Creative Post-Modern Wu-Wei
Process Thought and the Future of China
Jay McDaniel, Professor of World Religions
Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas, USA
China is in the news, not just in China but everywhere in the world. Between May and July of 2005 thirteen years ago, the front covers of three major news magazines in the United States – Time, US News and World Report, and Newsweek – featured images from China on their front covers and offered special reports on China’s economy and culture. The front cover of Time said China’s New Revolution (June 27, 2005). The front cover of US News and World Report (June 20, 2005) said The China Challenge: What the Awakening Giant Will Mean for America. The front cover of Newsweek (May 9, 2005) simply said China’s Century: All three magazines said that what people in China are also saying: It is China’s turn to reclaim its place in world history. If all the world is a stage, then China is at center stage.
Newsweek put the matter even more dramatically. It proposed the future belongs to China. Not to China alone, but to China among others. In support of this claim, Newsweek cited numerous statistics with which citizens of China may be quite familiar, but which continue to amaze people in other parts of the world.
If we add to these statistics the fact that China has the world’s largest army and the fourth largest defense budget, the conclusion is clear. China’s century has already arrived.
My aim in this essay, then, is to discuss China’s future in light of three problems faced by the modern world, many of which originate in what scholars call “the modern period” of western history. The problems are a neglect of nature, an isolation of science from spirituality, and a culture of consumerism. Then I will suggest a spiritual foundation by which China might respond to these problems, which can also be adopted by other nations and peoples. I will call it creative post-modern wu-wei. Finally, I will show how process thought, with its particular understanding of nature as including human life, and as containing values that can guide life, might provide a scientifically sensitive, cosmological underpinning for creative post-modern wu-wei. The essay is divided into three sections: Three Problems of Modernity; Creative Post Modern Wu-Wei; and The Nature of Nature.
Three Problems of Modernity
If the future belongs to China, it will probably not belong to China alone. As China takes center stage in world history, it will inevitably share that stage with other actors: India, Japan, Korea, the United States, and Europe, for example. The dynamics of globalization suggest that, for any foreseeable future, there will be multiple centers of economic power in the world, all gathered together in a network of economic interchange. What is obvious, though, is that China will play a leading role in this century and probably the next. This means that China’s future will affect the whole of the world and that the questions China faces are questions the whole world faces. What are these questions? Here are two of them.
As the future unfolds, what values will guide China’s growth? Can China ground its rapid economic growth in values that give ordinary Chinese people a sense of meaning and purpose beyond the shallow confines of consumerism and that serve as a model for others to follow? What will those values be? Where will they come from? Can the Chinese future be guided, not only by science and consumerism, but also by insights from its rich heritages of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism?
As the future unfolds, can China offer the world a vision of a truly progressive way of living the world which other nations might rightly want to follow? More specifically, can China bypass the worst aspects of western modernity and point the way toward a constructively post-modern future?
By western modernity I do not mean the twenty-first century. I mean instead the past three centuries of western history – centered in Europe and later the United States – as they have involved the rise of modern science, the industrial revolution, the rise of liberal democracies, the rise of capitalism, and the colonization of many parts of the world in the interests of economic advance. Marxism is, of course, a critique of such colonization. In its own way it is itself a post-modern vision. It seeks to build upon certain aspects of western modernity – the rise of modern science, for example -- while bypassing the worst. What, then, are the worst aspects of modernity? I will name three.
Anthropocentrism. One of the worst aspects of western modernity has been its neglect of nature. Shaped by the idea that humans are not part of nature, the West developed in ways that reduced economic development to development for humans, without remembering that human economies are always nested within the larger context of the earth itself. One poet in the West, Wendell Berry, calls the earth the great economy. In the West, says Berry, we have too often neglected the great economy. China faces this problem, too. Newsweek tells us that it not only has the fastest growing economy in the world, but also sixteen of the most polluted cities on earth. Still, many Chinese are worried about this situation. In the future, then, can China plan and build sustainable cities?
Sustainable cities are those are humane and conducive to human well-being, but that are also conducive to environmental well-being. They are free from pollution; they employ environmentally responsible forms of energy and materials; they have many parks and green spaces; they try to avoid what, in the west, we call urban sprawl. If the future belongs to China, can China show us how to build sustainable cities? If so, China will be bypassing certain aspects of western modernity and pointing the world toward a constructively post-modern future.
