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Confucius’ transformation of traditional religious ideas
Time:【2012-05-08】        Read: 


Author: Zhang Maoze Translated by: Andrew Lambert (

Abstract: Confucius’ religious thought summarized and utilized existing historical and cultural achievements. He strove to bring problems concerning traditional religious ideas such as destiny, the spirits, ritual propriety and faith into the realm of the rational. He sought to unearth the elements of human reason contained within these and to highlight the sublime and sacred in actual human society. He established an inward-looking system of religious humanism that incorporated views on edification, faith, destiny, the spiritual and self-cultivation. Using a dialectic based on the mean, he established a spiritual mindset comprising rational faith, a this-worldly transcendence and a sacredness grounded in the human that led ancient Chinese religious thinking in a unique direction.

Key words: Confucius, Religious thought, Spiritual mindset

Author: Zhang Maoze, born 1965, Professor at Northwest University, Institute of Chinese Thought and Culture.


What is ‘religious thought’? ‘The religious thought of Confucius’ – is this a meaningful term? Some preliminary discussion is required here. We can examine Confucius thought from a philosophical perspective, and discuss Confucius’ philosophical ideas. And in a similar fashion, I suggest, we can examine his thought from a religious perspective and talk about his ideas as religious ideas.

European academics use words such as theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies (including the sociology of religion, and the psychology of religion). ‘Religious thought’ is also a new word in Chinese, one whose meaning includes all of these subjects. The famous Chinese theologian Lu Daji once defined religion as having four basic components: religious institutions, religious practice, religious experience and religious concepts. His so-called ‘religious concepts’ included religious teachings, a religious outlook and religious faith. He also put forth the concept of ‘religious doctrine’, in his work ‘A history of Western religious doctrines’. In this article, the term ‘religious thought’ is similar in meaning to Lu’s ‘religious concepts’ and ‘religious doctrine’, and includes three components. These are religious teachings, views about religion and faith, and reflection on the human need for a safe refuge as well as faith and the desire to correct beliefs.

On the basis of the above analysis, Chinese religious thought can be seen historically to consist of three parts.

One is the relation between the divine or heaven (or spirits) and humanity. Discussion of the relation between the objects of faith and the human is one of the basic elements of religious teachings. Wherever there is religion, there is a conception of how to relate the human to the divine.

The second element is a religious outlook. This includes people’s grasp of religious phenomena, the history of religion, and knowledge of the structure, nature and function of religion; it also involves ideas pertaining to religious studies, the philosophy of religion, the history of religion, comparative religious studies, sectarianism, religious anthropology, the sociology of religion, the psychology of religion and religious pedagogy. The concept of faith should also be included. Only after a religion is created can a religious outlook emerge. Only after a religion develops and is differentiated is there a self-conscious religious outlook. Early religious thought took the relation between the human and the divine as central; the closer one moves to the modern era, the more a religious outlook occupies an influential position.

Thirdly is the reflective human need, pervasive throughout history, to validate faith and beliefs and to solve questions of ultimate human concern. As Marx puts it, ‘Each person ought to have a religious need directed to the possibility of realizing oneself; just like the realizing the needs of the body, they tolerate no agents of interference.’ However, while the bourgeois merely ‘tolerated all forms of religious beliefs and freedoms’, ‘The workers’ party, however, strove to liberate faith from the dark arts of religion’.[ Marx, ‘A few thoughts on the German Workers Party Manifesto’, part of Critique of the Gotha Program, in Makesi Engesi Quanji (The Collected Works of Marx and Engels), Vol. 19, p. 34. Renmin Publishing 1963.] Marx was convinced that people, just as they had physical needs, also had a spiritual or religious need to seek a comfort life and familiarity. The human drive to rectify faith or beliefs was simply a desire to abandon archaic religion. Following from this, all of the following ideas also belong to the realm of religious thought: discussions of life from the perspective of ultimate concerns; delimiting an object of faith in terms of the eternal, limitless, definite, universal and necessary; discussing how actual people can know and believe in objects of faith, and raise themselves up so as to be close to those objects; and the question of how to practice and transmit that faith, and thereby align the whole of society with such objects of faith.

The second and third aspects of religious thought are not limited to various kinds of historically-located religious thought; they are of relevant to all thinkers throughout history. Certainly, the highest religious teaching has historically dealt with the relationship between man and heaven, but other, non-religious intellectual thought also considered this issue. Even without religious institutions and religious practices such as worship, there were still elements of religiousness which could satisfy a human need for religion and so play the role of a religion. In Chinese history, the Confucians represented such a tendency. Confucius was the founder of the Confucian school and though he was not a religious leader, he was still able to have certain religious thoughts. This is similar to Marx, who while criticizing the religious perspective of religion, nevertheless confirmed that people have a need for such a religious perspective or the standpoint of faith.

