“As to being a sage, or a man of virtue, how dare I presume to such a claim? Striving thereafter unwearyingly, and teaching others therein without flagging – that can be said of me, and that is all.”
[Confucius, “The Analects” 7:33]
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Spring & Autumn Period China and First Century Palestine
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.”[i] These prophetic words of the Old Testament are taken by Christians to mean the foretelling of Jesus Christ’s birth and his subsequent message of salvation, not only for Israel, but for all mankind. Like Jesus, Confucius’s birth was prophesied. In Chinese legend, a Ch’i Lin (Unicorn) appeared with a jade tablet in its mouth, the following words being inscribed upon it: “A child as pure as crystal will be born for the continuation of the declining Chou[ii], to become a King without a kingdom.” Similarly, Jesus is reputed to be a direct ‘descendent’ of King David[iii], Confucius’s mother Yen Chêng Tsai is believed to have been descended from the Duke of Chou, thus giving Confucius an element of aristocratic blood. That said, both Confucius and Jesus were brought up in relatively poor families, neither being born into riches.
Both men showed a keen interest in religion at an early age. Confucius showed a keen awareness of the Rites at a very early age, and Jesus himself is recorded to have stayed behind in a temple on one notable occasion after his mother and Joseph had left. Neither took up high powered influential jobs, Jesus becoming a carpenter like Joseph, and Confucius turning his hand to shepherding and book-keeping. Both were aware of the sheer poverty of their respective nations, and Confucius learnt some of the harshest realities of life with his father dying when he was aged only three.
In terms of what is recorded about them both, the primary sources for Confucius’s sayings and those of Jesus are written down in books that neither of them had anything directly to do with, the Lun Yu (The Analects) and the Gospels respectively. The Bible itself was not fully canonized for many years after Jesus’s death, and the Lun Yu similarly was not compiled fully until around 206 BCE – 24 CE in the Han Dynasty by Chung Yu. Both men were to spend their lives teaching others in a somewhat nomadic fashion, Jesus travelling around Palestine, Confucius making journeys across numerous Chinese states. The times they faced were both chaotic. Confucius’s China had no Emperor, and Jesus’s Palestine had only a puppet ruler, the true authority lying with the occupying Romans. Thus, the messages that both men put across were listened to more readily with the hope for a better future. Though, as with Confucius, Jesus’s teachings were not to become an all-pervading, widespread, international force until some time after his death.
The religious atmosphere that both men entered into was not one of their own making. Confucius is oft quoted as saying that he was “a transmitter not an originator”[iv], by which he meant that his teachings were based on the ju chia (Class of Sages), a tradition that had long been in existence in China. Whilst it is true that he did indeed draw some of his teachings from this, as Dr. Yao points out[v], the majority of Confucius’s principles are his own. Jesus contended with the same existing religious order in Palestine. Judaism was the heart and soul of many of the people of his country, and he did not intend to proclaim an entirely new faith, as demonstrated when he said “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”[vi] Many of his teachings begin “you have heard that it was said…” and are followed with “…but I tell you…”
From these few lifestyle comparisons, we can see a number of similarities to the way in which Jesus and Confucius are to be compared. However, both Christian and Confucian scholars alike have found the ever increasing need to separate ‘The Jesus of History’ from ‘The Christ of Faith’, or ‘The Man’ from ‘The Master’. If we are to understand fully the relevance of Confucianism to Christians, we must first be aware of their respective teachers’ views and beliefs.
The Master and The Maker
The Christian faith holds much importance upon the humanity of Christ. It is what helps Christians relate to Christianity the most – Christ lived as a man, and died as a man. He may have been the Son of God, but he was still in some way human. With Confucius, one might almost see this in reverse. Confucius’s importance to Confucians is that he was in part a ‘divine’ figure. This does not imply he was a god - though in later manifestations of Confucianism, one might be forgiven for thinking such - but rather that he had achieved what every Confucian strives for, namely transcendence. He was on a mission from Tian, and this is what makes him special beyond his teachings. Thus, when contrasting him with Jesus Christ, a Christian need not be worried about adhering to the teachings of a man who might be a ‘false prophet’ – Confucius, as demonstrated by this chapter’s opening quotation, rarely claimed anything for himself. The divine attributes that have been bestowed upon him are ones that have been made out of respect for someone who led a truly virtuous life.
