Confucianism offers a unique perspective on religion. This article explores the Confucian “human-centered religiousness,” which positions humans as active participants in the cosmos rather than its mere observers. Arguments from the Doctrine of the Mean are examined to elucidate the Confucian belief that we humans have the capacity and moral obligation to become “co-creators” who can assist in the “transforming and nourishing activities” of the cosmos. The concluding section discusses ways in which the Confucian view may provide valuable insights into the role of religion in the interconnected transnational world today.
Ritual Propriety, Appropriation, and Harmony
Confucian philosophy is deeply rooted in the concept of “ritual propriety” (li 禮), and it is a key component of Confucian human-centered religiousness. Ritual propriety is a multifaceted concept that encompasses a wide range of meanings including rituals, etiquette, proprieties, morals, and rules for proper behavior. The Chinese character for ritual propriety is a composite pictogram that depicts a scene of a ritual or ceremony of abundance where participants are actively carrying out their respective roles in unison. The character is a visual representation of the core principle of ritual propriety: collective well-being is to be achieved through coordinated actions conducted in accordance with prescribed rules. Ritual propriety thus functions like a playbook or a guide that outlines a set of formal rules and procedures for proper conduct in various roles and relations. Confucians argue that the observance of ritual propriety in roles and relations is necessary for realizing a state of flourishing “harmony” (he).
Confucian philosophy also stresses the importance of personalizing ritual propriety. It is not simply a rigid set of rules; rather, it is a living guideline that can be adapted to the changing needs of individuals and societies. Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE) says, “Learning without due reflection leads to perplexity; reflection without learning leads to perilous circumstances” (Analects 2.15). He explains why this is the case in Analects 13.5: “If people can recite all of these three hundred Songs and yet when given official responsibility, fail to perform effectively, or when sent to distant quarters, are unable to act on their own initiative, then even though they have mastered so many of them, what good are they to them?” Confucius warns against blind adherence to rules without “reflecting” on their practical relevance to novel situations. His followers over the centuries have consistently argued that ritual propriety must be adapted or tailored to one’s own unique set of circumstances in order to make them “effective.” Confucians call this process of personalization “appropriation” or “signification” (yi). This requirement for personalization is essential for understanding the Confucian notion of “harmony.”
Confucius says that “achieving harmony is the most valuable function of observing ritual propriety” (Analects 1.12) and explains that this “harmony” is not uniformity or “sameness” (Analects 13.23). This is one of the most complex Confucian arguments that have been commented on and expanded by Confucian philosophers throughout the ages. What is relevant here is his argument that if we were to endeavor to flourish as human beings, we would have to live a harmonious life, and to live a harmonious life, we would have to strive to make each and every moment of our lives as significant and meaningful as possible. How can this be achieved? He maintains that flourishing harmony is contingent upon both the observance of ritual propriety and, more importantly, the personalization of the said propriety through appropriation.
Consider parent-child relationships. If a parent were to mechanically execute their role by adhering to the established rules of parenthood and nothing more, the parent would become a generic parent that is the “same” and indistinguishable from any other parents abiding by the same set of rules. This would devolve the relationship into a purely formal one that is meaningless and shallow, estranging both and leaving them feeling isolated and alone, without a sense of belonging or connection. In contrast, if the parent were to personalize parenting to accommodate the distinct needs and circumstances of the child, the parent would become a special parent to that special child. This adaptation would instead elevate the relationship into something genuine and meaningful, capable of nurturing a deep sense of connection and mutual belonging. Confucians would view this relationship as a harmonious one, where the parent flourishes as a special parent and the child flourishes as a special child in a special relationship made meaningful through the proper observance and appropriation of ritual propriety.
The discussion so far has highlighted the role of ritual propriety and its personalization in shaping meaning and harmonious interpersonal relationships. However, Confucian philosophy extends beyond the social; it presents a broader worldview that positions personal conducts within a grander cosmic context. This broader perspective is crucial; it reveals the underlying interconnectedness of all things and suggests that our individual and collective pursuits of meanings and values have global and cosmic consequences and import. The subsequent section will delve deeper into this aspect of Confucian philosophy. It will explore how the cultivation of meaningfulness and values through our everyday social conducts is perceived by Confucians as having the potential to resonate with and influence the larger cosmos.
Confucian Human-centered Religiousness
Confucian human-centered religiousness offers a unique perspective on our place in the cosmos, not merely as passive observers, but as active participants in its creative process. The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong), one of the four central books of classical Confucian philosophy, argues that we humans have the potential to elevate ourselves into “co-creators” with “utmost creativity” (zhicheng) who can “assist in the transforming and nourishing activities” of the world (Zhongyong 22). Their cosmos is not a collection of isolated things but is a tapestry of interwoven events and processes that are interconnected with each other. Confucians accordingly maintain that we are not isolated “beings,” but relational “becomings” that shape and are being shaped by and through our interactions with others and the surrounding world. From the Confucian standpoint, humans have the ability to contribute to the “nourishment” or maintenance of the cosmic order by fulfilling their social roles in accordance with formal rules of ritual propriety just as other things, events, and processes fulfil theirs by following their respective rules of natural law or “principles” (li 理). Humans are also special in that they can “transform” the cosmos by introducing novelty into the world through their “creative” adaptation and appropriation of ritual proprieties to their own unique sets of circumstances. Confucians thus argue that we humans are potential “co-creators” who can assist the cosmos by maintaining its order through “nourishment” and by contributing to its evolution through “transformation.”