Is Confucianism a religion? In the modern era, both domestic and international scholars have offered various opinions on this issue. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger long ago noted the shared characteristics that connect ancient Chinese philosophy with religious ideas. He wrote, ‘What we hear of as Oriental philosophy is better spoken of as a kind of Oriental religious thought – a kind of religious worldview. This kind of worldview is one that we can easily recognize as philosophy’[ Martin Heidegger, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol 1, p. 115. Translated by He Lin and Wang Tai Rong, Shangwu Publishing 1997.].
Opinions among Western sinologists vary, but it is plausible that, in comparison with belief in the supernatural, non-transcendental Confucian teachings served as a sign of cultivation and were not straightforwardly religious in the theological sense.[ Yang Qingkun, Zhongguo Shehuizhong de Zongjiao (Religion in Chinese society), Fan Lizhu (trans.), p.225, Shanghai People’s Press, 2007.] In fact, Chinese scholars have frequently discussed this question. For example, Xiao Shafu, Xu Sumin in The Biography of Wang Fuzhi (Wang Fuzhi Pingzhuan), Chapter 7, use the category of ‘religious thought’ explicitly, to discuss Wang Fuzhi’s views of heaven and destiny (tianming), the spirits (guishen) and Buddhism.[ Xiao Shafu, Xu Sumin, Wang Fuzhi Pingzhuang (The Biography of Wang Fuzhi), pp. 496-553, 2002, Nanjing University Press. ] Rao Zongyi has suggested that Confucianism and Daoism were the ‘foundation of religious thought’ in traditional Chinese culture.[Rao Zongyi, Yuqide wenyifuxing gongzuo (Anticipating the project of cultural revival) in Zai Yang, Zhen Ning and Rao Zongyi (eds) Zhongguowenhua yu kexue (Chinese culture and Science), Chapter 7, 2003, Jiangsu Education Publishing.] He further discusses the relationship between Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism in Zhongguo zongjiao sixiangshi xinye (New directions in the history of Chinese religious thought). Starting in the 1980s, well-known Chinese Marxist religious scholar Ren Jiyu put forward the idea that Confucianism was not merely a philosophy but, under the effects of a feudal economy and large-scale political unification, Confucian thought gradually became religious and evolved into a Confucian religion. His views stimulated great debate in the in the academic community. I believe that Jiyu’s views have significantly advanced research into the development of Confucian religious thought.[ Zhang Maoze, Ren Jiyude rujiaoguan jiqi zongjiaosixiangshi yiyi (Ren Jiyu’s Confucian Religious perspective and the significance of religious thought), in Renwen Zhazhi 2009-5] Putting aside debates about whether or not Confucianism is a religion, the above examples show the following. Examining Confucian ideas from the standpoint of the history of religious thought, discussing the history of Confucian religious thought and using specific historical data to explain the connection between Confucianism and religious faith form a project that not only might be attempted but should be attempted as an urgent and pressing task.
There has long been debate about whether, given the challenges presented by Western learning, Confucianism ought to intensify its religious aspects. Kang Youwei, inspired by the positive effects of European religion on modernization and social harmony, also noted the rapid spread of Christianity in modern China and how Buddhism was also desperately modernizing. In his book Kongjiao huixu, he clearly advocated constructing a Confucian religion, though he also recognized that what he called a ‘Confucian religion’ was not equivalent to religions founded on divinity, such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; rather, it was a kind of ‘humanism’ (rendaojiao). Cai Yuanpei, Hu Shi, Feng Youlan and others have responded in kind, variously suggesting ’replacing religion with an aesthetic sensibility’ or ‘replacing religion with philosophy’ and opposing the religious conversion of China. In its highest form, this intellectual current became the ‘Anti-Christian Movement’ (fei jidujiao yundong).[ See Zhang Maoze, Zhongguo sixiang wenhua shibajiang (18 lectures on Chinese Thought and Culture), pp. 4.10. Shanxi People’s Press, 2008. ] Since liberalization begin in China in the 1970s, scholars home and abroad have gradually set aside the important question of whether Chinese culture should become religious and have come to recognize an important objective fact: Confucianism in ancient China and in East Asia more generally has long occupied a privileged place in the spiritual world. Thus, examining how Confucius and Confucianism can resolve the problem of attaining human security and spiritual fulfillment is a matter of global importance. In 1988, Tu Wei-ming suggested, ‘setting out the ultimate concerns contained in the Analects is a scholarly task necessary for understanding the religious nature of Confucian thought’.[ Tu Wei-ming, Kongzi:Ren de Fansi (Confucius: Reflections on the Man), in GuojiKongxue huiyiwenji. (Collected proceedings on the International Confucius Studies Association), 1988.] Attempting to articulate the merits of ancient Chinese religious thought within the context of the world’s great cultural systems, the long standing guiding role played by Confucian religious thought is distinctive; it has been a significant intellectual resource in establishing a spiritual home for the Chinese people. Summarizing its essence is thus an urgent matter.
In the Analects, Confucius discusses several problems, such as heaven and destiny (tianming) and spirits (guishen), and he participates in sacrificial activities: ‘Participate in the sacrifices as if present; sacrifice to the spirits as if they are present’ (3.12). These cannot be accommodated within a framework of philosophical or scientific thinking, since they cannot express the suggestive implications contained within. Since philosophy is the acquisition of knowledge by rational means, it is largely rooted in logical inference and empirical observations of the world (foundations, warrant, goal-directed and so on) and discussions of knowledge of foundations. Science relies on induction and deduction and observes facts about the world, summarizing natural relations of cause and effect. Fate, spirits and such relate to human faith and objects of belief, as well as the concrete activities that follow from such beliefs or faith. Clearly, heaven, destiny and the spirits should be approached from within the discipline of religious thought. In Confucius’ accounts of self-cultivation, ritual and so on, religious thought plays a greater role than philosophy; his theory of human nature and his views on education are also deeply tinged with a religious sensibility.
In both China and beyond, several scholars have already analyzed Confucius’ accounts of destiny, the spirits and ritual from the perspective of philosophy or the history of ideas; and scholars have also discussed Confucius’ religious outlook and his religious thought.[ Within China those who discuss Confucius’ thought in terms of religious ideas include: Yu Rusong Kongzi zongjiaoguan qianyi (An overview of Confucius’ Religious thought), in Kongziyanjiu 2007-5; Luo Jianxin Kongzi zongjiao xinyang xinlun (New Approaches to Confucius Religious Thought), in Taiyuan shiyuan xuebao 2007-6 (2); Ou Yangzhenren Kongzidezongjiao sixiang yanjiu (Studies in Confucius’ Religious Thought) in Wang Zhongjiang and Li Cunshan (eds) Zhongguo Ruxue, vol. 3, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2008.] Focusing on the Analects, this article will take a comparative view of East West religions and outline Confucius’ achievements in reforming traditional religious thought. It will thus sketch the structure and key characteristics of this form of religious thought.

