How do cosmology and Confucianism resonate?


Special: WE speak

By Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University

The concept of evolution is still a new idea. We humans try to absorb what it is and what it means to us. Evolution is one of modern science’s most remarkable discoveries over 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 discovered by 20th century scientists is only slowly being understood by a wide audience.

Before we can find our way back into the universe, we must embrace evolution as a creatively woven unfolding process. With careful thought, we can see ourselves as part of a dynamic integrated whole: the cosmos, the 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 the universe and the Earth.

Cultural historian Thomas Berry drew on this in his call for a new history in 1978. He noted that responsibilities to the whole community of life are rarely mentioned in the West except in the environmental circles. The intrinsic value of nature is set aside 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 views the moral value of nature as fundamental to its worldview.

The question then remains, how can we move forward to embrace cosmologies and ethics that celebrate the continuity of being and its implications for a more holistic ethics that includes the cosmos and the world of life? I would say that new openings emerge from the integrative ideas of science and religion.

First, we can highlight systems science, which embraces holism and affirms the complex interconnections of ecosystems. Research and literature on the liveliness of nature and the susceptibility of other species are exploding all around us. Likewise, in the biological world, our understanding of trees and forests 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 ways of life and Confucianism.

It is also evident that Confucianism has embraced a dynamic cosmological and ecological worldview throughout its history. This goes from Antiquity to the present day: from the Book of Changes encouraging man to harmonize with the rhythms of nature; to the correspondences of the Han Confucians for human-Earth-cosmic relations; to the Neo-Confucians who adopted the Diagram of the Great Ultimate to illustrate the origin and flux of the cosmos and the Earth. The rich cosmological resources of this tradition must 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 communal ethics, modes of self-transformation, and ritual practices. These forms of spiritual humanism are interrelated and set in motion patterns of relational resonance between humans and the interconnected and ever-expanding 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 an ongoing worldview that is organic, holistic and dynamic. Tu Weiming used the term “anthropocosmic” to describe this integral relationship of humans with the cosmos.

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

In all of this, Confucian spiritual humanism aims for moral transformation so that individuals can fully realize their personality. 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. Rather, it is a continuous process of rectification in order to cultivate one’s “luminous virtue”. The ultimate goal of such self-cultivation is the realization of wisdom, namely the realization of one’s cosmological being.

Achieving one’s cosmological being means that humans must be attentive to one another, sensitive to the needs of society, in tune with the natural world through rituals and arts, and aware of the celestial bodies above. 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 main emphasis of ritual in the Confucian tradition was daily exchanges and rites of passage intended to soften and uplift human relationships. 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 adequate ways. Moreover, they connect humans to each other and to 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 conscientious study, critical self-examination, continuous effort and a willingness to change oneself. Tu Weiming speaks of this as “embodied knowledge.” ‘Learning for yourself’, not just uncritically absorbing ideas or trying to impress others, is seen as essential to this process. Thus, authenticity can only be realized through constant transformation in order to come into harmony with the creative and generative powers of Heaven and Earth. This process of attuning to the changes of the universe can be identified as a major source of Confucian spiritual humanism expressed in various forms of self-cultivation.

Zhu Xi, and neo-Confucians after him, claimed that change was the source of transformation of both the cosmos and the person. Each moral virtue had its cosmological component. For example, the central virtue of humanity (jen) was seen as the source of fruitfulness and growth of both the individual and the cosmos. By practicing humanity, one could affect the transformation of things in oneself, in society and in the cosmos. In doing so, our deeper identity with reality was recognized as one body with all things, thereby actualizing our cosmological being.

All this for Zhu Xi was part of a dynamic process of mutual interaction of the person’s qi 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 vegetable, animal and human worlds, and also permeates all elements of the cosmos. As Zhu said, “Once a person’s mind has moved, it must reach the qi [of Heaven and Earth] and mutually stimulate and interact with this [qi] which contracts and expands, comes and goes.

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 such a small creature that I have a place among them.” While these verses were intended metaphorically, we now know their truth scientifically. Life arises from the generative dynamics of stars and the complex matrix of ecosystems. Thus, “home” in a traditional Chinese context is the intertwined creativity of the cosmos and the Earth in which humans are born and belong. The extension of filial piety to the whole universe and to the Earth is therefore not merely an evocative metaphorical image, it is also a cosmological and biological imperative for the continuity of life.

Our calling, therefore, is to see ourselves as having a sense of wholeness and belonging that is not only social, but also cosmological and ecological, as Confucianism amply demonstrates. Similarly, as stated in its preamble to the Earth Charter, a global ethical document published in 2000: “Humanity is part of a vast and evolving universe. The Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.

Confucianism also clearly offers a remarkably rich cosmological perspective compatible with evolution and ecology. Because, as the Confucians recognize, the cosmos and the Earth are indeed our home, our birthplace, the bosom of immense creativity. We now know scientifically that the Earth and all life forms evolved from billions of years of cosmic evolution. The thin layer of our planet’s atmosphere has created the conditions for life.

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

About the Author

Mary Evelyne Tucker

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a Yale lecturer and researcher at 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 volumes with Tu Weiming on Confucian spirituality (Herder & Herder 2003 , 2004) . She served on the Earth Charter International 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.


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