Special: W.E. Talk
By Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University
The concept of evolution is still a new idea. We humans are trying to absorb what this is and what it means to us. Evolution is one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern science over many decades of research. The theory of biological evolution as first presented by Charles Darwin in his book, On the Origin of Species, is only 160 years old. Similarly, the idea of cosmic evolution as discovered by 20th century scientists is only slowly being understood by a broad public.
Before we can find our way back home in the universe, we need to embrace evolution as an unfolding process woven through with creativity. With careful reflection, we can see ourselves as part of a dynamic integrated whole: cosmos, Earth, and humans. Confucianism in particular with its “continuity of being” is an invaluable bridge for humans trying to situate themselves in a larger sense of universe and Earth.
Cultural historian, Thomas Berry, inspired this in his call for a New Story in 1978. He noted how the responsibilities to the whole community of life is rarely mentioned in the west, except in environmental circles. The intrinsic value of nature is sidelined and claims to the moral value of nature are largely ignored. The aesthetic and recreational value of nature is recognized, but not the deep value of nature in itself. In contrast, Confucianism sees the moral value of nature as fundamental to its worldview.
The question remains, then, how do we move forward to embrace cosmologies and ethics that celebrate the continuity of being and its implications for more comprehensive ethics that includes the cosmos and the life world? I would suggest that new openings are emerging from the integrative insights of both science and religion.
First, we can highlight systems sciences, which embrace holism and affirms the complex interconnections of ecosystems. The research and literature on the aliveness of nature and the sentience of other species is bursting forth all around us. Similarly in the biological world, our understanding of trees and forests is growing rapidly.
Secondly, such understandings and insights from science can be complemented by the cosmological and ecological worldviews of other religious and spiritual traditions, such as indigenous lifeways and Confucianism.
It is evident as well that Confucianism, has embraced a dynamic cosmological and ecological worldview throughout its history. This ranges from antiquity to the present: from the Book of Changes encouraging humans to harmonize with nature’s rhythmns; to the Han Confucians correspondences for human-Earth-cosmic relations; to the Neo-Confucians who embraced the Diagram of the Great Ultimate to illustrate the origin and flow of the cosmos and Earth. The rich cosmological resources of this tradition need to be included in discussions of evolutionary cosmology so that the perspectives of science and spiritual humanism can be woven together.
The cosmological orientation of Confucianism provides a holistic context for ways of expressing spiritual humanism, namely, communitarian ethics, modes of self-transformation, and ritual practices. These forms of spiritual humanism are interrelated and they set in motion patterns of relational resonance between humans and the ever-expanding, interconnected circles of life.
The cosmological orientation of the Confucian worldview has been described by Tu Weiming as encompassing a “continuity of being” between all life forms without a radical break between the cosmic, natural, and human worlds. Heaven, Earth, and humans are part of a continuous worldview that is organic, holistic, and dynamic. Tu Weiming has used the term “anthropocosmic” to describe this integral relatedness of humans to the cosmos.
Humans are connected to one another and to the larger cosmological order through an elaborate system of communitarian ethics. Reciprocity is a key to Confucian ethics and the means by which Confucian societies develop a communitarian basis so that they can become a bonded “fiduciary community.”
In all of this, Confucian spiritual humanism aims at moral transformation so that individuals can realize their full personhood. Moreover, as Tu Weiming observes, this process of spiritual self-transformation is a communal act. It is not an individual spiritual path aimed at personal salvation. It is, rather, an ongoing process of rectification so as to cultivate one’s “luminous virtue.” The ultimate goal of such self-cultivation is the realization of sagehood, namely the attainment of one’s cosmological being.
Attainment of one’s cosmological being means that humans must be attentive to one another, responsive to the needs of society, attuned to the natural world through rituals and the arts, and aware of the celestial bodies above. All of this establishes patterns of relatedness. In the Confucian context there were rituals performed at official state ceremonials as well as rituals at Confucian temples. However, the primary emphasis of ritual in the Confucian tradition was daily interchanges and rites of passage intended to smooth and elevate human relations. For the early Confucian thinker, Xunzi, rituals are seen as vehicles for expressing the range and depth of human emotion in appropriate contexts and in an adequate manner. Moreover, they link humans to one another and to the other key dimensions of reality — the political order, nature’s seasonal cycles, and the cosmos itself.
