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王陽明與基督教 Wang Yangming and Christianity: A Brief Literature Review


Painting of Nicholas of Cusa


Was there anything Christian about Wang Yangming’s Ruism? At first glance, one might not think so, especially given the early history of dialogue between representatives of each tradition. Scholarship on the encounter between the educated elites of late imperial China and Christian missionaries has amply described a gulf between the worldviews of Neo-Confucianism and Christianity. Jacques Gernet’s classic study of this encounter, China and the Christian Impact (1982), elucidates how the Chinese literati (and Buddhist monks) were operating with entirely different mental categories and modes of thought than Jesuits. Gernet wrote, “The fact remains that everything that goes to make up Christianity—the opposition in substance between an eternal soul and a perishable body, the kingdom of God and the earthly world, the concept of a God of truth, eternal and immutable, the dogma of the Incarnation—seemed strange or incomprehensible to them.”[1]


In the first volume of his Handbook of Christianity in China (2001), Nicolas Standaert summarizes conceptual reasons for the rift that emerged as Christians and Confucians began to realize that they held very different ideas about the nature of reality. He explains that belief in a single, personal creator God clearly distinguishes Christianity from Chinese religions. The omnipotent Lord of Heaven is of a category different from the Neo-Confucian impersonal power called Tian 天 (Heaven) or the highest principle, immanent in everything that exists, called li 理 (principle). Neo-Confucians held no concept of creation ex-nihilo (that is, out of nothing), and Christian theology possessed no concept of the unity of substance (ti 體) and function (yong 用), of a oneness immanent in all phenomena. Also, the Neo-Confucian concept of a heavenly-mandated, good human nature differed from the Christian conception of a created soul, beset with original sin, that remains lost until saved by conversion, good works, and the grace of God. The concepts of incarnation, passion, redemption, and the Trinity were entirely foreign to Confucians. Introspection, remorse, and the performance of good works were important to both Christians and Confucians, but Confucians did not connect these acts to belief in an immortal soul, free will, and the severity of God’s judgment after death. In brief, the moral philosophies of Jesuit missionaries and Chinese literati, while sharing some similarities in practice, rested on fundamentally different ontological and theological grounds. For Confucians, moral self-cultivation required following one’s good nature and transforming one’s physical endowment by according with a moral order, the principle of Heaven (tianli 天理). This was quite different from following the commandments of and finding redemption in the grace of a creator God.[2]


Yet, such inauspicious beginnings have not prevented comparative study of these traditions from becoming a topic of serious inquiry in modern times. During the twentieth century—in the wake of the foundation of the academic study of religions, religious studies as a field of scholarship was increasingly institutionalized through the establishment of departments, professorships, curriculums, and courses for the study of religions. Consequently, the volume of academic publications on world religions and comparative religious studies soared.[3] However, prior to the 1990s, while many books and articles waded into a territory fraught with difficulties and dangers—Confucianism and Christianity— just a few brought Wang Yangming into the dialogue, and even then rather briefly. To be sure, although such renowned sinologists as Julia Ching, David Nivison, Tu Weiming, and Rodney Taylor, among others, expended much effort at defining and clarifying the religious dimensions of his Ruism, they did not specifically aim at such systematic comparison.


Up to the 1990s then, the religious dimensions of Wang Yangming’s life experiences and thought were discussed primarily as a part of wide-ranging inquiries into Confucian religiosity. Thereafter, however, academics native to East Asia who had personally experienced both traditions and resided in both East Asia and the United States looked at some of these issues in more detail. The Korean Christian theologian and scholar of East Asian religious studies Heup Young Kim published a dissertation and book comparing the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth to Wang Yangming. The Korean-American Methodist minister Seok-Hwan Hong wrote a dissertation comparing John Calvin to Wang Yangming. The Malaysian-Chinese professor of comparative religions and philosophy Peter T. C. Chang published a book comparing the life and thought of Wang Yangming to that of Bishop Joseph Butler. Combined, these scholarly inquiries provide rich reflection on how, through close study of key representatives, seemingly disparate traditions might be brought together into a meaningful dialogue. To these can be added a major tome hailing out of Europe, a comparative study of Wang Yangming and Nicholas Cusanus written by the German philosopher David Bartosch.


