The Civil Theology of Confucius’ “Tian” Symbol

HomeArticlesThe Civil Theology of Confucius’ “Tian” Symbol

The communist ideology in China is in decline. The emperor, as the expression goes, has no clothes. Yet most liberal critiques of the present regime do not penetrate to  its spiritual essence, and fail to provide the philosophical foundation for a transitional politics and morality for the Chinese people. Meanwhile, so-called conservative thinkers, including Gan Yang[1], are blind to the distinction between primary reality and secondary reality, while attempting to embrace both simultaneously. Yang’s three-in-one agenda (i.e. liberalism, socialism and Confucianism) is welcome by most intellectuals but is, to my mind, just another utopian lie.

My friend Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian a professor in the philosophy department of Tsinghua University, proposes a replacement or transition from Marxism to Confucianism in political-ethical discourse. I agree with his proposal but disagree with him about the extent of Confucianism’s value. Then there is Dr. Chen Ming, a scholar in Beijing studying Confucianism as a civil religion, whose argument follows that of civil-religion theorist Robert Bella, and owes much to the philosophy of Rousseau and Durkheim. Though Ming agrees that Confucius’ realissimun is transcendent, there are many contradictions in his argument.

Given my interest in the interpreting Confucianisn in the context of “civil theology”, I believe that Eric Voegelin provides the best resource in considering their relationship.

Civil theology is a term Eric Voegelin used in his famous lecture The New Science of Politics. He explained his meaning in a letter to John Hallowell, as follows:

“Concerning civil theology. The phrase is Varro’s. It designates the Roman civil religion as distinguished from the natural theology of the philosophers. A society exists concretely, with regard to space, time, and human beings. Their organizational form and its symbols are sacred in their concreteness, regardless of their speculations about their meaning. According to the Declaration of Independence all men are born free and equal—that is part of American political theology—even if the very author of these words knew quite well that the successful existence of the society which he helped to found depended on the social effectiveness of a ‘natural aristocracy,’ which gave the lie to the phrase ‘free and equal.’ One can, of course, honor the expounding of political theology with the name of political philosophy—and that is what merrily done all around us, with horrible consequences for political science but one has ruined thereby the meaning of philosophy in the Plato-Aristotelian sense. In philosophy the symbols in political theology are unacceptable, because a political philosophy must be based on a theory of the nature of man. And that would be an extraordinary accident, if the symbols of political theology happened to be critical propositions of theory; at least no such accident has ever happened in history. There will be more on this subject in the previously mentioned study on “the Oxford political philosophers, who turn out to be political theologians.”[2]

In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin seemed to use the term in criticizing modern attempts, especially that of Gnosticism, to fill the vacuum left by the failings of Christianity, which does not provide a civil theology for the masses. His insight derives from Plato and the Stoics. In the essay “Industrial Society in Search of Reason,” Voegelin provided the following explanations about the tension between a life of reason and a life of belief, explanations which are echoed in the work of Leo Strauss:

1. The intellectual tension of the life of reason is difficult for the majority of the members of a society to bear.

2. As a result, any society in which the life of reason has reached a high degree of differentiation has a tendency to develop, along the life of reason, a “mass belief.”

3. Plato was aware of the problem when, for reasons of political expediency, he acknowledged the value of the “popular myth.”

4. The coexistence of mass beliefs and the life of reason in society has, since the Stoics, been classified under the headings of theologia civilis and theologia naturalis.[3]

We can therefore state that Voegelin’s use of civil theology is neither favorable nor critical, especially when he described the five systematic efforts in the West to create one, i.e., the Gelasian System, the Minimum Dogma, Sectarianism, Lockean Civil Government, and Constitutional Democracy. The last effort may be seen by Voegelin as positive since he defends the concept of government as “of the people, by the people and for the people” in his lecture Democracy in New Europe [4], which earned the endorsement of Leo Strauss[5].

Professor Ellis Sandoz’s essay, “The Civil Theology of Liberal Democracy: Locke and His Predecessor,”[6] is interesting and meaningful when considered in the Chinese context. In Sandoz’s analysis, Locke’s work was not successful when compared with Plato’s insights. Here is a passage in the paper, which was also cited by Jeffrey C. Herndon in his dissertation Eric Voegelin and the Problem of Christian Political Order [7]:

“Civil theology consists of propositionally stated true scientific knowledge of the divine order. It is the theology discerned and validated through reason by the philosopher, on the one hand, and through common sense and the logique du Coeur evoked by the persuasive beauty of mythic narrative and imitative representations, on the other hand.”[8]

Outside of Western civilization, Voegelin also mentioned that Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were chosen successively as civil theologies in Ancient China. But Voegelin did not continue with much detail. In an effort to fill out this interpretation, I will now try to talk about Confucius’ Tian as a symbol from the perspective of civil theology.