Section 1 Confucius’ Religious Outlook

In Confucius’ religious thought, his view of religion is connected to his view of education and cultivation. This can be seen, for example, in his maxim for education: ‘teach without discrimination’ (Analects 15.39), his method of teaching according to ability, his acknowledgement that the ‘cultivated person’s virtue is the wind’ (12.19), and in his view of government as teaching through virtue and ritual, which followed in turn from increases in population (‘make them populous’ shuyi 13.9) and economic power (‘make them rich’ fuzhi 13.9). All of these stressed development of the government’s capacity to educate or civilize, and drew attention to the close connection between the cultivation of government officials and the task of education. Confucius valued rational education and dismissed mere orthodox teachings. Mentors and mentees, as well as teachers and students discussed learning and naturally formed intellectual schools, but they did not establish religious sects. They declared themselves to be scholars or teachers but not religious leaders or saviors. Thus, Confucius view of education formed the foundation for the latter Confucian approach to education.

Confucius specifically established a framework for a Confucian faith. In the context of religious thought, Confucian ‘faith’ refers not only to the normative moral realm but also to the foundations of such a realm – that is, to commitment and belief. It was in this regard that Confucius said ‘Be earnest and trusting and fond of learning’ (8.13). Also, referring to Confucius, Mencius said ‘One who possesses it within oneself is called trustworthy’ (7B25). In Confucianism, the virtue of trust or faith (xin 信) is a natural human excellence. It is also something achieved through self-cultivation. It serves as a standard for words and actions and, through the internal cultivation of sincerity, it comes to be closely connected with the highest expression of faithfulness and belief; further, this view of faith or trust cannot be separated from Confucian views on fate and self-cultivation. When Confucius talks of self-cultivation, this consists mainly in rational practical activities such as learning (xuexi), self-control (keji).The object to be cultivated is oneself, hence the term self-cultivation (xiuji), and the standards are given by a ‘dao’ that is constituted by humaneness (ren) and ritual (li). On this account, the purpose of social practices is to safeguard the people (an ren) or bring security to the masses (an baixing) (14.42). Here, ‘faith’ (xin) becomes a focal point for discussions about how to transform practical or expedient people into ideal beings and expedient social arrangements into an ideal society. When this problem of faith or belief becomes an object of inquiry for the rationalistic humanities, it can be called the study of faith (xinxue). For Confucius, the rewards of such faith were the basic preconditions of practical human life. When Confucius says ‘I am not sure whether a person without faith is viable as a person’ (2.22), this can be understood as the claim that faith, sincerity and belief are all necessary conditions for being a person. The passage ‘Earnestly faithful, fond of learning, and holding to the efficacious dao until death’ (8.13) combines faith and rational practices of learning, with the object of that faith being the way (dao) which is amenable to rational correction. Here, the benefits of ‘studying and at the appropriate time applying it’ (1.1) are taken as the basic manifestation of a sincere belief or faith, with security or peace of mind (an) the psychological traits that accompany such faith and sincerity. Further, joy and confidence are the concrete expressions of these psychological traits. The social function of this outlook is the creation and maintenance of social standards, the guarantee of social harmony and the certainty that individuals can debate with trust and avoid superstition. The humility integral to rational knowledge leads to learning and practical living and once faith and beliefs have been made consistent with social history they no longer give rise to contradictions.
There are further specific insights worth noting in the text.
An account of the ideal person. A human life can be distinguished according to the extent to which it belongs to higher or lower levels. For Confucius, the sage Yao was the ideal human character. He once exclaimed: ‘How majestic! Only the heavens are truly great, and Yao took them as his model’ (8.19). Only Yao was wise enough to emulate the heavens and unite with them. Exulting such ideal persons can inspire people to have a sacred sense of mission, and such a hope underpins Confucius’ idealistic approach to human life. Below the level of the sage, Confucius also outlined another layer of different types of ‘ideal’ people, including the humane, wise and courageous who are ‘not concerned’, ‘not confused’ and ‘without fear’ (9.29), as well as the cultivated person who ‘broadens himself with culture’ (12.15), ‘cherishes excellence, cherishes fairness’ (4.11), is ‘calm and unperturbed’ (7.37), is ‘neither for nor against anything’ (book 4), and who ‘harmonizes but is not the same’ (13.23). These are the steps by which one can enter into the higher realm of the sages.
A sense of mission directed towards an esteemed cultural heritage. Confucius creatively merged ‘fate’ (tianming) and the historical advance of a civilization, with the details of both implicated in the establishment of a civilization and its flourishing. And this was embodied in Confucius’ own life. In hearing about and steadfastly following the way, and so reviving and developing the civilization of the earlier Zhou, Shang and Xia dynasties, Confucius himself undertook a sacred historical mission.[ ‘The Zhou Dynasty looked back to the Shang and Xia. Such a wealth of culture! I follow the Zhou’ (3.14). ‘For a long time now I have not dream of meeting the Duke of Zhou’ (7.5). ‘With King Wen long dead, does not our cultural heritage reside here with us? If heaven was going to destroy this legacy, we latecomers would not have access to it. If heaven is not going to destroy this culture then what can the people of Kuang do to me?’ (9.5).] The content of this historical mission was to use the finest historical and cultural achievements (wen) to enrich and replenish. The phrase ‘man broadens the way’ (15.29) confirms that a sense of mission to complete or perfect historically-located culture is part of the basic nature of man.
Human life as inherently devotional. Under the influence of the ideal person and with the support of a civilization, an outlook on life can be established that is greatly idealistic and devotional. Countless numbers of those who have contributed to the creation of a Chinese spiritual outlook have been inspired by the unconstrained emotions of Analects’ passages such as ‘hearing of the way and thus being ready for death’ (4.8) and ‘giving up one’s life for the sake of humaneness’ (15.9), and have been filled with the religious ideal of living and dying for the way (dao).