In 1996, Heup Young Kim (b. 1949) published Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth: A Confucian Christian Dialogue. It began as a doctoral dissertation he completed at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Yet little about his early life would have suggested that he might one day become a theologian. Kim was raised in a “Korean family steeped in a thousand-year history of Confucianism.”[4] His published clan genealogy extended back through thirty generations of Confucian scholars. Furthermore, he graduated from Seoul National University with an engineering degree and worked for several major Korean corporations. But then, while staying in the United States, he experienced a radical conversion to Christianity, so he chose to remain and explore this further, first at Princeton Theological Seminary and then at Berkeley.


Interestingly, even after converting to Christianity, Kim found that the more he studied theology, the more he became convinced that Confucianism was deeply embedded in his soul and body. “Subtly but powerfully, Confucianism works inside me,” he wrote, “as my native religious language.”[5] Thus, for him, theology must include both the total response of one’s being to God and critically wrestling with one’s Confucian roots. “Doing East Asian theology necessarily involves the study of Confucianism as a theological task,” he wrote.[6] His goal therefore became to find a theological paradigm that could encompass the Confucian Dao.


Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth: A Confucian-Christian Dialogue was “a beginning of that theological enterprise.”[7] He sought to bring together in dialogue major figures who represented their traditions. In his view, Wang Yangming was “a seminal thinker and great reformer in the history of Confucianism,” while Karl Barth “was one of the most significant Church theologians in the history of Western Christianity since the reformation.”[8] Although they articulate radically different religious paradigms, one theo-historical and the other anthropo-cosmic, they share a common interest in answering the question of “how to be fully human.”[9] Wang Yangming’s Confucian teaching on self-cultivation “aims to realize the true self (liangzhi) latent in human nature.” Karl Barth’s Christian doctrine of sanctification aims to realize one’s true elected nature. They both believe that our fundamental ontological reality is radical humanity (liangzhi and humanitas Christi). Evil arises when we deny our radical humanity, which nevertheless has the power to remove it. For Wang we must identify our subjectivity with our true mind-heart, while for Barth we must discover our connection with Jesus Christ. As our ontological reality, radical humanity is spiritually empowering. How does one become fully human? This is both a very concrete, practical question and also the most universal. For Wang and Barth, the process of self-transformation leading to realizing one’s full humanity is also a communal act. The meaning of humanity is realized only in ever-expanding circles of human relatedness, until all humanity is brought together in solidarity.


Heup Young Kim furthered his comparative religious studies research in later publications, especially his recent book, A Theology of Dao.


Seok Hwan Hong is a Korean-American Methodist minister whose personal, spiritual journey led him to his dissertation work. He was born in South Korea to a family with diverse religious commitments. The tensions between these commitments led Hong to a searching exploration of how one can remain an authentic Christian in a diverse faith environment. In 1987, at twenty-eight years old, he decided to study in the United States, first completing a degree at Emory University and then studying at Boston University under Robert Neville and John Berthrong. Thus, his PhD was nurtured by “Boston Confucianism,” a central concern of which was examination of the religious dimensions of the tradition as well as the value it holds for people all over the world in modern times. Furthermore, Neville was leading the “Boston University Comparative Religious Ideas Project.” Conducted between 1995 and 1999, the project aimed to generate a comparative method that could reconcile seemingly irreconcilable religious traditions around the world. Neville believed vague comparative categories identifying significant aspects of them could be used to generate meaningful comparisons.[11]


Thus, Boston University was well suited to Seok Hwan Hong’s particular set of concerns, intensely aware as he was of the “so-called irreconcilability between Christianity and Confucianism.”[12] He saw himself as “an insider of Christianity” who, from personal experience, understood that “the Confucian way of life deeply saturates the way of life and thinking of people of East Asia.”[13] Thus, Christianity could never simply displace Asian religions but rather must find a way to integrate them into its theology. To address how this might happen, he engaged in an in-depth study of John Calvin’s and Wang Yangming’s fundamental religious doctrines, respectively, the imago Dei and liangzhi.


