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Christianity and Confucianism: On the implications of differing religious and ethical traditions for contemporary geopolitics

Published onJan 31, 2022
Christianity and Confucianism: On the implications of differing religious and ethical traditions for contemporary geopolitics


First, let me say what a pleasure and privilege it is to be invited to participate in this prestigious event. My thanks to Sir Oliver Letwin for his kind invitation and to Molly Kiniry for making the arrangements. My thanks, too, to Professors Yan Xu and Carles Prado-Fonts for their papers and to Professors Francesca Corrao (for moderating this session) and Leonardo Morlino (for acting as the respondent). It is an honour to join you all this morning.

Participation in a conference across languages, cultures and time zones is always rather special – although, as we know well, it is not without its intellectual and technological challenges! As the science of hermeneutics reminds us, clear communication is fraught with difficulties. Having had lectures translated numerous times, I am sensitive to the challenges of linguistic clarity, cultural diversity and personal disempowerment – after all, who knows what a translator will accidentally, or intentionally, make of what one says! That said, to discover that others do not think, or speak or see as we do, can open worlds of possibilities that cultural myopia and mindless parochialism miss. Much of my work – on the role culture, ethics, and religion play in contemporary geopolitics – focusses on the tragedy of careless cultural dissonance and the geopolitical potential of greater cross-cultural understanding. So, it’s a pleasure to reflect with you all on the geopolitical impact of the relation between two of the greatest intellectual and ethical traditions in our world, viz. Christianity and Confucianism. Having published a rather large book on this theme earlier this year, entitled Christianity and Confucianism: Culture, Faith and Politics (Bloomsbury, 2021), you will appreciate, I am sure, that what follows feels like a crass exercise in over-simplification! So be it: that’s my task.

Christianity and Confucianism

Before looking in detail at the geopolitical impact of the relationship between Christianity and Confucianism, three points by way of introduction to these two great cultural traditions.

First, the traditions that trace their roots to the Chinese bureaucrat and moral teacher Kong Fuzi (551-479 BCE), or ‘Confucius’ as the early-17th-century Jesuit missionaries to China called him, and the 1st-century Palestinian preacher and miracle-worker Jesus (ca. 4 BCE – 30/33 CE) are only as significant as interpreters choose to make them. That is, their value is not tangible or quantifiable, like cash in the bank or a medical procedure: rather, to those who honour them, their worth is of a more exalted kind. It lies in the priceless realm of wisdom and self-discovery, moral excellence and the saving power of timeless truth and sacrificial love. As hermeneutics reminds us, if we are predisposed to reject these higher categories, Confucius and Jesus have no significance for us and no role to play in contemporary geopolitics. If, on the other, we are open to hear wisdom and truth in what they say, they may, as at first, speak with transformative power to our complex postmodern world.

Second, appreciation of the significance of Confucianism and Christianity does not depend on faith or discipleship. Culture studies and linguistics, like history, philosophy, political theory, sociology, and anthropology, permit us to engage with these two traditions as social phenomena and functional instruments of societal formation. This is important if we are to appreciate the impact of their relationship on contemporary geopolitics. We need to be able to objectify these two realities, to observe and evaluate them objectively. Their power and their appeal, I would argue, lie in their capacity to address life at its highest intellectual, spiritual, and moral level and in the raw business of everyday life, where they barter and bargain for the right to shape the way we live. In this, they are palpably more than mere ideas: they belong to the complex ritualization of human interaction and societal formation. As such, they are part of the web and waft of both domestic ‘politics’ and international ‘diplomacy’ at their highest and deepest level/s.