Section 2: Understanding destiny (tianming)

Confucius’ religious thought is primarily focused on the relation between humanity and heaven. In Confucian thinking, heaven (tian) denotes ‘destiny’ (tianming), while ‘humanity’ refers to both individuals and social groups. ‘Ritual’ is understood as originating in the norms of human social activity that instantiate this destiny. Ritual and people’s inner virtue are cultivated in tandem and constitute a link between the human and the heavens. Confucius clearly states: ‘One who does not understand destiny lacks the means to be a cultivated person. One who does not understand ritual will not know where to stand’ (20.3). Certainly, as the phrases ‘knowing the heavens’ and ‘knowing ritual’ make clear, the kind of cultivation instantiated by the Confucian ideal person is a self-cultivation redolent with religious sensibilities, while discussions of destiny and ritual also form the core of Confucian religious thought.

In Confucian religious thought, heaven and destiny occupy a central position in the discourse and are treated as matters of faith or belief. Confucius follows existing convention and confirms that heaven has the power to govern the world and to reduce evil among the people: ‘A person who offends against heaven has no where else to pray’ (3.13); heaven can also ‘harm’ people (‘Heaven has forsaken me!’ – 11.9); it can ‘abandon’ people (‘May heaven abandon me!’ 6.28); determine whether a person lives or dies, is rich or poor (‘Zixia said: ‘life and death are a matter of destiny, whether one is rich or poor lies with heaven’ 12.5); and ‘destroy’ (or not) a cultural legacy (9.5). Heaven thus displays certain human-like qualities and, to a limited extent, is suggestive of the supernatural and superhuman.
But Confucius also believed that ‘heaven’ consisted of a great cycle of transformations: ‘The four seasons follow one after another and the myriad things are produced from them’ (17.19). Heaven is able to give rise to virtue in humans and makes people’s natural state ‘upright’ (zhi). ‘Heaven’ is thus also natural processes that lack any human characteristics.
Superficially, ‘Destiny’ (ming) means simply ‘fate’; that is, the process and results of heaven’s operations are manifest in the human world but they are not subject to human control. Confucius speaks of two types of fate. Firstly, heaven determines whether a person lives a long or short life, and whether they live or die. For example, Confucius’ disciple Bo Niu was struck down with an incurable disease, while Confucius’ favorite disciple Yan Hui died before his allotted time. Confucius accorded with what was commonly encountered and so regarded individual experiences of wealth or poverty, longevity or sickness and premature death as matters of destiny.[ The Eastern Han scholar, Wang Chong, also addressed this topic. He believed that ‘ming’ meant no more than ‘the ways of nature’ and implied no more than a form of randomness. See the Ouhui chapter of Wang Chong’s Lunheng (Assessing the Analects) and his Ming Yi (The meaning of ming).] Secondly, fate indicates the question of whether civilization can develop, whether a human dao can be implemented and whether cultural undertakings and the implied completion of a human purpose can be realised or will ultimately fail: ‘If the way is going to prevail in the world, it is because of circumstances (fate)’ (14.36). Thus Confucius did his utmost to ‘broaden the way’, but the final outcome did not entirely accord with his personal desires.
For Confucius, ming (destiny) has another latent connotation; namely, a mission for humanity. This originates in the natural creativity of heaven, as shown in sayings such as, ‘Heaven produces virtue in me’ (7.23). This is not a matter of actual human events or practices or the outcome of a specific social undertaking; rather it is something possess by each person. It cannot be experienced or made concrete; it is something incomplete within a person yet which both must and can be brought to completion. Ming functions to guide human life with a universal necessity: it is the source and standard of meaning and value. While this idea of mission or purpose in human life is the expression of a divine destiny, no pre-ordained outcome has been assigned. People must struggle for themselves, learning and discipline themselves, and so come to understand the process of self-cultivation as it inheres in the evolution of culture. The great innovation of Confucius’ religious thinking resides in this focusing on a sense of human mission, which takes the doctrine of ‘understanding destiny’ (zhiming) as its core. Confucius developed a system of religious thought that was anthropomorphic in nature. Within this system, Confucius was especially concerned that people developed an authentic and idealistic sense of purpose, that each of the ancient states focus on ‘governing through virtue’, and that human culture should develop and flourish and so produce a dao, a way, within the world. The key element of the Confucian view of heaven and destiny was thus the creation of a sacred sense of mission, which held that a person should become a certain ideal type of person and that society should become an ideal kind of society.
In addition to his acknowledgment of tradition, reverence and awe, Confucius account of ‘tianming’ introduced a new doctrine, that of ‘knowing destiny’ (zhi tianming). He himself states that ‘at the age of 50, I understood the intimations of heaven’ (2.4) and concluded that ‘one who does not understand destiny lacks the means to be a cultivated person’ (20.3). Thus he established heaven as a possible object of rational knowledge and so established a new humanistic and rational direction for Chinese religious thought. It is important to note, however, the distinction between the heavenly destiny that can be the object of rational knowledge and the fate that controls whether a person is rich or poor, long-lived or dies prematurely. The latter cannot be the object of reasonable knowledge and can only be intuited by certain kinds of mysterious means, such as divination by casting bones. Was what Confucius referred to as ‘knowing’ a case of rational knowledge or of intuition or guess-work? To put things another way, was it a mission that involved rational knowledge or was it a kind of preordained fatalism that appealed to guesses and direct intuition? This is a genuine issue. Among the later Confucians, some made a connection between tianming and the yinyang five phase cosmology, and relied on divination to unlock the mysteries of fate; others combined tianming and humanity in the form of the ideal person and derived social harmony from the personal mission of those concerned to promote cultural flourishing. In doing so, they created two different ‘ways’ – one of superstition and one of reason. Which way did Confucius advocate? It is clear that Confucius was not a diviner. He studied without tiring, learnt from those below and aspired to reach those above; he was rational, did not place any great weight on divination and never discussed it. In fact, he ‘rarely spoke’ of predicting one’s fate. When this insight is related to the spirit of Confucius’ demand to ‘serve the people with a sense of appropriateness’ (6.22), we see that the tianming known by Confucius could not be a supernatural or superhuman force that ruled over human affairs. Nor was understanding destiny some kind of mysterious knowledge of a supernatural force; rather it referred to a knowledge that was internal to the person, and which could be consciously grasped. This was the rational awareness that heaven had bestowed a special mission or purpose on humans. This mission was innate (tiansheng) and reflected the influence of culture and history as well as one’s own efforts at self-cultivation. Thus it was process that was produced and developed naturally. Confucius identified the demands of this kind of destiny with the excellence (de) pertaining to human nature and the cultural lineage referred to by the well-known phrase ‘This culture of ours’ (9.5). Extrapolating this, we can say that it is through the activities of learning and self-discipline that one’s natural capacities are realised and social harmony and cultural flourishing promoted. This is humanity’s vocation. And understanding of it is not merely knowledge but also includes internal practices; it is thus a rational process that combines both practice and knowledge.
With regard to the impossibility of rationally cognizing the mysterious tianming, Confucius particularly emphasized ‘not accepting one’s lot’ (bu shou ming). Passage 11.19 notes: ‘The master said: Zigong is not content with his lot, and is hoarding and speculating. But in his ventures he is regularly on the mark’ Zigong did not accept a fate that involved poverty and so engaged in commerce. His predictions were largely accurate and, as a result, he became rich and altered his fate. His commercial success was an expression of this ideal of ‘not accepting one’s lot. This example illustrates how the idea of ‘understanding destiny’ (zhi tianming) is extended through logic, and shows that a person can, through rational capacities, challenge the edicts of fate. Confucius as the founder of Confucianism did not, as some scholars have claimed, ‘trust in fate and predetermination’ [ See Yang Qingkun, Zhongguoshehuizhong de zongjiao, (Religion in Chinese Society), Fan Lizhu (trans.), p. 229. Shanghai People’s Publishing, 2007.]
Confucius’ account of tianming result from his altering the traditional conception of it, and this alteration consisted in three parts. Firstly, the meaning of tianming became an amalgamation of destiny, concrete human life and cultural history. The human character or personification of tianming diminished, and the sense of rational culture expanded, such that tianming became become a sense of a cultural or civilizing mission. Secondly, in the relationship between tian and humanity, tianming and the duty of serving the people were brought together, thereby breaking the monopoly on power of a deity - the ‘Lord on High’ (shangdi) and the Heaven (tianming) of the Shang and Zhou. Instead, ‘tian’ was expanded to include the creation, governing and care for an empire that consisted of all people under heaven, and tianming became the mission of each individual person to become an ideal person, thereby enhancing the spiritual element of human life.
Thirdly, Confucius established Confucianism and so offered each member of society a means - through study and self-discipline – to realise a sense of human purpose and to realise a historical-cultural mission; this was the significance of the various practices of self-cultivation that he propagated. To solve the problem of creating a spiritual realm for humanity Confucius employed the doctrine of the Golden Mean and so creatively developed elements of a rational faith, a this-worldly transcendence and a rational human culture; he decisively resolved the tension between spiritual belief and the reason inherent in the everyday human world. He strived to make explicit the rational elements within tianming and also permitted people to develop their natural talents; and through the cultivation of the practical and rational, and the search for peace and stability (an), he realised the value of the person as something sublime, noble and sacred. Within this way of thinking, when people encounter difficulties or challenges, they ‘do not resent heaven or blame other people; they study want is near at hand and aspire to what is lofty’ (14.35). Realistic solutions to problems are sought and lofty ideals approached in a down-to-earth manner. Confucius’ humanistic religious thought was a revolutionary development in which the divinity-orientated religious thought of the three dynasties was reoriented towards rationalism and humanism. Over the next several thousand years this ancient Chinese spiritual outlook evolved into the main belief system of the Chinese people.

