Religious Naturalism

Glynn Cardy
Sun 03 Jan

An adaptation of work by Rex Hunt.

For the past two decades there has a new “old” kid developing on the progressive religion block.  It is a movement called Religious Naturalism or RN.  While it may be new to many, it has a long pedigree stretching from Christian medieval times to today.  Its pedigree reaches back many more centuries if we take into consideration indigenous people’s nature-centric spiritualty that celebrates the sacred earth (Papatuanuku).

Its resurgence has been helped by the establishment in 2014 of the RN Association with over 550 members.

An important marker in the recent history of Religious Naturalism was the lecture given in 1966 by Lynn White (then professor of medieval history at Princeton) on the “historical roots of our ecological crisis”.  In that lecture White argued:

The Bible asserts humanity’s dominion over nature and establishes a trend of anthropomorphism (God is like a super human).
Christianity makes a distinction between humanity (formed in God’s image) and the rest of creation (which has no ‘soul’ and is thus inferior).
Orthodox Christian teaching thus tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God’s presence in natural things, and opened the way for Christianity to exploit rapaciously natural objects as it desired; and also to denigrate and destroy religious (often indigenous) traditions which had a high regard for nature.
White concludes that the ecological crisis – global warming, ozone depletion, deforestation, etc. - is fundamentally a spiritual crisis.

It’s hard to fault his argument.  And this lecture was given 54 years ago! 

Religious Naturalism has a three-fold foundation:

Firstly, commitment to humans as enmeshed in nature.  The human story and the universe story are the same story.  We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings.  We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, and matter/energy, and where the metaphor of ‘web’ is used to describe this interrelatedness – we create the web and the web creates us.  Within the relational web we are also self-creative and thereby transform the web, for better or worse.  As earth creatures we truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze from which there is no escape.  Wherever we are the universe is.  When we look up into the night sky and wonder at the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.

The second foundation of RN is that there is nothing other than what is natural causing events in the world.   In Religious Naturalism the scientific ‘grand story’ of nature, different from the biblical story and founded not on revelation but on carefully formulated theory, provides a framework for understanding what we accept as real.  A central narrative, the Epic of Evolution, explains that everything in the cosmos shares a common heritage and everything is interconnected, including us humans.  We not only depend on and influence nature, we are a part of it.  D. M. Braxton writes:

“To wrap one’s mind around the immensities of space and time is to feel awe, wonder, and humility.  To see how a small planet adrift in space could have nurtured in its bosom the grand experiment that is life is to peek into Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”.  Evolution outlines the grand arc of cosmic events.  It forms the incredible journey the world has undergone such that we improbable creatures could emerge.  If informs us of the grounds of our ecological citizenship.”[i]

The third and final foundation of Religious Naturalism is an appreciation of religion with a view that nature can be a focus of religious attention.  The religious orientation of RN encompasses spiritual responses that include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive.  Such wonder and awe are deeply spiritual. 

RN is a spiritual path that:

Decentralizes the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the universe.  It is a path of humility.
Is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition.
Is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come – from other faiths, from literature and art, from indigenous wisdom, from science.

The first reading today by Wendall Berry tells of him experiencing the ministry of birds, bush, and water.  Finding peace.  As we might.  Finding peace – not from the intervention of a supernatural being - but through the ministrations of nature.

Jerome Stone writes, “There is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.  If we can go to special places built by humans which are designated as sacred, surely we can go to special places shaped naturally which we recognize as sacred…  There is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves.  What we need is to realize is that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship … but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, the overriding, and the overwhelming.”[ii]

Nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings.  We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings.  Whatever we are, the universe is.  The history of the universe is our history; we are all of us recycled stardust.

Ursula Goodenough says,“That we possess an aesthetic for the natural is affirmed by taking a young child for a walk in the woods or by the sea and witnessing her innate delight in all she beholds.  The delight has little to do with sunsets or vistas, with order or pattern or purpose.  The delight is with the particular: the ladybug crawling on the rock, the fuzzy moss, the tickly dune grass, the mucky mud by the river.  Children connect with the immediate and become a part of it.  The mud isn’t messy, or rather, its messiness is what makes it wonderful.  Children are inherently attuned to Nature.”

Our second reading this morning from Second Isaiah (55:8-13) has God conceived in a traditional Jewish and Christian way of being separate from the natural world, though it is a noteworthy piece for the anthropomorphism (the human-like features) it gives to the mountains & hills (singing) and the trees of the field (clapping their hands). 

Religious naturalists, generally speaking, conceive of G-o-d as either:

The totality of the universe considered religiously (pantheism)
The creative process (impulse) within the universe
The sum of human ideals (Lloyd Geering)
Or those who see no need to use the concept or terminology of God at all, but consider themselves religious or spiritual.

Whatever the differences between these perspectives, naturalists agree on the rejection of the concept of the God who actively alters the course of natural events via episodic interventions, or acts as some kind of personal chaplain.  But the question of the existence of G-o-d is far from settled.

Speaking personally, how I conceive of G/god is different from (though with similarities to) the 4 positions mentioned.  But I have a lot of empathy and political and intellectual convergence with RN and how its trying to re-centre spirituality in the here and now, in the wonders of the life and environment in which we are intertwined, and calling attention to the pressing need to aid in the healing of our planet.

As for Jesus, Religious Naturalism sees him as one who was able, via oral storytelling, to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound people into fear and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.  Which of course does not make him supernatural or divine or the second person of the Trinity.  Just human.  Wonderfully, gloriously human.

As the Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson says of him: “Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, he was a creature of the earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of the planet.  Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth.”[iii]

Again, personally speaking, similar to RN’s thinking about G/god, I have much empathy.  But Jesus I think was more than an iconoclast, a liberator from practices that bound people into fear.  I think he lived and preached a way that involved compassion and hospitality, to friends, the marginalized, and even to enemies.  This was a political, social, economic, and spiritual vision.  It was a vision of belonging to each other, and from a Religious Naturalist perspective a way of belonging to the earth community.

[i] D.M. Braxton “Religious Naturalism and the Future of Christianity” Zygon 42, 2 (June 2007), 317-41.

[ii] J.A. Stone “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-Pagans: Obstacles to appropriating the Old Ways” in C.D. Hardwick and D.A. Crosby Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty.  Peter Lang.  1997.

[iii] E. Johnson. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished” UNIFAS Conference 7-14 July 2010 https://sgfp.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/deep-incarnation-prepare-to-be-ast...

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