09/28/2012 01:20 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Confucius on Nature

The topic of nature and religion is one now discussed frequently, be it in the popular press or in more scholarly venues. Obviously much of the attention is in response to the issues of climate change and the recognition of the destructive path humankind has embarked upon in its limitless pursuit of the resources of the natural world, thirsting after a materialism that seems to know no end.

We appear to have an insatiable appetite for more and more things, more and more comforts and always the "latest and greatest" technology, guaranteed to bring us even greater ease and pleasure!

To this world of environmental disaster we have created, what would Confucius say?

We know, of course, that such depletion of resources cannot continue. We do have a finite earth and I for one am not much for the belief that our problems will be overcome in a science-fiction-medium by the exploitation of resources of other worlds yet to be visited.

The insatiable appetite must at some point be controlled before we simply have expended our critical resources and/or we have irrevocably changed our climate to lead to a path of horrific destruction of the beauty of planet earth!

We can quote Confucius in his suggestions that the simple life, a life of few desires, will permit the return to a harmonious way of life, what in our own age we might highlight as an environmental point of view. But what do Confucius and the Confucian tradition have to tell us about the relation between humankind and nature?

The recent general topic of nature and religion has grown out of a number of these concerns and has asked the fundamental question of whether human religions might offer some foundation for thinking through some of these questions from a new and different perspective.

Whether one is for or against religion per se or thinks there is only one true religion, religion is fundamentally about meaning, the ultimate meaning, of humankind and human destiny. What we face today is the realization that to address the question of such meaning and destiny, it has become imperative to expand the context of our own meaning to include the context of all the earth. We are after all, as any biologist will tell you, ultimately linked to all life on the earth. In fact such recognition was the origin of the very term ecology, a term that has now come of age though perhaps not of full understanding!

Over the past several decades the scholarly world has begun to take the discussion of religion and nature seriously. The 10-volume series from Harvard "Religions of the World and Ecology" has provided extensive scholarship examining the role and meaning of nature within the historical as well as contemporary context of major religious traditions of the world.

One of those 10 volumes is on Confucianism: "Confucianism and Ecology: The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth and Humans" (Harvard, 1998). Confucianism might seem like an unlikely candidate for a volume devoted to the relation of religion and nature! After all isn't Confucianism all about humans as moral beings within the web of family and societal relations?

The answer to this question about the fundamental character of the Confucian tradition holds much for us to contemplate in our pursuit of the relation of religion and nature and the manner in which historic religious traditions have responded to the understanding of this issue.

Simply stated, Confucianism has a great deal to say about the relation of humankind and nature, but don't expect to see extensive explicit comments in the foundational works of the tradition. In other words, in the case of Confucianism, there is very little in the Analects of Confucius that addresses the relation of religion and nature. Would one expect anything different? Confucius was addressing the crisis of self and society in the sixth century B.C.E., not the status of the natural world in a world without the crisis of climate change.

Where does one find the extensive commentary of Confucianism on the relation of humankind and nature? Such commentary comes in the many centuries following the foundational figures and texts of the tradition. It unfolds naturally as the tradition becomes more self-consciously philosophical about its assumptions of humankind's place in the order of things. It is a natural evolutionary development of its religious and philosophical ideas and speculations.

Major later Chinese Confucian philosophers such as Chou Tun-i (1017-1073), Chang Tsai (1020-1073), Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) or the Japanese Confucian Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714) have a great deal to tell us about the intimate relation of humankind and nature, thoughts that would have been very foreign to the founding figures of the tradition.

Is the issue any different with any religious tradition? The message here is not just to focus upon the foundational figures as the source of ideas about religion and nature, but to watch the ways in which the tradition has evolved to address what now is the most pressing issue of our time. It has been said with some degree of wisdom that a religious tradition is not a static entity. It evolves and develops, bringing its perspective to issues of our own day. Anything less is only a mark of its irrelevancy.

I want in subsequent blogs to address the speculations of these later Confucian authors and we will begin to understand the appropriateness of the subtitle of the Confucian and ecology volume: "The Interrelation of Heaven, Earth and Humans."