Hong believed that one should not be naïve about the nature of the challenge at hand. After all, Calvin had little that would resemble the Way (dao 道), the principle of Heaven (tianli 天理), illuminating luminous virtue (ming ming de 明明德), resting in the highest good (zhi zhi shan止至善), the mind’s essence (xin ti 心體), and the one body of the ten thousand things (wan wu yiti 萬物一體), while Wang Yangming held no concepts resembling a creator God, Christ, revelation, redemption, justification, providence, or grace. “Wang Yangming and John Calvin,” Hong writes, “apparently fail to share any similar concepts with respect to religious matters and philosophical thought.”[14] More to the point, whereas for Calvin “Christ is essential for the restoration of the imago Dei,” Wang Yangming “does not need Christ to realize liangzhi.”[15]Liangzhi is entirely sufficient for self-transformation.


Nevertheless, Wang and Calvin do appear to share some concerns, and these can be formalized as categories for deeper comparison. They both offer a diagnosis of the human predicament, explain the causes or origins of it, and present solutions for resolving it. They outline a spiritual path to what Frederick Streng has called “ultimate human transformation.” For Calvin, a human being is created in the image of God, but this image has been perverted by sin. For Wang Yangming, lianzhi is imparted by Heaven but has become darkened by selfishness. Consequently, Hong writes, “the restoration of the imago Dei and the realization of liangzhi are the major human project in each tradition.”[16] What makes that process spiritual is that in both cases personal integration is achieved through self-transcendence in relation to ultimate reality. A person’s relationship to ultimate reality is fundamentally transformed.[17] Hong’s dissertation also goes into some depth regarding several other comparative categories, such as personal identity, the human predicament, causes of the human predicament, sources of the solution, the nature of the Absolute, and the means of ultimate human transformation.


Peter T. C. Chang, a professor at the University of Malaya, also sought to advance the dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity through comparative study of sophisticated representatives. “Do human civilizations possess the capability for harmonious co-existence,” he asks, “or is a clash of fundamental values inevitable?”[18] The relationship between these two traditions might yet go in either direction. Even after a long history of encounter, he writes, “the quest for mutual comprehension remains unfinished.”[19] Thus, Chang sought to deepen the encounter by bringing Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming into dialogue. With their unique expositions of conscience and liangzhi, both men had made crucial contributions to their religious tradition’s ethical system. Both Butler and Wang lived in a time of crisis, eighteenth-century England and sixteenth-century China. They both responded by calling on their fellow countrymen to recapture the ideals put forward by their respective Christian and Confucian moral visions. They both believed that mankind is intended to fulfill a divine order—to realize a higher purpose or plan. For Butler that was God’s plan, and for Wang it was the Dao or Heavenly principle. Both of these plans, Chang explains, “affirmed a common goal, i.e., the universal aspiration for the harmonious coexistence of all humanity.”[20]


Both men believed that humans are equipped for the sacrosanct task of participating in this sacred drama. Each person has a special role to play because of the guidance given by conscience. Chang writes, “Butler and Wang asserted that human conscience represents the individual’s authoritative guide to right and wrong.”[21] For Butler, natural law doctrine determines that people are a law unto themselves; “they have the rule of right within.”[22] For Wang Yangming too, we are autonomous moral agents because we are endowed with liangzhi, the ultimate authority. In both cases, this is a divine component in our human nature. Wang describes liangzhi as being like a bright clear mirror, and Butler describes conscience as the “candle of the lord within.”[23] However, Chang explains, “they both warned that conscience is not infallible, and unless people heed its dictates and are diligent in self-cultivation, it may yet become ‘asleep’ and ‘buried.’”[24] Conscience can be ignored or rebelled against, weakening the moral self and undermining social order. Consequently, both men developed programs to nurture critical thinking and moral sensibility. Throughout the book, Chang parses out the fine distinctions between their moral philosophies but also notes where they share common ground. Like the other authors who have issued such comparative studies, Chang relies primarily on Wing-tsit Chan’s Instructions for Practical Living and other Neo-Confucian Writings. In conclusion, he asks how Wang Yangming and Bishop Joseph Butler might critique one another, and then he assesses the relevance of their moral philosophies for contemporary discussions of comparative religious ethics.


