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What does it mean to do Christian higher education in global context? More specifically, what does this entail for specifically evangelical projects in higher education? Part of the answer to this question involves engaging in dialogue with non-Western traditions of education. This essay by Amos Yong is motivated by the challenges and possibilities attending such conversations and provides a case study exploring how East Asian educational philosophies, in particular those informed by the long history of Confucian educational models and practices, are conducive for a globally engaged evangelical approach to higher education. Yong looks specifically at educational goals and pedagogical strategies for an evangelical Paideia overlooking the Pacific Rim. He is J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and Dean, School of Divinity, at Regent University.


What does it mean to do Christian higher education in global context? More specifically, what does this entail for specifically evangelical projects in higher education? Part of the answer to this question involves engaging in dialogue in non-Western traditions of education. This essay is motivated by the challenges and possibilities attending such conversations and provides a case study exploring how East Asian educational philosophies, in particular those informed by the long history of Confucian educational models and practices, are conducive for a globally engaged evangelical approach to higher education. We will look specifically at educational goals and pedagogical strategies for an evangelical Paideia overlooking the Pacific Rim.

Two caveats before proceeding: I am neither a philosopher of education nor a Sinologist or scholar of Confucianism. My own training is in the study of religion in general and theology more specifically, although I have been trained also as a comparative theologian with interest in Asian philosophical and religious traditions. My own evangelical commitments, however, plus the fact that I have taught in evangelical institutions of higher education for over a dozen years, has led me, perhaps inexorably, to begin asking questions about our educational assumptions, commitments, and values.1 This essay reflects preliminary considerations at the crossroads of my work as a comparative theologian with growing sensitivities to the need for evangelicals to think harder about what it means to engage in the task of teaching and learning in an increasingly shrinking global village.

Globalization and Evangelical Higher Education: Beginnings of a Conversation

There is a small but growing amount of literature emerging on evangelical higher education in global context.2 So far much more has been devoted to evangelical theological education in global context, even as there is an expansive amount of literature on secular education in relationship to globalization and internationalization. In relationship to these, specifically evangelical thinking about global higher education is slowly beginning to catch up. Various reasons exist for this relatively late start.

First, evangelical colleges and universities in North America set the gold standard for global evangelical higher education. As students from the majority world continue to arrive in American institutions of higher education in general and to evangelical colleges and universities in particular, American evangelical higher education is already global at least in that sense. On the one hand, there has been less motivation to think about the nature of education in global context since the world still desires to “come to America.” On the other hand, increasing numbers of international students and even professors and the gradual internationalization of core curricula, among other developments, indicate that scholarship and research, which always follows what is happening on the ground, will only continue to expand. Further, perhaps evangelical attention to the global context has been subordinated to more “local” factors, in particular to the pressures of competing within a secular, post-Christian field of higher education. Evangelicals’ primary concerns, in this environment, are to secure the faith of the next generation of students against the threats of a naturalistic, positivistic, and scientistic academia. Evangelicals have thus been engaged substantively and at length with the issues regarding (evangelical) faith and (secular) learning in order to excel in this difficult but important task.3 But again, globalization trends are also shifting the lines of debate in these arenas. Evangelical higher educators are gradually taking these wider concerns into account, no less so as the voices of students from the global South increase along this front.

Hence the time is ripe for sustained engagement by evangelicals with the challenges and opportunities related to doing higher education in a global context. Not only is evangelicalism itself a global phenomenon, but the center of gravity of Christianity is itself shifting toward the global South.4 Amidst these furious globalizing trends, secular educational theorists have now long been thinking about the nature of higher education within the global village. There is extensive literature on how international education and comparative education have developed over the last almost two centuries.5 If internationalists have focused on how local knowledge has been challenged by the emergence of a global horizon, comparativists have worked how to show how the various forms of local knowledge can be mutually challenging and yet also enriching in a global context. More and more the realization is that national borders mean less and less in today’s educational climate.6

So how can evangelicals further this conversation? One of most important challenges evangelical educators will need to take up is how to facilitate dialogue and praxis in our new global context in ways that faithfully anticipate the coming reign of God.7 The potential roadblocks, which by and large are nonexistent on secular campuses, play out at the theological, policy, and demographic levels. Theologically, evangelical institutions of higher education exist, by definition, to nurture the evangelical faith of its students. To accomplish this task involves directing much of the available time, energy, and resources toward this end, leaving precious few if any of the above left for facilitating engagements with “others.” So if it is difficult to bring in “outsiders,” how about developing a diverse faculty or ensuring a diverse student body? Yet policy-wise, few evangelical institutions of higher education either hire non-evangelical faculty or accept non-Christian students. And demographically speaking, while evangelical churches are growing across the global South, that so far has meant neither that they are producing faculty for nor that they are able to afford to send large numbers of their students to schools in the Euroamerican West. Even if they were able to contribute to the diversification of evangelical faculties and student bodies, the former would mean the loss of human capital from across majority world, while on both counts – faculty and students – evangelicals are still not sure what is involved in empowering the voices of “others” in light of the received biblical and theological traditions. All of this means that evangelicals need to be more intentional about identifying and engaging the voices of others as they continue to explore what it means to do higher education in global context.