Consumerism. Another of the worst aspects of modernity has been its culture of consumerism. Too often in the West we have come to equate life’s meaning with the possession of material goods and the pursuit of wealth. The advertisements on television tell us that “success” in life is to have a pleasant appearance, to have money, and to be economically productive. And yet most of us know that there are many forms of work that are just as important as making money and that are “successful” by deeper standards. Taking care of parents is a form of success; being a good parent is a form of success; simply being kind to others is a form of success. These deeper forms of success are too often forgotten in consumer culture, and the results on families and communities have been disastrous. Consumerism has led many people to find more value in life in material things than, for example, in friendship and family and community. Can the people of China enjoy the best of consumer comforts without lapsing into narcissism and greed? As Chinese seek to build sustainable cities, can they also educate young and old to become sustainable people: that is, people who know that life is sustained by more than money and material possessions. If China can provide guidance to the world along these lines, China will again be pointing toward a constructively post-modern future. It will not only be an economic leader, but also a moral leader.
Scientism. A third aspect of modernity has been its approach to science. Too often in the West we have confused science with scientism. They are very different. Science, of course, is one of the marvelous achievements of the modern world. It is not simply a set of insights concerning how the world works, but also a method of approaching problems that relies on evidence and that is willing to “let the facts speak for themselves.” For the past three centuries science has yielded an understanding of the natural world and of human life upon which we all depend. The lights by which we read, the airplanes on which we travel, the buildings in which we sit, the cell phones by which we communicate with others, the internet by which we learn about the world: all are enriched or made possible by science.
On the other hand, scientism is a philosophy which says that scientific ways of knowing are the only legitimate ways of knowing and that the understanding of the universe offered by science is the only true understanding. Scientism makes a religion of science. In western modernity there has been a tendency to fall into scientism. This is especially prevalent among academics in universities. They say that poetry and the arts are merely fiction, because all reliable knowledge comes from experimentation. They reject religious ways of knowing as superstitious and old-fashioned, because religious ways of knowing do not offer wisdom concerning the ways of the universe. Thus they forget that are many ways of knowing, of which science is but one. Music yields wisdom, too, and so does a walk in the woods, and so does religion at its best. The key is to recognize that there are many ways of knowing and that each yields its own kind of truth.
What is the post-modern alternative to scientism? We might call it spiritually-sensitive science. A spiritually-sensitive science will recognize that we learn something about the universe and ourselves from poetry and the arts and religion, even as we also learn something from biology and physics and chemistry. It knows that nature itself is not reducible to its quantifiable dimensions, that it also has spiritual properties.
In addition, spiritually-sensitive science will recognize that the practice of science itself, with its humility before the facts (let the facts speak for themselves) and search for truth, is itself a form of spirituality. It is spiritual in the sense that it encourages humility in the presence of the world (let the facts speak for themselves) and also in the sense that it is inwardly guided, not simply by a desire to master the universe with the mind, but also to be at one with the universe in the heart. This desire for oneness is implicit in seeking truth, whether in science or philosophy or art; it is the spiritual side of all good science, all good philosophy, and all good thinking. Science at its best is not the will-to-mastery; it is also, and more deeply a will-toward-communion.
Finally, a spiritually-sensitive science will appreciate the fact that the image of the universe which now emerges from science – namely that of a vast, unfolding cosmos in which everything is connected to everything else – is more than a helpful tool for practical projects. It is also a spiritual vision that can help human beings find their place in a creative yet interconnected universe. As China develops, can it help train students of science to recognize the spiritual dimensions of science? If so, it will again be bypassing some of the worst aspects of western modernity, pointing in the direction of a constructively post-modern future. Here again it will offer the world much more than economic leadership. It will offer moral power.
Let me summarize what I have said so far. I have proposed that China now faces two serious questions: What values will guide its future? And how can China develop in ways that bypass the worst aspects of western modernity and thus embody a constructively post-modern future? I have proposed that a post-modern future will involve sustainable cities; a culture that transcends the value of money; and a dialogue between science and spirituality. Can Marxism help China help China transcend anthropocentrism, consumerism, and scientism? I hope so. But it seems to me that, in addition to Marxism, there are resources within the Chinese heritage that can help. Let me name one such resource. I will call it creative post-modern wu-wei.
Creative Post-Modern Wu-Wei
By creative post-modern wu-wei I mean a way of living in which emphasis is place on living in harmony with nature. Understood in this way, creatively post-modern wu-wei is spiritual, but it is not necessarily religious. A Taoist or Buddhist or Confucian or Christian can embody creative post-modern wu-wei, but so can someone who is not religious. All that is required for a life of creative, post-modern wu-wei, at least in the beginning, is a deep sense that we are small but included in a larger whole called Nature, and that we can gain guidance for our lives by being attuned to nature.
Equally important, creatively post-modern wu-wei is not reducible to a particular role in life. An educator or scientist can embody creatively post-modern wu-wei, but so can a farmer and a poet, a businessperson or a mother. Creative post-modern wu-wei is somewhat like the Spirit of God as described by Jesus in the Bible. It blows wherever it will and it cannot be contained within a single person, or en-framed within a single culture, or reduced to a single vocation in life.
Of course the word wu-wei is a Taoist word and it has many meanings. I realize that for some people in China, the word has negative and old-fashioned connotations. The word can suggest a static or passive way of living in the world that accepts things as they are, without changing them in any way. This is not what I mean by creative wu-wei. When birds build nests to protect their young, their very building of those nests is very creative and it is also part of nature. The building is an active of way of being in harmony with nature. When ants build ant hills and beavers build dams, there is also this creative activity. Similarly, when humans build cities, their activity is creative and also part of nature. An environmentally sustainable city – one that involves green space, many gardens, clean rivers and that is free from pollution – is both creative and natural. It is one tangible product of what I mean creative wu-wei. This creativity is not simply human creativity; it is human participation in a deeper creativity that belongs to nature, too.
To explain the idea that nature is creative, I must acknowledge the source for this idea. The idea of a creative and post-modern wu-wei emerged for me in conversation with colleague of mine, Zhihe Wang , who is a leading person in postmodern philosophy in China . He was formerly senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the vice-editor in chief of Social Science Abroad.
Mr. Wang and I share a common interest in Process Thought. As you may know, this is a way of understanding the world that is shaped by the late philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead. It has long been pointed out that Process Philosophy has many similarities with East Asian ways of thinking. It is no accident, then, that there are now eight centers for Process Thought in China, two of which are in Beijing. Many process thinkers in the West believe that the future of Process Thought lies in its development in East Asia, especially China. This means, of course, that a dialogue between Process Thought and Marxism is tremendously important. Happily, such a dialogue is well underway. What I am initiating in this essay, then, is a complementary dialogue between Process Thought and East Asian culture, including religion.
The Universe as a Painting-in-Process
Why, then, do process thinkers in the East and West say that there are similarities between process thought and Chinese ways of thinking. Perhaps an analogy will help. Process thought pictures the universe on the analogy of a Chinese landscape painting in which there are particular entities – hills and rivers, trees and stars -- all of whom are dependent on the others, each of whom has integrity in its own right, and each of whom has it rightful place in the larger whole. In process thought we speak of the integrity of each being as its intrinsic value; and we speak of the entity’s functioning in the larger whole as its instrumental value. People have these two kinds of value, but so do penguins and porpoises.
What Process thought adds to the picture, though, is an emphasis on process, on becoming, which is also part of a Chinese way of thinking. Thus we must imagine a landscape painting that is moving as we watch it, amid which each entity has creativity of its own. The painting that we see at one moment is not precisely the painting we see at the next, because the painting has changed along the way. And, equally important, we must recognize that we ourselves are inside the painting as part of its own movement. This is how process thinkers imagine the universe. The universe as a whole is the larger whole within which we dwell, and our task as human beings is to live in harmony with the rhythms of the larger whole. It is to live in creative harmony with nature.
Even as this way of thinking can seem very Chinese, it is also very scientific. At least this is what Process thought proposes, because it is deeply influenced by various aspects of science: quantum theory, relativity theory, chaos theory. Today we learn from science that the universe is a process of wu-wei. It is a creative process that began some fifteen billion years ago with a big bang, that has been unfolding ever since.