To help illustrate my understanding of Confucius’ Tian, I would like to first relate the story of Lou Tseng-Tsiang. Lou (1871-1948) was born in Shanghai. His father, Lou Yong Fong, was a lay catechist for a Protestant mission in Shanghai. Before he entered the School of Foreign Language in Shanghai at the age of 13, Lou learned Chinese sacred texts at home. He continued his education at the school for interpreters employed by the Foreign Ministry, and in 1893 he was posted to St Petersburg as an interpreter for the Chinese embassy. At that time, the diplomatic international language was French, but Lou also attained fluency in Russian. Lou married a Belgian citizen, Berthe Bovy, in St Petersburg on February 12, 1899, and later converted to Roman Catholicism in 1911.

Lou was a legendary person in that he was a notable diplomat and foreign minister. Upon the death of his wife, he retired from active political life, and in 1927 became a postulant in the Benedictine monastery of Sint-Andries in Bruges, Belgium. He was ordained a priest in 1935. During the Second World War he gave lectures about the Far East in which he propagandized for the Chinese war effort against Japan. In August 1946, Pope Pius XII appointed Lou titular abbot of St Peter in Ghent.

When I read Lou’s biography by Bishop Luo Guang (1911-1993), what impressed me was the discussion of his father’s gift of a single word, given to Lou when he prepared to leave home. Let me try to translate Lou’s memorial words:

“In 1891, when I was going to Tianjing, my father talked to me: ‘My son, I have nothing to give you but one word engendered from my life experience, a word for your life-long cultivation. Others may have scriptures; I have only one word—it is Tian. If you deem this word as a Scripture or one thousand pounds of gold, my one-word gift may not be seen as little, and you will find certain solace.’ I cry when I think of these words.”[9]

We may wonder why Lou’s father gave only one word, Tian, to him. And why was Lou so thankful to his father? Nearly every Chinese person says the word Tian in his ordinary life, but few speculate upon its deep meaning. I am not intending to provide a translation for it here, as no single word in any Western language corresponds to it exactly. Generally, it is adapted as “Heaven”. But Tian has been interpreted from a naturalistic worldview from very early in Ancient China, even by Xunzi (ca.312-210 BCE), a major figure in early Confucianism. Therefore, its multi-layered symbolic meanings are not transparent to many scholars. For example, there was a book published in 2006 entitled An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, whose author, Jee-Loo Liu, does not discuss Tian in relation to transcendence. And in the newest edition of The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr. seem to deny the presence of transcendence in Confucius.[10] Therefore, we must try to recover Tian‘s symbolic or analogical meanings.

The case of Lou Tseng-Tsiang may motivate us to look at the experiences of transcendence from a cross-cultural perspective. As I mentioned above, Lou was educated traditionally at home, though his father was a Protestant. When he was thirteen years old, he had studied the Analects, Mencius, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of Mean—four scriptures in China dating back to the Song Dynasty. And yet he ultimately became a Benedictine monk. In his autobiographical speech (published in French as Souvenirs et Pensées) he claimed that he was born as a Confucian and remained so for all his life. Here we witness that in such a person, Confucianism and Christianity can be lived at the same time.

How might we understand this? By interpreting the Confucian experience of transcendence and its main symbol of Tian. Now let’s try to understand Tian in the Analects. The following explanation in English is based on several sources, including the essay by Professor Robert B. Louden from the Philosophy Department at the University of Southern Maine.[11]

Literally, Tian combines oneness and greatness. Confucius said, “It is Tian that is truly great and it was Yao who modeled himself upon it” (Analects, 8:19). We can say that Yao, one of the greatest kings or sages in Ancient China, represented Tian. Reading into this passage, there can be deduced four properties of Tian: it is the highest, the unique, the greatest, and the perfect. But another passage shows that in Confucius’s thought, Tian is neither theistic nor anthropomorphic: “What does Tian ever say? Yet there are four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being. What does Tian say?” (Analects 17:19).

How should we read this verse? There are different opinions among sinologists. I am not the person to discuss it academically, but I think that Tian in 17:19 has to be understood in its symbolic and analogical meanings, which in turn are dependent upon experiences of transcendence by the readers. (This is why I began my discussion with Lou and his father. In some respect, their experiences as Christians had helped them to rediscover the meaning of Tian). Some may regard it as “The source of all phenomena and of the processes of natural change”.[12] Others say that the “spirit of heaven is still very much present in the regularities, routines, and generative processes of nature, even though Tian does not speak.[13] But I am inclined to agree with Professor Louden’s insight that “Confucius is implying that through the harmony, beauty, and sublimity of its natural processes, Tian communicates a great deal about how human beings ought to live and act, at least to those who have learned to listen carefully to it.”[14] Though Tian does not speak, Confucius maintained that it can nevertheless be understood and appreciated:

At fifty I understood the Decree of Tian (Analects, 2:4).

He [the gentleman] is in awe of the Decree of Tian. (Analects, 16:8).

Here we should notice that Confucius’ symbol of Tian was differentiated from the same symbol in the Book of Songs. In Voegelinian terms, the experiences expressed in the Book of Songs are more compact, and those in Confucius are more differentiated. We might even classify Confucius as a mystic philosopher. This mystic dimension is also illustrated by his attitude to gods or spirits:

Sacrifice as if present is taken to mean sacrifice to the gods as if the gods were present (Analects, 3:12).

