Confucianism and Catholicism
Reinvigorating the Dialogue
- ISBN: 9780268107697
- Published By: University of Notre Dame Press
- Published: May 2020
With a stellar lineup of contributors, Confucianism and Catholicism: Reinvigorating the Dialogue, edited by Michael R. Slater, Erin M. Cline, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, marks a welcome addition to the centuries-long conversation between two of the world’s great religious traditions. Following a brief introduction, the anthology is divided into two parts, with the first addressing historical contexts and the second providing a range of comparative theological and philosophical explorations.
Beginning the historical sequence, the late Vincent Shen examines efforts of Jesuit missionaries in late imperial China to bring Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy to bear on Confucian thought, thus inaugurating “the first synthesis of Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy” in the form of “Chinese neo-Scholasticism” (4–5). Observing the troubled translation into Chinese of ousia, or “substance,” Shen argues that a range of obstacles to understanding arose, variously rooted in linguistic incommensurabilities, differing views about ultimate reality and the purpose of life, and divergent styles for discussing religious matters.
Next, Fr. Anh Q. Tran examines several 18th-century Vietnamese Catholic apologetic texts, noting how they address Confucian ancestral veneration with the doctrine of “Three Fatherhoods,” or tam phu (35). In doing so, Tran identifies ways in which the Catholic faith was “inculturated” (a theological concept and evangelistic strategy alternately framed in such terms as “accommodation,” “adaptation,” “indigenization,” or “contextualization”) in the premodern Vietnamese context without sacrificing doctrinal distinctiveness in the process (34, 55). The following essay, contributed by Donald L. Baker, discusses Korean Confucian Tasan Chong Yagyong (1762–1836), a temporary convert who eventually renounced Catholicism yet maintained intriguing Catholic influences in later writings. In particular, Tasan put forth a Confucian version of theism drawing on the classical figure of Shangdi (“Lord on High”), doing so to account both for the source of the cosmos’ coherence and for sufficient moral motivation to engage in Confucian self-cultivation.
Finishing part 1, Kevin M. Doak’s “Confucianism and Catholicism in Mid-Twentieth-Century Japan” highlights the distinct perspectives at the intersection of Confucianism and natural law of two Japanese Catholics, Tanaka Kotaro (1890–1974) and Yoshimitsu Yoshihiko (1904–1945). Doak argues that these thinkers’ views can enrich both Confucian-Catholic dialogue as it stands in Japan today and contemporary Japanese conversations about human rights more broadly.
Part 2 begins with Xueying Wang’s “Mengzi, Xunzi, Augustine, and John Chrysostom on Childhood Moral Cultivation.” Comparing and contrasting these four figures’ respective views on children’s moral development, Wang demonstrates that Chrysostom in particular can correct lingering misconceptions about early Christian attitudes toward children. Next, Richard Kim challenges Western-centric thinking about natural-law theories of ethics by showing how Mencius also presented a form of such theory. Noting also the significant role of tradition for both Mencius and Aquinas, Kim argues their traditional orientations need not preclude contemporary appreciation of their views, but can instead engender appreciation for how traditions play “an important and indispensable role in our lives” as well (150).
In “Reimaging Confucianism with Ignatius of Loyola,” Cline places Confucian contemplative practices such as the preparatory vigil for ancestor veneration into constructive conversation with Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Accordingly, she reenvisions Confucian contemplative praxis for self-cultivation by means of imagination and reflection on one’s ancestors. “‘Exemplar Reasoning’ as a Tool for Constructive Conversation between Confucians and Catholics,” by Victoria S. Harrison, makes the case for a method of interreligious dialogue that focuses on exemplary figures “rather than on abstract philosophical or religious ideas, or on the classic texts of a tradition” (173). Among the benefits of such a method, Harrison argues, “exemplar reasoning” can help to avoid misrepresenting either tradition involved while still facilitating “genuine mutual understanding.”
In the penultimate essay, Lee H. Yearley compares Confucian and Catholic accounts—ranging from those of Aquinas and Dante to Mencius and the poet Du Fu—regarding why humans fail to attain consummate virtue and how to remedy this. Consequently, Yearley observes that literary approaches can stimulate mutually enriching—and even, at times, more profound—reflections vis-à-vis theoretical approaches. Finally, Ivanhoe offers concluding reflections on the anthology’s major contributions, including its praiseworthy “Pan-Asian approach” (220). Then turning to his own comparative reflection on whether virtues are primarily corrective or inclinational, Ivanhoe suggests “a modern and improved understanding of the virtues could be fashioned by augmenting traditional Confucian accounts with Thomist (as well as other) views about the virtues” (228).
As even this brief overview reveals, each essay in Confucianism and Catholicism breathes fresh air into the dialogue and is thus worthy of its own glowing review. Here instead, however, one can briefly consider the anthology’s three “guiding motivations” outlined in the introduction: (1) “past connections,” (2) “intellectual affinities,” and (3) the “current moment in history” as marked by increasing interest in both traditions within China (xii–xiii). These certainly provide compelling grounds for deepening the dialogue, yet it should be added that this dialogue, while not without fits and starts, has already been deep and sustained for quite some time, at least in certain circles. Throughout Catholicism’s extended development in East Asia, there has been continuous contact, even mutual influence, between the two, just as there have been significant tensions, too. The reality that certain past connections have persisted to the present is reflected in some ways in part 1, but it does not come through as strongly in part 2, as the comparative essays make little to no attempt to draw comparative insights from the actual historical interaction and subsequent, dialogical development of these two traditions.
Yet a tremendous amount remains to be learned for comparative reflection today from both prior and present engagements of East Asian Catholics and Confucians—especially those of “Confucian Christians” who have self-identified with both traditions simultaneously. Exemplar reasoning, for instance, could be brought even closer to home by lifting up East Asian exemplars (and there have been more than a few) who have lived betwixt these two great traditions in such profound ways that the two have creatively harmonized into one. At the very least, these figures can serve as invaluable bridges to mutual understanding. Nevertheless, the need for increased comparative learning from such sources in no way discounts the tremendous contributions made by each essay in this anthology, which will undoubtedly stand as a model for future emulation in Confucian-Catholic dialogue.
Ryan Pino is a doctoral student in comparative theology at Harvard University.Ryan PinoDate Of Review:December 22, 2021