SERMON: Confucius and the Beatitudes

SERMON: Confucius and the Beatitudes


by Christopher Hancock, 22-February


Good morning. It is good to be with you. Thank you so much for your care for my in-laws in recent months. On behalf of the whole family, we are very grateful to you all.

I have been invited me to speak on the theme of Confucius and the Beatitudes as part of your Lent series. I can think of easier topics (!), but my work with Oxford House is all about encouraging informed dialogue between diplomacy and religion. It is tough but rewarding work. Much of the last decade I have been involved with issues relating to religion in China. A few days ago I addressed an official North Korean delegation on the issue of disability; something, interestingly, they have tried hard to get right. The Western establishment has for much of the last century marginalised religion as a private matter. This is now no longer possible. We got it very wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. International diplomacy today is now dominated by religious and cultural issues; the fall-out from ill-informed, strategic decisions. The West is surely complicit, compounding cultural chaos by refusing for so long to include religion in the training and practice of diplomats. Things are changing slowly. Secularism still has a tight grip on policy. Pray for us as we try to change that part of Establishment culture.


On Conversation between Christianity and Confucianism

The conversation between Western Christendom and Confucian Asia is as important as any in the world today. China’s rise and admission of its Confucian heritage – something it was reluctant to do during the Maoist era – opens the way for the world to meet Confucianism. The 400 or so (sometimes controversial) Chinese government sponsored Confucius Institutes around the world have enabled many young people to learn Chinese and China’s ways. The dramatic Christianization of China from the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late-70s has meant many Chinese have now encountered the good news of the Christian gospel for the first time, and found it a meaningful answer to life’s deepest dilemmas. Though important, the conversation between Confucianism and Christianity in the modern world is not easy. Christianity and Confucianism are vast, evolving, intensely complex phenomena. Many see Confucianism as simply a practical social ethic, with some potential for religious application; more see Christianity as a religious faith-tradition with clear social consequences. If we are not careful, we compare apples and oranges. That said, if Christianity shaped Christendom Confucianism shaped China and its neighbours. A globalised world demands we understand where these vast traditions are coming from and find ways to encourage greater mutual understanding. It is not easy: the more I study Confucianism as an erstwhile professor of Christian theology the more similar and the more dissimilar I find the two traditions to be!


Confucius, otherwise known as Kong Fuzi or “Master Kong”, lived mostly in the State of Lu (modern Shandong Province in SE China) five hundred and fifty years before Jesus. In other words, he lived a little after the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as a contemporary of Haggai, Zechariah and the Early Iron Age in Britain and more than a century before Plato or Aristotle. He came from a simple, rather unhappy home, although claimed royal lineage. He was born into a society in decline that was riven by politics, immorality and corruption. His life was spent seeking to recover the glory and culture of the ancient, almost mythical, Kings Wen and Wu of the eleventh century BC Zhou Dynasty. Confucius was clear: he was simply a scribe and transmitter, a synthesiser of a cultural heritage that advocated humaneness, self-discipline, respect, justice, integrity and ritual propriety. This was, for him in accord with the “Will (or Mandate) of Heaven”. Herein lay the greatness of the ancient Zhou Kingdom. Like Jesus, Confucius gathered around him a group of disciples, whom he inspired and trained; over time, many took key positions in governments in and around the State of Lu. Like Jesus, Confucius was abused and misunderstood. Much of his life was lived as an obscure teacher, an itinerant bureaucrat or unsuccessful, minor official; largely because he could be too direct and wouldn’t play politics! The system of thought his literary labours inspired culminated in the Four and Five Books of the Chinese Classics. These texts, which assumed their final form after Confucius’ death, were assiduously learned by scholar-officials for 2500 years, being at the heart of China’s Imperial culture and training of its civil servants in to the 20th century.


Confucius and the Beatitudes

So, to Confucius and “The Beatitudes”: first a few general things, then a few specifics.



If we find most of what we know of Jesus’ life and thought in the Gospels, we turn to the Chinese classic Analects or Lunyu (lit. “The Conversations”) to find Confucius, the man. But there is nothing quite like the Beatitudes in Analects. The closest we come to a text matching the radical kingdom ethic of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is this from Analects 2: 4,

At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; as forty, I became free of doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety.

