On 2nd June 2018, the third and final lecture in an ongoing series on Confucianism and Christianity （“儒家与基督教信仰”讲座） was held in the ballroom of Furama City Centre Hotel. This lecture series, hosted by the Nanyang Confucian Association (NCA), together with co-organizer Xiyao Culture Association, aimed to foster stronger community relations in Singapore by promoting cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. The guest-of-honor, Mr Baey Yam Keng, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Transport, expressed similar sentiments. Mr Baey is no stranger to the NCA lecture series as he previously attended a lecture in the series on Confucianism and Islam. Mr Baey conveyed the strong support that the MCCY had for NCA’s continuing effort to bring different cultures together and expressed his hope for more such events in the future. The topic of the lecture was “Benevolence, Heaven, and God”（仁心、天道与上帝） and was delivered by Dr. Thomas In-Sing Leung. Dr. Leung is a highly accomplished scholar that needs little introduction. Graduating with a PhD from University of Hawaii, as well as an M.Phil. and B.A. from Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dr. Leung has served as an academic in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Canada. He currently serves as the President of the Cultural Regeneration Research Society based in Canada. The lecture was chaired by Professor Li Chenyang, Head of Philosophy Department, NTU.
Dr Leung began the lecture with what he thought were the problems we face in today’s world that lead us away from world peace. The first problem is the problem of postmodernism. Dr Leung argues that postmodern ideas espoused by Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida resulted in the dumbest generation full of ego-centric people who believe that they separately co-exist from others and the only thing that matters is their own pleasures. The second problem is capitalism and financial crisis. A blind believe that the financial system is a money making growing basin (聚宝盆) as led the world astray. The third and final problem in today’s world is the chaos in Middle East, a seemingly never-ending conflict between people of different faiths. In light of all these problems, Dr Leung believes that traditional ideologies like Confucianism and Christianity can salvage us. However, the question remains: are Confucianism and Christianity compatible?
Dr Leung explains that Confucianism is indeed compatible with Christianity. The issues that Confucius originally reflected upon, the breakdown of the Zhou social order, ritual and music (礼崩乐坏), inculcated in him a sort of moral consciousness in crisis: a commitment to doing the right thing even when everyone else were not. Mencius, expanding on Confucius thought, explained this moral consciousness as part of our human nature and argued that human nature is good because it is grounded in a moral Heaven (天): Dr Leung calls this the ontology of compassion. It is from this ontology of compassion that Dr Leung found a way to bridge Confucianism and Christianity. If Heaven can indeed be described as moral or compassionate, then we can see Heaven as not just a god, but a personal god that is communicating with us and guiding us through our human nature to act according to its divine will. In other words, the Heaven that Confucius and Mencius described is like the God in the Bible.
Although Dr Leung is committed to the view that Confucianism is compatible with Christianity as explained, he maintains that there are significant differences between the two ideologies. The main difference is the concept of sin and redemption through the grace of Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of Christianity that has no counterpart in Confucianism. As a converted Christian himself, Dr Leung sides with the bible on this matter, although he still believes that Confucianism has a lot in common with Christianity. Dr Leung finally concluded his lecture by saying that the core message of both Confucianism and Christianity is to learn how to love others first, especially those who are suffering and are worse off than us. This is not something that Dr Leung merely believes and preaches, but something that he practices in his life. As the President of the Cultural Regeneration Research Society, Dr Leung and his team have provided financial, and most importantly emotional aid to countless less fortunate people from Yunnan and Guangxi provinces of China.
Dr Leung’s lecture, while enjoyable, informative and inspiring all at once, leaves unanswered questions. There are two approaches we can take to the issue of whether Confucianism and Christianity are compatible. The first approach is to see if a fully committed Confucian can accept Christian ideas. Dr Leung, who grew up in a Confucian environment was eventually so taken by Christianity that he converted to Christianity, while still preaching the Confucian message of benevolence. His lecture, and indeed his personal experience demonstrate that the answer to this question is “yes”. The second approach to this issue is to see if a fully committed Christian can accept Confucian ideas. Historically, the Chinese Rite Controversy that culminated in Pope Clement XI’s decree forbidding Chinese converts to carry out ancestor worship shows that Christians can sometimes be unwilling to accommodate Confucian values and rituals. From Dr Leung’s lecture as well, it seems that although he thought the teachings of Confucianism is valuable, his final position is still a Christian one. In other words, we can see Dr Leung as a “Confucian Christian”, but can we imagine there be a “Christian Confucian”?
These unanswered questions show that the process of cross-cultural dialogue is far from over, and we should continue to support efforts like the NCA lecture series to foster stronger ties between different communities from different cultures in Singapore. In the words of NCA Vice-President Mr Ong Kock Hua and Council Member Mr Jaffar Kassim, who delivered the welcome speech for the morning and afternoon sessions respectively, the aim of cross-culture dialogue is to help us move from mutual tolerance (相互忍让) to mutual understanding (相互了解), and hopefully to mutual appreciation (相互欣赏).
(Written by Jeremy Huang Zu Jie | Photos by Anna)