Confucianism: A Religion for the Future

Dr. Robert D. Crane

Posted Dec 8, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Confucianism: A Religion for the Future

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

Confucianism: A Religion for the Future

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

Confucianism is known as a philosophy of life, which means that it is more than a philosophy.  Islam is similar, because Islam is a din (pronounced deen), that is, a combination of both faith and action.

Confucianism originated during a period of warring feudal lords in China during the fifth century B.C. as a movement to bring compassionate justice in personal, political, social, and economic life. 

The two basic teachings were encapsuled in the terms li and jen (pronounced ren).  Li is the natural law of the universe, known in Islam as the Sunnat Allah or “way of God in the world, or, as Confucius put it, “when Tao or heaven’s way is done”.  Jen is human-heartedness, especially as developed by the principal Confucian disciple, Mencius, who emphasized that human nature is basically good.  This is one of the principal teachings of Islam, known as infaq, which is the inclination and desire to give rather than to take in life. 

While li teaches the maintenance of balanced order through restraint by external rules, jen deals with the inner person, similar to the balance of their equivalents in Islamic Sufism.

In Confucianism, as in Islam, the role of knowledge and education are the key to fulfilling one’s purpose in life and to the practice of compassionate justice in society.  This, in turn, is based on respect for the wisdom of the past, which each generation has a responsibility to revive and maintain in the present in order to build a better future.

In secular cultures Confucianism is welcomed as an ethical philosophy useful in maintaining the existing status quo against chaos, but the original conception by Confucius required both personal and institutional change based on the opening chapter of the foundational Confucian text, The Great Learning.  The key to “harmony and peace”, which today might be rephrased as “peace, prosperity, and freedom through compassionate justice”, is found in the following simple statement in the opening chapter:

When true knowledge is achieved, then the will becomes sincere; when the heart is set right, then the personal life is cultivated; when the personal life is cultivated, then the family life is regulated; when the family life is regulated, then the national life is orderly; and when the national life is orderly, then there is peace in the world.  From the emperor down to the common men, all must regard the personal life as the root or foundation.

This wisdom is a perfect example of what Roman Catholic theologians call the principle of subsidiarity, whereby legitimacy originates from the bottom of society, rather then from the top.  This simple statement may also be regarded as a summary of the eight principles of Islamic jurisprudence: 1) haqq al din, respect for the ultimate being, which is beyond our understanding but the source of all authority; 2) haqq al nafs, respect for the human person as the link between Allah and the world; 3) haqq al nasl, respect for the sacredness of the individual family as the basis for the legitimacy of every higher level of community; 4) haqq al mahid, respect for the physical environment as a cherished gift to humankind; 5) haqq al hurriyah, respect for political freedom through both personal and community self-determination; 6) haqq al mal, respect for personal property in producing wealth as a universal human right; 7) haqq al karama, respect for human dignity, including gender equity by recognizing the equal rights but different responsibilities of mothers and fathers; and 8) haqq al ‘ilm, respect for knowledge, including freedom to seek, teach, and practice it.

Confucianism and Taoism originated during the Warring States period of the great Chou dynasty, which was founded in 1122 B.C. but gradually disintegrated until its final demise almost a thousand years later in 256 B.C. during a period of constant feudal warfare.  This led to a popular revolt known as the period of “the hundred flowers” designed to bring “normalcy” to life. 

Two of these flowers, the only ones with permanent influence in the life of China and the world, are Taoism, from dao, the way, road or path, and Confucianism.  The Tao is manifested in the harmony and orderliness of the universe.  As distinct from an anthropocentric Creator of the universe, the ontology of Taoism is based on the will and providence of heaven or simply heaven itself as the cause of everything.  The epistemology of Taoism is to search out the Tao by leaving behind the world of conflict in order to become one with nature.

The nature of nature is the dialectic of opposites, known as yin and yang, respectively, the negative-positive, female-male, earth-heaven.  This concept is said to have originated in the 12th century B.C. in the I Ching, but was developed by Lao Tzu during the 6th century B.C. in his Tao Te Ching and more fully developed by Chuang Chou, who died in 286 B.C.  The key to this teaching is encapsuled in Chou’s chapter, “The Autumn Flood”, of the Chuang Tzu, in the wisdom: “Nothing in the universe is permanent, as everything lives only long enough to die.  Only Tao, having no beginning or end, lasts forever”.

His view was that there is no point in anyone doing anything to interfere with what nature has set in motion.  Sooner or later everything will return to its opposite.  This philosophy of inertia led to a fatalistic and pacifist approach to life, rather than to the activist approach of Confucius.

In the Tao Te Ching there is a natural and correct way to do everything.  Both survival and prosperity can be achieved by recognizing that everything and everyone has a proper purpose, place, and function.  Every person and every community has a unique identity known only to heaven itself, so that the purpose of every person is to seek and become the person that one already is.  If the political ruler fails to abide by his purpose in administering justice, he has lost the Mandate of Heaven and is illegitimate.  He therefore will lose power.

Both Taoism and Confucianism degraded over time into populist movements that perhaps no longer could be regarded as either philosophies or religions.  During the Han Dynasty, 206-220 B.C., Taoism degenerated into magical practices to achieve physical immortality through Yogalike exercises to strengthen one’s vital energy.

