Week One’s Interfaith Lecture Series on the documentary film “Journey of the Universe” concluded Friday with lectures by James Miller, a scholar of Daoism; Lisa Sideris, an environmental ethicist; and Mary Evelyn Tucker, a co-producer of the film and a scholar of Confucianism.
“I’d like you to think of this story of cosmic evolution not so much as a linear narrative … but as a kind of pattern that keeps on repeating itself,” said James Miller, associate professor of religious studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
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Miller asked the audience to imagine an infinite number of Russian dolls, one within another, within another. Miller likened this to the universe, suggesting it is not really a collection of objects but a “patterning.”
“Whether you look back in time to the Big Bang itself or listen to the first cry of a newborn child, it’s the same spontaneous process of patterning,” Miller said. “In each case a new pattern, a unique pattern, but what underlies everything is this continuous cosmic process of emergence of patterning.”
Patterning is a central idea in Daoism, the indigenous Chinese religion Miller studies. The “Dao” in Daoism means “way” or “patterning,” Miller said. These terms do not refer to a thing but to a process out of which patterns arise.
“A flaring forth of cosmic creativity,” Miller called it. “It doesn’t have a beginning; it doesn’t have an end. It simply is the mysterious emergence of complexity, change, transformation, life.”
If one looks at the universe in terms of patterning, Miller said, then there is really no difference between a human and the Earth or the Earth and the universe.
Miller shared a phrase from Daoism that developed from this notion.
“Nei wai ru yi,” he said in classical Chinese. And then he translated it: “Inside, outside like one.”
There is no ultimate difference between what is inside our bodies and what is outside our bodies; everything is a product of the same patterning process.
“So the fundamental moral challenge for human beings is to truly internalize the fact that, although we are unique individuals, we live in a context, a family, an institution, an environment, a universe … and those contexts inhabit us,” Miller said.
Human beings have developed a sense of self distinct from the rest of the world, Miller said. And while this has allowed humans to notice changes in their environment and thus survive in the face of danger, it is also now the source of the ecological problem.
“What I think we can learn from these Daoists is that we need new and better visions of how our bodies and their contexts are immersed in each other,” Miller said. “We need to evolve our perceptions not to help us survive the dangers of the world, but to help the world survive the dangers of humanity.”
Lisa Sideris, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University, differed from the other respondents, as she did not represent a certain wisdom tradition. Instead, she came to critique “Journey of the Universe” as an ethicist.
Sidaris began by identifying “Journey of the Universe” as part of a larger movement, which she called the “New Story” movement. This involves looking to science for a modern myth, an origin story that encompasses all people. And unlike in “Journey,” a substantial subset of this New Story movement is not friendly to religion.
Sideris went on to describe the anti-religious subset of the New Story movement and her problems with it. One such problem is the claim that science offers a myth that is true and aligns humanity with reality.
“It privileges scientific reality — for example, the rather abstract reality revealed through sophisticated scientific instruments or abstruse mathematical formulas — as the supreme form of reality, the reality to which we should all direct our sense of wonder,” Sideris said.
Nature, then, as people experience it through their senses, loses its sense of reality because it is not mediated by instruments or science. Life experiences then lose value and are replaced with second-hand information provided by experts.
Furthermore, even as some versions of the New Story demote nature to the realm of the unreal, others elevate the human mind to an almost God-like status.
“Our exhaustive knowledge of the vast and numinous universe ultimately points to a profound admiration of ourselves,” Sideris said. “In fact, I think we’ve seen some hints of this kind of self-aggrandizement in some of the scientific talk that we’ve heard this week — no offense to the scientists.”
Moving on to her concerns specifically with “Journey of the Universe,” Sideris said, “As far as environmental ethics are concerned, it seems to me that the universe story’s almost unfathomably broad sweep of events is ill-suited to elicit positive responses to local places, places that we know and love.”
Sideris said that she felt disoriented when she watched the film, both because of the film’s focus on the cosmos — which is outside of her lived experience — and because of its effort to encompass all humanity. She said she couldn’t see the connection between the story of the universe and the accompanying vignettes focusing on particular communities and environmental initiatives.
“So is the point that these efforts would be somehow insufficient or ineffective without the universe story as a backdrop?” Sideris asked. “Or is the implication that these efforts were motivated in some direct way by knowledge of the universe? Aren’t these forms of environmental action valuable in themselves whether or not they are grounded in the modern scientific narrative?”
Though science can be informative about the environment, Sideris is not convinced that scientific knowledge needs to be adopted as an object of wonder or a sacred myth.
“I see no reason to believe that adopting a scientific story will ground environmental values more solidly or passionately than do our existing stories and our love for existing places,” Sideris said.
Mary Evelyn Tucker
Though Confucianism has taken many forms throughout its history — as economic, social and political frameworks, for example — what Mary Evelyn Tucker shared with the audience were its spiritual elements.
“First of all, there’s a tremendous sense of cosmological being,” said Tucker, a Yale senior lecturer and senior research scholar. “And the invitation in Confucianism is to enter into a cosmological being.”
To best illustrate Confucianism’s view of the cosmos, Tucker used the example of concentric circles. The human, the family, the society, the political world, the earth, the cosmos and nature are all circles within circles. Furthermore, she said, these circles all resonate with one another.
“The message of this cosmological worldview is that the human is embedded in these circles of meaning and resonance,” Tucker said.
Humans are affecting everything, Tucker said, and Confucianism is aware of that. Humans are a key part of the universe — one could even say that humans help complete it.
“The trinity in Confucianism is these three things: heaven, earth and humans,” Tucker said.
Heaven is the guiding force of the earth and humans. Earth encompasses nature and its processes. And humans, with their minds and hearts, complete the universe.
“We are part of it; we affect it; we are co-creators with it,” Tucker said.
This is all consistent with “Journey of the Universe,” Tucker said, which argues that humanity is part of a dynamic, flowing, unfolding universe.
“But we’re also saying that our role is not to be dominant over or subjecting other parts of nature, but to be in resonance with this patterning,” Tucker said.
Confucianism cares about sustainability, Tucker said, because it cares about the common good.
“A communitarian ethics was critical to this; namely, you don’t do things just for yourself — you do them for the society, the common good,” Tucker said. “And so all of the relationships of humans are reciprocal.”
Rather than the rights which American political thought is largely based on, Confucianism concerns itself with responsibilities and reciprocal relationships.
“To be fully human, one aims to become a noble person who is in harmony with the creative powers of heaven and earth and in accord with the larger human community,” Tucker said.