Lastly, the lengthiest publication in this category of scholarship, albeit one that is more broadly philosophical in intent, is David Bartosch’s “Wissendes Nichtwissen” oder “gutes Wissen”? Zum philosophischen Denken von Nicolaus Cusanus und Wang Yangming (“Knowing non-knowingness” or “good knowledge”? On the philosophical thinking of Nicolaus Cusanus and Wang Yangmíng). This is the first book to compare systematically Wang Yangming with Nicholas of Cusa (Nicholas Cusanus, 1401–1464).[25] It is a revised version of a dissertation Bartosch completed at Oldenburg University. Because each of these philosophers are the heirs to and in some sense the pinnacle of philosophical traditions with a long history, Bartosch’s work is more broadly a comparative study of Renaissance Christian theology and Neo-Platonism with Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism, especially the school of the School of Mind. He identifies fundamental philosophical problems that both Wang and Nicholas of Cusa address and tries to explain their different approaches and solutions. Since these two philosophers were working in unconnected historical traditions, Bartosch found it necessary to think about a systematic method for comparison, one that is ultimately transcultural in its aspirations.


The title of the book refers to two concepts central to each philosopher’s system—for Nicholas of Cusa “Knowing non-knowingness” (Latin: docta ignorantia) and for Wang Yangming “good knowing” (liangzhi). Bartosch’s analysis, however, is not limited to these concepts, for in the course of his research he discovered that both philosophers devoted themselves to at least eight transculturally comparable philosophical problems. Hence, the eight body chapters of his book each pose a philosophical problem and then explore how both Wang and Nicholas of Cusa approached and answered it.


In the first chapter, “Creativity” (Kreativität), Bartosch explains that although they do so differently, both thinkers speak of an all-encompassing creativity, describing it and its mode of operation, its origins, and its relation to humankind. Whereas Cusanus speaks of the dialectical relationship of creator and creature, Wang speaks of the creative changing of things. The second chapter, “Consciousness and Creativity” (Bewusstheit und Kreativität), contrasts Wang and Cusanus’s reflections on the relationship between consciousness and creativity. Against this background of all-encompassing creativity, how does the structure of consciousness reflect and comprehend it? How is consciousness to be understood? This is the problem of the horizon of consciousness addressed by both thinkers. The third chapter, “Generativity and Creativity” (Generativität und Kreativität), asks what the significance and role of human family life and sexuality is in the context of the creativity of the universe and structure of human consciousness. Whereas for Cusanus bodily generativity should be absorbed into the intellect’s generativity, in order to reflect the all-creating principle, for Wang Yangming human procreation is bound to the self-transformation of the heart-mind. The fourth chapter, “Ineffability” (Ineffabilität), explores the problem of speaking about the horizon of the indescribable. The unlimited reality of the all-encompassing, all-conditioning creativity is conceptually ineffable. So how can it be characterized linguistically? Bartosch found that both Wang and Cusanus employed a succinct terminology to express the inexpressible and the dialectical relation between the expressible and it.


The fifth chapter, “Consciousness” (Bewusstheit), returns to the philosophical problem of the structure of consciousness. Cusanus’s concepts of geist (spirit/mind) and vernunft (rationality) are systematically compared to Wang Yangming’s notions of mind and nature (xing 性). The sixth philosophical problem pertains to epistemology. In the chapter titled “Knowledge and Insight” (Erkenntnis und Einsicht), Bartosch asks, what did each regard as true knowlededge? How is it acquired? Here, Cusanus’s discussions of “knowing non-knowing,” “vision,” and “knowledge,” are compared with Wang’s tenets of the “investigation of things” and “knowing-taking action, together as one” (knowing as actively going through).


