OHPT: Thoughts on Chinese (Confucian) Philosophical Theology (Chapter 26)

And here it is. The final chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. I did it! I did it during 2020! But before I start waxing relieved (certainly not poetic), a post about Chapter 26.

“Chinese (Confucian) Philosophical Theology” was written by Dr. John H. Berthrong, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Comparative Theology at Boston University’s School of Theology, and BU’s Deputy Director of the Division of Religious and Theological Studies. He earned his PhD at the University of Chicago and also holds an MA from Chicago Theological Seminary. His research focuses on both Confucianism and “interreligious dialogue,” so he’s a great contributor to this book, and this chapter a great contribution.

It’s a little odd to include Confucianism to this work, because it’s not a “theology” proper. There is no God of Confucianism. Berthrong actually uses this chapter to, in part, argue for an alternative definition of theology that doesn’t rely on a belief in a supernatural deity but that can be understood as “the science or study of supernal things or events”; for Confucianism, this is done in the “Chinese cultural context” (578 – 579). Confucianism’s “religiosity,” if we insist on giving it one, is best explicated in its exhortations to certain ways of being — to self-cultivation and to fitting oneself to one’s nature, and to one’s appropriate place within the world and the way of things, using tian (nature, or heaven) as a guide.

Berthrong emphasizes that Confucianism relies on immanent transcendence; even though there is only an ambiguous suggestion of the afterlife, we can transcend our limitations by fitting ourselves as best we can to the transcendence that is the Whole and that is the Way. The outcome of this is a harmony of human flourishing (Aristotle, anyone?!) so there is a moral goodness that doesn’t depend on an anthropomorphic deity but rather the world as a whole.

While I’m not terribly concerned with whether or not people want to define Confucianism as a religion (I’m content calling it an ideology for a way of being, which is something it shares with religions whether or not it itself is one), I think it’s an incredibly beautiful and instructive way of thinking, believing, and assessing the world. It can contribute to essential discussions of environmental and conservation issues, and can be a good guide for the best way to live. It is a little more world-based than other religions for its assumptions and grounds; as such, it may be much lighter on providing comfort.

Overall, this review of Confucianism and the many elements that go into understanding the Way and the Whole (many of which I didn’t go into because #finalsprep), was lovely and instructive. It was a nice and kind of ironic note to end on: focused on an ideology that is not at all clearly religious or theological. Compared to Christianity, it is definitely more philosophical in nature. I appreciate its inclusion.

Favorite quote:

With its emphasis on immanent transcendence, New Confucianism also speaks to the nervous culture of the west. Many people search for a spirituality that allows for the full development of humanity and a sense of connection to the environment nurtured by a commitment that makes a religious place for them within the holistic and ontologically unified cosmos illumined by modern ecumenical science. People want a unity of heaven, earth, and humanity in order to find a balance and harmony for their lives. With this kind of yearning, there will always be a place for being religious in a Confucian mode.

Berthrong 594

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