Friday, December 1, 2023

Straightening the Warped Wood: A Confucian Reading of 2 Nephi 2:25

The following is my application to the Mormon Theology Seminar. They asked for a creative and close reading of 2 Nephi 2:25. 

Lehi begins his blessing by telling his son Jacob that he was born in the wilderness and “suffered afflictions and much sorrow.” V.1 But, Lehi promised, those afflictions would be “consecrated for his gain.’ V2 because he was redeemed by his Savior. V.3 This blessing and explanation of Jesus’ role culminates in the famous couplet: Adam fell that man might be and men are that they might have joy.

The joy of mankind’s purpose immediately contrasts with Biblical verses who emphasize the conditions of the lone and dreary world that would be cursed. Adam would eat by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:17) and women would bring forth children in sorrow (Gen. 3:16).

But when viewed through Confucian teachings, that sorrow is what leads to joy. This Confucian lens bridges the gap between the Biblical account of the fall that emphasizes tribulation, and Lehi’s version, which quickly pivots from tribulation to joy and omits the tribulation all together in his famous couplet.

One of the leading Confucian thinkers Xunzi, often called the Chinese Aristotle for his command of a wide range of topics over a similar time period as the Greek thinker, discussed fallen human nature and its relation to self-improvement and joy.

In contrast to other Confucian thinkers like Mencius (whom Xunzi names in his rebuttal), Xunzi believed that human nature was fallen. Sounding much King Benjamin about the carnal, sensual and devilish “natural man” (Mosiah 3:19), Xunzi wrote: People’s nature is bad…goodness is a matter of deliberate effort. They are born with feelings of hate and dislike in them. If they follow along with these, then cruelty and villainy will arise.[1] (Xunzi also believed that a sage ruler would supplant a mere hegemon by recognizing his people’s nature, teaching them what is right, and guiding them on the way, again sounding like King Benjamin’s role in Mosiah chapters 1-3.)

This sounds negative at first glance, but his message is positive because this fallen or sinful nature can lead to great joy. Xunzi explained that recognizing man’s fallen nature is like a craftsman that sees a crooked piece of word, potter adding water to raw clay, or a smith that sees unrefined metal.[2] “Crooked wood must await streaming and straightening…only then does it become straight. Blunt metal must await honing and grinding, and only then does it become sharp.”[3] The people, honed by Confucian rituals and behavior, find themselves living in a blessed and happy state as gentlemen, being able to overcome the vicissitudes of life.

The most applicable part of being a gentleman is maintaining composure during toil, such as those experienced by Jacob, Adam, and everyone living in a fallen world. Xunzi thought that even people “on the streets” or in the lowliest gutter of fallen life could apply these principles.[4]  Once perfected, the Confucian gentlemen retains peace and happiness no matter the situation. “Even if living in poverty, the gentlemen’s intentions are still grand. Even if wealthy and honored, his demeanor is reverent. Even if living at easy, his blood and qi are not lazy. Even if weary from toil, his countenance is not disagreeable. When angry he is not excessively harsh, and when happy he is not excessively indulgent.”[5]

The Confucian lens thus makes an explicit connection between man’s fallen nature, and their capacity for joy. It not only shows some congruency with Lehi’s teachings, but adds much more, filling in the blanks of what specific actions within life leads to joy, as simply as a crooked piece of wood being straightened by a craftsman. The fall leads to trial, which in turn leads to joy because of the perfecting actions prescribed by rituals and proper conduct.

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[1] Eric Hutton, trans., Xunzi: The Complete Text, (Princeton University Press, 2014,) 248.

[2] Ibid., 65, 201, 204, 209, 210, 250.

[3] Ibid., 248.

[4] Ibid., 254.

[5] Ibid., 15.