But what does it really mean to say that the universe is creative? In process thought it means that the universe unfolds moment-by-moment in a way that is not entirely reducible to influences from the past. At any given moment, a human being is prompted not only by impulses from the past, but also by possibilities from the future, which the human being can actualize in the moment itself. If I choose to become a businessman, for example, my choice to become a businessman issues, not only from the influences from my past, but also from a goal I pursue, namely that of becoming a businessman. The two work together – past and future – and we are always in the present between them. The past nourishes or constrains us; the future calls us. Thus we humans are indeed historical beings, but history does not simply mean the past; it also means the future; and every action we undertake in the present is an actualization of that future.
The same holds for other animals. They, too, exhibit goal-directed behavior and live from the future as well as the past. That is why biological evolution is such a creative process. And the same holds even for the energy within the depths of atoms: the quantum events. They, too, have quantum indeterminacies which they actualize. That is why galactic evolution is a creative process. If we were watching the history of the universe on videotape, and we pressed rewind from a remote control so that it might start anew, it might unfold the second time around in a very different way. The universe itself is creative. In the language of traditional Chinese philosophy as explained by Tu Wei Ming at Harvard University, it exhibits creative ch’i.
Back, then, to creative wu-wei. Understood in the context of Process thought, it is a human way of participating in a larger creative process. We dwell in harmony with nature, then, not always be keeping it as it is, but by participating in its creativity, adding the products of our own labor, but all the while seeking to be sensitive to its deeper rhythms. Understood in this sense, creative wee-wee can inform the work of a scientist, an engineer, a business-person, a mother, a father, and a home-maker. As such, creative wee-wee can be a vessel for what, in the west, we have often called progress.
Of course, it can seem strange to link the notion of wee-wee with a notion of progress. But what I am suggesting is that the idea of wu-wee can help yield a new kind of progress, one that has harmony with nature as its guiding ideal. Let us call it wu-wei progress.
For Westerners, wu-wei progress would be a novel but helpful idea. In the West, of course, when we have spoken of progress we have meant a way of living that competes with nature and seeks to dominate it. So often progress has meant dominating nature rather than cooperating with it and adding our creativity to its creativity. As explained above, western thinking concerning progress has been shaped by a dualism which separates human beings from the rest of creation and which says “human beings are good” and “the rest of nature is mere backdrop for the human adventure.” By contrast, creative wu-wei includes recognition that genuine creativity – deep creativity – involves cooperating with nature and being inwardly animated by the creativity of nature itself.
Creative wu-wei can also include a respect for the value of other living beings quite apart from their usefulness to humans. It can include recognition of what, above; I called the intrinsic value of other forms of life. A clean river has value for the fish living in it, even if there are no humans to recognize that value. And a healthy forest has value for the animals living in it, even if there are no foresters to cut the trees for wood. Creative wu-wei knows that there are many kinds of value and that not all of them are human. It seeks a world that looks more like a Chinese landscape painting than a Western portrait painting. The human is important, but not at the center. The center is the whole itself, within which humans are creative participants.
The Nature of Nature
Of course, there are many kinds of creativity. Building a sustainable city is a creative project; but so is building an unsustainable city. Developing an economy that serves the earth as well as people is a creative project; but so is developing an economy that destroys the earth. Considered in itself, creativity can be good or evil, or both. When we speak of creative post-modern wu-wei, though, we have in mind a creativity that is healthy rather than unhealthy, constructive rather than destructive, respectful rather than arrogant, compassionate rather than controlling, non-violent rather than violent. We might call it compassionate creativity.
Thus the question emerges, does there lie within nature a spirit, an impulse, toward compassionate creativity. Is nature simply the happening of what happens, whatever happens. Or does nature include within itself an inner impulse – a guiding lure, to use the language of process thought – toward compassionate creativity. I do not know how traditional Chinese thinking might answer this question, but I do know that process thinkers answer in the affirmative. As we process thinkers envision creative post-modern wu-wei, we have in mind a way of living that lives lightly on the earth and gently with other people, for the sake of the well-being of all. This way includes humility, respect for differences, care for others. It includes a sense of justice, a sense that there is something quite unjust about some people being very rich while others are very poor. We see this sense of justice in Marxist thought, and we appreciate it and want to learn from it. Along with Marxists, we process thinkers believe that a creative, post-modern wu-wei must align itself with the poor and powerless. Its measure of “success” cannot be: “How rich are the rich?” Rather its measure of “success” must be: “Is anyone left behind?” If anyone is left behind, a society is not successful. The very impulse to get ahead while leaving others behind would be, for process thinkers, a questionable impulse. It would not be in the spirit of creative post-modern wu-wei. It would not be harmony with nature.
