Confucius for Christians: A Summary Review (Part 2)

With tools like Google, social media, smart phones, etc., learning is no longer requisite for obtaining knowledge. Just one click of the mouse, one stroke of the keyboard, or one tap on the screen and an answer to our query is almost instantaneous. There is no striving, no process; only input/output. The irony is more than obvious that in our obsession with knowledge we inadvertently diminish the value of learning.

In Confucius for Christians Gregg Ten Elshof contends — and as a former educator I can affirm — that many in the West put far too much weight on obtaining knowledge at the expense of learning. In part 1 of my series I addressed chapters 1 and 2 and highlighted the importance of family. Since there are several vital principles that I wish to call attention to, this post focuses only on chapter 3, “Learning”.

Fundamental to this chapter is the principle that while knowledge may give us a sense of completion, it is learning that gives us a sense of fulfillment. To be fulfilled is part of what it means to be fully human. Thus, learning is essential to a full human experience. Confucius insists and Jesus intimates that everyone who invests in their own learning will be paid far more dividends than the meager yield of possessing knowledge (Analects 7.8; Matt 13:13). While it’s easy to love knowledge because it gives a sense of power, control, independence, completion, satisfaction, and attention from others, these qualities are the opposite of learning. Learning is harder to love because it does not yield the “cognitive satisfaction” of knowledge.

One cannot love learning and not also love humility. Ten Elshof astutely observes that learning leaves us with a sense of “incompletion, dependance, uncertainty, impotence, submission, and the power-down position of following” (pp 31-32). Clearly no one’s heart is  endeared naturally to these aspects of learning nor does anyone celebrate them, yet it is a “power-down position of following” that is at the heart of the Christ-follower. Indeed from the beginning every human was designed to be in this state of eternal submission to the Creator. To pursue a reversal of this or even to minimize it is a sign of our fallenness. Power, control, independence, completion, satisfaction, and attention from others are not necessarily virtues to be exalted or flags to be waved by some aspiring leader, but are instead potential vices that need to be brought under the rule and reign of God. In fact, leadership is only accidental to the Christian Way, since every disciple of Christ is called to be a follower (p 40).

Embracing the qualities of a learner — incompletion, dependance, uncertainty, impotence, submission, and the power-down position of following — is nicely illustrated by marriage. Ten Elshof invites us to imagine having a “Knowledge Button” that a couple presses and instantly each spouse knows all there is to know about the other. What is lost is the process of discovery and any consequent spontaneity and emotion; those “Ah ha!” moments when we learn something new about the other. These moments often give rise to a dynamic exchange that, in the end, creates a deeper intimacy. Instead, the Knowledge Button steals those unexpected moments where growing closer over time is not possible. Worse, if one already knows all there is about the other there would be nothing to discuss! Genuine human love, therefore, “resists comprehensive knowledge of the other” (pp 35-37) and embraces the journey of learning about the other, which is more valuable than any sense of arrival brought on by knowledge.

A Confucius approach to learning is balanced. It is a quest for knowledge that “respects the authority of secured knowledge handed down from the past. But it recognizes the need for fresh thinking and new perspectives if that knowledge is to find expression, articulation, and useful application” (p 38). It’s no surprise that many Western Christ-followers are enamored by one of two poles, either “fresh thinking and new perspectives” or the “secured knowledge handed down from the past” and both sides seem blind to the value found in the mean between the extremes. A mature learner, however, will identify which pole one leans into and make necessary adjustments toward balance. For example, others with whom you disagree are “in a fairly good position to tell you” which side you err. Add to that an intentional pursuit of an opposing pole also serves as a helpful corrective. And, of course, an occasional pause in  acquiring new knowledge is wise in order to apply what is already known.

In sum, “to love learning, we must learn to love and embrace its earliest stages. Otherwise we’ll lose sight of the beauty of learning in our love affair with its fruit, the fulfillment of knowledge” (pp 44-45). I close with where Ten Elshof began (p 29):

The Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to interact him again.”
Analects 7.8

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
Matthew 13:13

See part 3 here.

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