A recent article in Christianity Today about Confucianism and Christianity in China called to mind the time several years ago when I taught an introductory class on Christian theology to recent Chinese converts to Christianity. The challenge of the course was the varying levels of English competency among the students. One student spoke no English. It seemed a little daunting to translate terms originally in Latin and Greek into English and then into Chinese. I decided the best course of action was to trace the development of doctrine in Christian tradition in terms of an extended act of interpretation.

We approached each doctrine by first turning to important passages of scripture in its history. I would then read the text in English translation and ask my Chinese students who spoke English well what the Chinese translation said. We would then discuss the meaning of the Chinese word in order to explore the particular doctrine at stake.

One serendipitous moment was when we were discussing texts that dealt with righteousness and atonement. The Chinese translation rendered them into justice. On this basis, I launched into a discussion of Anselm’s notion of justice as a fittingness reflecting in God’s own being and the rational order of creation. Anselm’s participatory ontology corresponds to his understanding of society as a series of interlocking relations. This is how he fuses the feudalistic world of the late eleventh century with the Neoplatonic metaphysics he inherited from Augustine and Boethius, among others.

For Anselm, humans enter the world with the freedom to achieve their purpose, which is the complete realization of happiness. The path to happiness is through the preservation of the original justice with which they had been endowed.  Anselm holds that retaining the orderly relation between justice and happiness is necessary to preserve the fundamental harmonies of creation and society.

Anselm’s definition of justice as uprightness of will is startling in its simplicity and yet it sets the tone for much of his discussion. God endowed the original humans with an internal rectitude or uprightness that they must preserve by willing this uprightness for its own sake. Indeed, the freedom of the person is directly related to the preservation of uprightness of will. This is why God gave humans freedom. Consequently, happiness cannot be achieved by directly willing happiness; rather, one aims for the preservation of rectitude with the result that one achieves happiness.

On closer inspection, however, justice is not simply preservation of internal rectitude. It is also rendering to God what is due, which is another way of claiming that it involves honoring God. Humans honor God by pursuing justice both as the means of fulfilling the divine purpose for their lives and preserving the orderly relations within creation. God’s honor is not some kind of arbitrary need for obeisance and genuflection. Instead, it is reflected in the harmonies of creation, which are themselves a reflection of the internal harmonies within God’s own life.

If justice is preserving internal rectitude, then by extension it involves preserving the fitting relations within society and creation. On this view, honoring God or rendering to God what is due turns out to be preserving the orderly relationships within creation, including those among humans. When humans do this, they fulfill God’s purpose for their lives and achieve happiness. 

An implication of Anselm’s position is that preserving religious freedom is absolutely necessary for preserving justice since it involves a recognition of the intrinsic relationality to life. Humans remained woven in to an entire rational order that runs from God to creation to society to individuals. Denying humans the freedom, intrinsic to the human condition, to explore all of these relations is a denial of their basic humanity, and this is the case regardless of whether one holds to belief in God or not. Anselm clearly recognized that some persons do not hold to belief in God while also upholding the freedom to explore the relationality of life in terms of a being than which no greater can be conceived—a perfect being.

To understand why Anselm thinks the incarnation was necessary, one must keep in view the connection between preserving the orderly relationships within creation, fulfilling the divine purpose, and honoring God. If humans pursue justice by preserving internal rectitude, they honor God and by extension conserve the harmonies of creation. This results in their achieving happiness, which underscores the fact that happiness as an internal condition is not achievable in isolation from the rest of creation. Humans either achieve happiness as creatures embedded in a creational and social framework or they don’t achieve it.

When the original humans failed to preserve internal rectitude, they simultaneously tore the fabric of relations with God, one another, and creation. This also meant that they could no longer achieve happiness, which for Anselm is tantamount to “robbing” God of the divine purpose for creation. Extending forgiveness does not repair rectitude at any level. In short, it does not restore justice or enable humans to achieve happiness. Hence the necessity of the incarnation both to restore justice and to show humans what it means for a human being to fulfill the divine purpose.

When we finished discussing Anselm, one of the students, a former judge who had been imprisoned for his Christianity, noted how similar it was to the Confucian idea of justice. That is, humans must fulfill the principle of ren, which is a relational concept underscoring social relations and internal relations. The Confucian re-statement of the golden rule is grounded in the preservation of social relations and the way to become virtuous, which is how one fulfills the principle of ren. Justice in China was about the restoration of relations. Being no expert in Confucianism I cannot say whether my student was correct or not, but it was a fascinating exercise in cross-cultural communication.

More on: Anselm, Justice, Culture

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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