URS: The Loving Father versus Confucianism 曾叔叔讲故事:慈父与儒家
Photo 1: Grandfather was authoritarian looking, but I understand he was a compassionate Christian father. People in olden days were not supposed to smile in photos; after all, it is a portrait.

Asians, especially East Asians, often are considered “Confucianist,” and having hierarchal traditions. And the common western joke, “Confucius says…” though sometimes quite “cute,” in fortune cookies or elsewhere, implies that Asians might still be quite Confucianist in thinking. In fact, I suspect that, in today’s world, based on my frequent Asian travels and encounters, probably only native-born Japanese and Koreans seem to still adhere to some of those principles. Then, followed, likely, by Taiwan? Maybe then, Thailand? Only then, China, in my view, which has really left behind many Confucianist concepts, then Singapore, and least of all Hong Kong, which sometimes seems like just New York City? Confusing, isn’t it, and what do you think? In reality, there really seems to be a wide discrepancy in how “Asians” really view, or respect Confucianism. I’m guessing you probably have a different impression of how much Confucianism actually survives today! I admit that I definitely have a confusing Asian background myself, anyway, so who am I to make this ranking? Let me know what you think at rctsang@gmail.com, maybe even giving me some examples also for fun.




East Asians commonly like to think that Confucianism is somehow in our DNA, even if we are not too conscious of it. And for those living in this century, especially in the west, in modern jargon, Christian and Western influences could be like “epigenetic effects!” By which I mean, that these later influences affect what we do, practically also nearly at the DNA level, modifying the Confucian DNA! It adds to the complexity of trying to understand Asians, or Asians trying in turn trying to understand probably our elders, and especially our own fathers, who might be expected to have more Confucian bearings, such as being more “authority figures,” and considered probably “less approachable” by their children.



In an odd turn of events, since we began our “third retirement” to move to Seattle, we’ve been watching some traditional Chinese history based movies recently, for the first time in our lives! This is mainly because it is also the first time we ever had cable TV, and in our limited “package” there is a Chinese channel. In these movies, I see the constant thread of filial piety and honor thoroughly ingrained in traditional culture, seemingly more important than anything else. And if there were any wrongs done to the father or family, it seems like a very powerful motif in the family would be even revenge for the father’s or family’s sake. I have also begun to read Chinese classics, (in English however!), like “Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh水浒传,” which gives me a similar perspective and impression (and lots of killings)!


Of course, you can also say that most cultures of the past had some form of patriarchal “Confucianist like” systems of family structure. The father, as described in the Old Testament of the Bible, for example does seem to be more “patriarchal,” authoritarian, and possibly more remote, certainly as compared with 21st century Western culture. You could even say he was sort of “Confucianist.” Although it seems by the time of the New Testament, 2,000 years ago, Jesus is portrayed as much less “patriarchal,” speaking on a one-to-one basis with the woman at the well, having children all around him as he spoke, and having men and women as members of his closest team.



In particular, in the vivid description of Jesus’ crucifixion, the highlight of his ministry, I was impressed that he is surrounded clearly by the women of his team, and not the men. And, surprisingly, the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women also, who went out alone early that Sunday morning to his grave, saw what happened, and then went and reported the event to the initially disbelieving male disciples. This is in stark contrast to some very “conservative” middle eastern Arab cultures, where even today, women are still hidden in the home, cannot venture out alone, and certainly cannot “speak out” in public. So, Jesus was surprisingly way ahead of his time, and much less patriarchal than might be imagined.



And Jesus’ classic prayer, the so-called Lord’s prayer, is a prayer to God not only as God, but God as Father, and even portraying God as loving Father, and not as an authoritarian or Confucianist Father: thus, in Jesus depiction of God the Father, He actually cares for us, so we can certainly and deliberately call on him, tenderly, and affectionately, as “loving Father.”



