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Bishop Joseph Butler and Wang Yangming

A Comparative Study of Their Moral Vision and View of Conscience

Peter T.C. Chang

This book is a comparative study of the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler’s and Neo-Confucianist Wang Yangming’s ethical enterprise. It first analyses, within their respective historical context, the two thinkers’ overarching worldviews and their seminal conception of conscience / liang-chih as a person's supreme moral guide. The English bishop and the Chinese philosopher-military general are then brought into dialogue by way of a comparing and contrasting of their distinct religious-philosophical traditions. In addition, Butler and Wang will be placed in a hypothetical encounter to explore how they, and by proxy Christianity and Confucianism, would critically appraise each other’s spiritual and sociopolitical endeavor. The end purpose of this study is to enhance our perception of the intriguing similarities and complex differences that exist between these two Axial Age civilizations. The author argues that dissonances notwithstanding, Butler and Wang share core values, consonances that could and should set the tone for an amiable Christian-Confucian co-existence.
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Chapter 2: Bishop Joseph Butler’s Account of the Christian Order and Conception of Conscience


Chapter 2 Bishop Joseph Butler’s Account of the Christian Order and Conception of Conscience

After a century of turmoil, England in the early 18th century was enjoying a period of tranquility. The English political hierarchy had stabilized, with Parliament presiding over the Monarchy and the Church. Under the Lockean vision, the state carved out and secured a civil public space recognizing the Englishman’s rights to hold divergent private religious views. Political pragmatism transformed England into a sanctuary of toleration, laying the framework for the eventual modern notion of the civil society. Yet in the ecclesiastical establishment’s calculus, the civility earned through political compromises did not come without a moral price. Within the hallowed halls of the sanctuaries, grumbling about moral decay was growing in amplitude.

No age, since the founding and forming of the Christian Church, was ever like, in opened avowed atheism, blasphemies, and heresies, to the age we now live in. (Daniel Defoe, quoted in Stromberg, 1954, p. 2)

Joseph Butler’s (1692–1752 CE) distinguished career as an Anglican bishop and philosopher-theologian was set in this period of political calm, which was marked nevertheless by an undercurrent of moral discontent. In his Analogy of Religion, Bishop Butler echoed the prevailing lamentation of an eroding reverence for the Christian faith.

Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, now at length, discovered to be fictitious … a subject of mirth and ridicule. (Butler, 1900, V2, p....

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