Seeing his life and teaching in exemplary terms, every feature of Confucius’ development is of symbolic significance. He models life, like Jesus. It is like Jesus’ saying, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Both men make a holistic claim on all of life. Both speak in pithy, provocative, life-defining terms. Both exude a quiet confidence that what they say matters. Central to Confucius’ teaching is the training of a junzi, or ideal gentleman, who knows the right thing to say and do at the right moment, and who is morally righteous and ritually proper. He is a figure most in the West can learn much from still! Like the Beatitudes Analects addresses existential realities, poverty, hunger, pain, grief, despair, ill-treatment, fear and self-doubt. Neither text sets an unattainable ideal. Both are clear, practical and intelligible; albeit radical and demanding. You don’t come away from Confucius saying, “This is too easy”; nor do you want to say “He just doesn’t get it.” To many, Confucius is still infuriatingly insightful, far too direct, and dangerously truthful; as we read in Analects 15: 30, for example, “To make a mistake and yet not to change your ways – that is what is called truly making a mistake.” Or, here he is again in Analects 7: 8,

I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of the problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not try to instruct him again.

Of course, there are differences between the Beatitudes and Analects, but there are also many general similarities. Among the most obvious differences is that Beatitudes promise help from another, hope beyond this world. In Analects it is all up to you: it is your effort, your self-discipline, your quest for the “Will of Heaven”. One exudes grace, the other grind.



As I read Analects in light of the Beatitudes, four themes suggest themselves for comment. Two reflect similarity; two dissimilarity.


both Beatitudes and Analects speak of earthly life conformed to, and motivated by heaven. “Heaven” (tian) is the largest concept Confucianism names: the seventeenth century Jesuit missionaries to China translated the Christian God with this Confucian term tian, “heaven”. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, we read in Matthew 5: 3 and 10. But it is not poverty of spirit or persecution that secures heaven in Analects: it is the disciplined personal pursuit of ren (goodness or benevolence), de (virtue), li (ritual propriety), and perhaps qi (life force), all of which are expressed in assiduous and respectful management of five key relations, ruler-subject, father-son, elder brother-young brother, husband-wife, friend-friend. The “Will of Heaven”, heaven’s blessing, is secured when we get this right and so live a righteous life.

both Beatitudes and Analects commend human, earthly dispositions as the key to growth in character, virtue and obedience. It is “the poor in spirit” who own heaven, and the “meek who will inherit the earth”; as Confucius expressed this open-mindedness and humility in Analects 16: 8, “The gentleman (junzi) stands in awe of three things: the Mandate of Heaven, great men, and the teaching of the sages.” In other words, humility and integrity are central to growth in character and conviction. Both texts enjoin the active pursuit of righteousness, mercy, purity and peace through courage and single-mindedness; as Matthew 5: 6 and 8 declare, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” and, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. Confucius would not disagree; as he states on two occasions (Analects 9: 29, 14: 28), “The wise are not confused, the Good do not worry, and the courageous do not fear.” Sound living follows sound thinking.



With regard to dissimilarities, two stand out. First, as we have seen, the currency of the two systems is different. Confucianism is a merit-based, works-driven righteousness that tries to conform to Heaven’s Will. Christianity is a grace-based, faith-inspired righteousness that works not to earn Heaven’s favour but to express thanks in life for God’s undeserved love. The mourning do not earn comfort, they are comforted. The merciful do not earn mercy, they find God’s mercy. The persecuted do not earn their reward, they simply are rewarded.


If the currency of the two systems is quite different, their orientation is different as well. This is the most telling difference of all. Confucianism addresses this world now: Christianity faces this world and the next. Both understand moral failure. In Confucianism I fail myself, my family, my society, my ruler and my friends, spoiling their life and mine now. In Christianity, as we glimpse in the Beatitudes, I fail myself, yes, but I also fail my God. I do not see him when my eyes are impure. I am not his child when I do not make peace. Indeed, I cannot know heaven unless I am empty of the self-confidence that says, “I earned it all”. A few years ago I shared a platform with the foremost Harvard Confucian scholar, Tu Weiming. My paper was simply entitled, “What hope Confucianism?” There is no hope in death for the follower of Confucius. Death was something he refused to speak about plainly. My family and I would have no hope as we mourn Ray’s passing. Thank God we are not Confucians!



Click on the four colours to join in discussion at Iffley Daily


  • How might we sum up Confucius for someone who has not heard/read this sermon?
  • How do you react to the conclusion “Confucianism addresses this world now: Christianity faces this world and the next” that Chris offers us?
  • Where do you find hope?