Confucianism for Modern Persons in Dialogue with Christianity and Modernity

By Swidler, Leonard | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Confucianism for Modern Persons in Dialogue with Christianity and Modernity


Swidler, Leonard, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


I. The New Confucian Paradigm

Confucianism is old, very old, decrepit and rigid, blocking the advance of modern thought, science, and democracy. That is why it was totally dismissed in the land of its origin, China, in the 1911 overthrow of the Ching Empire and the anti-Confucian May Fourth Movement (1919). True! But, also true is the fact that at the same time the New Confucianism Movement (though the name appeared only in 1941) was launched, (1) it is now in its "third generation," even beginning to move on to its fourth. New Confucianism (to be distinguished from, though in continuity with, the Neo-Confucianism of the Sung [960-1279], Ming [1368-1644], and Ching [1644-1911] dynasties) aims at culling the deep, lasting values from the 2,500 year Confucian tradition and bringing them into dialogue with Christianity and Modernity, especially Western philosophical and scientific thought and democracy. New Confucianism wants to re-make the Confucian tradition into a living, creative dialogue partner for the West and the Rest, bringing its own distinctive contribution as one of many human partners in this Age of Global Dialogue.

The third generation of New Confucians is now at the peak of its creativity and is led by several scholars on both sides of the Pacific, four of the most active and prominent figures are Yu Ying-shi (1930-), Liu Shu-hsien (1934-), Cheng Chungying (1935-), and Tu Wei-ming (1940-). In addition, there are the "Boston Confucians," who prominently include two Christian theologians, Professors Robert Neville and John Berthrong. (2) As Neville noted: "Boston Confucianism, especially in its members who are also Christian, is deeply committed to multiple religious identity, and to serious faithful conversation that can test its limits." (3) Berthrong also writes of a "Columbia Confucianism," founded and led by Professors Wingtsit Chan and William Theodore de Bary of Columbia University in New York. (4)

The three generations of New Confucians represent more than a passage of time and biological generations. Even more importantly they also represent a significant, even radical, evolution of thought and goals. The first generation, best exemplified in Xiong Shili (1885-1968), indeed wanted to cleanse Confucianism from the stultifying encrustations that had destroyed its contemporary effectiveness, but they also thought that when that had been accomplished, it would then come to the rescue of a badly corrupt Western thought. They realized that they had to learn from the West in the areas of science and democracy, but, that having been done, their hubris led them to the conviction that Confucianism would once again reign supreme in the thought of the world. The most influential of the first generation, Xiong, wrote: "Humankind in our age is progressively going down the road to its self-destruction. This is the inevitable result of single-mindedly pursuing a scientific culture, of being unable to return to its nature and search for itself, of ignoring the heavenly nature living in them. If we want to save humankind, the only way is to proclaim Oriental Learning." (5)

The second generation, represented most prominently by Fang Dongmei (1899-1977--though in many ways he was of the first generation) and Mou Tsungsan (1909-95), were much better informed about Western philosophy and thought in general and felt that a purified Confucianism and Western thought would be equal partners in resolving the philosophical and cultural issues of the world. The third generation, however, having lived for many years in the West as well as in Chinese culture, has dropped all such pretensions and is committed to making a renovated Confucianism a partner in a global dialogue addressing the problems of humankind. I will describe briefly where these three generations of New Confucian thinkers have brought the dialogue of the Confucian tradition with Christianity and Modernity. I want first to set the historical context for one not very familiar with Confucianism, either past or present. …

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