Yet evangelical theological commitments to a Christ-centered education should empower engagement with the global educational task. This is because a thoroughly Christocentric philosophy of education would be incarnational and pentecostal. The heart of the gospel consists of the Son of God taking on human flesh in the life of a Jew from Nazareth. Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus lived in obedience to the Father, laid down his life for others, was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and from the right hand of the Father proceeded to pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. The gift of the Spirit in turn empowered those from the many nations, tribes, and cultures of the world to declare the wonders of God in their own languages. While some early Christians (during the Patristic period) argued that even pagan learning could be re-appropriated for Christian purposes (as the “spoils of the Egyptians” were beneficial to the ancient Hebrews), contemporary Christian education educators attuned to the global context should be no less sensitized to the ways in which the many languages and cultures of the world might, through the Spirit’s redemptive work, bear similar witness to the glory of God.8

In what follows, then, I propose a thought experiment for thinking about evangelical higher education in global context. More specifically, I suggest the examination of the Confucian educational tradition in its East Asian Context. China is rapidly becoming a major player in the global economy, so much so that it has begun to emerge as an important force in conversations about international education.9 More importantly, as we shall discuss further below, China has one of the world’s oldest fully elaborated systems of higher education – the Guozijian, the School of the Sons of the Empire, also called the Imperial Central School or Imperial Academy – which was fully operative by the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).10 And the fact is that after decades of suppression and neglect, Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought is making a modest comeback at the beginning of the twenty-first century, not only in East Asia but also across the disciplines in the Western academy. These and other reasons suggest the importance for engaging with Chinese educational philosophies when thinking about higher education in contemporary global context.

After a brief historical overview, we will explore Confucian educational goals and pedagogical strategies vis-à-vis our evangelical concerns. Note, however, that the following is exploratory rather than definitive. Its goal is to initiate discussion about the possibilities of evangelical higher education against a global horizon. Since we currently lack models for how such a conversation might ensue, the next few pages do no more than suggest one way forward for consideration. If successful, then the door is opened up to engaging in dialogue with other cultural and educational traditions across the global South.

Evangelical Paideia Over the Pacific Rim: A Dialogue with the Confucian Tradition

As already intimated, by the middle of the first millennium CE, the Chinese system of higher education was already in full swing, organized in terms of curriculum primarily around the major classical texts of the Confucian tradition. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the curriculum was reordered by the renowned Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi (1130-1200) around “four books” (pinyin: Si Shu)11 – Confucius’ (Kong Zi) Analects, the Book of Mencius (Meng Zi), the socio-political and educational tract The Great Learning (Da Xue), and the psychological and metaphysical treatise called The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) – and these became the basis for the country’s civil service exams from 1313 to 1905. Although it is arguable that this civil service examination system gradually ossified under the highly centralized mechanisms that governed the educational process,12 this did not inhibit debate about the philosophy of education even throughout the later Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties.13

Yet even besides this official system of education, private academies (shuyuan) have always flourished for the last 1500 years.14 This alternative educational environment engaged with questions related to the task of government, but its forms of teaching, learning, and inquiry were not hampered by the established framework. This so-called “minority” tradition can be seen to have kept the primordial Confucian ethos alive, yet simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically, against the

control-oriented imperial higher education system. … [it also embodied] progressive aspects of Chinese scholarship and [favored] an ethos and culture that encouraged interdisciplinarity and the integration of theory and practice in a problem-solving approach to knowledge.15

What were some of the features of this early fund of Confucian educational sensibilities and commitments and how might these inform contemporary evangelical thinking about education in global context? Two major comparative themes suggest themselves for our consideration.

Educational Goals: Self-Cultivation, Moral Formation, and Sagehood

Most prominent among themes in the Confucian tradition that may be relevant for our purposes is the goal of education, which is to nurture and cultivate the self as a sagacious and morally exemplary gentleman (junzi).16 This is a lifetime task, as Confucius himself admitted: “At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free from doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was attuned; at seventy I followed my heart’s desire without overstepping the line.”17 Yet this project is ultimately what separates human beings from other animals. To be fully human involves the cultivation of moral character, benevolent dispositions toward others, and the wisdom to know how to respond in any situation. Mencius thus states: “‘Benevolence’ means ‘man’. When these two are conjoined, the result is ‘the Way.’”18 To be sure, those who embark upon the Confucian way do not all agree about how the scholar-sage is to be formed or even what that might look like if accomplished. What the tradition does agree about is that such moral character involves knowing, affect, and action.19 There is a cognitive dimension of learning but this exists alongside affective and behavioral aspects of moral formation.

Zhu Xi’s reordering of the curriculum during the twelfth century reflects a wider and more expansive range of consideration that had accrued not only since the time of Mencius but also since the emergence of the more centralized system of higher education in the preceding five or six centuries. His canonization and publication of the Great Learning (Da Xue) and the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong) make explicit that while the point of moral formation is not to be instrumentally reduced to the right (re)ordering of society as a whole, the latter follows naturally from the cultivation of the individual sagehood.20 Thus the Great Learning envisions the goal of learning in this way:

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.21

The extension of knowledge (what education accomplishes) brings about the rightly ordered self, the beginning of the regulation of families, states, and even kingdoms. Moral sagacity is thus not an individualized achievement but one that has profound social consequences.

