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Joshua Brown’s Book Connects Christianity and Confucianism

Shannon Hunt, C'19
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

brown family feature

Mount theology professor and author Joshua Brown, Ph.D., finds himself on the border between two cultures and two belief systems. Brown and his wife, Jamie, the Mount’s associate director of residence life, met while both attended Campbell University. Together they have two sons, Elliott and Emmett, ages five and four. Born just 17 months apart, the boys share both U.S. and Chinese ancestry. Jamie’s family is Chinese by way of Malaysia, and Josh hails from North Carolina. The Browns’ home life contains elements of both cultures. Their diet explores Asian cuisine, and the family speaks some Mandarin at home. Brown is working on it: “If you dropped me off in Beijing,” he says, “I could probably survive, but I would never say I was fluent.”

josh.brown.teaching-1.jpgBrown’s sons were a major inspiration for his recent book, Balthasar in Light of Early Confucianism, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.  This book explores the Catholic theology of the 20th century Swiss theologian and priest Hans Urs von Balthasar through the lens of the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism.  Because the Church recognizes that non-Christian traditions “can reflect the ways of God’s truth,” Brown hopes that his scholarly work will give his sons “something that can show them the connection between their Catholic and their Chinese heritage.”

Balthasar developed a sweeping post-Vatican II theology that Brown says “looks down the barrels of modernity.”  Focused on human engagement, Balthasar taught that experiencing God’s glory is similar to experiencing beauty in the world: it evokes love and wonder.  Recovering a sense of beauty thus helps us understand God’s love.  This love, Balthasar believed, will reinvigorate the secular commitments of Christians in a manner consistent with the Church’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes.

Brown mentions that Balthasar did not directly address Chinese philosophy in his work, but Confucianism usefully illuminates elements of Balthasar’s Catholic theology.  Concerned about engagement, Confucianism appreciates virtues that promote positive interactions between people.  It explores how people can live good lives as individuals and as members of a state and society; it studies moral questions and encourages moral practices.  Modifying the focus of the traditional Chinese practice of ancestor worship, Confucianism places less emphasis on sacrifice and more on acts of obedience to one’s parents.  Confucius was especially attracted to the idea of filial piety, also known as xiao [孝], which allows love to be performed through acts of obedience.

brown.book.cover.jpgBrown argues that Confucian xiao can provide significant insights into Jesus’ filial obedience.  As an example of how Chinese philosophy can be used to understand Christian ideas, Brown refers to the account of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple found in all four gospels. In Chinese philosophy, ancestral temples must be maintained so they can be used as places of sacrifice.  Repairing them may thus be understood as rituals of filial obedience.  Brown argues that our understanding of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple–which is often cited as an expression of his human capacity for anger–is deepened when we realize he was honoring his Father ritually by preserving the sanctity of his house and allowing others to worship there respectfully.

Brown says these kinds of insights anchor him in what matters and give him a “profound new appreciation of the gospel.”  “The ways of truth are love,” Brown reflects.  These ideals have impacted his roles as both son and father in his nuclear and his extended family.  “Prior to studying Confucius and Balthasar, I had a more individualistic view, which shaped how I approached family,” he said. “But now I know there are better ways to live our lives together.”

Both Browns have extended their loving family to include the Mount community.  Josh mentioned that Jamie’s involvement in every aspect of student life causes him to think frequently about “what it means to be here.”  As a recently hired professor, he said he had “a blast” teaching First-Year Symposium and admires how it “sets the tone and the vision” of the education the Mount offers.  Brown also teaches an introductory theology course centered on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings series.  When Brown encounters students again on campus or in his advanced theology courses, he says, “It’s fun to see them making progress towards graduation.” Social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis only reinforces Josh’s view that “the Mount is a great place to build relationships. “Not having that engagement is hard,” he explains, “but it does tell us how wonderful and how important it is during the crisis that we maintain some sense of the Mount. I found some of these ways, but they are not ideal, and I can’t wait to get back to normal.” 

Even with his focus on faith, family, and the Mount, Brown remains a very productive scholar in his area of systematic and comparative Catholic theology.   Bloomsbury Press in England is about to publish his second book, co-authored with Alexus McLeod, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut, about non-naturalism and transcendence early Chinese thought.  Brown is also deep into a third book, which will connect the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas with Chinese philosophy.  When asked how, with so many commitments, he can be such a productive scholar, he said his field is full of opportunity and that he is trying “to develop habits of daily work” just like his students.  He hopes all his work will teach them to see the world with mental lenses that provide new perspectives and keep them spiritually strong even during uncertain times.

Shannon Hunt, C'19
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts