Confucius and Saint Paul

Over Christmas break I stumbled across a copy of Confucius’ Analects in an Asian flavored New Age shop. I’ve long been curious to read the book so I bought it. Reading the Analects, I was surprised by the quality of Confucius’ philosophy. His philosophy is primarily moral and ethical. I truly think the world would be a better place if people followed Confucius’ teaching. However, that is exactly where the problem lies. The world has never suffered from a lack of moral teaching, just a lack of moral men. Confucius seems to recognize this problem saying, “I have never seen one who loved virtue, nor one who hated what was not virtuous…Is there any one able for a single day to devote his strength to virtue? I have never seen such a one whose ability would be sufficient” (Book IV, chapter vi). Later Confucius laments, “Neglect in the cultivation of character, lack of thoroughness in study, incompetency to move towards recognized duty, inability to correct my imperfections,—these are what cause me solicitude” (Book VII, chapter iii).

The difficulty with any moral system is in following it. Living a moral life seems often to come down to a question of effort. One has to have enough true moral grit to live a virtuous life. Yet, as Confucius admits, even the most self-disciplined people fail to live up to the moral standard they have created for themselves. What chance do us ordinary mortals have? The Apostle Paul summed up this problem best when he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).

Christianity is not immune from this vexing problem. Here is the shape it takes. A person is saved, which in this case means they receive forgiveness for their sins and are rescued from an afterlife in hell. Because of God’s overwhelming sacrifice on their behalf, the saved person is obligated to live a moral life. One is hard pressed to find a higher moral standard than the one found in the Bible. And yet, this standard is meaningless if no one has the strength to follow it. Thankfully, I don’t think that what I just described is the actual position of orthodox Christianity.

Paul follows his statement of despair with a solution. He recognizes that we are unable to live a moral life through our own effort. We need help. Just as Christ’s death saved us from the punishment for sin, so his death and resurrection provides us with a means of liberation from sin. Sin, in this case, can be defined as our daily habits which wound others and ourselves. Paul argues that God’s Spirit, which enters into someone when they accept Christ, works in them to overcome sin. The Trinity, then, is more than an abstract concept. Rather it is an integral part of daily life.

Unlike the initial work of salvation, which happens rather instantly, this salvation is progressive. For some unexplained reason, our problems with anger and misplaced loves are not removed at once. Our initial acceptance of God’s forgiveness is merely D-Day. It is like the Israelites entering the Promised Land. The land belonged to them, but they still needed to take it. If they relied on God, they would. Our continuing salvation is a matter of admitting our weakness and submitting to the Spirit’s power. For those who associate the Holy Spirit with wild ecstasy and miraculous signs, the process is relatively mundane. Yet a daily increase in a person’s ability to love, even if the increase is minuscule, is worth more than ten thousand words spoken in a miraculous tongue and, I think, a greater miracle.

This is what separates Christianity from every other moral philosophy. Thinkers like Confucius recognize the need for a moral standard. However, they find themselves unable to live up to that standard. Only Christianity suggests a way to overcome humankind’s fundamental weakness in this regard. Freedom is found by confessing our weakness and seeking help from Outside ourselves.

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