The Doctrine of the Mean clarifies further that the cultivation of humanity enables human flourishing within heaven and earth. Such a harmonious existence with the cosmos is what education accomplishes: “What Heaven (T’ien, Nature) imparts to man is called human nature. To follow our nature is called the Way (Tao). Cultivating the Way is called education.”22 Education thus enables human beings to live into the full potential of their human nature and, in that sense, to achieve harmony with heaven itself. Both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean reflect the bolder metaphysical instincts of the Neo-Confucian philosophers. What this brings about, however, is a more precise articulation of how the project of moral formation has wider social and cosmological implications and relevance.

Notice here, then, that the cultivation of self involves and inevitably nurtures harmony at the personal (heart-mind), social-political/moral, and cosmic (heaven-earth-humanity) levels. That these are all inextricably intertwined means that heart-mind-actions are cosmically situated. Thus Chinese philosopher Chung-Ying Cheng observes:

Right feelings for right objects are a matter of harmonization, a natural resonance between man and man, and man and nature. Harmony is an affective response of the inner with a stimulus from the outer: the natural expression and fulfillment of a relation of encounter, experience, or transaction between the inner and the outer…. Harmony is thus a matter of self-cultivation; it is not merely a matter of social relationships governed by li [principle] but the state of one’s heart-mind that confronts life situations.23

Knowledge and learning are thus not merely of the objective world but are thoroughly axiological. Human beings are evaluative creatures, and their educational formation involves a valuation of what the world is and of their place in that world.

Practically, this orientation toward the educational task as involving, at its core, the formation of moral and axiological selves, has translated, through the modernization of Chinese education, into very concrete educational purposes. One Chinese educational philosopher summarizes these as follows – that the Chinese educational model is directed toward the following five objectives: “(1) perfect oneself morally/socially, (2) acquire knowledge/skills for oneself, (3) establish oneself economically, (4) achieve social status/honor, and (5) contribute to society.”24 Even here we see that the educational process assumes the individual self to be nested within a larger social context. Education thus involves not only cognitive and intellectual formation, but also moral, axiological, and affective dimensions. The achievement of social status and honor, for instance, already presumes a culture of shame wherein selves are socially defined, as well as the affective mechanisms that will motivate learners to meet the social standards of approval.

How does the preceding sketch map onto contemporary evangelical thinking about higher education? Two interfaces can be briefly noted. First, the Confucian emphasis on the formation of the moral self should be welcomed in a climate in which evangelicals have long been advocating for and are indeed now also reasserting the importance of moral formation in the educational enterprise.25 There is widespread recognition that one of the results of the Enlightenment project has been the privatization of morality, alongside religion, and that this has created a moral vacuum at the heart of the secular university. Evangelicals who have been perennially making strenuous efforts to buck this trend now can appeal not only to pre-modern traditions of Paideia, for which the formation of the virtuous and moral agent for civic responsibility was central to the educational task, but also engage with non-Western and East Asian models like that of the Confucian tradition. Herein is emerging on the global scene a stream of philosophical commitments for which morality and values are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the educational task. The cultivation of moral agents is not a privatized endeavor. Rather, the shaping of minds involves also the molding of hearts and hands. Evangelicals will surely want to probe deeper into the anthropological and especially cosmological and metaphysical assumptions within which these sentiments are embedded. It is likely that there will be some important differences between how evangelicals and their East Asian interlocutors will understand these broader issues. However, the point of education in global context is precisely to open up such pathways of mutual dialogue and learning. Foregrounding the moral dimension of higher education provides a common space wherein evangelical and Confucian educators can engage topics of global import.

The second point to be made, regarding the holistic assumptions of the Confucian educational model, segues into the next two parts of our discussion. I mean by “holistic” at least two related sensibilities highlighted in the Confucian model: the interwoven character of human mind-heart-hands (cognition, affectivity, and behaviors) and the interrelationship of heaven-earth-humanity. With regard to the former, evangelicals are increasingly talking about holistic forms of knowing and these are translating into similar models of learning.26 About the latter, there are also efforts being made to rethink especially evangelical theological education within relational frames of reference that might be conducive to dialogue with these Confucian themes.27

Pedagogical Strategies: Toward a Holistic Pedagogy

So what are some of the major pedagogies featured in this Confucian program of moral cultivation? Of course there is no one pedagogical form, as even Mencius himself observes:

A gentleman teaches in five ways. The first is by a transforming influence like that of timely rain. The second is by helping the student to realize his virtue to the full. The third is by helping him to develop his talent. The fourth is by answering his questions. And the fifth is by setting an example others not in contact with him can emulate. These five are the ways in which a gentleman teaches (VII.a.40).

However, there are some unique teaching strategies observable in Confucius’ own life that are worthy of observation.28 For our considerations, I want to highlight his reliance upon tradition, his advocacy regarding the place rites and music in the educational process, and his dialogical style.