Third, Christianity and Confucianism enshrine ‘ideas’ and belong within the ‘History of Ideas’. They are rightly evaluated according to their functional impact and their intellectual integrity. When we study them as the embodiment of ‘ideas’, three things stand out. First, their ‘ideas’ address humanity in relationship: in relationship to ‘Heaven’ (Confucius’ tian, Jesus’ ‘God’), to ‘self’ (as the object of Confucius’ moral pedagogy and Jesus’ redemptive life and death) and to others (for Confucius, those who inhabit five key relationships of obligation: for Jesus, any and every ‘neighbour’). Second, their ‘ideas’ have demonstrated remarkable power over two millennia to capture the mind, will, and motivation of hundreds of millions of residents of this ‘blue planet’. They are a reminder of the power of an idea, as much as the impact of what the German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) called ‘paradigmatic figures’, like Socrates and the Buddha, Gandhi and Mother Teresa. As intentional purveyors of an ‘idea’ or ‘system of ideas’, Jesus and Confucius, and the traditions of Christianity and Confucianism that we trace to them, can and should be compared not just to ‘religious’ initiatives, but to other socio-political, intellectual, and philosophical traditions that have in different ways shaped our world, such as Marxism and Maoism, Capitalism and Democracy, Royalty and Militarism. In other words, to ask about the geopolitical impact of the relationship between Christianity and Confucianism is to do something that ‘fits’ their global profile. Third, as worthy contributors to the ‘History of Ideas’ Confucianism and Christianity are rightly located and evaluated, as the father of ‘historicism’ Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) would argue, within an historical continuum of cause and effect. As such, claims to their ‘uniqueness’ are moderated by their historical antecedents and successors. Though to some devotees this threatens their standing, to others it admits greater awareness of their global profile and of the interconnectedness of human wisdom and culture they reflect. Furthermore, it allows us to recognize that neither Christianity nor what we know in the West as ‘Confucianism’ are static phenomena. For, if their ‘ideas’ have spread like viruses, they have also mutated over time: with one key difference, except in its most progressive deconstructed forms, Christianity remains bound to Jesus in ways Confucianism is not to its own ‘Master’.

The geopolitical significance of the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity

For the remainder of this presentation, I want to suggest five ways in which the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity is of material relevance to contemporary geopolitics. If you want to see the working in the margins which support my conclusions, can I encourage you again to take a look at my book Christianity and Confucianism: Culture, Faith and Politics, which is, as the strapline suggests, as much about historic East-West relations as about the minutiae of comparative philosophy and theology. So, to my five points.

i. The relationship between Christianity and Confucianism is, first, historically foundational for contemporary geopolitics. Of course, claims could be made for the foundational importance of other systems of thought and life (such as Communism or Democracy); but, given the cultural reach of Christianity in and through Christendom and of Confucianism in China and across East and SE Asia, their key role in shaping derivative political systems and diplomatic understanding since their inception, is clear. Confucius and Jesus were politically alert, even when they were politically averse. Their legacy is interwoven with the enculturated conceptions of government, power, governance, law, leadership, and social responsibility that they inspired. But – and this is important at this time of heightened tension between China and the West – the traditions that Jesus and Confucius inspired did not develop as independent socio-political and moral systems, but as interdependent cultural and intellectual movements. We are after all, as anthropologists and historians of culture remind us, co-inhabitants of One, deeply interconnected, global reality. This is the heart of my book. Hence, Western ‘historians of ideas’ increasingly admit Confucian thought shaped the Enlightenment and a host of other so-called ‘Western’ movements, while a significant body of Chinese historians would now say, as a very senior member of the Chinese Academy said to me, ‘We wouldn’t be the country we are without Christianity’. Geopoliticians are wise to admit this: it turns China and the West into sparring cousins not warring enemies.

ii. The relation between Christianity and Confucianism is of material relevance to contemporary geopolitics because both systems of thought are morally rigorous. That is, jointly and severally they articulate ethical values in and for the global polis. Allegiance is not required to recognize this fact: it is, as above, part of the objective, phenomenological ‘given’ they share. As history illustrates, the impact this has had on geopolitical praxis varies. At times, Judeo-Christian ‘Just War’ theory or a biblical ‘demonizing’ of enemies has fired Western patriotism; at other times, Confucian ‘situational ethics’ has justified diplomatic duplicity or re-categorized aliens as ‘foreign devils’. More positively, Christianity and Confucianism have both created and preserved a moral compass for the societies and leaders they serve. And, crucially, there is notable harmony in the practical wisdom they inculcate. Hence, public morality is a matter of personal responsibility; a well-ordered home builds a peaceful society; leadership depends on character, consistency and justice; the ‘Golden Rule’ (expressed in their inverted ways) is a good guide for daily decisions. We might say more. Crucially, though Confucianism places greater weight on humanity’s power to order life and overcome faults, it joins Christianity in infusing an ancient, cultural aroma into the unprincipled pragmatism of much modern politics and diplomacy. In both traditions, the ‘other’ matters, and self-interest is subject to intense moral scrutiny. If, or when, the classical Confucian tradition is marginalized in China, as historic Christianity has been by a secularized West, it is not because their moral teaching is irrelevant; rather, it will be because they have become politically inconvenient.

