Saturday, March 27, 2010

Benjamin Rush on Confucianism, Islam and Christianity

See here:

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.

Rush was an interesting character. He was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian and said certain things which sound "Christian Nation" like. Yet, his orthodox Christianity was liberal and enlightened for the era. He was a theological universalist, believing all men would be saved through Christ's universal (as opposed to limited) atonement. And he thought the New Testament abolished the death penalty.

Rush described his creed as "a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches."

One thing that interests me about Rush's first quotation is his idea that Confucianism "reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments...." That was the deistic or theistic minimum that many key and non-key Founders -- not just the heterodox rationalist unitarians, but some/many orthodox figures as well -- believed most if not all world religions adhered to.

This was the idea of "natural religion" -- that all good men of all religions believe in Providence and a future state of rewards and punishments. That man's "reason" discovered this. And, as it were, such Providentialism existed beyond the Abrahamic, traditionally thought of monotheistic religions.

The way natural religion "fit" with Christianity was the Jewish and Christian scriptures helped to further clarify what man could discover from reason alone.

I question whether it's sound theology to "find" monotheism outside of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions (broadly defined). But they did. John Adams "found" Providentialism in, among other places, Hinduism and Greek God worship. Hinduism perhaps could be thought of as monotheistic. I've heard some Hindus argue their thousands of gods are really manifestations of the one God of the universe. This seems like Trinitarian logic taken to its ultimate extreme (instead of three manifestations of one God, it's thousands).

Also, for obvious reasons [Western Civ. has Greco-Roman along with Judeo-Christian origins AND the FFs highly venerated such Greco-Roman noble paganism], the way the Founders' universal monotheism fit with classical Greece and Rome interests me.

It may be a stretch to say, as John Adams did, Zeus worship is a "Christian principle." However, what about the ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates or the Stoics of Rome like Cinncinatus, Cicero and Seneca?

It is my (albeit limited) understanding that many of these wise Ancients did not worship the city gods like Zeus or his Roman moniker Jupiter. Isn't that what Socrates was executed for?

Yet, they weren't atheists either? They did believe in some kind of metaphysical Providence?

So men like Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero and Seneca perhaps could be said to have worshipped the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures without knowing more about Him.

That's one way to view it.

I rarely, however, hear the evangelical promoters of the "Christian Nation" thesis expounding theology like this. Roman Catholics, maybe.

Evangelicals are more likely to say Aristotle, Cicero, the Hindus and Confucians DIDN'T worship the God of the Bible, were/are in a state of spiritual darkness period.

The Founders would have disagreed.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Our schools of learning, by producing one general, and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.


[A]nd here I beg leave to remark, that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.


But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament.

It is foreign to my purpose to hint at the arguments which establish the truth of the Christian revelation. My only business is to declare, that all its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society, and the safety and well being of civil government. A Christian cannot fail of being a republican.

Heh. Small "r" republican, of course, although Dr. Rush's argument would send many running for the courts these days. Theocracy!


As for Confucianism, as our commenter Daniel notes elsewhere, the Founding era didn't know much about these other religions. Confucianism promotes civic and personal virtue, but has a starkly different scheme of the future state of rewards and punishments than Christianity.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"A Christian cannot fail of being a republican."

The problem, as Mark Noll and others would note, is, as nice as that sounds, it's not sound Christian theology. Plenty of "Christians" of impeccable orthodoxy were not small r republicans. A Christian can be a republican. But also a monarchist. And many other things.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I also think back to what our friend Gregg Frazer said in one of his TMC Chapel lectures. He noted in the preface to his lecture that he didn't come to "bury" constitutional republicanism as America's Founders articulated it. To the contrary, it is his favorite form of government, and the best form that MAN invented. But he wanted to stress that our particular form of government was MAN'S invention, not God's.

The only government God invented was that of Ancient Israel and it was a theocracy NOT a republic. And, as a non-dominionist, Gregg believes that form of theocracy was applicable to and appropriate for Ancient Israel only.

Tom Van Dyke said...

True dat, Jon. Absolutely.

But Christianity is compatible with republicanism, all agree.

[Well, almost all. Hehe.]

On the other hand, a quick google shows discussions still taking place in the 21st century on Islam's or Confucianism's compatibility with liberal democracy. Among Muslims and Confucianists themselves.

In the larger sense, armed with more knowledge and history, Rush's argument has been borne out to hold far more truth than error.

Tom Van Dyke said...

To the contrary, it is his favorite form of government, and the best form that MAN invented. But he wanted to stress that our particular form of government was MAN'S invention, not God's.

Not only does John Adams say that [in one of Mr. Abbott's favorite quotes], but George Washington as well. I can't recall anyone of the Founding era arguing otherwise.

GWash, 1st Inaugural:

" would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes..."

[Bold face mine.]

Washington also sees God smiling on it [although he does not claim that as fact]:

"Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage."

BTW, this seems to fit into a proper "providential" history---not necessarily the certainty that God is on our side, but the sincere hope that we're on His, and presumably will succeed if we are. Even Lincoln hedges on this, with a proper humility I think, calling us an "almost chosen people."