Confucius declares unequivocally, “I transmit but do not innovate; I am truthful in what I say and devoted to antiquity. I venture to compare myself to our Old P‘eng” (7.1; note: the identity of Old P’eng is uncertain), and “I was not born with knowledge but, being fond of antiquity, I am quick to seek it” (7.20). As tradition has had it, this led the master to collect and compile the wisdom of the elders, and the “Five Classics” (Wujing) – Classic of Poetry (Shijing); Classic of History (Shujing); Classic of Rites (Liji); Classic of Changes (Yijing); and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Fanlu) – emerged under his editorialship.229 The point to be made here is at least two-fold. First, the Confucian tradition can be understood thus to be classically conservative in terms of its reliance upon tradition.30 There were some adjustments made within the tradition by those such as Mencius and Wang Yangming (1472-1529) who felt that the educational process ought to work as much on cultivating inner self-awareness in students.31 Yet in none of these cases is the Master’s commitment to looking toward the ancients disparaged or dismissed. From this, second, note the educational focus on receiving what the ancients had handed down opens up to a valuation of textual study. Yet the resulting textual tradition focuses less on communicating discursively formulated information than portraying exemplary models and affectively inspirational images. We can see these pedagogical aspects of Confucian texts more clearly by briefly examining two of the “Five Classics.”

The Classic of Rites provides a description of the government and social forms of the Western Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1050-771 BCE), the “golden age” which exemplars the Master recommends for emulation. More precisely for our discussion, it also preserves the ceremonial rituals shaping institutional, civil, and social interactions. While it may seem as if such ritualistic modes of interfacing with others are quaint, the Master’s point is both that children learn how to be human by being socialized into proper forms of relating to the many types of people in their lives, and that the morally formed scholar sage is one who knows how to act in the presence of others. The ancient rites thus are exemplary models for all students. This meant that part of the educational process involves not only cognitive formation but also a behavioral dimension. The ancient rites are not just to be understood but also enacted. This highlights the embodied, interrelational, and kinesthetic character of Confucian education.32

The Classic of Poetry, also known as the Book of Odes, is a compilation of over 300 poems and songs dating from the first half of the first millennium BCE. The Master says about this material: “Be stimulated by the Odes, take your stand on the rites and be perfected by music” (8.8). He also adds, “Why is it none of you, my young friends, study the Odes? An apt quotation from the Odes may serve to stimulate the imagination, to show one’s breeding, to smooth over difficulties in a group and to give expression to complaints” (17.9). Note thus that the perfected or cultivated (well-bred) person is musically shaped and formed (see 3:23). There is much to be said for the inclusion of music within the curriculum of higher education (to which I return later), but here I want to highlight its pedagogical implications. While Confucius himself probably is not aware of how there is a mode of musical learning which is arguably distinct from that of textual learning,33 he is well alert to the fact that poetry and song serves to “stimulate the imagination.” More precisely, a musically informed person is one who is well-tempered in her interpersonal interactions. Music shapes not only the intellect but also our affective and aesthetic sensibilities. It thus nurtures an internal sensitivity to that what is conducive to a more harmonious way of life involving family, society, the nation, and even heaven and earth.

The picture that is emerging is of Confucian pedagogy as traditionalist, textualist, ritualistic, and musical. One final element needs to be registered: the Master’s dialogical mode of teaching. Any careful reader of the Analects will observe that while replete with aphoristic sayings, it also includes many dialogues between the teacher and his students. More peculiarly, the Master is attentive to each student and responds to that student very particularly. For instance, to the question, “What is benevolence?” asked of him by different students, various responses are given (see Analects 12:1-3, 22, 17:6). The classic interpretation of these varying answers is that the sage is responding to each student in relationship to that student’s specific aptitude and also role in society. From this, we see the Master modeling teaching and learning as what might be called an affective and interpersonal “heart-to-heart encounter,”34 one in which education is about moral formation as well as propositional comprehension, focused on the social world and not only on the “natural world,” and intended to produce practicing actors-behavers rather than mere knowers-theorizers. Pedagogically, then, education involves nurturing the capacity to ask questions, and these also emerge from out of lived experiences, wherein the opportunity arises for face-to-face conversation.35 This classic mode of Confucian pedagogy is a long way removed from what became institutionalized within the civil service educational system when interpersonal interaction was gradually displaced by the lecture and when interactions with the classics in their various forms degenerated into “textbook learning.”36

There have long been comparisons and contrasts between what we have observed about Confucian pedagogy with Western versions. Many have observed that while dialogical at a fundamental level, the traditionalist commitments also augmented an elitism, authoritarianism, and, certainly, patriarchalism.37 Yet even if this was how later pedagogical developments unfolded in the Confucian tradition, it is possible to observe that the Master himself taught authoritatively but in a non-authoritarian manner.38