The seventh chapter, “Self-Perfection” (Selbstperfektion), addresses the philosophical issue of the ideal personhood and how that is to be achieved. How is the human being to perfect himself or herself? What stands in the way of this? Whereas for Wang the goal is to become a sage, for Cusanus it is the ascent to being a son of god. The eighth chapter, “Morality and Love” (Moralität und Liebe), concerns the problem of universal love. How can a general human love be philosophically justified? What is its starting point, and how is the individual to orient himself/herself in this regard? In other words, how does one become a truly loving person? This chapter compares Wang and Cusanus’s reflections on the problem of good and evil and the requisite moral practices necessary to address it.


Thus, these eight problem horizons form the starting point for comparative work and the structure of the book. Yet, although there are eight of these, Bartosch believes that there is an inherent logic, or form of thinking, that is common to all of them. In all cases, both Wang Yangming and Nicholas of Cusa understand unity as a unity of sameness and difference. Unity, or oneness, can only be thought of if it contains all differences at the same time. This pattern pertains to all their important philosophical reflections. Such is the foundational logic that makes the whole project of comparison possible from the beginning. Bartosch’s book is in every sense a “big” book. It is a major contribution to the comparative study of philosophy East and West, as seen through the window of Wang Yangming’s School of Mind and Nicholas of Cusa’s Neo-Platonic Christian mysticism.


With Dr. Bartosch’s tome this brief review comes to an end. While not entirely inclusive, and also limited to a “Western” literature, my hope is that it has sufficiently captured something of the texture of a compelling area for intellectual inquiry. Certainly, while maintaining the distinctiveness and internal integrity of a tradition remains critically important in modern (and postmodern…) times, responding to the humanistic call of the aspirations implicit in interfaith dialogue and comparative religious study may likewise serve to lesson the tensions and frictions everywhere around us. These studies go a long way towards achieving both of these goals.


Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for improving this brief overview, don’t hesitate to contact me at larry.israel@mga.edu


For a more complete story, see my Studying Wang Yangming: History of a Sinological Field.

[1] Gernet, China and the Christian Impact, 3. [2] Standaert, 635-1800, vol. 1 of Handbook of Christianity in China (2 vols.), 642–655. [3] For an in-depth exploration of the history of the study of Confucianism as a religion, with a bibliography of the relevant literature, as well as discussion of definitions of the religious and how those apply to Confucianism, see Sun, Confucianism as a World Religion and Yong Chen, Confucianism as Religion. [4] Personal communication with the author, July 24, 2018. [5] Heup Young Kim, Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth, 1. [6] Heup Young Kim, Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth, 1. [7] Heup Young Kim, Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth, 7. [8] Heup Young Kim, Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth, 7. [9] Heup Young Kim, Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth, 7. [10] Heup Young Kim, “Liang-chi and Humanitas Christi: An Encounter of Wang Yang-ming and Karl Barth.” [11] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 9–10. [12] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 2. [13] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 295. [14] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 3. [15] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 293. [16] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 4. [17] Seok Hwan Hong, “Ultimate Human Transformation,” 20. [18] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 12. [19] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 13. [20] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 161. [21] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 13. [22] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 172. [23] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 177. [24] Chang, Bishop Joseph Butler, 13. [25] I would like to thank Dr. David Bartosch for kindly helping me understand the content of his major work.


Chang, Peter T.C. Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming: A Comparative Study of their Moral Vision and View of Conscience. Bern: Peter Lang, 2014.


Bartosch, David. “Explicit and Implicit Aspects of Confucian Education.” Asian Studies 5, no. 2 (2017): 87–112.


Bartosch, David. “Wissendes nichtwissen” oder “gutes wissen”?: zum philosophischen denken von Nicolaus Cusanus und Wang Yangming. Paderborn: Wilhem Fink, 2015.


Gernet, Jacques. China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.


Hong, Seok Hwan. “Ultimate Human Transformation: Liang-chih in Wang Yang-Ming and the Imago Dei in John Calvin.” Ph.D. Diss., Boston University, 2002.


Kim, Heup Young. A Theology of Dao. New York: Orbis Books. 2017.


Kim, Heup Young. Wang Yangming and Karl Barth: A Confucian-Christian Dialogue. University Press of America, 1996.


Standaert, Nicholas, ed. Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume 1: 635-1800. Leiden: Brill, 2001.



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