Section 3 ‘Respect ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance’.

Ghosts and spirits are the personification of objects of faith and they are intimately connected with an account of tianming. Confucius neither denied nor admitted the existence of ghosts and spirits. In discussing life, Confucius said ‘Respect ghosts and spirits but keep them at a distance’ (6.22); there was to be reverence towards them in one’s affective life, but one’s actions were removed from them. Confucius said that he would ‘not speak’ of them (7.21). The Zhou people had already decreed ‘serve ghosts and respect spirits but keep them at a distance’ (Book of Rites, Biaoji section), but Confucius’ approach was slightly different. He brought devotional sacrifices to ghosts and spirits into the realm of ritual practice and also assimilated such ritualised religious practices into practices associated with self-cultivation and the drive to civilize. Conduct directed towards ghosts and spirits thus became rational and observable, part of civilized ritual, and this reduced the superstitious tendencies inherent in the traditional approach to ghosts and spirits.

Confucius did not take a stance with regard to the existence of spirits; he did not say whether they existed or not. He did, however, take ritual seriously, and the funerals and ritual practices held to mark the death of a person were an important part of this. Passage 3.12 notes, ‘(It is said:) Sacrifice to the spirits as if they are present. The Master said: If I am not invested in the sacrifice it is as though I have not sacrificed’. Zhu Xi interprets these two sentences as, ‘Confucius’ followers recorded Confucius sincerity in matters or ritual,’[ Zhu Xi, Sishu zhangju jizhu (Annotated Commentary on the Four Books), p.64, Zhonghua Publishing, Beijing, 1983.] and expresses his admiration for Confucius. The phrase ‘as if present’ suggests that the intended recipient of the sacrifice is absent, yet the one sacrificing views it sincerely and reverentially. Zhu Xi’s note is also vague on the question of whether ghosts and spirits exist or not.

