How do cosmology and Confucianism resonate?

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Special: WE speak

By Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University

The concept of evolution is yet another new idea. We humans try to internalize what that 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. Likewise, the idea of ​​cosmic evolution, as discovered by 20th-century scientists, is only slowly being understood by the general public.

Before we can find our way back home in the universe, we must embrace evolution as an unfolding process interwoven with creativity. With careful reflection, we can see ourselves as part of a dynamic integrated whole: cosmos, earth and people. Confucianism, in particular, with its “continuity of being” is an invaluable bridge for people trying to place themselves in a larger sense of the universe and the earth.

Cultural historian Thomas Berry inspired this in his 1978 call for a new history. He noted that community responsibility 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 itself. In contrast, Confucianism sees the moral value of nature as fundamental to its worldview.

So the question remains, how do we move forward to embrace cosmologies and ethics that celebrate the continuity of being and its implications for a broader ethic that includes the cosmos and the world of life? I would suggest that new openings emerge from the integrative insights of both science and religion.

First, we can highlight the systems sciences that embrace holism and affirm the complex interconnections of ecosystems. Research and literature on the vitality of nature and the sentience of other species is exploding all around us. Similarly, our understanding of trees and forests in the biological world is growing rapidly.

Second, such understandings and insights from science can be complemented by the cosmological and ecological worldviews of other religious and spiritual traditions such as indigenous life and Confucianism.

It is also evident that throughout its history Confucianism has adopted a dynamic cosmological and ecological worldview. This ranges from antiquity to the present: from the Book of Changes, which encourages people to harmonize with the rhythms of nature; to the Han Confucian Correspondences for Human-Earth-Cosmic Relations; to the Neo-Confucians who adopted the Great Ultimate diagram to illustrate the origin and flow of the cosmos and the earth. The rich cosmological resources of this tradition must be incorporated into 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 expressions of spiritual humanism, namely corporate ethics, forms of self-transformation, and ritual practices. These forms of spiritual humanism are interconnected and initiate patterns of relational resonance between human beings and the ever-expanding, interconnected circles of life.

The cosmological orientation of the Confucian worldview was described by Tu Weiming as a “continuity of being” between all forms of life without a radical break between the cosmic, natural and human worlds. Heaven, earth and people are part of a continuous worldview that is organic, holistic and dynamic. Tu Weiming used the term “anthropocosmic” to describe this integral connection between humans and the cosmos.

Humans are connected to each other and to the larger cosmological order by an elaborate system of corporate ethics. Reciprocity is a key to Confucian ethics and the means by which Confucian societies develop a common ground so that they can become a bonded “fiduciary community.”

In all of this, Confucian spiritual humanism aims at moral transformation so that the individual can realize his or her full personality. Furthermore, as Tu Weiming states, this process of spiritual self-transformation is a collective act. It is not an individual spiritual path aimed at personal salvation. Rather, it is an ongoing process of rectification to cultivate one’s “luminous virtue.” The ultimate goal of such self-cultivation is the realization of wisdom, which is the attainment of one’s cosmological being.

Achieving one’s cosmological being means that people must be attentive to one another, responsive to the needs of society, attuned to the natural world through ritual and the arts, and celestially aware of it. All of this establishes patterns of kinship. In the Confucian context, there were rituals performed at official state ceremonies as well as rituals in Confucian temples. However, the primary focus of ritual in the Confucian tradition was daily exchanges and rites of passage intended to smooth and enhance human relationships. For the early Confucian thinker Xunzi, rituals are viewed as vehicles for expressing the range and depth of human emotions in appropriate contexts and in appropriate ways. They also connect people to each other and to the other key dimensions of reality – the political order, the seasonal cycles of nature, and the cosmos itself.

On a personal level, the whole process of self-cultivation in Confucian spiritual humanism aims to achieve authenticity and sincerity through diligent study, critical self-examination, continuous effort, and a willingness to change oneself. Tu Weiming speaks of “embodied knowledge”. “Learning for yourself,” not simply taking in ideas uncritically or trying to impress others, is seen as essential to this process. Authenticity can therefore only be realized through constant transformation to align oneself with the creative and creative forces of heaven and earth. This process of harmonizing with changes in the universe can be identified as the main source of Confucian spiritual humanism, which is 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 human beings. Every moral virtue had its cosmological component. For example, the central virtue of humanity (Jen) was seen as the source of fertility and growth both in the individual and in the cosmos. By practicing humanity, one could affect the transformation of things within oneself, in society, and in the cosmos. In doing so, the deeper identity with reality was recognized as forming one body with all things, thereby realizing one’s cosmological being.

All of this, for Zhu Xi, was part of a dynamic process of mutual interaction of the qi of man interacting with the qi of the cosmos. The flow of life and energy is seen in the Qi (material force or vital energy) which unites the plant, animal and human worlds and also permeates all elements of the cosmos. As Zhu put it, “Once a person’s spirit has moved, it must reach the qi [of Heaven and Earth] and stimulate and interact with each other [qi] that contracts and expands, goes and comes.”

The 11th-century Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai (1020-1077) articulated this perspective with his remarkable western inscription. “Heaven is my father, and earth is my mother, and even a creature so small as I have a place in their midst.” While these verses were meant metaphorically, we now know their truth scientifically. Life arises from the generative dynamics of stars and from the intricate matrix of ecosystems. “Home” in a traditional Chinese context, then, is the nested creativity of the cosmos and the earth into which human beings are born and belong. The extension of childlike reverence to the whole universe and the earth is thus not only a powerful metaphorical image, but also a cosmological and biological imperative for the continuity of life.

Our vocation, therefore, is to see ourselves as a sense of wholeness and belonging that is not only social but also cosmological and ecological, as Confucianism amply demonstrates. Similarly, the preamble to the Earth Charter, a 2000 global ethical document, states: “Humanity is part of a vast, evolving universe. The earth, our homeland, lives with a unique community of life.”

Confucianism also clearly offers a remarkably rich cosmological perspective consistent with evolution and ecology. For as Confucians recognize, the cosmos and the earth are indeed our home, our birthplace, a womb of immense creativity. Now we know scientifically that the earth and all life forms emerged from billions of years of cosmic evolution. The thin atmosphere of our planet created the conditions for life.

Such an understanding of the continuity of being as offered by Confucianism is certainly a basis for a more robust cosmological ethics and cosmopolitics based on reverence and respect for the universe as that which gave birth to the elements of life; Responsibility and reciprocity for the earth community as what life evolved and sustained; and renewal and resilience for people who create the conditions for human thriving. All of this is necessary to participate as mutually enhancing co-creators in a vast, evolving universe that is our home.

About the author

Maria 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 religion and ecology in the MA program and chairs 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 volumes with Tu Weiming on Confucian Spirituality (Herder & Herder 2003, 2004). . She was a member of the International Earth Charter Drafting Committee and 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.


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