But what leaps out for me is the holism of the Confucian model. There is neither time nor space to make extensive comparisons with holistic pedagogies that are also emerging in the West. From an evangelical perspective, however, I would highlight only the recent proposal of James K. A. Smith from Calvin College which attends to the irreducible role of affectivity in the task of Christian higher education.39 From within this Calvinistic context, Smith presumes the importance of worldview thinking that has come to characterize much of the discussion especially among Reformed evangelicals. However human beings are not only thinking animals; they are also, if not chiefly, loving and desiring creatures. The formation of desire, Smith convincingly demonstrates, is habitual. Dispositions, character, and loves are formed by practices. Smith thus urges that Christian higher educators reconsider the role of liturgical practices and their possible implementation in the university context. This may involve simply paying closer attention to the various ritual practices that structure university life. But Smith is after more: perhaps there are Christian liturgies that can be adapted and modified for the task of higher education so that a distinctive kind of Christian imagination can be nurtured. His point is that there is more to education than the downloading of content and information. Equally if not more important is how such is mediated, and creative reappropriations of the basic practices formed deep within the traditions of the church may provide a boost to the contemporary tasks of Christian teaching and learning.40

Smith’s proposals invite further reflection and conversation when thinking about Christian higher education in global context. To be sure, Christian liturgy and Confucian rites are very different practices. What is intriguing is the consideration that they are, in these proposals, considered as central to the formation of the spiritual and moral life. Further, Smith’s recognition that affective formation and imagination and inspiration together constitute the heart of the educational task opens up to pedagogical reconsiderations in conversation with Confucian strategies designed to mold exemplary moral agents. Within the pietist tradition that constitutes a significant portion of the world of evangelical higher education, these matters are also being increasingly discussed.41 The pietist emphasis on the goal of personal transformation leads to a pedagogical orientation that addresses not only the head but also the heart and the hands.42 How might the conversation ensue if pietist educators and Reformed philosophers like Smith were to consider the methods of teaching in global context?

Possibilities for a Way Forward?

In this brief conclusion, we can do no more than confront two potential roadblocks to the preceding proposals and sketch possible paths forward. The first set of challenges has to do with the higher educational realities on the East Asian ground and across the Chinese diaspora. Put bluntly, since the Communist revolution, neo-Confucianism has been marginalized in many Chinese universities to the point that few Chinese students know much about the tradition. Unfortunately the hierarchicalism and patriarchalism persists in many sectors of Chinese higher education, but the dialogical model of Confucius and his disciples is still too little used. In fact, the exponential development of contemporary Chinese higher education is driven more by utilitarian motivations.43 This means that the character formation so central to the historic Confucian project is being subordinated to job-related concerns and the development of science and technology. Yet philosophers of education are leading a gradual reconsideration and recovery of Confucian pedagogy, so there is hope that this will continue going forward.

On the evangelical side, there are also parallel barriers hindering dialogue with the Confucian tradition. The “elephant in the room” may be this: how compatible is the worldview and way of life represented in Confucianism with evangelical theological commitments?44 On the one hand, it does no good simply to “baptize” either Confucian or other non-Western traditions in part or in whole. For one thing, Confucian traditions are diverse, and the various classics we have mentioned above actually do not all speak in one voice regarding the nature of heaven, earth, or humanity. At the very least they are amenable to diverse interpretations, which is in part precisely what characterizes classic texts. So while a hermeneutics of charity would observe initial similarities that provide points for contact for evangelical-Confucian dialogue, respecting the “otherness” that constitutes Confucianism in particular and other East Asian and broader Asian traditions in general suggests a more cautious posture. Historically, of course, the latter approach to the Confucian canon or legacy has concluded to a vision of human flourishing and the world believed incompatible with evangelical convictions.45 In fact, Asian and even Chinese evangelicals are liable to be even more hesitant to engage with the historic Chinese traditions for fear of syncretism.46

The preceding thought experiment, however, suggests that a respectful dialogue with non-Western traditions has the potential to revitalize evangelical pedagogical practice in global context rather than compromise evangelical faith. As observed, the holistic pedagogy of the Confucian tradition has long been directed toward the moral formation of sages. In the increasingly utilitarian world that characterizes higher education not only in America but around the world, evangelicals can find in the Confucian tradition new allies in forging a common conversation about cultivating human character, not just developing human techniques or advancing human technologies. In fact, preliminary reports from the global frontier suggest that evangelicals are straining to keep alive the liberal arts project against the sweeping demands for professional and technical education directed toward vocational career development.47 Thus the long-term staying power of these historic pedagogical strategies, goals, and initiatives hangs precariously in the balance of both financial pressures and globalizing trends. I hope that enough has been said above to indicate how at least on the important issues of moral, spiritual, and character formation, evangelicals ought to be open to making common cause with others, and that the Confucian tradition provides complementary resources for such revitalization and resourcement. Many higher educators are already discussing a liberating and rightly ordered pedagogy and scholarship, and evangelicals ought to engage these, even with Confucian interlocutors.

In closing, then, let me make the following four recommendations:

  1. Evangelicals – including Asian American evangelicals – need to continue discussing what is involved in the task of global higher education, and what it might be to engage with East Asian traditions and sources more particularly.48
  2. Evangelicals need to also include in their circle of dialogue partners non-evangelical Christians (Asian Americans and otherwise) and others across the Asian diaspora to consider the role of these East Asian sources and classics in the global context.49
  3. Evangelicals ought also to engage with East Asian evangelicals in particular and East Asian Christians in general – across the Pacific Rim, so to speak – about how to understand the interface of Christianity with the legacy of the Confucian tradition.50
  4. There should be multi-leveled – that is, within North America, globally, and with East Asia specifically – interdisciplinary conversations involving literature scholars, artists, and others across the humanities about the Confucian tradition given the expansiveness of that educational model.

