On Confucian Religiousness
The Anthropocosmic Vision

 

What is “Religion”?
 
According to Living Religions, The word is probably derived from the Latin, meaning ‘to tie back,to tie again.’ All of religion shares the goal of tying people back to something behind the surface of life a greater reality, which lies beyond, or invisibly infuses, the world that we can perceive with our five senses. [Living Religions, 2]
 

 
Frederick Streng (1933-1993), an influential scholar of comparative religion, suggested in his book Understanding Religious Life that the central definition of religion is that it is a ‘means to ultimate transformation.’ A complete definition of religion would include its relational aspect (tying back), its transformational potential, and also its political dimensions.” [Living Religions, 3]
 

According to the 1990 edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia, “no single definition will suffice to encompass the varied sets of traditions, practices, and ideas which constitute different religions” [religioustolerance.org], in which case it may simply be impossible to develop a universally acceptable definition of religion. Mark E. Hanshaw suggests a potential solution to this problem by focusing on commonly occurring attributes of religious traditions, such as:
  • Belief in a supernatural intelligent being;
  • Complex worldview interpreting the significance of human life;
  • Belief in some sort of afterlife experience;
  • A moral code;
  • Account of the nature and origin of evil;
  • Ritual practices;
  • Revealed truths;
  • A mythological tradition; and
  • An institutionalized social community constructed around these and other priorities.
From this perspective, a tradition that possesses most of these attributes could be classified as a religion, while the absence of one or two attributes might not prevent a tradition from being regarded as a religion. [Religion in the Midst of Life, Chapter 1, Section 2]
 
 
Confucian Religiosity
Tu Weiming
We can define the Confucian way of being religious as ultimate self-transformation as a communal act and as a faithful dialogical response to the transcendent. This is also a Confucian prescription for learning to be fully human. Using the categories of thought enunciated in the preceding chapters, we can say that Confucian religiosity is expressed through the infinite potential and the inexhaustible strength of each human being for self-transcendence. Three interrelated dimensions are involved here: the person, the community, and the transcendent. [C&C, 94]
 
A Clarification of Terms
“Ultimate self-transformation” implies that the process of learning to be human never ends. ... Our inescapable humanity specifies the minimum condition, the lowest common denominator; “ultimate” refers to the greatest possible realization of that humanity. “Self-transformation” suggests that although we are not what we ought to be, we can reach the highest state of humanity through personal cultivation. Learning to be fully human is to learn to become a sage (an authentic manifestation of our nature, indeed our essence as ordained by Heaven). Since the sage is genuinely human, the aim of self-transformation is not to go beyond humanity but to realize it as completely as possible. We can never embody our humanity in its all-embracing fullness. [C&C, 95-6]
 
Existential Limitations
To suggest that the full meaning of Heaven can be embodied in our humanity would be blasphemous. Rather, our inborn ability to respond to the bidding of Heaven impels us to extend our human horizon continuously so that the immanent in our nature assumes a transcendent dimension. [C&C, 97]
 
 
 
The Anthropocosmic Vision
The Confucian perception that human beings are earthbound yet strive to transcend themselves to join with Heaven clearly indicates that Confucians see humanity as more than an anthropological concept but as an anthropocosmic idea. Since the value of the human is not anthropocentric, the assertion that man is the measure of all things is not humanistic enough. To fully express our humanity, we must engage in a dialogue with Heaven because human nature, as conferred by Heaven, realizes itself not by departing from its source but by returning to it. Humanity, so conceived, is the public property of the cosmos, not the private possession of the anthropological world, and is as much the defining characteristic of our being as the self-conscious manifestation of Heaven. Humanity is Heaven’s form of self-disclosure, self-expression, and self-realization. If we fail to live up to our humanity, we fail cosmologically in our mission as co-creator of Heaven and Earth and morally in our duty as fellow participants in the great cosmic transformation. [C&C, 102]

In the anthropocosmic vision of the Confucians, the authentic way of learning to be human begins with an acceptance of the embeddedness and the rootedness of our existential condition. As we understand that our existence as a particular person at a given moment in history is paradoxically the instrument for our ultimate self-transformation, we enter into a variety of reciprocal relationships with our fellow human beings for the fulfillment of a “covenant.” Such an act, although seemingly sociological in nature, has profound ethicoreligious significance, for we are not only secular social beings trying to maintain our group solidarity but also filial children of the cosmos. Our sense of filial piety toward those who have bestowed life upon us is naturally extended to Heaven and Earth as our cosmic father and mother. We show reverence toward Heaven and, by implication, toward Earth and the myriad things because we depend on their support for our existence and because the niche we find in their midst is not simply our attainment but is also their gift. [C&C, 107]

 
As a religion, Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and ancestors, harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred (Yao, 1996a: 31-3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimensions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human perfectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although it holds a different conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’, Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns. These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commitments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to their moral and political vision. [An Introduction to Confucianism, 45]
 
So is this religious yet?