However, what is clear is that Confucius sees humanistic activities limiting those activities that are directed towards spirits. 11.12 notes: ‘Zilu asked about serving spirits and ghosts. The Master replied: You are not yet able to serve people, so how can you be able to serve spirits? Zilu then said: May I ask about death? The Master replied: Not yet knowing how to live, how can you understand death?’
Confucius treated both the course of life and death and the serving of spirits and humans as related topics of inquiry. The sentence pattern ‘Not understanding….how can you know….’ has been understood by some as ‘if you are able to serve people then you can serve the spirits; if you know life then you will understand death.’[ Li Shen, Zhongguo rujiaoshi, (A history of Confucian teaching)Vol.1, p. 180, Shanghai People’s Publishing, 1999. ] However, according to the structure of the language and Confucius’ words, it seems like the sentence should, in fact, be viewed as presenting necessary conditions. Its logical structure is such that the first clause is a necessary condition of the second part. Confucius believes that understanding and solving the problems of humans and of life is a necessary condition of understanding and solving problems concerning death and the spirits. If the former is not addressed, the latter problems cannot be grasped and resolved. Thus, ‘Not understanding…how can you know...’ expresses the though that ‘knowing’ life and ‘serving’ people are preconditions for knowing about death and about serving spirits. The view of death and the spirits contained therein is that only after people have solved problems of existence, daily life and production, and only after they have understood the problem of how humans become rational humans and so promoted civilized living, can they finally understand the problems of death and ghosts. In fact, understanding humanity and life was understood by Confucius as an endless process, and this limited the extent to which the topics of death and the spirits could occupy a central place in Confucian thought. Confucius’ downplaying of these two problems directed Confucianism towards a rational humanism, and so restricted the extent to which superstition could be propagated within it.

Confucius was reverential in sacrificing to the spirits but he did not pray to them. He criticized the idea of perceiving and praying to the spirits uncritically. 2.24 reads: ‘To sacrifice to spirits other than one’s own ancestors is to be unctuous’. On his view, a life that directed towards culture and becoming a ‘complete person’ (chengren) through study and self-discipline, one that involves unceasing progress, just is the highest kind of prayer. Confucius’ implies that performing excellently in everyday human affairs and realizing value and significance in life is to ‘become one with the spirits in clarity’,[ Zhu Xi, op cit, p. 101.] to make the best kind of
prayer. The great Confucian scholar Wang Yang-ming further developed this idea in the Ming Dynasty. ‘The prayer of the cultivated person does not reside in excellence in ceremonial votives, but rather in preeminence in dealing with everyday affairs.’[ Wang Yang-ming, Da Tong Taishou qiu er, in Wang Yang-ming Quanji (The collected works of Wang Yang-ming), Vol.1, p. 800, Shanghai Ancient texts, 1992.] ‘Preeminence in dealing with everyday affairs’ was, for Confucius, engagement in the rational and humanistic practices of self-cultivation.

Section 4 Self-cultivation

In Confucius’ religious thought, the cultivation of human existence is the bridge that connects the human and heaven (tian).Thus, cultivation should be recognized as a constitutive element of religious thinking. When Confucius speaks of human cultivation he seeks, on the basis of natural attributes, to unify diverse social elements, to realise – through learning and discipline – an ideal human person, and to enrich, develop and realise human life. Confucius’ cultivation of human life is, in fact, cultivation of human nature; the understanding integral to ‘understanding destiny’ as well as the respecting and distancing integral to ‘respect the spirits but keep them at a distance’ are all part of the cultivation of human nature. Confucius believed that people ‘by their nature are similar, but through their habits are far apart’ (17.2): what is the part of human nature that bears such similarity?
Today, some believe that ‘similarity’ means the absence of good or bad from human nature, and that nature can become good or bad. Others see the similarity consisting in human nature’s goodness, in the form of a potential excellence (dexing).[ See Sun Shuping, Zhongguo zhexueshigao (A History of Chinese Philosophy), vol.1, pp.68-9, Shanghai People’s Press, 1980, and also Li Cunshan, Zhongguo zhexue gangyao (An Outline of Chinese Philosophy), p. 151, Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, 2008. ] In fact, while Confucius investigated the general nature of people and offered some conclusions it seems, however, that this was not in terms of an account of the goodness or badness of human nature. Confucius was, however, dissatisfied with the state of human nature as it is encountered in everyday reality. His main concern was to target this unsatisfying aspect of human nature and to unearth a genuine human nature that accorded with the demands of normative ritualised conduct. Rational learning and discipline were Confucius’ main methods of such cultivation; and the results of such cultivation were manifest in one’s person. Internally, there was the way, excellence and humaneness, while externally there were habits, speech and action that accorded with standards and social regulation; in short, there was ritualised living (li). Thus Confucius theory of human nature, his account of excellence (de) and his discourse on ritual can all be identified as belonging to a discourse on religious thought. The above discussion has thus made clear Confucius’ attempts to reform traditional religious practices and rituals.

When Confucius was young, he ‘regularly arranged the ceremonial items and prepared the ritual containers’ (Kongzi Shejia chapter, Records of the Grand Historian) –that is, through learning and drilling in ritual and then later through seeking instruction from others, he become extremely familiar with Zhou ritual. He carefully preserved its rituals and maintaining a sense of devotion to the rituals – ‘I dare not to do less than my best’ (9.16) – repeatedly criticized people for contravening them. His account of ritual is the result of his reforming traditional thinking about religious ritual, and his reforms have three aspects.
Firstly, in its original meaning, ritual refers to a divine but human activity. The Zhou developed ritual standards governing individual conduct and also a system of political control applicable to a country; thus they had already added a humanistic element to ritual. Confucius however, viewed things from the perspective of elevated human culture and saw ritual as representing the cultural achievements of the three dynasties of the Shang, Xia and Zhou; he determined that such ritual could be the basis for an ideal society. Ritual was a measure and guarantee of ideal humanity and was something to be cherished and revived among later generations. His comment ‘overcome oneself and return to ritual’ (12.1) was not so much a call to return to the past as it was the hope that a shining civilization could be recreated in present society.
Secondly, unlike early generations who had claimed that rituals originated in tianming, Confucius advocated ‘knowing ritual’ and brought it within the remit of rational inquiry, fueled by the availability of literary resources and familiarity with actual ritual practices, He focused on humaneness (ren) as an expression of ritual and held that is the core element of the ideal person’s project of cultivation. He was adamant that without the presence of humanness ritual could not be authentic. In this way, humaneness and ritual formed the two key pillars, internal and external, of the cultivation of human nature, and they constituted the basic substance of Confucius’ dao. The relation between ritual and dao was also fixed accordingly, and it prepared the ground conceptually for later developments that explained ritual practice in terms of ‘respecting the way’ (jingdao).[ See Zhang Maoze, Jingdao Liyi, (Ritual practice as ‘Respecting the way’) in Huaxia. Cultural Press, 2007-3]