iii. The relationship between Christianity and Confucianism impacts contemporary geopolitics because they are both, as the last point might suggest, culturally disruptive. Moral questions tend to discomfort. The biographies of Jesus and Confucius are both akin to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s ‘Servant of the Lord’, who was ‘despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ (Isaiah 53.3). But we should, perhaps, take talk of Christianity and Confucianism’s shared ‘disruptive’, or ‘subversive’, character further. Though at times over the centuries at the cultural, political, and intellectual epicenter of societies they inhabit, both traditions not only ask inconvenient moral questions of their context, but also ‘subvert’ and ‘disrupt’ by projecting existence onto the broadest possible canvas. To Confucius, everything exists ‘under Heaven’, and human life and leaders are to conform to ‘The Will, or Mandate, of Heaven’. To Jesus, the ‘Almighty God and Father’ is Lord over all, and all creation, including humanity, finds its ultimate ‘end’ in worship and service of Him. This essential re-locating of life impacts the political process and redefines the ultimate ‘end/s’ of diplomacy. Temporality is now accountable to transcending – if not as in Judeo-Christian thought transcendent – truth, and International Relations to ultimate ‘power’ or the sovereign ruler over all. As such, geopolitics is necessarily contingent and always diminished if uncoupled from ‘Heaven’. Traditional political theory unites with classical Confucianism and historic Christianity to hold East and West, indeed diplomacy per se, accountable in this way.

iv. Christianity and Confucianism confront contemporary geopolitics with the weight of their conceptual coherence. Christendom and Confucian China were in thrall to their distinct – but not, I would argue, mutually unintelligible – weltanschauung (Lit. world view). In contrast to the fragmented and fissiparous nature of today’s transient geopolitical theory and practice, we find a bold, compelling, and coherent claim made by the founders of Christianity and Confucianism and their heirs, that life in its entirety finds balance, truth, and meaning, through their stories, teaching and example. Even in its most recent Bostonian ‘New Confucian’ forms, Confucianism (like its Christian counterpart) lays provocative claim to a controlling meta-narrative. Textualist in form and narrative in style, both traditions propound an archetypal ‘myth’, reinforced by a tightly regulated ritual system. The key to the frustration of Maoist China, Marxist Russia, and myriad forms of subjectivized atheism and cynical secularism, lies here: that is, in the power of a societal ‘myth’ to impress and hold by its conceptual coherence and comprehensive claims. It is no surprise China had multiple Christian Studies programmes in its leading universities from the late-1970s through to the early-2000s: it wanted to understand ‘the success of the West’, just as the West had wanted to understand China 300 years before, when it contracted a severe, and long-lasting, case of Sinophilia.

v. Last, the relation between Confucianism and Christianity is materially relevant to geopolitics today because both are systemically significant; that is, they address issues that are central to international conflict and diplomatic debate. Both articulate a philosophy of nature and view of human identity; both inculcate respect for the environment and social harmony; both decry the abuse of power and destruction of the weak; both see education as the heart of ethics and the cultivation of character; both interpret health holistically and name the disempowering effects of mental strife. In short, if contemporary geopolitics is open to the light of ancient wisdom on dark modern problems, classical Confucianism and historic Christianity offer much. However, as we saw earlier, hermeneutics alerts us to the importance and danger of perspective: simply put, there is nothing for us in Confucianism and Christianity if we don’t think there is. I suggest there is much, if we believe there may be: or, surely, as they say, ‘Any harbour in a [geopolitical] storm’!

Professor Christopher Hancock (Oxford House & St. Mary’s University, Twickenham)

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