Confucianism and Christianityby Rit Nosotro
Comparing the reactionary movements of Neo-Confucianism and Protestantism
Compare the Protestantism and Neo-Confucianism. Why and how did they differ from their doctrines of origin, Roman Catholicism and Confucianism? What influenced the reforms that resulted in these religions, and how were the changes in their original doctrines similar or different?
History's halls rang with the sound of a single hammer as one man remodeled Christianity for all time. This man was Martin Luther, and he changed history's course when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. These theses challenged the Roman Catholic Church by inviting debate over the legitimacy of many of the Church's practices, especially the sale of indulgences.1 Luther's simple action not only got him into trouble with church authorities but also precipitated the reform of Roman Catholicism in Europe. Protestantism resulted from this reform, called the Protestant Reformation because its reformers protested against the corruption and unbiblical practices in the Roman Catholic Church. Though this was arguably the most important religion in European history and perhaps the world, it is only one among the thousands of other religions on earth. Another such religion was Neo-Confucianism in China. Though many differences exist between these two religions, their origins, and the reforms that created them, one can also find a number of similarities between them as well.
One difference between Neo-Confucianism and Protestantism lies in their origins. Protestantism originated from a denomination of Christianity, Roman Catholicism, basically the only denomination in Europe in the sixteenth century. Christianity centers around the worship of a single, triune God and the study and guidance of the Bible, the inspired word of God. Christians believe that God loved all men so much that he sent Jesus Christ, his own son, down to earth in the flesh, to live for a short time among man, and then to die to pay for the sins of all men.2 By the sixteenth century, however, Roman Catholicism had added many doctrines to Christianity that were not found in the Bible. Such additions included salvation by faith plus works, transubstantiation, Mary as a mediator, the infallibility of the Pope, and Purgatory to mention a few. On top of that, many of the Church authorities were corrupt, demanding high taxes, owning altogether about one-third of all the land in Europe, selling church offices, and even selling indulgences or "forgiveness" for sins. All this combined to make many Europeans discontented with the Roman Catholic Church.
Neo-Confucianism, on the other hand, originated from Confucianism, which was not truly a religion. Original Confucianism was actually a philosophy or code of ethics based on the teachings of Confucius,3 a traveling scholar. According to Confucius, an individual's ultimate goal should be to live according to té or virtue, particularly the virtues of li, propriety and ritual, and jén, "benevolence, charity, humanity, love, and kindness."4 Jén found expression in the "silver rule" of Confucianism—"Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you."5 This saying by Confucius is the exact contrapositive of the command given by Jesus Christ to his followers.6 Confucianism set forth five pairs of relationships to observe: the emperor and subject, the father and son, the husband and wife, the elder and younger brother, and the elder and younger friend. In these relationships, "the superior member (parents, husband, etc.) has the duty of benevolence and care for the subordinate member (children, wife, etc.) The subordinate member has the duty of obedience."7 These relationships created the concept of xiào, or filial piety, that Confucius considered very important. In comparison, both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism stressed the importance of these same relationships, though they did not did not stress all of the relationships set forth by Confucianism and more often stressed the concepts behind such relationships.
Although Confucianism stressed obedience in the subordinate member of these relationship, Confucius stated that "It is better to value jén than to passively follow your teacher."8 Thus, just as in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, if commanded to do something wrong, an individual had a higher obligation to do right than to obey. Nevertheless, Confucius directed that in all other cases, one must observe wu-lun, the system of relationships. Ancestor worship came naturally as a result of xiào, although ancestor worship outdated Confucianism. However, Confucianism did not teach or even encourage the practice of worshiping one's ancestors. Confucianism's closest concept to that of a deity was T'ien, or Heaven, but even that was "a principle" rather than a diety.9 Heaven represented the "moral order of the universe" and thence originated the concept of li. Mencius10 also based another concept on T'ien, T'ien Ming or the "Mandate of Heaven" that gave Chinese dynasties the right to rule. As long as a leader followed T'ien or tao,11 the moral way, he had the right to rule. Confucianism also promoted education. Ultimately, Confucianism's goal was "to educate people to be self-motivated, self-controlled[,] and able to assume responsibilities; it [had] the dual aims of cultivating the individual self and contributing to the attainment of an ideal, harmonious society."12 If a man lived according a scholarly life by tao and example, he might become a chün-tsu,13 a superior man.