Thirdly, Confucius advocated ‘taking one’s stand in ritual’ (8.8) and so confirmed that ritual is the precondition for a person to become a competent member of society. He made the knowledge and practice of ritual into a matter for individual study, with ritual something that could be studied, transmitted and put into practice within the context of a program of self-cultivation. He emphasized ‘ruling the state through ritual’ (11.26) with the love of ritual and its revival the key to governance. Within this system of ritual, ‘all within the four seas are one’s brothers’ (10.5). In talking about ritual, Confucius made demands of all people regarding standards of conduct. He stressed the significance of ritual for the transformation of ordinary people into ideal and authentic people and strengthened the role of ritual in a cultural education that created a harmonious society. He also broke the monopoly of the nobles on ritual practices and deepened the meaning of ritual within cultural activities and practices. Finally, he made the study of ritual a part of the study of humanity and in doing so lessened the sense of ritual as a matter of superstition concerning ghosts and spirits.

Section 5 Rational beliefs in human affairs

‘Human affairs’ (renwen) takes humanity and civilization as central and thus marginalizes divinities and spirits, but there is also an element of transcendence in this foundation for mature humanity and cultural achievement. ‘Rational’ means making one’s way through knowledge and the rectification of beliefs while rejecting intuition and faith, but there remains a place for faith and belief after these practices have been systematized. The rational faith integral to human affairs has its source in the learning and education integral to social practices rather than divine revelation; its mode of expression is the relentless pursuit of knowledge and endless practical experiments rather than pious devotion or prayer.
Compared to theology, Confucius’ tianming values people and reduces the importance of spirits. The tianming of which he spoke possessed a degree of dictatorial authority and a semblance of the human, but it was not an all-knowing and all-powerful human deity. He revered and respected tianming but also ring-fenced it and did not directly explore it; instead, he strived to bring out the humanistic and rational elements of tianming, and so make clear the sacred and profound nature of rational human activity. He established an anthropocentric type of religious thought and sought a rational basis for faith and belief as well as the reasonable correction of them; and in the spiritual lives of people he replaced theology with the study of humanity. Confucius was thus a scholar of human affairs and not a religious leader, nor a theologian or missionary. For Confucius, in the relation between humans and heaven it was tianming or destiny that underpinned the human position and its function and gave people their natural vocation or mission – namely, practical rational effort, a sense of sacredness and a life that was a source of optimism and belief. At the same time, such gifts were also restricted by heaven: the length of people’s lives, success or failure in their schemes and historical context were all determined by destiny, and the ultimate value of human life consisted in realizing one’s mission or vocation within them. In the face of heaven, Confucius was not, in contrast to the critical approach of Saint Augustine, ‘arrogant’.[ Augustine, On the Trinity, Zhou Weichi (trans.) p.144, Shanghai People’s Press, 2005. Augustine writes: ‘There are some people who believe, however, that based on their own strength and natural facility they can purify themselves. However, this is to view God disdainfully, to clamber up towards the Almighty. This shows that they are deeply stained with arrogance.’]

This shows that the core of Confucius’ religious thinking was not heaven (or spirits) but people; his thinking belonged to anthroponomy and not to theology. However, humans were not in opposition to heaven, and the study of humans was not in conflict with the study of heaven. Confucius’ religious thinking was partly colored by spiritual influences but this influence was limited. He emphasized the experiential wisdom of human life and history, establishing a framework for the ideal human person and promoting the sacred value of ordinary human life. He did not develop a system based on divine revelation or emphasise an all-knowing and all-powerful divinity that demanded devotion from humans. Firstly, although Confucius was revered by his descendents as the ‘founder of the religion of Confucianism’, he himself confessed that he was a mere mortal who obtained knowledge by study and did not see himself as some kind of divine figure. As the descendent of King Wen and the Duke of Zhou he possessed a sense of mission, but never pretended to be a descendent of immortals or an emissary of God. Later mainstream Confucians did not deify Confucius.
Secondly, Confucius collated and interpreted the Chinese Classics and offered new intellectual doctrines. He used the classics to educate students, but did not treat them as fixed articles of faith or dogma. There was a tendency among later Confucians to view the classics as articles of faith, and their interpretation was restricted by mainstream orthodoxy; however, the classics were interpreted differently in different eras and there developed many different schools, such as the two schools of the Han, the xuanxue movement of the Weijin period, Song and Ming Lixue, Ming and Qing Shixue, as well as new approaches that have emerged in contemporary thought. Confucian scholarship has developed constantly and so, in the area of religious thought, it is, not possible to find doctrines that all schools accept.
Thirdly, Confucius spoke of tianming in terms of mastery or control, but what he sought to develop in this regard was excellence (de); virtue is, after all, an element in human affairs. It was only that such virtue was rooted in the sacredness associated with tianming. Confucius noted ‘What does heaven ever say?’ (17.19) – that is, that heaven never speaks. Since heaven does not speak, then the practice of interpreting the words of spirits as some kind of divine will never arose. The doctrine established through Confucius’ account of heaven was one focused on humanity and not on divinity. He explained the two foundational concepts of ren (humaneness) and li (ritual) in terms of humanely loving other people rather than revering the divine, and as governing society through rational means rather than by means of a theocracy.
Fourthly, with regard to cultivation, Confucius was devout in the observance of ritual but did not pray; he stressed that people should study, discipline themselves and seek peace, and that they should be resolute in seeking the way, find a foundation in virtue, rely on benevolence and linger in the arts (7.6). A human life will pass through different levels of experience and, imitate the legendary founder of the Xia Dynasty, Yu, who ‘strove to the utmost in the creation of canals and irrigation channels’ (8.21). This suggests that Confucius emphasized the gradual development and cultivation of oneself through study and practice; he did not pursue sudden enlightenment or mysterious intuition.