The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder and gods (Analects, 7:21).

Such an attitude is similar to that of Jean Bodin, which is introduced by Voegelin in his History of Political Ideas, Vol.5 and was emphasized in his Autobiographical Reflections.[15] And more than that, I think that Confucius’ attitude to gods and ghosts can be compared to Plato’s attitude to traditional cosmological myths.

One of the practical problems here is the situation of religions in China, as well as the kind of legislation needed to deal with the relations between them and between religion and politics. We all know that Marx’s theory of religion has traumatic consequences in communist regimes. What we need to find is a way to allow religions to function positively in post-communist societies—a matter of particular urgency in China. Yet we cannot simply impose unfamiliar symbols such as God or Nous upon the population. Rather, we must try to rediscover traditional symbols and their meanings.

How can we pursue the transition from a politics based on ideology to a one with a philosophical foundation? It is s a very important question. Last year, I translated into Chinese the paper “The Concept of the Political Revisited” by Professor Gebhardt. It was published recently in Classics and Interpretations, a Chinese academic Journal with a purview in political philosophy, co-edited by Dr. Xiaofeng Liu, who once introduced me to the work of Carl Schmitt. Based on my reading, his intention may have been to provide a case against dogmatic liberalism in modern China. But the effects of its publication have not been encouraging, as Carl Schmitt’s works, especially the Concept of the Political, are welcomed by many young people, including nationalists and so-called neo-conservatives. Most of the intellectuals in mainland China are incapable of looking at politics beyond the perspective of interests, and Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political cannot help them to escape realpolitik. Instead, it motivates them to indulge in Maoism. Nevertheless, one paragraph referenced in Gebhardt’s paper on Voegelin struck me very much, and became a guiding principle in writing my own:

“Voegelin always complained about political scientists lacking the most elementary knowledge of religious experiences and their expression, they are unable to recognize politico-religious phenomena when they see them; and are unaware of their decisive role in the constitution of political theory.”[16]

Because I lack historical knowledge of both the West and China, I cannot presently deal with the “styles of truth” thesis in Voegelin’s paper “Anxiety and Reason”.[17] It will be important to study further the transcendence-immanence problems in rethinking Confucianism as civil theology. For example, more than ninety years ago, Gilbert Reid, a renowned and active American missionary in China, made the following observation:

“The great underlying, all-important principles of Confucianism have become known to all, the illiterate as well as the learned. Its vital teachings are adapted to high and low, to ruler and people, and therein show their divine inspiration and origin in Tian.”[18]

This phenomenon should be further examined under the premises of Voegelinian political theory. There are several important symbols related to Tian, one of which is Tian-Xia (“All under Tian“), which is being discussed presently in mainland China. More importantly, it is also discussed at some length by Voegelin himself in his monumental work, The Ecumenic Age. I hope to be able to talk about it next time.



[1] A professor in Hong Kong University and who studied American politics at the University of Chicago.

[2] Eric Voegelin and Thomas A. Hollwick (ed.), Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (2007), p.140

[3] Collected Works (hereafter CW) 11, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (2000), p.181

[4] Ibid, p. 59-69

[5] See Strauss’s letter to Eric Voegelin from 1960, is included in their correspondence.

[6] The Journal of Politics, vol. 34, no. 1 (February 1972), p. 1-36.

[7] Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (2007).

[8] Ellis Sandoz, “The Civil Theology of Liberal Democracy: Locke and His Predecessor”, The Journal of Politics, vol. 34, no. 1 (February 1972), p. 26.

[9] Appendix II to “A Biography of Lou Tseng-Tsiang” in Collected Works of Luo Guang, Vol. 27, p.545-6. [Publisher information unavailable].

[10] New York: Ballantine Books (1998), p. 35-6.

[11] “What Does Heaven Say?” in Bryan W. van Norden (ed.), Confucius and the Analects, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (2002).

[12] David Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking through Confucius, Albany: SUNY Press (1987), p.206.

[13] Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, New York: Belknap Press (1985), p.124-25.

[14] Bryan W. van Norden (ed.), Confucius and the Analects, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (2002), p.79.

[15] Ellis Sandoz (ed.), Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (2006), p. 138.

[16] Charles R. Embry and Barry Cooper (eds.), Philosophy, Literature, and Politics: Essays Honoring Ellis Sandoz, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (2005), p. 219.

[17] Eric Voegelin and Thomas Hollweck (ed.), CW 28, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press (1990), p. 52-110.

[18] “Confucianism: An Appreciation”, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 9, no.1 (1916), p. 7-20.

Daniel Hsu

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Daniel Hsu or Xu Zhiyue (1961-2014) was an independent scholar and translator in Shanghai. He helped to introduce a great variety of European and American minds into the Chinese-speaking world. He was a principal Chinese translator of Eric Voegelin.