Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Jesus, Confucius and Socrates

Auditing a graduate seminar in Eastern Ethics has been exactly has helpful as I thought it would be.  How's that for an ambiguous statement?  Seriously, I anticipated the seminar would boost my basic grasp of Eastern religion and its relationship to Christianity, and it has.  But I didn't predict the insight that came over me yesterday during a session on the Analects of Confucius.  (Warning: I'm going to generalize a lot.)

Confucius was a remarkable, humble man who understood human nature and society. As a sage of the ancient world, he has few peers.  His name and writings are synonymous with wisdom, world-wide.  His brilliance allowed him to attract disciples and he was a master teacher as well.  Confucius taught the importance of both dutifulness (faithfulness to the rules of society) and empathy (knowing people and how to treat each situation with care). Both were needed because rigid rule following could lead to the abuse of people.

During the discussion, we often made comparisons to the ancient Greek philosophers. When Socrates came up, the professor commented extensively on some of the lesser-known aspects of his life.  Socrates spoke to women and slaves--scandalous behavior.  He would not accept pay for teaching.  He was eventually put to death by the authorities for his progressive ways.

I trust that you, my reader, saw the connections immediately.  The similarities between these men and Jesus is striking. I've always respected Confucius and Socrates, but seeing the similarities between all three somehow elevated my reverence for them.  I could write a nice essay about how the greatest teachers in history had so much in common.  But then something else, something far more arresting, became evident.

Both Confucius and Socrates are famous for sometimes admitting their *lack* of knowledge or implying that someone else possessed the greater genius.  They never proclaimed themselves as the greatest mind of all time or allowed others to proclaim it.  Interestingly, this is where the similarity with Jesus ends.  Matthew recorded these words of Jesus:  "The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (12:42) Seriously?  Similarly, while Confucius taught his disciples about the Dao (the Way), Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Luke tells the story of Jesus standing up in the synagogue to read a prophecy that could only refer to the work of God, he said, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."  The audacity!  Socrates and Confucius admitted their limitations, as any human being should.  How could someone like Jesus, who we know from other stories to be kind, compassionate, honest and courageous, stand there and basically announce the supremacy of his intellect, wisdom, goodness and divinity?

I invite the reader to answer the question, "What is the best explanation for these facts?"  Is it that Jesus was an arrogant, self-deluded hypocrite?  Or is it that Jesus was something more than a great teacher?  Or some other explanation?