Confucian scholars studied the Four Books:14 The Confucian Analects, Mencius, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean. However, as Jesus Christ did not write the Bible, the Christian canon, neither did Confucius write any of the books that made up the "Confucian canon."15 Another important difference between Confucianism and Christianity lay in the fact that while Jesus Christ claimed deity and received this attribute from Christians, Confucius did not claim to be god, and though some of his followers later tried several times to deify him and to make Confucianism a religion, their efforts failed.16 During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the government integrated Confucianism into Chinese law around 210 B.C.17 and established a system of exams on Confucianism for choosing government officials. This allowed any man to rise in society based on merit rather than wealth or position. As time passed, the Han dynasty fell, and during the unrest that existed while the T'ang dynasty established itself, Confucianism's weakness in metaphysical and emotional concepts (caused by its strictly rational view of the universe) resulted in the growth of Buddhism and Taoism, religions imported from India. By the height of the T'ang dynasty, Buddhism and Taoism, spread by the innovation of printing, had also reached their zenith in China, overshadowing Confucianism. But by the Sung dynasty (960-1127), the tables had begun to turn as Confucian scholars began the Neo-Confucian reform. Especially promoted by the Chinese aversion for the Mongols (as a result of the Mongols' resistance to integration into Chinese culture) and anything foreign (since the Mongols had favored foreigners during the Yuan dynasty), the Neo-Confucian reform gained popularity.18 Confucian scholars also promoted the reform through commentaries they wrote on the Confucian canon. Adding some of the new ideas of Confucianism's competitors into original Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism resulted in "The synthesis of Taoist Cosmology and Buddhist spirituality around the core of Confucian concern with society and government . . ."19
Luther's Protestant Reformation in Europe contrasted with this Neo-Confucian reform in China because instead of resulting from new religions challenging Roman Catholicism, it resulted from the dominance of Roman Catholicism. Not only did the Roman Catholic Church control and manipulate much of daily life in Europe during and previous to the sixteenth century, it also prohibited any other religion or Christian denomination in Europe. Though at that time very few people could read the Bible since the Roman Catholicism only allowed Latin copies of the scriptures20 (which contrasted with Confucianism where almost anyone could read the Confucian canon), Martin Luther, a priest and professor in Wittenberg, began to read the Bible one day in search of the truth. After reading Romans 1, he found what he was looking for, and what he had found contradicted the Roman Church on the doctrine of salvation. According to the Bible, salvation comes from faith alone through Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism, however, claimed that salvation came through the Roman Catholic Church and depended on works in addition to faith. As Luther read further, he found that much of Roman Catholicism's doctrine did not have any Biblical foundation, and he began to doubt the legitimacy of many of the Church's practices.
After his famous 95 Theses, Luther wrote three of his most famous tracts, Sermon on Good Works, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian, in 1520. Although the powerful Church leaders tried to kill him for his independent thinking, Luther went into hiding, protected by numerous German nobles who wanted to throw off the oppression of Roman Catholicism. With Luther's lead, many other reformers rose up in Europe, such as Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and John Calvin in France. Many of these men worked to give the people of Europe the Bible in their own language,21 translating it from the Latin into the common tongue. They wrote sermons, commentaries, and arguments, basing everything on the Word of God, the Bible. With the help of the printing press, Luther and the other reformers' ideas quickly spread all over Europe. Another interesting contrast between the Protestant Reformation and the Neo-Confucian reform was the use of printing—in China, printing largely worked to spread Buddhism and Taoism, Confucianism's opponents. In Europe, however, printing helped spread the ideas of the reformation.
In China, the Neo-Confucian reform took place mostly during the Sung dynasty. Just as the Protestant Reformation resulted in several denominations such as the Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and Anabaptists, all Protestant denominations, the Neo-Confucian reform also developed into several school, predominately the Ch'eng-Chu School22 and the Lu-Wang School.23 Chu Hsi led the Ch'eng-Chu School and mixing li with Taoism, emphasized the need to study nature and external things since truth did not come from the mind, but li. Wang Yang-Ming, on the other hand, led the Lu-Wang School, and he taught that li was found in the mind. He emphasized self-cultivation and self-analysis since he believed that the human nature was inherently good and that one could find tao in the mind. This school of Confucianism, the Lu-Wang School, dominated China during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and Neo-Confucianism dominated Chinese thought and culture until the overthrow of the Ch'ing dynasty (China's last dynasty) in 1911.
Many differences existed between the Neo-Confucian reform and the Protestant Reformation, their origins, where they took place, and when. However, the largest difference between the two lay in their final destination. While Protestantism truly found the true way to Heaven through the saving grace of Jesus Christ, Confucians never found the true way to God and eternal life because they looked for the answer in nature and order. Thus, even though Protestantism might be only one among the thousands of religions on earth, it certainly is a unique "one," a denomination of Christianity. And only Christianity's Christ can promise "the right to eat from the tree of life."24 As Jesus Christ said to his disciples in John 14:6 (NIV), "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Only through faith in Jesus Christ can anyone find salvation and eternal life.
2In the Bible, Hebrews 2:14-15 (NIV) speaks of how Jesus came down in the flesh to die for all men: "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." Romans 4:25 (NIV) also spoke of why Jesus came to earth: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." Return
5Barnard College, "Confucius and Confucianism," 2001, <http://beatl.barnard.columbia.edu/reacting/china/confucianism.html (26 November 2003). Return
12Dr. Douglas K. Chung, "Confucianism," <http://www.thespiritualsanctuary.org/Confucianism/Confucianism.html> (26 November 2003). Return
14These were the first of the Confucian Classics. As Confucianism changed over the years, its canon also changed—at different times including a different combination of fourteen Confucian Classics. Click here for a list of all the Confucian Classics. Return
17J. Domínguez, M.D., "Confucianism," January 7, 2003, <http://religion-cults.com/Eastern/Confucianism/confuci.htm> (26 November 2003). Return
18Claire Eichner, "Neoconfucianism and Chinese Relations with the West," <http://www.humboldt.edu/~cae4/Neoconfucianism.html> (26 November 2003). Return
19Michael C. Kalton, "Neo-Confucianism," <http://faculty.washington.edu/mkalton/NeoConfucianism.htm> (26 November 2003). Return
20Because of this fact, only the priests and a very few other people who could read Latin (such as professors at the universities) could read the Bible. This allowed the Roman Catholic Church to keep a tight reign over the people until the Bible was published in the common language. Return
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