What is it within nature, then, that leads people to want to live in harmony with it? Some might argue that it is sheer necessity: the need to survive. We want to live in harmony with nature, they say, because without such harmony we will not live at all. And yet we must be honest. In societies that do not live in harmony with nature, some people do survive while others do not, because they have power and money. This was Marx’s critique of capitalism. It allowed the rich to control the poor, leaving too many behind. The critique still stands as a deep warning against the worst aspects of capitalism.
Process thinkers propose, though, that even if we are not struggling to survive, there is still within us an inner impulse to live in harmony with nature and with others. As human beings, say process thinkers, we feel inwardly beckoned not simply to live, but also to live well, that is, to live in ways that are healthy and compassionate, and that are constructively creative rather than destructively creative. There is more to us than the will-to-power. There is also, still more deeply, the will-to-love-and-be-loved. A creative post-modern wu-wei is responsive to this inner impulse within each of us. What shall we name it?
In process thought in the West, the name given to this inner impulse within nature is God. God is not supernatural in process thought, but rather ultra-natural. God is the deepest aspect of nature itself: that aspect of our natural lives by which, from the inside, we feel drawn to live in harmony with nature. Thus God is not simply the widest Harmony of nature, but also the impulse to live in harmony with nature. Because the word God can so often suggest a distinct being separate from nature, I will speak of it as the Divine.
In process thought we experience the Divine as an inner impulse to love, but also, and importantly, as an inner impulse to understand how things work and what things are. In the contemporary world one of the best means by which we seek to understand how things work is science, with its methods of empirical investigation. Science at its deepest level is not simply a tool for technology, it is a way that human beings seek rapport with the world around them. It is a search for communion, for harmony with nature. This is why science cannot and should not be equated with technology. It is also, in its way, a form of spirituality. Indeed, according to process thought, science is itself a natural activity and thus part of the universe. Thus science itself can be understood as a form of creative post-modern wu-wei.
Still another way in which we experience the Divine is as an inner impulse to live with integrity, to live truthfully, in harmony with nature. Living truthfully is more than understanding how things work and it is more than having good philosophical ideas. We can see truthful living in farmers that is sometimes lacking in people with wealth; we can see truthful living in young people that is sometimes lacking in their parents. Truthful living is not simply being honest; it is being authentic to who we are on the inside and making the best of our life-situations. There are many people in China who, through struggles of many kinds, emerged as people who embody truthful living. And there are also people in China whose lives have been much easier than their parents and grandparents, but who do not yet know truthful living.
This is why consumerism can be so dangerous. In the interests of having cell phones and creature comforts, people can lose sight of truthful living, which is one of the highest forms of creative post-modern wu-wei. Genuine harmony with nature is more concerned with truthful living than with the possession of goods, and it realizes that, sometimes, a relinquishment of such possessions – a voluntary willingness to live with less – is itself a path to truthful living. Of course this relinquishment is not appropriate for truly poor people. But for many middle-class Americans, it is tremendously important. We middle-class Americans are extremely wasteful. Most of us know that we must learn to live more simply, more frugally, not only for the sake of others, but for the sake of our own souls. As China develops in the future, can it provide models of frugal living, of getting material goods in perspective, of knowing that there is more to life than appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement? If so, this would be a truly post-modern development.
And perhaps it is on this question of truthful living that the historical religions of China – Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism – have something to offer. They can be understood, not as obstacles to the future, but as resources for the future. As invitations to a post-modern future that builds upon the best of the past. After all, despite their many liabilities, the religions have been interested in living simply, virtuously, and meaningfully – in harmony with nature. As Christianity and Islam continue to make their mark in China, perhaps they, too, can assist in the process of developing a post-modern China. The key, I suggest, may lie in the very idea of harmony with nature, of creative post-modern wu-wei. I hope that this paper has helped identify some of the deep promise that lies in this idea.