Confucius for Christians: A Summary Review (Part 1)

Confucius for Christians: What an Ancient Chinese Worldview Can Teach Us about Life in Christ by Gregg Ten Elshoff is important for many reasons and deserves a wide readership. It dispels the belief that many (most?) Christians hold about eastern religions; that they are dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. By gleaning principles taught in The Analects by Confucius, it offers sound and often overlooked or unrecognized angles from which to view Christian discipleship. Below are highlights that struck me as significant to these ends. More insights will follow in subsequent posts.

The book is broken into the categories of family, learning, ethics, ritual, and Sam (illustrating the importance of a person-centered world view). Each takes a reading from The Analects and unpacks the practical importance of it in light of being a Christ-follower.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction and defense of using Confucian teachings as a framework for discovering a deeper way of following Christ. Missional efforts by Western Christians have (for too long) taken the Christian message and infused it with a mindset that is pregnant with historically conditioned, culturally-biased assumptions that the East (and our increasingly secular Western culture) do not share. The notion of finding common ground that reflects Christian teaching is all but ignored or eschewed. Ten Elshof insists rather that Confucianism, like Christianity, is one of the great wisdom traditions that can help us become “scientists of the good life.” We must “mine the great traditions of sincere human reflection on the human condition for anything that can 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).

Chapter 2 begins the first topic: family. This chapter alone, in my opinion, is worth the price of the book. With the bar raised high by Ten Elshof’s especially insightful book I Told Me So (my review here), I expected this topic to hit another home run. There was no disappointment as this is full of thoughtful and provocative advice. It gave me much to mull over and generated a great deal of reflection on my family life and on that of my extended family. I can only scratch the surface, but will try to encapsulate what impacted me most.

Flourishing as a human entails growth in our ability to be together. Rather than being an isolated, customized, privatized human whose essential identity is wrapped around being a self-expressing individual, we must “attend to the roots” of our existence, which are found in “filial piety” and a sense of community as illustrated by our Trinitarian God after whose image we are made. We are not designed to be alone (Gen 2:18). Our human vocation, summed by Jesus in loving God and others (p 10; cf., Matt 22:37-29), is also our identity as a “being-in-relationship.” In fact, “a life devoid of significant and well-ordered relationships can no more be human than can an organism devoid of a root system be a tree” (p 12). Consequently, “the family is the primary venue for growth into the full expression of being human,” since it is here that “one learns how properly to negotiate the power dynamics” we encounter throughout life. From our family “we acquire the building blocks for navigating the wildly complex relational networks that comprise human society” (pp 13-14).

Implications abound. For example, how well I “negotiate the power dynamics” in my workplace, neighborhood, church, et al. is directly related to how well I execute my role as husband, father, and grandfather. Falling short in one arena will prove compromising in other arenas. Succeeding in the one facilitates my success in the others.

Ten Elsof goes further by noting how parents (especially in the West) not only approve but even insist that a milestone in maturity is autonomy. A son or daughter (typically between the ages of 19-21) “graduate from a life of submission” and, it is assumed, is fully prepared to “weigh in the balance all of the considerations that make for responsible life-making and to strike out on one’s own” (p 15). And yet, for the Christian, there is never a time in which one graduates from a life of submission. After all, our state in heaven will be spent in eternal submission. Therefore, “if this life is to be a sort of training for the life to come, we don’t do ourselves any favors by encouraging our youth into a life of autonomy…We would do better to train them to be good sons and daughters” (p 15). Of course, this applies equally to being a brother, cousin, grandparent, et al. What we find in the West are many adults asserting they have nothing to do with this or that family member and our typical response is “who doesn’t have this problem?”, as if this were normal (p 19). Abandoning the investment in one’s family has far-reaching consequences. After all, it’s the same heart from which love of family and love for others flows. No surprise, Ten Elshof observes:

We’re trying to establish significant and healthy relationships with friends, neighbors, superiors, and the world without having made much progress in the mastery of the basic relational dynamic given us insofar as we are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, older and younger siblings, and spouses. We’re tempted to think that we can somehow manage to love the world without having learned to love well those whom have been given to us as family (p 19).

Extending the notion of “family,” Ten Elshof highlights that familial terms are repeatedly used in the New Testament to apply to members of our faith communities (“brother”). Thus, we have filial obligation beyond our biological family and must avoid “clannish exclusivity” (which is the context from which Jesus’s harsh statement emerges; cf., Lk 14:26).

The family is “God’s gift” to us and neglect of its significance only inhibits our ability to show love for others. I would argue that even one’s own self-love is compromised, since “you cannot extend what you have not yet acquired” (p 26).

Finally, one “blunt reminder” and an exhortation wraps up this chapter. “God is not your father. Your dad is your father” and, though Ten Elshof is not unsympathetic to the often painful adjustments required in our approach to family, “your flesh-and-blood parents [and siblings] have been given to you in order for you to learn the dynamics of filial piety and submission appropriate to a son or daughter” (p 26). From the Confucian emphasis to “attend to the root” of our essential being-in-relationship, we’re called to reverse the notion that growing as a Christian will make us a better father/mother, husband/wife, son/daughter. Instead we’re exhorted to recognize that there’s a sense in which being a better father/mother, husband/wife, son/daughter will help us grow into a better Christian (pp 27-28).

Next post we learn about “Learning”.


See part 2 here and part 3 here.

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