This declaration of God, even as “Father,” is actually very dramatic, much more than we often appreciate. To illustrate how radical that is, you have to only look at the other major monotheistic faith. For example, in the Islamic faith, God is highly revered as an “authoritarian” God. There are actually 99 great names of God in Islam, but not one of them is “Father.” God is described in as many ways as you think possible, including Wonderful, Merciful, Almighty etc, yet the term Father is not includedNot Father, and certainly not “loving Father.”



Photo 2: Calling God as father might seem like a no-brainer, but actually it all depends on your culture and faith system.

In fact, there is a very famous book called “I Dared to Call Him Father,” describing how out of bounds it is for a person of this faith to call God, “Father.” The author describes herself being even threatened with death for so doing, as she sought to follow Jesus in her spiritual journey.



Furthermore, in the Christian concept, love is not just a virtue God would like us to have; it is actually an essential character of God, meaning, even, that God IS love. And that He loves us! Of course, the concept of “God is love” fits perfectly with a loving Father God. Most people are so used to the word “love” being bandied around in the modern world, they must think “O, every religion talks about love.” So, they are shocked to realize that, in other major religions, God is really not even much of a “Father,” and certainly not much of a Father of love.



There is actually then, something dramatic, maybe even magical, to be able to call God as Father. It begs the question, how come it is predominantly in the Bible, that God is described lovingly as Father of Love. Think again, there must be a good reason.



One particularly vivid description of a God as loving father is in the story of the “prodigal son,” as told by Jesus. While normally the focus is often on the son who makes the momentous decision to return home, after a life of evil, others have switched the conventional story title, and thus focus, to call it the “prodigal father,” in the broader sense of “prodigal” meaning give away or use up all, wastefully and recklessly.



Photo 3 Prodigal (“recklessly” loving) father in the classical prodigal son story. Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni 1773 oil on canvas, 138 x 100,5 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
照片3: 经典浪子故事中的浪子父亲。庞佩奥·巴托尼1773年《浪子归来》,油画,138 x 100,5厘米,维也纳艺术历史博物馆

In the story, it is really the father who gives his wealth away and forgives. It is the father who, against all decorum, runs in totally undignified way, in his meant-to-be-dignified long gown, to reach his son. It is the father who actually embraces the once bad son (it’s recorded that he actually kisses him publicly). It is he who throws a great party complete with “fatted calf,” giving his special ring, and “his own robes” to wrap around his wandered son. What a great demonstration of the tremendous love, compassion, and embrace of a father, a “prodigal father,” recklessly and generously giving away his all, because of his overwhelming love for his son. And, when you see the many famous paintings of the Father welcoming home his son, make a special note to carefully observe the portrayed actions of the Father, the real “hero” of the story.



Another picture I love, among the many paintings of Jesus as Father figure, is the one with lots of children surrounding him, listening attentively to his stories. Maybe there are even some children in his lap. Even though we actually do not have direct evidence that the kids physically scrambling into his lap, that seems like a reasonable assumption, since Jesus told of a great story of a beggar who went to heaven and was “in Abraham’s bosom,” remembering that Abraham is the patriarch father of patriarchs, the very first father of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths!



Photo 4: Jesus as the Father of all children, stopping the disciples from stopping the children coming for His blessings. Painting by Jonas Eck: Heilige Gemeinschaft


And Jesus’ depiction of Abrahamic love would fit well our thought of Jesus himself, embracing a child on his lap! We know well that he loved children and told his disciples not to block them from coming to him, when they shooed them away. And he even taught that the way to heaven is to be “like a child,” when he “embraced them and put his hands on their heads” to bless them. Which to me, a pediatrician, affirms that children are priceless in his view, and likely, well in his lap!



When you think of God, the Supreme Being, Heaven, or Creator, do you also picture Him as a kind and loving Father? One that runs to find you? One that has you in His bosom? Keep these great pictures in your mind as you seek your pathway in this life. They are good pictures.