Religion is belief in the supernatural or in superhuman capabilities, and belief in the supernatural or superhuman is, in the final analysis, concern for humans’ concrete circumstances and their fate. Starting from human affairs, what has characterized the development of religion is the development from primitive religion to rational religion, where the status of reason is ever more important.[ See Xie Fuya, Zongjiao zhexue (The philosophy of religion), pp. 84-93, Shandong People’s Press, 1998.] Over the course of the history of Western religious doctrine, God has returned to human form, and divine nature has reverted to human nature, with religion reverting to something social; accordingly, man has evolved from a vessel of the Gods to master of his own fate, and this became the historical context for the European Enlightenment.[ See Lu Daji, Xifang zongjiao xueshuoshi (A history of Western religious thought), vol.1, p. 38. Shangwuyin Publishing, 1958.] Remarkably, Confucius’ religious thought had already accommodated this particular kind of historical development and at a relatively early point in history accentuated this rational and humanistic aspect of religion.

According to Karl Marx, religion was the manifestation of human’s thorough-going self-deception regarding the status of their beliefs about the supernatural and superhuman powers. In Confucian religious thinking, as represented by Confucius, this illusory aspect is greatly diminished. First, Confucianism acknowledges an already existing religion, but does not discuss, oppose or support it; put simply, it makes no judgment.
Second, based on actual lived practices and learning, Confucianism sought to rationally develop those humanistic elements contained in an already existing religiousness. In doing so it sought to explore the transcendental, the infinite and the sacred that were already integral to human nature. Thus it propelled this particular kind of religious thinking along the path of rational verification. It cohered with the account of destiny and ritual practice found in the traditional religion, but at the same time it also used new insights in humanistic thinking to enrich its content and limit the role of superstition. Confucianism accepted a transcendental force in the form of destiny – tianming – but it placed greater emphasis on how common human practices, such as those of learning and self-discipline, created a sense of sacredness that arose when humans became ideal humans. Although Confucius mentioned ghosts and spirits, he did not speak of them in detail but rather kept them at a distance. Religious practices like understanding death and serving spirits were brought within the logical framework discussed above (as exhibited by the phrasing ‘not yet knowing…… can you know…’), and the mystery and superstition of actual religion was banished as much as possible. All of these points show that he did not promote the idea of a divine and supernatural force within tianming and the spirits; rather, he promoted the humanistic elements of religious thought as it had developed since the Western Zhou. He focused on the necessity and sacredness attached to seeking the way within the everyday human world, and on creating a sense of awe and gravity within society. Ordinary humanity was thus able to transcend reality and stride forward confidently towards the future. Ultimately, Confucius’ religious thought saw value in the means by which people could truly be people while denying the value of the divine.

Confucius’ religious thought can be considered a historical achievement; it raised the level of social production at that time and advanced the capacity for rational deliberation. Spinoza said ‘The meaning of heaven is an unknown refuge’.[ Spinoza, Ethics, He Lin (trans), p. 38, Shangwuyin Publishing, 1958.] Random factors that cannot be known nor controlled constitute the source of one’s awareness of destiny or heaven. The change in the view of tianming, towards the rational and humane, was founded on people’s rational awareness of society, life and historical practices. Qian Mu once noted that the reason Confucius did not talk of the occult, military matters, chaos or spirits was because he ‘already possessed an enlightened and reasonable answer’ to the problems of society and human life.[ Qian Mu, Zhongshi dawang (An outline of Chinese History), p.99, Sangwuyin Publishing, 1996.] The earlier three dynasties had, over the course of a thousand years, provided enough cultural insights to enable Confucius to summarise the lessons of history, and Confucius was also skilled at learning from and summarizing life experiences. When such resources were used to interpret life and history they gave rise to factual, reasonable and effective answers. Confucius’ achievements in the area of religious thought were testimony to the idea that, within everyday social practices, a person could develop a greater capacity to appreciate nature, society and human life, and through rational methods eliminate confusion and come to grasp the fate of mankind itself.
Marx criticized Proudhon’s account of fate; namely, that when conditions for material production were ripe, then proletariat thinkers ‘need only to notice the events happening before their eyes; if they consciously give expression to such events then everything will be fine’.[ Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in The Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Vol.4, p. 157. The People’s Press, 1958.] Confucius was not, of course, a proletariat thinker but he also sought to reduce the idea of fate as something inherently or passively human-friendly and strove to ‘notice the events happening before one’s eyes’. Destiny was reclaimed as human action and centered on social activity and cultural history. It was through observing social change and the cycles and flux of history that human destiny could be enhanced or enriched. In essence, Confucius’ religious thought constituted a religious culture and sought to express the life experiences and accumulated historical wisdom that arose within that form of life. The revolutionary advance in Confucius’ thought reflected changes and advances in the means of production of the time. In the context of ancient Chinese history, where advances in the means of production were not great, Confucius’ thought naturally had far reaching influence, and became representative of the spiritual outlook of Chinese people during the classical period.

About the author: Zhang Maoze was born in 1965 and is a native of Guangan in Sichuan province. He obtained his doctorate in history and is a professor at Northwestern University’s Institute of Chinese Thought and Culture. He was a visiting scholar at Tübingen University in Germany, in the Institute of Catholic Theology. His published works include: 贺麟学术思想述论Helin xueshu sixiang shulun (The Thought of He Lin), 金岳霖逻辑哲学述评Jinyuelin luoji zhexue shuping, (The Philosophical Logic of Jin Yuelin), 孔孟学述Kongmeng xueshu (A Study of Confucius and Mencius), 中国现代学术思想史论集Zhongguoxiandai xueshu sixiangshi lunji (A history of Contemporary Chinese Thought), 中国思想文化十八讲Zhongguo sixiang wenhua shibajiang (18 Lectures on Chinese Thought and Culture). He has published many articles, including论学术批评lunxueshu piping. (Discussing Academic Criticism)

Contact Information: Institute of Chinese Thought and Culture, Northwest University, 229 Taibai Beilu, Xian, 710069, China.
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