"I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle."

Gary Kowalski said...

Confucianism is a non-theist faith. Although disciples of Confucius seek to follow the Way of Heaven, that "way" is a moral path of family responsibility and social virtue rather than a path pointing toward a personal deity.

Yet I had an interesting conversation with a Korean gentleman several years back, who happened to be a Christian. He believed that the Confucian category of "ancestors" was in some important aspects comparable to the Christian category of "God." Ancestors constituted a real but intangible spiritual presence to whom moral duties might be owed and, in his opinion, sacrifices and tributes paid to "ancestors" offered analogous feelings of enlargement and commitment to those that Christians might feel through prayers to the Almighty.

The name "Confucius," you probably all know, is not a proper name at all, but a title or honorific. "Kung fu tze," or "Confucius," means the one who has achieved mastery of the ultimate kung fu, the art of living.

Daniel said...

There is a very good argument to be made that the opinions of "Mahomed" concerning the attributes of the Deity have some similarity to those of Christianity. But to recommend the opinions of Confucius because they reveal "the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments" is to demonstrate ignorance. Rush's statement is interesting in his acceptance of other religions and recognition of truth outside of Christianity. But, he is just throwing out names. He hasn't spent any time learning the content of the opinions he refers to.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Great comment. I love B. Rush and many other Founders. And, I note, the FFs had some, without question, great ideas (obviously, I don't think America would be what it became if not).

However, the appeal to Founders' authority, as though they were infallible, is an error that too many folks make. They were right very often, more often than not. But they also got it wrong, at times.

Brad Hart said...

Very interesting post, Jon. I have also enjoyed the discussion. Hopefully somebody can steer me in the direction of a good source on Confucian doctrine. I admit to knowing very little on the topic (even less than Rush).

Daniel said...

The amazing thing about the Enlightenment is that its most interesting figures were interested in everything. The refusal to ground their knowledge on authority meant they had to discover, and learn, and observe, and invent all of it. Such a program in impossible. It should be not surprise that it involved some incorrect assumptions (e.g. It is a religion, so it must be concerned with the attributes of Deity and future rewards and punishments.)

We would be much poorer if men like Rush or Jefferson had confined themselves to their own areas of expertise. In his musings about Confucius, Rush teaches us nothing about Eastern thought, but he does give some valuable insight into his thought and that of his generation.

Thirty years ago, when I was at a liberal arts college, our model for breadth of interest and learning was "the Renaissance Man" I think the Enlightenment Man may be the better model for that end.

jimmiraybob said...


Whatever the founding father’s depth of understanding regarding other religions and philosophies, it appears that Franklin had a fairly good grounding in Confucius moral philosophy. Much of Franklin’s own lifelong pursuit of virtue (see the 13 virtues/Autobiography) appear to have been modeled, at least in large part, by Confucian teaching. Prompted by the earlier post I did some Googling and came across a couple of things written by Professor Wang (cited by Spirits):

Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Chinese Civilization


Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Civilization

Wang quotes a letter from Franklin to George Whitefield that I think sheds some light on his “theology” (Wang gives a shorter snippet but I think the full paragraph is telling):

Letter to George Whitefield (July 6, 1749) – "I am glad to hear that you have frequent opportunities of preaching among the great. If you can gain them to a good and exemplary life, wonderful changes will follow in the manners of the lower ranks; for, ad Exemplum Regis, &c. On this principle Confucius, the famous eastern reformer, proceeded. When he saw his country sunk in vice, and wickedness of all kinds triumphant, he applied himself first to the grandees; and having by his doctrine won them to the cause of virtue, the commons followed in multitudes. The mode has a wonderful influence on mankind; and there are numbers that perhaps fear less the being in Hell, than out of the fashion! Our more western reformations began with the ignorant mob; and when numbers of them were gained, interest and party-views drew in the wise and great. Where both methods can be used, reformations are like to be more speedy. O that some method could be found to make them lasting! He that shall discover that, will, in my opinion, deserve more, ten thousand times, than the inventor of the longtitude."

I doubt that Ben saw much difference in the effect of teaching the moral philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth or Confucius on the virtues he felt necessary to define a new America. All within the context of a creator Deity that had not given up on his/its creation, and thus continued to bestow his providence on the virtuous.

jimmiraybob said...

And to round out my comment a little more here's some early Ben setting the bottom line.

Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion (November 20, 1728)

“I believe there is one Supreme most perfect Being, Author and Father of the Gods themselves.

“For I believe that Man is not the most perfect Being but One, rather that as there are many Degrees of Beings his Inferiors, so there are many Degrees of Beings superior to him.

“Also, when I stretch my Imagination thro' and beyond our System of Planets, beyond the visible fix'd Stars themselves, into that Space that is every Way infinite, and conceive it fill'd with Suns like ours, each with a Chorus of Worlds for ever moving round him, then this little Ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow Imagination, to be almost Nothing, and my self less than nothing, and of no sort of Consequence.

