John Berthrong is the Associate Dean for Academic and Administrative Affairs at the Boston University School of Theology. Active in interfaith dialogue projects and programs, his teaching and research interests are in the areas of interreligious dialogue, Chinese religions and philosophy, and comparative philosophy and theology. His published and forthcoming books are All under Heaven: Transforming Paradigms in Confucian-Christian Dialogue, The Transformations of the Confucian Way, and Concerning Creativity: A Comparison of Chu Hsi, Whitehead, and Neville).
1. Now that you have returned “from Beijing to Boston,” was there anything that you saw, or heard, or debated about at the summit reinforced or revised your view of “the future contributions of globalization of New Confucianism?”
There is a tremendous debate going on in China about the future role of New Confucianism and anyone interested in the future of a globalized Confucian Way will need to stay in constant contact. What is especially fascinating is how different segments of Chinese society are trying to deal with this question, and this includes academics, government officials, and business people, among others, in the debate. What I also find so appealing is that my Chinese New Confucian friends and colleagues seem genuinely concerned with what Western scholars think about Confucianism and its potential contribution to areas such as the globalization of ethical discussions about major concerns such as ecology, human rights, and the economic system; much less topics such as ethical education and spiritual formation.
I was also immensely moved by the huge audience for the evening lecture by Professor TU Weiming. It was a privilege to share the stage with him. This evening just demonstrated to me the vast and growing interest in trying to think about the future of Confucianism in modern China. I know many people who do not always agree with Professor TU’s interpretation, but the real point is that the people were there at the lecture, especially the young people, to listen to a profound lecture and to ponder for themselves whether Confucian can play a positive role in the future not only of China but for the whole world. I frankly agree with Professor TU that a revived and reformed New Confucianism can play just such a positive role. And last but not least, as an intellectual historian I was delighted to be able to hear so many excellent papers by social scientists. I think that this kind of carefully modeled interdisciplinary work is critical for the future development of the field.
2. As an American scholar with decades of hard work dedicated to Confucianism, what is it that inspired you in the first place? What needs to be done to engage other brilliant minds from the West in a deeper understanding of Confucianism, or other Chinese or Asian philosophical thought, so that the globalization of philosophy will become a more balanced two-direction interchange of ideas?
When you asked what inspired me in the first place it was my initial visit to Hong Kong in 1964-65. I attended Hong Kong University and took courses in Chinese history and philosophy; these were offered in English and as a young person from Oklahoma, I knew almost nothing about China save it was a very large and very ancient country. I was already engaged in the study of philosophy and religion, so when I lived in Hong Kong, I simply became inspired by what I learned that year. A decade later, and having started graduate school at the University of Chicago, I lived in Taipei in 1973-74. While I was there I went to Hong Kong again and had a long interview with the great Professor MOU Zongsan. He graciously spent almost a whole afternoon with me and I have never met a more brilliant man. The only person I would put in his category was Professor Joseph Needham, the equally great historian of Chinese science, who I met in the 1980s. When I met Professor MOU, I felt that I was in the living presence of the Confucian tradition.
I had already committed to Confucian studies at the University of Chicago because I was convinced that you cannot understand the history of China without understanding something about the Confucian tradition. We had some very good courses on Song thought and I was introduced in the early 1970s to the vast vision of Zhu Xi. I have always loved grand speculative philosophy so I fell in love with Master Zhu. In the mid-1970s I had a chance to live and study with Professor TU Weiming while he was teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and this simply increased my love of and devotion to Confucian studies. I thought that a worthy task would be to try to teach Americans about the history of this vast philosophical, cultural, and spiritual tradition. It was been my obligation to do this the best I can ever since.
What needs to be done now is to encourage our colleagues in all parts of the universities to add more faculties in Asian studies and to have more wonderful conferences like this.
3. What suggestions and comments do you have for us as we plan for future studies of Chinese religions and society?
I think that one of the most important things is to promote such interdisciplinary exchanges, and to make sure that they are international in scope. We need additional opportunities for Chinese and scholars from the Western world to work together and share the results of their research.
(Interview conducted by Alice Wang)