Confucius was a fu tzu to all, namely a philosopher-teacher of the highest degree. He taught self-cultivation, the arts, politics and ethics to his disciples, and it was his ideal of chun-tzu or Noble Man which he advocated above all. Jesus, by comparison, was a rabbi, or teacher, to all, and he taught the way to the Kingdom of God. By contrast, as Jesus taught an understanding of the Transcendent by humanity, so Confucius taught an understanding of humanity by the Transcendent. Both were men with a mission, one that had been transcendentally appointed for them, be it by Tian or Yahweh. The Transcendent was the only guidance that they held true to – no other factor would change their minds on any issue. The difference lies in the relation they played to the Transcendent. Confucius did not ever claim he was in some way the Son of Tian, whereas the Gospels record Jesus frequently expressing that he was the Son of God. Confucius remains a perfect human and teacher, rather than some form of deity. In terms of attaining transcendence, both Confucius and Jesus are seen as the instigators of this path – but only Jesus is the Transcendent as well the route towards it. Confucius’s being human provides a goal to which theoretically any human being can attain, but Jesus’s existence as the Divine as well as the Man makes him only a goal inasmuch as we can try to follow his example. There could, in theory, be another Confucius – but there could not be another Jesus. The Christian life, as Jesus taught it, is to live in accordance with God, whilst Confucius taught the fulfilment of human potential.
Their respect was commanded not out of some charismatic speech-making, as in the cases of notorious political leaders of the past, but out of their views and beliefs. They both challenged authority, recognized the importance of self-sacrifice, and had ultimate faith in their transcendent mission. They taught the way to transcendence, and guided different routes to it – either by following Jesus himself, or following the Tao. The honorific title that both men have received down the ages is a testament to their impact on civilisation. A familiar Chinese maxim states that “the whole history [of human beings] would have been in darkness had Tian not sent Confucius to the world.”[vii] Confucius has been known as ‘the model for 10,000 generations’, ‘perfect sage’, ‘Divine Sage’, ‘Highest Sage’, ‘Triad with Heaven and Earth’, ‘enlightened’, ‘forefather’ and even ‘Saviour’. Jesus similarly has been known as ‘Son of Heaven’, ‘Son of God’, ‘The Way’, ‘The Light’, ‘The Truth’, ‘The Messiah’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘King of the Jews’ and, as with Confucius, ‘Saviour’. Both placed themselves close to the people, but simultaneously, their link with the Transcendent made their appeal that much stronger. Confucius “was a sage to his followers but not to himself, and for that reason he became the exemplar of sagehood itself.”[viii]
The issue of what each deemed to be important in the field of humanity is where a number of divergences appear – and from these differences we can see the subsequent discrepancies between Confucians and Christians. Human rules and institutions were of little importance to Jesus when compared to the divine majesty of God; every human custom was subordinated to God. For Confucius, however, li (Rules of Propriety) was of prime importance – it showed humans the way towards the Confucian concept of jen[ix] and in this it brought one closer to transcendence. The issue of morality for Jesus was once again subjugated to God – faith had more significance than human morals. Moral teaching is a response to God rather than a singular aspect on its own. Yet, for Confucius, morality formed the basis of ethics, and was thus central to transcendence. Where Confucius found the eternal in the temporal, Jesus explained that the temporal was as a result of the eternal. This difference, of course, comes from the aforementioned humanistic/theistic divide. When discussing the relevance of Confucianism to Christians, this point must always be kept in mind. The fact that Confucius sees morality and ethics as an issue of the greatest importance is what will later affect Christian perspectives.
There are a number of further issues upon which these two great teachers divide. Perfection is to be like God in the eyes of Jesus; for Confucius, it is to reach the highest possible plane of human learning and virtue. Loving God will bring about love for others as a natural response, but for Confucius, loving others is the primary objective since it manifests the Five Confucian Virtues.[x] Trusting God is for Jesus what trusting humankind is for Confucius (though Confucius warns against those of bad character). The endurance of hardship was prevalent in both men’s lives, as witnessed by Jesus’s fasting and his lament that “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,”[xi] and by Confucius’s going without food for days in the pursuit of virtue.
[i] Isaiah 9:6-7
[ii] The Imperial Dynasty that ruled China before Confucius’s birth
[iii] Though, in Biblical terms, the issue of aristocratic descent is seen as a symbol rather than a definitive blood line
[iv] “The Analects” (7:1)
[v] Yao, Dr. Xinzhong, "Confucianism and Christianity" (Sussex Academic Press, 1997)
[vi] Matthew 5:17
[vii] As quoted in "Confucianism and Christianity" (Sussex Academic Press, 1997)
[viii] Tu, Professor Weiming, “The Confucian Sage: Exemplar of Personal Knowledge” (University of CA Press, 1987)
[ix] Defined as ‘humaneness’, ‘humanity’, ‘virtue’, ‘love’ – it is the key Confucian tenet, and will be explained in much greater detail later
[x] “To be able everywhere one goes to carry five things into practice constitutes Virtue. They are courtesy, liberality, faithfulness, sincerity and kindness” (“The Analects” 17:6)
[xi] Matthew 8:20