These conversations cannot wait for each other to be completed, so they should be engaged simultaneously on all fronts. Others outside of evangelical circles are already engaged with them at different levels, and even some evangelicals have entered in the discussion, although most have not published explicitly in this vein as such. May evangelicals enter more conspicuously into these venues.51

Cite this article
Amos Yong, “Evangelical Paideia Overlooking the Pacific Rim: On the Opportunities and Challenges of Globalization for Christian Higher Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 393-409


  1. My first foray into this set of questions emerged out of thinking about the task of higher education within the context of a global Christian renewal movement; see my Finding the Holy Spirit at the Christian University: Renewal and the Future of Higher Education in the Pentecostal-Charismatic Tradition,” in Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the 21st Century: Insights, Analyses, and Future Trends, ed. Vinson Synan (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2011), 455-476 and 577-587.
  2. See, for example, Nick Lantinga, ed., Christian Higher Education in the Global Context: Implications for Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Administration (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press and the International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education, 2008). The International Association for the Promotion of Christian Higher Education (IAPCHE) which produced this volume has also led the global evangelical conversation in many other respects, although much of its work that it has produced is still too little known and in dire need for wider circulation and discussion.
  3. I discuss some of the more important works in the field in my “Whence and Whither Evangelical Higher Education? Past Debates, Present Challenges, Future Opportunities – A Review Essay,” Christian Scholar’s Review 42.2 (2013): 179-192.
  4. See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds., Atlas of Global Christianity 1910-2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
  5. See, for example, Philip G. Altbach, Comparative Higher Education: Knowledge, the University, and Development (Greenwich, CT, and London: Ablex Publishing Corp., 1998); Peter Ninnes and Meeri Hellstén, eds., Internationalizing Higher Education: Critical Perspectives on Pedagogy and Policy, CERC Studies in Comparative Education 16 (Hong Kong: Springer/Comparative Education Research Centre of The University of Hong Kong, 2005); Robert F. Arnove and Carlos Alberto Torres, eds., Comparative Education: The Dialectic of the Global and the Local, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Karen Mundy, et al., eds., Comparative and International Education: Issues for Teachers (New York and London: Teachers College Press, and Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, Inc., 2008), among other works.
  6. As argued in David Chapman, William K. Cummings, and Gerard A. Postiglione, eds., Crossing Borders in East Asian Higher Education, CERC Studies in Comparative Education 27 (Hong Kong: Springer/Comparative Education Research Centre & The University of Hong Kong, 2010).
  7. This is the major suggestion proposed by Nelly García Murillo, “Christian Higher Education in a Global Context: Implications for Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Administration,” Evangelical Review of Theology 36.1 (2012): 4-13, one of the few articles devoted to thinking evangelically about global higher education.
  8. A much more expansive defense of such an evangelical theology of higher education is developed in Amos Yong and Dale Counter, Finding the Holy Spirit at the Christian University: Renewing Christian Higher Education [working title] (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, forthcoming).
  9. See, for example, Peter D. Hershock, Mark Mason, and John N. Hawkins, eds., Changing Education: Leadership, Innovation and Development in a Globalizing Asia Pacific, CERC Studies in Comparative Education 20 (Hong Kong: Springer/Comparative Education Research Centre & The University of Hong Kong, 2007), and Emily Hannum, Hyunjoon Park, and Yuko Goto Butler, eds., Globalization, Changing Demographics, and Educational Challenges in East Asia, Research in Sociology of Education 17 (Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2010).
  10. See Qiang Zha, “Is There an Emerging Chinese Model of the University?” in Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the Move to Mass Higher Education, eds. Ruth Hayhoe, Jun Li, Jing Lin, and Qiang Zha, CERC Studies in Comparative Education 30 (Hong Kong: Springer/Comparative Education Research Centre & The University of Hong Kong, 2011), 451-471, esp. 452.
  11. On the role and accomplishments of Zhu Xi, see William Theodore de Bary, Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981). While I include the pinyin version (in parenthesis) because of its widespread acceptance even outside of mainland China since the last quarter of the twentieth century, many translations under the older Wade-Giles system remain in circulation, some of which I will be citing (and in that case retaining the Wade-Giles rendition in the originals) in what follows.
  12. This has misled even noted scholars like Martha Nussbaum to minimize the import of engaging with the Chinese in thinking about global education today; see Nussbaum, “The Ugly Models: Why Are Liberals So Impressed by China and Singapore’s School Systems?” The New Republic (1 July 2010), For a more balanced assessment, which can also be read as a preemptory deflection of Nussbaum’s criticisms in considering not only the complexity of the issues in the Chinese and East Asian contexts, but also the under-performance of students in Western classrooms, see David A. Watkins and John B. Biggs, “Insights into Teaching the Chinese Learner,” in Teaching the Chinese Learner: Psychological and Pedagogical Perspectives, eds. David A. Watkins and John B. Biggs (Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre & The University of Hong Kong, 2001), 277-300.
  13. For instance, Ming philosopher Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529) and Qing scholars Yan Yuan (1635-1704) and Dai Zhen (1723-1777) all reacted to and engaged in debate with the received tradition of teaching and learning even as they worked either within (Wang and Dai) or on the margins (Yan Yuan) of the established system. We will have occasion to interact briefly with the ideas of Wang below.
