Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing
The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by I’Ching with the same title.
For hundreds of years, Christianity has been perceived to be a foreign religion and hence irrelevant for the Cultural Chinese. The “One more Christian, one fewer Chinese” chant on May 4, 1919, in China further reinforced the misconception that when one chooses to follow Jesus, one has denounced his or her Chinese identity to go after a foreign or western god and ideology. A Chinese commits a great offense against his ancestor and nation when he pledges allegiance to Jesus.
According to historian Wu Xiaoxin, the propaganda that impacted the Chinese the most is the claim that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Anyone familiar with the events in that part of the world during the mid-1800s would realize the baggage this statement bears. It did not help that many of the Western missionaries of that generation rode on the coattails of the European opium traders to bring the gospel to the Chinese.
Additionally, just a mere forty years ago, during China’s Cultural Revolution, the ancient philosopher Confucius was compared to a hated general who had tried to usurp Mao’s rule. Temples that were built in Confucius’s honor were burned and his ancient writings were set to flames in the name of anti-feudalism. In recent times however, interest in pre-modern Chinese culture has grown, and Confucianism in particular has seen a resurgence in popularity.
This is evident in the setting up of more than 300 Confucian Institutes around the world by the Chinese government in just ten years. In an ironic contrast to its earlier repression of Confucianism, the communist government aims to promote the Chinese culture and language via these institutes to expand its soft power globally.
Today, though Confucianism is not the formal ideology of many Cultural Chinese, its influence on their worldview, culture, and social life remains powerful and undeniable due to its historical significance. For example, the weighty value placed on education and filial piety can all be traced to Confucius’s teachings about how life ought to be ordered. While it is possible to detect the metaphysical footprints of Taoism and the existential projections of Buddhism in the Cultural Chinese worldview, the philosophy that has most profoundly shaped the Cultural Chinese’s conception of life and reality has been the Religion of the Learned: Confucianism.
Confucianism’s Contributions and Ideas
Based on the philosophy and teachings of the ancient statesman, philosopher, and educator Kung Fu-tzu (551-479 BC), Confucianism’s greatest contribution has been to the intellectual and ethical aspects of Cultural Chinese thinking and life. Historically, especially during most of the Han period (circa 200 BC-200 AD), Confucianism was the official ideology that provided the state and society with a standard code of morals, prescribing precisely the nature of the relationship between those who govern and those who are being governed. Since then, most if not all feudal rulers have subscribed to the philosophy and enforced it as a secular religion.
Though typically described as one of China’s Three Religions (Taoism and Buddhism being the other two), Confucianism is not a system of beliefs into which you can “convert.” Rather, it is perceived as a way of life that consists of rituals that maintain the harmony of communities and societies. Often portrayed as utilitarian and this-worldly, Confucianism’s pragmatic principles especially addressed the social dimension of human existence. Confucius was especially concerned that man should develop as humans in the most moral sense.
Hence, the central idea of Confucianism is that every normal person can aspire to be the Noble or Superior Man—superior to his fellows, if possible, but surely superior to his own past and present self. A moral code based on benevolence towards others, and the development of self and society via proper education and practice of virtues are key ideas of Confucianism. These ideal would eventually lead toward the flourishing of humanity and the achievement of the Noble Man.
A significant portion of the various Confucian texts, like the Analects, evolved around the characteristics of the Noble Man. The Noble Man is one who exemplifies the highest of virtues like integrity, love for truth, and filial piety. He is also a man of learning and of proper conduct:
“A gentleman avoids seeking to satisfy his appetite to the full when he eats and avoids seeking comfort when he is at home. He is diligent in deed and cautious in word, and he associates with possessors of the Way and is put right by them. He may simply be said to be fond of learning.” (Analects, Book 1-14)
How To Be Truly Human: Self-cultivation
Mencius (372-298 BC) and Hsun Tzu (313-238 BC) are probably two of Confucius’s more famous followers. In reality, Confucius’s followers wrote many of the ancient Confucian texts rather than the philosopher himself. While both Mencius and Hsun Tzu elaborated and expanded the central ideas of Confucius, they seem to disagree on the nature of humanity: Mencius believed that human nature is inherently good while Hsun Tzu thought that we tend to be evil by nature.
Though they held very contradicting views about humanity, both were convinced that man can nonetheless strive towards perfection through proper education and the practice of virtuous conduct. This is the idea of self-cultivation. Mencius thought that self-cultivation would help us realize the goodness within us so that we can truly live according to our nature. In contrast, Hsun Tzu believed that despite our evil nature, we have the potential to become the Noble Man if we restrain our evil nature through ceremonials and rules of right conduct. This is achieved when our practice of virtues becomes habitual and our nature is transformed. In other words, the Noble Man is really what it means to be human.
Accordingly, the cultivation of the Noble Man would be impossible without a proper social environment that is conducive to inner harmony and the development of harmonious relationships with others. Confucius viewed the self as the center of a nexus of relationships: family, friends, society, and state. Hence, it is essential that the harmony of these five cardinal relationships be maintained at all costs—ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, brother to brother, and friend to friend.
Overcoming the Historical Baggage of Christianity
If the Christian faith is to be accepted doubtlessly and comfortably by the Cultural Chinese as one that is relevant and not another Western import, this historical baggage will have to be overcome. And just as in all cross-cultural settings, one of the ways we can cultivate an open mind so that our unbelieving friends would be persuaded is when we start from a common ground rather from where we differ.
In view of the historical disrepute that the Christian faith bears among the Cultural Chinese, perhaps we can examine how we can present the gospel in a way that resonates with their aspirations and values—especially with regards to human flourishing as defined by the ideals of Confucianism.
