shun, and Bier says that these were sage kings, which may mean that they were considered by Zaiwo to be sheng rens. But I do not know if Confucius considered them to be such. Marshall says that Confucius did not think that they deserved such a lofty title!
I found on the wikipedia article about Confucius the following: “Confucius stressed the development of lǐ through the actions of sage leaders in human history”. “In the early Confucian tradition, lǐ was doing the proper thing at the proper time, balancing between maintaining existing norms to perpetuate an ethical social fabric, and violating them in order to accomplish ethical good. Training in the lǐ of past sages cultivates in people virtues that include ethical judgment about when lǐ must be adapted in light of situational contexts.” In wikipedia’s article on li, we read: “Acting with Li and Ren led to what Confucius called the ‘superior human’ or ‘the sage’.”
There was a pro-Islamic cite that quotes Confucius, but, unfortunately, it did not provide a reference:
“The superior man honors / respects / acknowledges ( WEI ) three things ( in his life ). He acknowledges the Decree of Heaven ( wei Ming ). He honors the Saying of Sages ( Sheng Ren ) and he honors the Great Leaders ( Ta ren )’. The small/common (men) ignore (the teachings) of the Sages, despise their teachings or gain no benefit from it.”
If this is an accurate quote, and if the wikipedia article is correct, then Confucius probably believed that there were sages or holy men before his time, for they left a tradition that he thought could help others to become holy men, or good people. He may have even thought that anyone had the potential to become that. But he recognized that the standard was high, and he felt that he fell short.