What is central to the human-centered religiousness is this capacity to transform the cosmos through appropriation. In the Confucian worldview, the cosmos is not a value-neutral expanse, but a value-rich world of “ten-thousand things, events, and processes” (wanwu) infused with meanings and values. Confucians suggest that by realizing our potential to become co-creators and engaging in the transformative activity of appropriation, we humans can “appreciate” the cosmos by making it valuable and consequently treasuring it as a valuable place. Consider again the role of parenthood to illustrate this transformative appropriation. Becoming a special parent to one’s own special child has the potential of transforming generic childrearing into a profound source of meanings and values for both the parent and the child. The special child makes the special parent’s world special, and the special parent makes the special child’s world special. They generate and experience meanings and values by being the special person in the special relationship as they enact and personalize their respective roles. In the Confucian sense, they are both co-creating and “appreciating” each other’s worlds and, by extension, the shared world they both live in with deeper meanings and values. The cosmos thus becomes richer as we “ritualize” ordinary everyday activities and transform them into something extraordinary through the performance and personalized adaptation of ritual propriety. This mutual enrichment and co-creation of value illustrate how humans can actively participate in and contribute to the richness of the cosmos by appreciating it as a valuable and treasured place.
Confucians believe that the realization of our potential to co-create and appreciate the world is the foundation for developing a deep sense of “belongingness” to something greater than ourselves: the cosmos. Confucians call it “tianren heyi 天人合一” or the “unity of humanity and the world.” This sense of belongingness is a deeply felt experience of interconnection with people around us, with nature, the world, and, by extension, the cosmos. It is also a deeply felt experience of becoming aware of our own importance as indispensable weavers of the tapestry. We feel important and needed as invaluable participants in the maintenance of the cosmic order through the enactment of ritual propriety; we feel important and needed as invaluable contributors to the evolution of the cosmos through our appropriations; and we feel important and needed as invaluable authors who co-author, as it were, a richer, more meaningful cosmos through and with relationships that matter to us. This profound feeling of belongingness and importance is at the heart of Confucian human-centered religiousness.
At the foreground of Confucian human-centered religiousness are us human beings. It is about how we ought to live, how we ought to treat each other, and how we ought to interact with the world in a harmony-conducive way. Confucian philosophy invites us to become “co-creators” and “appreciators” who can shape, influence, and add values to the world to make it better for ourselves and for our future generations. Confucians also argue that inherited ritual propriety should not be construed as immutable laws or unchanging rules, but as living guidelines that can and ought to be adjusted and personalized to fit the unique needs and circumstances of individuals and societies as they evolve over time. Confucian philosophy teaches us to value both tradition and innovation. It encourages us to learn from the wisdom of the past, but also to think critically and creatively about how to apply and to adapt that knowledge to the challenges and opportunities of the present.
Confucian religiousness is a compelling recommendation, a possible model for how religions could remain relevant in our interconnected transnational world. The emphasis on personalizing ritual propriety suggests that religious traditions could or ought to become living traditions that evolve with the changing needs of individuals and societies. If religious beliefs and practices were not shaped and reshaped in an ongoing process of creative adaptation, as Confucius would say, they could become “perplexing” and potentially “perilous” to its followers; it would eventually lose its relevance. Confucian philosophy suggests that the most important function of religion may not be about imposing uniformity or “sameness” of practices or beliefs, but about providing formal rituals as initial frameworks, as it were, with guiding principles that can help individuals and communities to create or “signify” their own meanings and values by adapting them to their own unique circumstances. Through this process of appropriation, they could make their religions relevant and, more importantly, their own.
Moreover, the appropriation of ritual propriety necessarily entails “appreciation” for a diversity of ritual proprieties. Why is this the case? Appropriation involves adapting ritual propriety to the changing circumstances of our time, as our living circumstances today are becoming increasingly diverse, both socio-religiously and culturally. For this reason, appropriation of ritual propriety requires, if not demands, deep understanding and respect for the diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and values, that is, plurality of ritual proprieties present in our culturally diverse transnational world. Without such understanding and respect, the appropriation is not possible. Confucian religiousness thus intimates a possible approach for religions to foster an environment where diverse beliefs can deferentially coexist in harmony and mutual enrichment. In the teachings of Confucian philosophy, we may find a roadmap for forging connections and deepening mutual appreciations in our globally intertwined existence.
Ames , Roger T., and David L. Hall. 2001. Focusing the Familiar: A Translation and Philosophical Interpretation of the Zhongyong. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont Jr. 1998. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books.