In contrast, unfortunately, Confucianism gained political power as the state religion when the Han emperor Wu Ti turned it into a political cult to buttress his own power.  This ended the period of “a hundred flowers” or “a hundred schools”.  Taoism survived in rural areas of popular superstitions.  Confucianism survived as a philosophy but lost its origins as a spiritual path.  Nevertheless, the great classics of both religions remained permanently among the great living scriptures of the world religions, including the Vedas, the various Buddhist texts, the Bible or Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an.  Increasingly they are all becoming part of the post 9/11 movement known as the Common Word among the Abrahamic religions and the Common Ground among all world religions.

Within this interfaith context a major issue is whether Confucianism is a “religion” in the sense of a divinely revealed message.  The best source on this issue may be both ancient and modern Roman Catholic scholars who relate the history of this debate.

The early Jesuits who brought Christianity to China in the 16th century were so impressed with Confucianism that they lobbied the Pope in Rome to canonize Confucius as a saint. 

Modern scholarship, summarized in The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York, Appleton Company, notes that “Confucius is often held up as the type of virtuous man without religion. … An acquaintance with the religion of China and with Confucian texts reveals the emptiness of the assertion that Confucius was devoid of religious thought and feeling.  He was religious after the manner of religious men of his age and land.  In not appealing to rewards and punishments in the world to come, he was simply following the example of his illustrious predecessors, whose religious belief did not include this element of future retribution. ... There are numbers of texts that show plainly that he did not depart from the traditional belief of the supreme Heaven-God and subordinate spirits, in divine Providence and retribution, and in the existence of souls after death.  These religious convictions on his part found expression in many recorded acts of piety and worship”. 

A profound admonition by Confucius is, “He who offends against Heaven has no one to whom he can pray,” which is similar to the Islamic definition of hell.  Nevertheless he did not emphasize daily prayer to the aspirant of perfection.  Rather simple awareness of transcendent reality throughout one’s daily life and of the Heaven God’s awareness of one’s thoughts and deeds were thought to be the surest path to virtue and happiness.  The essence of social virtue, found in The Analects, XIV, 36, is “Return kindness with kindness, and requite injury with justice”.

The third great “Eastern religion”, Buddhism, started coevally with Confucianism.  The lives and teachings of the Lord Buddha and Confucius coincided almost exactly with each other.  Confucius died in the year 478 B.C. at the age of 74, two years after the Buddha, who died at the age of 80.

At this time, Taoism had already disintegrated into a populist and nationalist religion, with the result that its followers regarded the rapid spread of Buddhism from the west and south as a foreign influence.  Confucianists, on the other hand, generally saw no essential contradictions between their spiritual and jurisprudential teachings and those of Buddhism.  As Muslim Sufis carried Islam into China many centuries later, they perceived kindred spirits in the religions of both Confucianism and Buddhism. 

Classical Sufism includes all the Buddhist spiritual terminology that had been adopted in the Buddhist reformation of Hinduism and is found also among self-proclaimed Confucianists who respect differing paths to wisdom, tranquility, and justice.

The terminological similarities were summarized for a conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on September 18-20, 2010, entitled The Future of Faith in the Era of Globalization.  An article prepared for this conference notes that, “The Common Word Initiative has focused on what one might call the intellectualization of God, thus the focus on the Word, which is central to the Abrahamic religions and has led to irresolvable differences at this level. The initiative led by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and the Dalai Lama focuses on the spiritual and moral affinities of understanding at the deeper level understood intuitively by all humans without ontological or epistemological explanation”.

Highlighting some of the basic insights of the Common Ground movement found in Reza Shah Kazemi’s book Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism, with a lengthy introduction by H.H. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the above article compares all the Eastern religions in its statement that, “In the Pali Canon, the Lord Buddha’s silence on the One as Creator is not a denial as such, but is simply assumed.  The emphasis on the Absolute is comparable with, but not necessarily identical with, the Essence (Dhat) of God in Islam.  The core Islamic word, Al Haqq, which means simultaneously Allah, truth, and normative law, is comparable, but perhaps not identical, with the Buddhist dharma.  Karuna or loving compassion in the sense of participating in the suffering of others is similar to rahmah in Islam.  The Buddhist concept of nirvana or the transcendent as the highest good, which transcends the ego, is similar to the Islamic fana or extinction of the self, which is basic to all of what is called Abrahamic mysticism.  The Buddhist shunya or The Void is similar to the otherwise unique Islamic concept of la ilaha ille Allah (there is no god but God).  The combination of Dharma, Nirvana, and Shunya is similar to what Sufis would call the unnamable essence of God, beyond the Trinity of Persons and beyond all conceivable qualities”.

The adherents of Confucianism number more than 300 miloion.  The sheer numerical size of this religion, its origin in one of the two leading countries of the world, and its commonalities with Islam and all the Eastern religions suggest its potential to play an important part in rehabilitating the role of religion in the world as a constructive, rather than a destructive force, by laying a traditionalist foundation on the natural law and jurisprudence of transcendent justice. 



[1] Robert D. Crane, “Common Word and Common Ground: Transforming Interfaith Dialogue into Interfaith Solidarity for Justice”, Conference on The Future of Faith in the Era of Globalization, held in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on September 18-20, 2010, and sponsored by The Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, UK, by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, UK, and by The Center for Advanced Studies in Sarajevo.