On a personal level, the whole process of self-cultivation in Confucian spiritual humanism is aimed at achieving authenticity and sincerity through conscientious study, critical self-examination, continual effort, and a willingness to change oneself. Tu Weiming speaks of this as “embodied knowing”. “Learning for oneself,” not simply absorbing ideas uncritically or trying to impress others, is considered essential to this process. Thus, authenticity can only be realized by constant transformation so as to bring oneself into consonance with the creative and generative powers of Heaven and Earth. This process of harmonizing with changes in the universe can be identified as a major wellspring of Confucian spiritual humanism expressed in various forms of self-cultivation.
Zhu Xi, and the Neo-Confucians after him, affirmed change as the source of transformation in both the cosmos and the person. Each moral virtue had its cosmological component. For example, the central virtue of humaneness (jen) was seen as the source of fecundity and growth in both the individual and the cosmos. By practicing humaneness, one could affect the transformation of things in oneself, in society, and in the cosmos. In so doing, one’s deeper identity with reality was recognized as forming one body with all things, thus actualizing one’s cosmological being.
All of this for Zhu Xi was part of a dynamic process of the mutual interaction of the qi of the person interacting with the qi of the cosmos. The flow of life and energy is seen in qi (material force or vital energy) which unifies the plant, animal, and human worlds, and pervades all the elements of the cosmos as well. As Zhu put it: “Once a person’s mind has moved, it must reach the qi [of Heaven and Earth] and mutually stimulate and interact with this [qi] that contracts and expands, goes and comes.”
The eleventh century neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhang Zai (1020-1077), articulated this perspective with his notable Western Inscription. “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I have a place in their midst.” While these verses were intended metaphorically, we know now their truth scientifically. Life arises from the generative dynamics of stars and from the intricate matrix of ecosystems. So “home” in a traditional Chinese context is the nested creativity of the cosmos and Earth into which humans are born and belong. The extension, then, of filial piety to the whole universe and Earth is not simply an evocative metaphorical image, it is also a cosmological and biological imperative for the continuity of life.
Our calling, then, is to see ourselves as having a sense of wholeness and belonging that is not just social, but also cosmological and ecological, as Confucianism richly demonstrates. Similarly, as the Earth Charter, a global ethical document issued in 2000, states in the preamble: “Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth our home is alive with a unique community of life.”
Confucianism also clearly offers a remarkably rich cosmological perspective that is compatible with evolution and ecology. For as the Confucians recognize, the cosmos and the Earth are indeed our home, our birthplace, a womb of immense creativity. Now we know scientifically that Earth and all life forms came out of billions of years of cosmic evolution. The thin layer of atmosphere of our planet created the conditions for life.
Such an understanding of the continuity of being as Confucianism offers is surely grounds for a more robust cosmological ethics and a cosmopolitics, which are based on reverence and respect for the universe as that which birthed the elements of life; responsibility and reciprocity for the Earth community as that which evolved and sustained life; and renewal and resilience for humans who are creating the conditions for human flourishing. All of this is necessary for participating as mutually enhancing co-creators in a vast evolving universe, which is our home.
About the author
Mary Evelyn Tucker
Mary Evelyn Tucker is a Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar at Yale in the School of the Environment, the Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies. She teaches in the MA program in religion and ecology and directs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology with her husband, John Grim. She has published several other volumes on Confucianism including Moral and Spiritual Cultivation in Japanese Neo-Confucianism, (SUNY 1989) The Philosophy of Qi (Columbia, 2007), and two volume with Tu Weiming on Confucian Spirituality (Herder & Herder 2003, 2004). She served on the International Earth Charter Drafting Committee and was a member of the Earth Charter International Council. She received an Inspiring Yale Teaching Award in April 2015. In June 2019 she and John Grim received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Religion, Nature, and Culture.