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Religion Library: Confucianism

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Today, those influenced by Confucianism rely on genealogical records kept by senior members to remember their dead at home altars, in family temples, or in public places of worship. Through the influence of Confucianism on China's neighboring cultures, Chinese norms for venerating deceased kin have spread across East Asia. While Confucian worship of ancestors continued unabated in South Korea and Japan for most of the 20th century, in Vietnam, North Korea, and especially mainland China, ancestor worship and other Confucian practices were the targets of Communist persecution. Since the 1980s, both public and private ancestor worship have become more prominent in mainland China, and these practices have remained strong in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as in overseas Chinese communities. Despite forceful trends toward modernization and secularization throughout East Asia, ancestor worship remains a vital component of community life in China, its surrounding region, and throughout the worldwide Chinese diaspora. 

In Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness (SUNY Press 1989), the contemporary "New Confucian" thinker Tu Weiming describes the religious dimension of Confucianism: "Being religious, in the Confucian perspective... means being engaged in the process of learning to be fully human. 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 lifetime process of ultimate self-transformation requires both membership in community (starting with a human family) and individual engagement with the source of ultimate meaning, Tian. Although Mengzi's vision of Confucianism largely established the parameters of Confucian spirituality for all subsequent generations, it was  the work of his interpreter Zhu Xi that articulated most  influentially what it means to live  religiously as a Confucian.

Zhu saw the universe as constantly involved in a dynamic creative process of interplay between li (cosmic principle, including principles of morality, social order, etc.) and qi (vital energy, but also the material world in its tangible forms). For Zhu, the human heart-mind is where li and qi meet, become one, and help order the universe: "The heart-mind unites nature (i.e., qi) and emotion (i.e., li)." From a Confucian perspective, one can play no more important role than to co-create moral order in the cosmos. The proper unity of human nature with moral sentiments leads, through the discipline of Confucian self-cultivation, to the desired goal of cheng (authenticity or sincerity) as manifested in he (harmony) and zhong (centeredness) revealed through an exemplary moral life. In such a life, a Confucian sees both salvation here and now (in the sense that one has attained the Confucian goal of actualizing one's innate, Tian-given and Tian-identified, potential) and eternal life hereafter (in the sense that one becomes an example and model for others who seek to walk the Confucian path of self-transformation).

Study Questions:
     1.     What do Confucians believe about the afterlife?
     2.     What is the role of ancestor worship in Confucian spirituality?
     3.     How compatible are Confucian and Christian ideas about the afterlife?
     4.     What does it mean to be "religious" in a Confucian sense?
     5.     What is the primary spiritual goal of Confucians?



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