Convocation 2008

On September 15, Donald K. Swearer delivered the 2008-09 Convocation Address: "An Ecology of Human Flourishing." Paul D. Hanson, Florence Corliss Lamont Professor of Divinity, delivered the Invocation; Dean William A. Graham provided welcoming remarks.

The text of the convocation address follows.

An Ecology of Human Flourishing

Convocation Address by Donald K. Swearer, September 15, 2008

Reprinted with permission from Harvard Divinity Today, Fall 2008, Volume 4, Number 3.


In 1975 four of my colleagues at Swarthmore College, where I was teaching at the timea classicist, an anthropologist, a physicist, a biologist, and myself—dreamed up the idea of teaching a foolishly ambitious course that we called "Patterns of Explanation." The idea for the course came from our reading of Thomas Kuhn's provocative 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, leavened by Anthony F. C. Wallace's work on revitalization movements and Karl Jaspers's notion of Achsenzeit, or Axial Age.

While a graduate student in physics at Harvard, Kuhn became enamored with the history of science and was lured away from theoretical physics into a distinguished academic career in the philosophy and history of science at Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, and MIT. Central to Kuhn's project was, first of all, the concept of "paradigm," which he defined as "universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners." In particular, Kuhn addressed the nature of "paradigm shift," or revolutions, in which an older epistemological paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by a new one.

New paradigms emerge when the old ones encounter an accumulation of anomalies that a widely accepted paradigm can no longer explain, thereby creating an epistemological crisis. Kuhn included in his examples the transition from a Ptolemaic cosmology to a Copernican one; from the worldview of Newtonian physics to Einsteinian relativity; and from Lamarckism to Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Although Kuhn's book was about paradigm shifts in science, he found an analogy in political revolutions in which a crisis attenuates the role of political institutions: "In increasing numbers," contends Kuhn, "individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal [i.e., a new paradigm] for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework."

Echoing Kuhn's claim, the sociologist Robert Bellah opened his keynote address at the August 2008 conference, "The Axial Age and Its Consequences for Subsequent History and the Present," which was held at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany, with these remarks: "What has become clear to me in recent years is that the old dream [read paradigm], which used to be assumed, is being replaced in popular culture by visions of disaster, [and] ecological catastrophe. . . . Never before have calls for criticism of and alternatives to the existing order seemed so urgent."

Kuhn's paradigm model has little traction in today's poststructuralist, postmodernist academic ethos, and this afternoon I have no intention of reminiscing about the successes and failures of the "Patterns of Explanation" course my colleagues and I had the temerity to teach once but the wisdom never to repeat! However, I do want to borrow from Kuhnian terminology to argue for a paradigm shift for the twenty-first century that I'm calling an "ecology of human flourishing."

"Ecology of human flourishing" is an odd phrase, for it juxtaposes the term "ecology," whose main provenance is biological science, with "human flourishing," which derives from the terminology of virtue ethics. "Ecology," however, is often used rather loosely, not in the specific biological terms of the relations between living organisms and their environment, but referring in a much broader sense to the interdependent, interrelational nature of all things—not only as in a biological family or household harkening back to its Greek root, oikos, but as an expansive derivative of the term "ecumenical," which includes both the natural and human worlds.

The causal import of such a worldview is reflected in the 1975 National Academy of Sciences Report: that our world is a whole "in which any action influencing a single part of the system can be expected to have an effect on all other parts of the system." I'm using the term "ecology" in this broad sense and, when coupled with "human flourishing," the phrase incorporates both a worldview and a lifestyle. An ecology of human flourishing, then, is an understanding of the world as organically interrelated and interdependent, and a way of being and acting in the world informed and motivated by such a worldview.

E. O. Wilson, among others in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, writes specifically about human dependence on nature, not from a utilitarian point of view, but from the perspective of what it means to be fully human. Apprehensive of the danger that computer-based information technology might foster the belief "that the cocoons of urban and suburban material life are sufficient for human fulfillment," Wilson contends, in his book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, that: "Human nature is deeper and broader than the artifactual contrivance of any existing culture. The spiritual roots of Homo sapiens extend deep into the natural world. . . . We will not reach our full potential without understanding the origin and hence meaning of the aesthetic and religious qualities that make us ineffably human."

The expression "ecology of human flourishing" was initially inspired by my friendship with the Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu—a major figure in contemporary Thai Buddhism—and by his writings on the environment. In poetic prose Buddhadasa writes: "The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise . . . then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish."

Buddhadasa founded a forest monastery in southern Thailand in the 1930s, calling it Suan Mokkh, "the Garden of Empowering Liberation." Like E. O Wilson, for whom the spiritual roots of Homo sapiens lie in the natural world, Buddhadasa valued Suan Mokkh's natural setting as a place where Homo sapiens might—in Wilson's language—become more "ineffably human."

"The deep sense of calm," writes Buddhadasa, "that nature provides through separation from the stress that plagues us in the day-to-day world protects our heart and mind. The lessons nature teaches us leads to a new birth beyond the suffering caused by our acquisitive self-preoccupation."

Buddhadasa intended the Garden of Empowering Liberation not as a retreat from the world, but as a place where all forms of life—humans, animals, and plants—might live as a cooperative microcosm of the larger ecosystem, and as a community where humans might develop an ecological ethic based on the values of mindfulness, moderation, simplicity, and nonacquisitiveness. Buddhadasa firmly believed that technology and government alone cannot solve the ecocrisis, but that it requires a transformation of values and of lifestyle.

My work on Buddhadasa's environmental writings was occasioned by a conference on Buddhism and ecology organized at the Center for the Study of World Religions in 1996. It was the first of several conferences on religion and ecology held at the CSWR that led to the founding of the Forum on Religion and Ecology and to the emerging field of religion and ecology studies. The papers published from these conferences encompass a variety of topics. Some are critical of the religions' historical record regarding the environment, but the majority interrogate religious traditions as a possible resource for the development of an environmental ethic. Mary Evelyn Tucker, the co-founder of the forum, optimistically sees the world's religions entering an "ecological phase," a recentering of the human within the myriad species with whom we share the planet, in recognition that human flourishing is inextricably linked to the flourishing of the entire biotic community, and the extension of care and compassion toward what she terms "the great fecundity of life."

There is, of course, nothing unique about holistic worldviews that stress the interconnectedness of all life-forms, whether grounded in a transcendent reality or not. In her book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong, following Karl Jaspers, notes that the "Axial sages," who propounded the great world religions and philosophies between 1600 and 220 bce, advocated an ethic of compassion based on such a paradigm. Her normative concern, however, aims more at the present than the past. She concludes her book with these words: "Today we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers; the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other people's point of view. If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, as Mencius suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all of our traditions."

Tucker and Armstrong echo the sentiments embodied in this afternoon's Convocation readings from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Ernesto Cardenal, and Sallie McFague. Taken together, they underscore the twin pillars of an ecology of human flourishing: the world as organically interrelated and interdependent; and an ethical imperative that proceeds from it:

If you look deeply with the eyes of one who is awake you will see that within a tiny sheet of paper are present cloud, water, tree and sunshine. The presence of this tiny sheet of paper proves the presence of the whole cosmos.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

The vastness of the universe which you contemplate in a star-lit night becomes even faster when you look at yourself as part of this universe and when you realize that it is you who are this universe contemplating itself.
—Ernesto Cardenal

The peace and survival of life on earth as we know it are threatened by human activities which lack a commitment to humanitarian values. Future generations will inherit a vastly degraded planet if world peace does not become a reality and the destruction of the natural environment continues at the present rate.
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama

What if we begin to realize that the model into which humans must fit, a just and sustainable planet, is a necessity? What if we wake up from our dream of individualistic glory and realize that either we will all make it together or none of us will?
—Sallie McFague

An ecology of human flourishing joins company with Sallie McFague's "ecological anthropology." For McFague, ecological anthropology represents a paradigm shift from "individualistic anthropology" that she sees as the dominant model of Western democratic, capitalist societies. She argues that most people in Western capitalistic democracies think of themselves first as individuals rather than as members of a community, especially a natural or planetary community. This individualistic outlook promotes a deeply ingrained competitive mentality that tends to see others, "both humans and other life-forms, as resources toward one's goal of self-sufficiency."

For McFague, the crisis of global warming is linked to this "canopy of individualism." The creation of a just and sustainable planet, she argues, calls for a revolutionary challenge to the paradigm of individualism that has influenced the unconscious and semiconscious assumptions of three pillars of American society—religion, economics, and government.

McFague identifies the new paradigm as "communitarian": a model that emphasizes "our interrelationship and interdependence with all other human beings and other lifeforms." She calls Christians to an "ecological catholicity" and to "cruciform living" in solidarity with those billon or so human beings who live on a dollar a day, animals facing the loss of habitat, and a deteriorating planet dying from excessive energy use. Her paradigm calls for a shift from the neoclassical economic model that rules the global market place to an ecological or planetary model based on the assumption that we "need one another to survive and flourish."

Like McFague's paradigm, an ecology of human flourishing highlights "commun-ality" and a lifestyle of "enough-ness." Communality in my paradigm has a planetary reach that includes, but isn't limited to, human community. As you who are entering Harvard Divinity School will soon discover, "community" is one of the buzz words here. We talk a lot about the need for community, how to create community, community spaces, the Center for the Study of World Religions as a community, and so on. Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and former Dean of Harvard Kennedy School, who has focused his research on civic community, has made the phrase "bowling alone" a symbol of the loss of community or "social capital" in contemporary America. Perhaps it is this sense of the loss of community that motivates us to strive to recreate it.

For Bishop Desmond Tutu, community defines our very humanity: "We are made for fellowship," observed Tutu, "because only in a vulnerable set of relationships are we able to recognize that our humanity is bound up with the humanity of others" (Sermon in Birmingham Cathedral, 1988). Bishop Tutu's communitarian theology, based on the African notion of Ubuntu (humanity), inspired the title of the 2008 documentary film I Am Because We Are. The film is about the millions of orphans in the African country of Malawi who have lost parents and siblings to HIV and AIDS. Human flourishing in my paradigm extends this sense of "I-Am-Because-We-Are" to the community of nature as well.

An ecology of human flourishing also calls for a lifestyle of moderation or enoughness. There's nothing new about the value of enough-ness. Thrift, moderation, and avoiding excess are classic virtues. The Buddhist tradition identifies itself as a Middle Way between the extremes of excessive indulgence and hair-shirt self-denial. And today, even David Brooks, in a June 10, 2008, New York Times editorial, takes on what he refers to as our excessive "financial decadence." The philosophy of enough-ness, however, speaks to more than personal lifestyle or how we use or do not use money.

Several of environmentalist Bill McKibben's systemic issue books can be framed within the context of the principle of enough-ness: The End of Nature (1989) is about the excessive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that leads to global warming; The Age of Missing Information (1992) is about the flood of electronic information, especially through television, that endangers a deeper, contemplative understanding of who we are and the nature of the world we inhabit; Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003) queries the limits and potential excesses of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology for what it means to be human; and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) challenges the prevailing paradigm that "more is better."

In his book The Paradox of Choice, my friend and former colleague, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz, critiques the excesses of the consumer paradigm that produces an overwhelmingly time-consuming and stultifying excess of choice, to the detriment of human flourishing. He reports:

Scanning the shelves of my local supermarket recently, I found 85 different varieties and brands of crackers. As I read the packages, I discovered that some brands had sodium, others didn't. Some were fat-free, others weren't. They came in big boxes and small ones. They came in normal size and bite size. . . . [N]ext to the crackers were 285 varieties of cookies. Among chocolate chip cookies, there were 21 local options. Among Goldfish . . . there were 20 different varieties to choose from. . . . I left the supermarket and stepped into my local consumer electronics store. Here I discovered: 45 different car stereo systems, with 50 different speaker sets . . . 42 different computers . . . 27 different printers . . . 110 different televisions . . . [And so on and so on].

Schwartz's point is obvious—that the excesses of choice can be not only inordinately time-consuming, but mind-numbing and immobilizing. In other words, excessive choice undermines rather than promotes human flourishing.

The principle of enough-ness embraces not only our personal lifestyles—from whether and what we watch on TV to our shopping habits—but also the ways we relate to and interact with others and with the natural environment. Maintaining a sustainable planet is a principle of enough-ness. "Living simply that others may simply live" is a practical expression of the principle of distributive ecojustice, but is equally an expression of the virtues of care and compassion that flow from Ubuntu, "I am because all of us are." These virtues, as Mencius recognized, are constitutive of what it means to be human. Similarly, for Arthur Kleinman (who holds professorships at Harvard, in anthropology, and at the medical school and directs the Asia Center), caregiving is essential to human flourishing. It's an expression of our ethical and religious aspiration to remake the world in the midst of the contradictions, injustices, and the problematic of our daily lives.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh's poem "Please Call Me by My True Names" provides a particularly moving example of the connection between the worldview and the ethic of an ecology of human flourishing. It's a poem that he wrote after receiving a letter about a 12-year-old girl on a small refugee boat fleeing Vietnam after the war, who was raped by a sea pirate and who then leapt into the ocean and drowned herself. The poem moves from the interconnectedness Nhat Hanh feels with nature—

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower

—to his identification with both the girl and the pirate—

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving

—and concludes,

Please call me by my true names
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Many of us share Robert Bellah's sensibility that alternatives to the existing order have never seemed so urgent; or, from a Kuhnian perspective, that we have arrived at a crisis moment in human history when an increasing number of us are prepared to commit ourselves to a new paradigm. The worldview and ethic of an ecology of human flourishing so movingly and compelling expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, Ernesto Cardenal, the Dalai Lama, and Sallie McFague are not new. But it would be new-revolutionarily new-if, in the future, an ecology of human flourishing became the operative episteme of this century.

Readings and Works Cited

Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

Robert Bellah, "The Renouncers," Social Science Research Council Blogs. The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Square, posted August 11, 2008; www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/08/11/the-renouncers/.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Phutasasanik Kap Kan Anurak Thamachat (Buddhists and the Care of Nature) (Bangkok: Komol Thimthong Foundation, 1990).

Ernesto Cardenal, To Live Is to Love (Herder and Herder, 1972).

Bstan-'dzin-rgya-mtsho, Dalai Lama XIV, "An Ethical Approach to Environmental Protection," in Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, edited by Klas Sandell (Buddhist Publication Society, 1987).

Arthur Kleinman, "Today's Biomedicine and Caregiving: Are They Incompatible to the Point of Divorce?" (University of Leiden, November 26, 2007).

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (Yale University Press, 1953).

Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Fortress Press, 2008).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Parallax Press, 1987); and Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, 1999).

Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice (Harper Collins, 2004).

Mary Evelyn Tucker, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Open Court, 2003).

Anthony F. C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 58 (1956): 264-281.

E. O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W. W. Norton, 2006).