Confucianism’s Progressive Respect*

Confucianism is not a philosophy, not a social system, not a Way, but a religion at whose center is an all-powerful, loving God who engendered an order-seeking universe. This godly force is symbolized by the character Tien, which is often translated as “Heaven.” 

Confucius sought to translate the law of God into the law of Man, an undertaking no different than that of the sages of the world’s most followed monotheistic religions. Perhaps it is because he was so successful, his teachings so widely adopted by centuries of Chinese rulers, that Confucianism is often mistaken as a code of ethics and not given due credit as the powerful, visionary religious system of beliefs that it is. 

In his search for order, Confucius identifies several main values that allowed Ren, or “people” to emulate Tien, or “heaven.” Filial piety, honesty, loyalty, humaneness, worship. But, of all these, the starting point, the open door toward a godly life, is filial piety. According to his legendarily logical mind, first comes respect for parents, next respect for community, and, finally, respect for nation. Peace, if possible, is borne at home. 

Filial piety sounds archaic in our contemporary setting, where the child’s needs seem to represent the family’s sole needs.  Perhaps if filial piety were to turn into familial piety, it would better apply to Western family structures and help parents recognize that subservience of adult to child is not respect. Nor is respect present in authoritative parent-child relationships. Coercion is not respect. 

Confucianism’s brand of respect is firm, but motivated by humaneness, which is tender. Respect out of love, not fear, not displays of superior strength. It is a form of filial deference that is cultured, not imposed. And, the patience implicit in this teaching requires faith, not only in its practical utility, but in its ability to generate household structures capable of acknowledging and transmitting Wisdom, the absence of which will keep the future small.

*This post is part of a series of explorations on the teachings I most admire from the world’s major religions. So far, I’ve written on Buddhism and Christianity as well. 

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