  14. A full historical account that observes developments in both arenas has been provided by Thomas H. C. Lee, Education in Traditional China: A History, Handbook of Oriental Studies Section Four: China 13 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2000). A shorter essay version is provided by William Theodore de Bary, “Confucian Education in Premodern East Asia,” in Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons, ed. Tu Wei-Ming (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 21-37.
  15. Qiang Zha, “Is There an Emerging Chinese Model of the University?” 453.
  16. See Tu Wei-Ming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985); and William Theodore de Bary, Learning for One’s Self: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
  17. My quotations derive from, D. C. Lau, trans., The Analects (Lun yü) (London: Penguin Books, (1970), 2.4; subsequent references in the text.
  18. D. C. Lau, trans., Mencius (London: Penguin, 1970), VII.b.16; subsequent references in the text.
  19. See Kevin Ryan, “In Defense of Character Development,” in Chinese Foundations for Moral Education and Character Development, eds. Tran Van Doan, Vincent Shen, and George F. McLean (Washington, DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1991), 185-196.
  20. This was in part the result of Zhu Xi’s pursuing “a middle course between Buddhist transcendentalism and utilitarian careerism,” as indicated in William Theodore de Bary and John W. Chaffee, eds., Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 7.
  21. This quotation is taken from the translation of James Legge (1893), available on the internet at; for a more expansive contemporary translation, see Andrew Plaks, trans., Ta Hsüeh and Chung Yung (The Highest Order of Cultivation and On the Practice of the Mean) (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 5-6.
  22. See “The Doctrine of the Mean,” in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed., trans. Wing-Tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 98.
  23. Chung-Ying Cheng, “Education for Morality in Global and Cosmic Contexts: The Confucian Model,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 33 (2006): 561.
  24. Jin Li, “Learning to Self-Perfect: Chinese Beliefs about Learning,” in Revisiting the Chinese Learner: Changing Contexts, Changing Education, eds. Carol K. K. Chan and Nirmala Rao, CERC Studies in Comparative Education 25 (Hong Kong: Springer/Comparative Education Research Centre & The University of Hong Kong, 2009), 35-69, at 49.
  25. See, for instance, Douglas V. Henry and Michael D. Beaty, eds., The Schooled Heart: Moral Formation in American Higher Education, Studies in Religion and Higher Education 4 (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007); Perry L. Glanzer and Todd C. Ream, Christianity and Moral Identity in Higher Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and, very different in approach but yet striking at the heart of many of the issues, Harvey Cox, When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company/Mariner Book, 2004) – all of which are constructive proposals in the wake of a long line of analyses about how universities have abandoned the important task of “soul formation” that has roots in ancient Greco-Roman Paideia. See, for example, George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001).
  26. See Steven B. Sherman, Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Evangelical Approaches to the Knowledge of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008); and Sara Wenger Shenk, Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003).
  27. See, for example, Burt D. Braunius, “Theological Concepts for a Relational Approach to Church Education,” Christian Education Journal 16.2 (1996): 13-22; and Hwa Yung, “Energising Community: Theological Education’s Relational Mandate,” Evangelical Review of Theology 35.1 (2011): 61-77.
  28. Long recognized as a master teacher, there are many facets to his instructional approaches. For starters, see Chen Li-fu, Why Confucius Has Been Reverenced as the Model Teacher of All Ages, Asian Philosophical Studies 7 (New York: St. John’s University Press, 1976), esp. chs. 5-6. A concise overview is Jianping Shen, “Confucius, 551–479 BCE,” in Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey, eds. Joy A. Palmer, Liora Bresler, and David E. Cooper (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 1-5.
  29. We do not need to concern ourselves with the historical-critical and textual questions related to these texts as I am merely trying to provide a portrait of Confucian-inspired pedagogies rather than trying to establish how Confucius himself taught. For an introduction to the former matters, see Michael Nylan, The Five “Confucian” Classics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), esp. 1-71.
  30. Yet it is also plausible and legitimate to understand Confucian conservatism as hearkening to tradition in order to reform or renew contemporary society, as argued by William Theodore de Bary, The Liberal Tradition in China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, and New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 7-8 and passim.
  31. See the discussion of the various adaptations by Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000).
  32. Later, under influence of Buddhist traditions, the ritual character of interpersonal interaction was extended beyond the professional and civil domains to the “workplace” (or the farms or fields, as the cases may be); see Hsueh-Li Cheng, “Confucianism and Zen (Ch’an) Philosophy of Education,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 12 (1985): 197-215.
  33. As clarified by Mary Louise Serafine, Music as Cognition: The Development of Thought in Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
  34. Liang Cheng, and Nan Xu, “The Complexity of Chinese Pedagogic Discourse,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43.5 (2011): 606-614, at 608.