Though there are two contradicting views of the nature of man, most Cultural Chinese hold to Mencius’s optimistic view of humanity. However, the bitter experiences faced by the largest Confucian nation in the world, particularly in the last century, have exposed the weakness of both the society and culture. Despite centuries of striving towards the ideal of the Noble Man and human flourishing, they are not making the kind of progress they had hoped.
Most Cultural Chinese would concede that it does not take too much soul-searching to admit that humanity does seem to possess weaknesses that make it impossible for us to reach our aspiration of the Noble Man. Thus, this longing for human flourishing and the cultivation of a moral self present two great openings to express the relevance of the Christian faith for Chinese culture.
Jesus the Path to Human Flourishing
First, while the Christian belief in original sin and depravity has always been alien and even offensive to many Cultural Chinese, they can certainly identify with sin in reality—in their own lives as much as in the lives of others. In all honesty, we can safely say that Confucius’s counsel of self-cultivation has not been able to adequately bring about the human flourishing we hope to achieve. In fact, the basic human predicament seems to be the incapacity for the realization of such an ideal. As Christians we are not surprised by this common human failure, for the Bible tells us in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
And this is where the Good News for the Cultural Chinese comes in. The aspiration of human flourishing and becoming a Noble Man may be unattainable on our own, but we don’t have to do it on our own. The path towards that hope is open to us in Christ:
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:2-4)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
As we examine what the gospel is truly about, we see it is about human flourishing. The Good News is that God has sent his own Son to restore the Shalom that has been disrupted by sin. While it is easy for us to assume that Shalom equals peace and harmony, biblical Shalom encompasses much more than that. Shalom as expressed in Scripture incorporates not just peace but universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—the way things ought to be. It is a rich state of affairs where there is contentment, where humanity fulfills its vocation, and where humanity is in perfect fellowship with its Creator and Savior.
Theologian Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. cogently describes biblical Shalom as a state in which the physical world, humanity, and its cultures and ethnicities, families, married couples, friends, and individuals, all exist in wholeness while enjoying edifying relations with each other and encouraging one another’s virtues.
When viewed this way, Confucius’s ideal of human flourishing very much reflects the Shalom that Jesus came to restore. In fact, as considered earlier, much of what is central to the Cultural Chinese’s attainment of human flourishing is the preservation of relationships. Maintaining the goodwill of existing relationships and seeking reconciliation where necessary towards a harmonious society and an inner harmony is all part of the notion of human flourishing. If that’s the case, we can certainly relate biblical Shalom to the Chinese’s idea of human flourishing.
While Confucius was right in his prognosis of humanity’s purpose, he perhaps was a little too optimistic about man’s ability to perfect himself, as history and experience inform us that we will never be able to achieve biblical Shalom (or human flourishing) on our own. As such, in Shangdi’s love and wisdom, he has sent the ultimate Son of Heaven who humbled himself to enter into his creation as one of us to show us what it is like to live in the way he intended us to—according to the example set by him.
Jesus, the Son of Heaven, first atones for our sins so that we may be saved from them if we accept him. He also sends the Holy Spirit to help us live righteously and virtuously. In short, the gospel to the Cultural Chinese is this: salvation from the penalty of sin and victory over its power in our lives, which consequently opens the way to flourishing and Shalom. Instead of self-effort, Christ has already provided a way for us towards that end, which we may attain by trusting in him.
Interestingly enough, Confucius also advocated the idea of the Mandate of Heaven, referring to the will or decree of heaven. Though the term did not originate with Confucius, as it was a term commonly used to refer to one’s destiny or fate, Confucius used the phrase to speak reverently of the will of a personal God. According to Confucian classics, the emperor held the key to the Mandate of Heaven and hence was deemed to be the Son of Heaven. As he is the Son of Heaven, he is the mediator between the powers above and the people below, governing by the Mandate of Heaven.
Unfortunately, China’s ancient past informs us that most of the earthly Sons of Heaven proved to have failed in their mission to govern wisely. In God’s grace and mercy, He sent his own. Unlike his predecessors, this Son of Heaven, named Jesus, came to serve, and eventually sacrificed himself to fulfill the will of Shangdi, to bring reconciliation.
When the narrative of the gospel is presented this way, it avoids being perceived as a foreign solution to the Cultural Chinese’s existential problem. Rather, it seamlessly corresponds with Confucius’s ideals for humanity but with a realistic solution.
Jesus the Mediator of Relationships (Guanxi)
Second, it is widely known that the Chinese culture is a face-value culture that greatly honors relationships (guanxi). While the notion of guanxi is too complex to discuss here, suffice to say that Cultural Chinese would try to avoid confrontation at all times and at all costs to maintain the harmony of their relationships. In all aspects of life—family, business, and friendships—nobody should cause someone to lose face and run the risk of severing the relationship.
Match-made marriages and the engaging of a reputable person as guarantor rather than signing a contract are all cultural practices that are not unfamiliar to the Cultural Chinese. Hence, Cultural Chinese are very well acquainted with the need for and the role of a mediator or middle person in any major undertaking.
Scripture tells us that Jesus is the one mediator between man and God: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). As we communicate the gospel to Cultural Chinese, we can certainly present Jesus as the mediator and reconciler of relationships, because harmonious relationships are of supreme importance to most Cultural Chinese. Salvation is therefore best understood in terms of a reconciled vertical relationship with God and a harmonious horizontal relationship with one’s fellow man.
In addition, as the Chinese culture is a shame-honor culture, the cross and what Jesus did on the Cross becomes very powerful for the Cultural Chinese when it is seen as “Christ’s shame-bearing death.” And as we demonstrate how the resurrection is “honor-gaining,” the gospel narrative immediately becomes recognizable and indeed very desirable.
I’Ching Thomas is director of training at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Singapore.