Review: Confucius for Christians


To get the most out of Gregg A. Ten Elshof’s Confucius for Christians, it is important to be clear on what it is and what it is not. Despite the title’s protestation to the contrary, this is not a book about Confucianism. Not really. Similarly, while Ten Elshof likes to say it draws on the Confucian tradition and worldview, at best it nods to select ideas from the Analects. But the tradition? Confucianism as a whole? Hardly. Ten Elshof admits as much in his introduction, acknowledging the difficulty of trying to parse the long and complex Confucian intellectual legacy. But his language of blanket statements and generalizations is uncareful at times and misleading at others. You will find no Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, kaozheng, or even Mencius here. Nor will you find discussions of fundamental elements of Confucian cosmology like qi, Heaven, or even the pricklier of the five relationships, such as that between sovereign and subject or husband and wife.

This vague language – of engaging with the Confucian worldview – is a heuristic to introduce what this book actually is: a meditation, almost a devotional, on questions that plague us as Euro-American moderns. Family, learning, ethics, ritual – all of the topics that Ten Elshof uses Confucius to introduce are ones that have developed significant cultural baggage in the West and can benefit from momentarily trying to break from our tired vantage points on them. The portions on family and learning are particularly interesting and push against the individualism that we often take to extremes in the late modern “West”.

Whether we want to believe it or not, we are embedded in families and relationships wherein we share lives and experiences. Even in our individuality we are never solitary, except by doing violence to our personhood and capacities. Likewise, we too seldom recognize the value of learning a person rather than just material; we fixate on knowledge and have little patience for wisdom. And these are valuable lessons – points we as communities should debate and digest. And Ten Elshof correctly observes that non-Western sources of wisdom, like Confucius and the Analects, offer an opportunity to momentarily separate out the Westernness of our Christianity without endangering the Christian faith.

However, books like this are impossible for me to like. Chinese history and culture are deep, deep wells and a certain degree of humility in dealing with the material is required, as is at least a basic level of precision. To do such a subject justice, one would need to avoid falling into the cliché East-West dichotomy, not make up concepts like “trained spontaneity” which sounds more like something a Daoist would teach, not a Confucian, or dismissively imply that Confucianism ought not be thought of as “this-worldly”  — a point that seems to trivialize debates over whether Confucianism can rightly be called a religion.

Yet the most frustrating aspect of Ten Elshof’s book (and others like it) is the blind eye it turns on the lives and work of those who might have something meaningful to say about what it would mean to bring traditions of thought and practice in Asia into conversation with Christianity. This might seem to be a bit of an overreaction were it not for the final chapter of the book, entitled “Sam.” In it, Ten Elshof illustrates how one can draw on the teachings of Confucius to improve one’s Christian faith and life more broadly with an illustration of the experiences of a (hypothetical?) person named Sam. The choice is disappointing as a “Western” character again carries the mantle of an Asian cultural tradition, the spiritualized equivalent of Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai.

China has 200 years of exposure to Protestant Christianity during which, as one might expect, more than a few have tried thinking about points of intersection of Christianity and the Confucian tradition. We rarely hear these voices, despite how significant the church in mainland China may soon become. The same could be said of Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean Christians who all have beautiful church legacies and lessons from which we could learn were we ever to give them voice. I can’t help but feel that Ten Elshof has missed a chance to do exactly that.

[Picture of Confucius book courtesy of Wikipedia]

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.