  35. Amy Olberding, “The Educative Function of Personal Style in the Analects,” Philosophy East & West 57.3 (2007): 357-374, goes further to say that to a degree, the portrayal of the Master himself in the pages of the Analects is morally exemplary, particularly his simplicity, awareness, demeanor, attitude, unassuming posture, dignified light-heartedness, and attentiveness to details of everyday mundaneness. Yet Olberding also cautions that Confucius’ deviant style at places in the Analects means that he is ultimately simply a man who is virtuous rather than a paragon of virtuosity.
  36. Wenli Yu, “Pedagogy of Political Education in Confucian Analects: A Critical Perspective,” address given at Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia, Honolulu, Hawaii, 3-6 December 2009; available at (last accessed 15 March 2012).
  37. Joel Spring, Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom, and Culture from Confucianism to Human Rights, 3rd ed. (New York and London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008), esp. ch. 1.
  38. As observed by evangelical educator Robert J. Radcliffe, “Confucius and Dewey,” Religious Education 84.2 (1989): 215-231.
  39. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview & Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
  40. A follow-up volume devoted specifically to pedagogical matters is David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith, eds., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011).
  41. See Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  42. Kurt W. Peterson and R. J. Snell, “‘Faith Forms the Intellectual Task’: The Pietist Option in Christian Higher Education,” in The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, eds. Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 215-230, esp. 217.
  43. See Janel Marie Curry, “Cultural Challenges in Hong Kong to the Implementation of Effective General Education,” in Teaching in Higher Education 17.2 (2012): 223-230. Thanks to Curry for sharing her pre-publication version.
  44. The larger question percolating underneath is that pertaining to theology of religious pluralism. My own sense is that evangelicals are now in a better position to engage other religious traditions more discriminatingly than in the past – that is, they are capable of interacting at some levels while being more reserved at other levels, rather than simply saying “no.” I articulate a theological posture primed for such a nuanced mode of engagement in a number of my books, especially my Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor, Faith Meets Faith series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008).
  45. As argued of the Neo-Confucianism of Wang Yangming and of the Reformed Calvinism of Alvin Plantinga by David W. Tien, “Warranted Neo-Confucian Belief: Religious Pluralism and the Affections in the Epistemologies of Wang Yangming (1472-1529) and Alvin Plantinga,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 55 (2004): 31-55.
  46. I have found – for example, see my “Asian American Historicity: The Problem and Promise of Evangelical Theology,” Society of Asian North American Christian Studies Journal (45-58) – that many Asian American evangelicals have internalized the white evangelical understanding of culture as having normative implications for marginalizing cultural particularity. This also is a distinct form of racialization that Asian Americans, evangelical and otherwise, have to negotiate in their assimilation into North America. See my “Race and Racialization in a Post-Racist Evangelicalism: A View from Asian America,” in Aliens in the Promised Land: Race and Evangelicalism, ed. Anthony B. Bradley (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), forthcoming, and Julie J. Park and Robert T. Teranishi, “Asian American and Pacific Islander Serving Institutions: Historical Perspectives and Future Prospects,” in Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions, eds. Marybeth Gasman, Benjamin Baez, and Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 111-126.
  47. See Perry L. Glanzer, Joel A. Carpenter, and Nick Lantinga, “Looking for God in the University: Examining Trends in Christian Higher Education,” Higher Education 61.6 (2010): 721-755, esp. 732-734; and Joel A Carpenter, “New Christian Universities and the Conversion of Cultures,” Evangelical Review of Theology 36.1 (2012): 14-30, esp. 24-29. Thanks to Carpenter for pointing me to these informative articles.
  48. I provide further theological rationale for such engagement in my forthcoming Evangelical Theology in the 21st Century: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).
  49. This would involve Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and others who have been thinking about these matters for some time; see my “Asian American Evangelical Theology,” in Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective: Exploring the Contextual Nature of Theology and Mission, eds. Jeffrey Greenman and Gene L. Green (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 195-209.
  50. Here we ought to be attentive to the long history of Christian interface with East Asian cultures; there is much to be learned from the vicissitudes of these histories.
  51. Research for this article was made possible by a spring semester 2012 fellowship through the Center for Christian Thought (CCT) at Biola University, La Mirada, California. Gregg Ten Elshof was a welcoming CCT host and engaging dialogue partner on the topics of this paper and Evan Rosa a wonderfully helpful CCT research assistant. I am grateful to my other colleagues at the CCT for feedback on an earlier draft of this article. A previous draft of this was also the basis of a lecture given to the faculty and staff at Westmont College on April 5, 2012. Thanks especially to Helen Rhee for coordinating the lecture and to members of the Westmont community for their probing questions and comments in response. Finally, I appreciate encouraging and in-depth feedback from Joel Carpenter and Janel Curry, insightful remarks from Todd Ream (who also directed me to Joel and Janel and this special issue of CSR), helpful comments from an anonymous referee, proofreading by Vince Le and Timothy Lim Teck Ngern, two of my doctoral students, and final editorial assistance by Vince Le. I remain responsible for errors of fact or interpretation.

Amos Yong

Fuller Theological Seminary
Amos Yong is Dean of the School of Theology and the School of Intercultural Studies, as well as Professor of Theology and Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary.