International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth and Humans

edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker , John Berthrong

Introductory Essay by Frank Budenholzer

Confucianism and Ecology is one of a series of volumes published by Harvard University Press on Ecology and Asian religions. These volumes have a two-fold basic concern. First, there is a severe environmental crisis that could, in the long run, imperil human life on this planet. Secondly, the environmental crisis is a moral and spiritual crisis and therefore the great religions of the world must examine their environmental record and have something to contribute to the resolution of the crisis. The authors in the introduction and sixteen chapters have two complimentary suggestions: For those in Europe, the Americas and other citizens of a globalized world, Confucianism may offer a resource for a re-invigorated philosophy more open to environmental concerns. Secondly, for the people in those areas within the orbit of traditional Confucian thought return to their Confucian roots may help them to deal with the environmental crisis.

The Confucian tradition has its roots in the writings of the scholar-philosopher Confucius (551 – 478 BCE) and his disciples. An important revival of Confucianism occurred in the Song Dynasty , centering on the person of Chu Hsi (Zhuxi in Pinyin) (1130 – 1200). The neo-Confucians borrowed elements from Taoism as well as from Buddhism, which had come to China from India in ancient times but by the Song Dynasty was very much a part of Chinese culture. More recently, Confucian thinking is being welcomed back to mainland China after some years of being developed mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other East Asian countries.

So what resources can Confucianism bring to the ecological crisis? Perhaps the most important is what one author describes as the “bedrock article of faith on which the Confucian worldview rests: the claim that the underlying order of things (li), or the Way (Tao), comprehends both the natural order and the moral order” (p. 142). In other words, Confucianism rejects the “is-ought’ dichotomy which has become the bedrock of much of contemporary philosophy. Beyond this is a “cosmoanthropic” view of the universe. The goal is harmony among heaven, earth and humans. This is seen as fundamentally different from the two-tiered understanding of reality in the monotheistic traditions where there exists a gap between the creator god and the created world of humans and nature. Another concept that often appears is ch’i (qi in Pinyin). Ch’i is the stuff of the universe, the ubiquitous matter-energy which in its various refinements is common to all that is.

The book makes important contributions to the religion-science dialogue and to the development of a global philosophy of nature. It will, however, be daunting for the beginner who knows little of Chinese philosophy. There are many good translations and compilations of the classics of Confucianism. Perhaps the most quoted volume is the Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton, 1963). A gem of a book to understand the heart of Confucianism is Tu Weiming’s Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness (Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture, 1989).

Despite suffering from the perennial problems of transliteration common to most Western texts on Chinese themes,, the book is a valuable contribution in English to a problem with life or death consequences for our planet.