“When I think thus, I imagine it great Vanity in me to suppose, that the Supremely Perfect, does in the least regard such an inconsiderable Nothing as Man. More especially, since it is impossible for me to have any positive clear Idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise, than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no Worship or Praise from us, but that he is even INFINITELY ABOVE IT.

“But since there is in all Men something like a natural Principle which enclines them to DEVOTION or the Worship of some unseen Power;
“And since Men are endued with Reason superior to all other Animals that we are in our World acquainted with;

“Therefore I think it seems required of me, and my Duty, as a Man, to pay Divine Regards to SOMETHING.


“Next to the Praise due, to his Wisdom, I believe he is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man (*) can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas'd when he sees me Happy."

(*) See Junto Paper of Good and Evil, &c.;

jimmiraybob said...

And in tribute to the consistency of Franklin's theology, this is from the twilight of his life.

Letter to the Reverend Ezra Stiles (March 9, 1790>

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them.

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure.

“I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro' a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho' without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.”

Thanks for putting up with a long winded comment but I wanted to put up some snippets of a longer paper that I did (for the personal folder) prompted by the Ben/Confucius quotes and a comment by TVD at a previous post.

Unknown said...

"So men like Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero and Seneca perhaps could be said to have worshipped the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures without knowing more about Him."

Google Don Richards and "Eternity in their hearts" and you will read about the story behind the "unknown" God in Acts when Paul was in Athens. Pretty powerful evidence that what you just said may have been true.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Very cool, JRB. But I would demur with saying that Franklin's conception of the entire Cosmic Scheme has very much in common with Confucius. It does, however, fit quite neatly in the Judeo-Christian folder.

In fact, what strikes me is that for all their fancies of being "free-thinking," the men of that age would cleave pretty close to the Judeo-Christian cosmology, especially in America.

Except of course in what's called the "continental" Enlightenment, which is more notable for its skepticism and its rejection of all preceding cosmologies. Which is why "Renaissance man" still fits, to my mind, as it was known for its mastery and perfection of the existing arts, not the rejection of them and starting anew.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Joe, it depends on the translation---in Acts 17, Paul is either calling the Athenians "too superstitious" as pagans and polytheists, or "very reverential" in their recognition of the "unknown God" without knowing who He is. [Paul does, though, and is happy to tell them.]

From "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible" [1871], at the Calvin College website:

22. Then Paul stood … and said—more graphically, "standing in the midst of Mars' hill, said." This prefatory allusion to the position he occupied shows the writer's wish to bring the situation vividly before us [Baumgarten].

I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious—rather (with most modern interpreters and the ancient Greek ones), "in all respects extremely reverential" or "much given to religious worship," a conciliatory and commendatory introduction, founded on his own observation of the symbols of devotion with which their city was covered, and from which all Greek writers, as well as the apostle, inferred the exemplary religiousness of the Athenians. (The authorized translation would imply that only too much superstition was wrong, and represents the apostle as repelling his hearers in the very first sentence; whereas the whole discourse is studiously courteous).

23. as I passed by and beheld your devotions—rather, "the objects of your devotion," referring, as is plain from the next words, to their works of art consecrated to religion.

I found an altar … To the—or, "an"

unknown god—erected, probably, to commemorate some divine interposition, which they were unable to ascribe to any known deity. That there were such altars, Greek writers attest; and on this the apostle skilfully fastens at the outset, as the text of his discourse, taking it as evidence of that dimness of religious conception which, in virtue of his better light, he was prepared to dissipate.

Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship—rather, "Whom, therefore, knowing Him not, ye worship," alluding to "The Unknown God."

him declare—announce.

I unto you—This is like none of his previous discourses, save that to the idolaters of Lycaonia (Ac 14:15-17). His subject is not, as in the synagogues, the Messiahship of Jesus, but THE Living God, in opposition to the materialistic and pantheistic polytheism of Greece, which subverted all true religion. Nor does he come with speculation on this profound subject—of which they had had enough from others—but an authoritative "announcement" of Him after whom they were groping not giving Him any name, however, nor even naming the Saviour Himself but unfolding the true character of both as they were able to receive it.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - But I would demur with saying that Franklin's conception of the entire Cosmic Scheme has very much in common with Confucius.

I would agree. It would seem that the big picture was of an enduring Deity and the Deity's providence. Jesus of Nazareth, Confucius, Socrates, et. al., all provided clear moral teachings and examples on how one could live a happy/virtuous life within the bigger picture.

It's a very simple formula and is consistent with the best (my value call) of Judeo-Christian principles as well as the noblest of Pagan Greco-Roman religion/philosophy. I'm sure though that he left/leaves more than a few of the more devout exasperated by not acknowledging the divinity of Jesus or salvation through Christ. As one person expressed it:

It had been better if our Benjamin Franklin had pulled out the large sacred white sheet of his soul and written in bold head lines, "Jesus, the Christ, my Ideal and Savior." And somewhere in a little hidden file on a small card, "Socrates, to be remembered." - R.O.Corvin