Article-RN Introduction

© Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
Sydney NSW

A presentation at the Common Dreams5 Conference of Religious Progressives, Australia/South Pacific, in Sydney NSW, in July 2019

OF OLD TREES, STARDUST, AND MOMENTS OF WONDER:
A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO RELIGIOUS NATURALISM…

“The sense of wonder, that is our sixth sense.
And it is the natural religious sense”
(D. H. Lawrence)


Stand under a big old tree and look up.
(The tallest trees in Australia are all eucalypts, of which there are more than 700 species. While Australia’s oldest tree is a clonal male Lagarostrobos franklinii, Huon Pine, in Tasmania that is 10,500+ years old, with individual stems 1,000 to 2,000 years old).

Can you see the passing of time in its gnarled trunk?  The network of bugs and insects burrowing into bark and foraging in leaves?  Wildlife taking refuge in nests and leaf-lined hollows?  Bacteria helping to nourish it with nitrogen?  Big old tress have always fascinated me.  Right from the time as a young boy I learnt to climb some of their more juvenile and smaller offspring on our annual camping adventures to The Grampians (Gariwerd) in country Victoria.  But big old trees are disappearing - fast. Yet our very existence is rooted in the fundamental processes of trees and cockatoos and the universe itself.

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Over the past two decades there has been a new ‘old’ kid developing on the progressive religiosity/ethical block. It is a movement called Religious Naturalism. While it may be new to many it has a long pedigree, stretching from Christian medieval times through to today where it has been preserved within the academy, within pockets of Unitarian Universalist spirituality, in sections of the reformulation of Christian theology congruent with current scientific cosmologies, and sometimes overlapping within aspects of Religious Humanism.  And centuries before all these when we take into consideration indigenous peoples nature-centric songlines or Dreaming stories that celebrate the sacred earth as the Kunapipi, ‘earth mother’. 

Some of today’s advocates—Jerome Stone, Loyal Rue, Ursula Goodenough, Donald Crosby, to name just a few—often describe it as the ‘forgotten’ religious alternative. Its resurgence has been helped by the establishment in 2014 of the >550 persons online-only Religious Naturalist Association (with membership from 29 countries) and the traction its resources and this communal connection offers. It has even made it on to one of the newer agendas of the Westar Institute: the ‘Seminar on God and the Human Future’.

What is Religious Naturalism?
The term religious naturalism will strike some as an oxymoron, because we have grown accustomed to sensing religious as books and clericalism and big, cumbersome institutions, plus belief in supernaturalism, while naturalism often has an anti-religious perspective to it, if not, atheism. RN has two central aspects, presented in either its negative or positive version. 

One is an appreciation of religion with a view that nature can be a focus of religious attention.  The other is a naturalist view of how things happen in the world—in which the natural world is all there is, and that nothing other than natural may cause events in the world—“a robust religious/spiritual life without recourse to the supernatural, whether deity, soul, or heaven.” (Stone 2018:7)

Naturalists adopt the scientific account as their core narrative with full recognition that these understandings will certainly deepen and may shift with further scientific enquiry.  They do not select features of the story that support preferred theories of nature.

Characteristics of Religious Naturalism…
(i) Naturalist views, where the scientific ‘grand story’ or ‘drumbeat’ of nature, different from the biblical story and founded not on revelation but on carefully formulated theory—‘measurement to an astonishing degree of precision, and repeated experimentation’—serves as the starting point and provides a framework for understanding what seems real.  These include a central narrative, the Epic of Evolution, that explains that everything in the cosmos shares a common heritage and that everything is interconnected, including us humans.  

Second, nature is dynamic.  It evolves.  Change is not merely an appearance but is essential to the way things are.  We not only depend on nature and are a part of nature, we also profoundly influence the natural world of which we are a part.  To use some biblical language: in nature we live and move and have our being.

What greater gift can there be than to be a species endowed with the capacity to perceive, comprehend, and align itself with the very forces that have governed our universe for more than 13 billion years?
“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.” (Braxton 2007:332) 

(ii) Religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive.  Wonder is like a hinge that opens up rather than closes down to the unknown, a breaking open of what was previously mysterious and undiscovered.  Wonder and awe is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us.  Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply spiritual.

All responses are adopted from the core scientific narrative and explored developing interpretive, spiritual, and moral/ethical responses to the narrative. “Importantly,” suggests cell biologist Ursula Goodenough,
“these responses are not front-loaded into the story as they are in the [religious] traditions. Therefore, the religious naturalist engages in a process, both individually and in the company of fellow explorers, to discover and experience them. These explorations are informed and guided by the mindful understandings inherent in our human traditions, including art, literature, philosophy and the religions of the world.” (Goodenough 2014:2)

Who is a Religious Naturalist?
With the help of some friends and drawing on RN resources, let me address a common question: ‘who is a religious naturalist?’  In so doing I offer five (5) ‘wisdom principles’ (the religious bit) coupled with five (5) short statements (the naturalist bit).

A religious naturalist:
(i) understands ‘sacred events’ are not manifestations of something deeper of another realm, but rather a revised insight into the importance of things;
(ii) explores more than one religious tradition, especially in this pluralistic day and age;
(iii) seeks to discover the counterpoint between divergent themes within a religious tradition rather than glossing over them;
(iv) acknowledges such exploration needs to go beyond the ‘official’ interpretations stated by any tradition—boundaries need to be pushed, and where necessary, reconstructed;
(v) encourages an ‘openness’ or dialogue… where both the self and the tradition is challenged to learn and to grow.

A religious naturalist:
(i) holds a naturalist view of how things are in the world;
(ii) sees themselves as religious (or spiritual), in non-traditional ways, as they absorb the wonder of being alive and the order and beauty of the cosmos; (iii) asks “What is?” and “What matters?” questions, seeking wisdom from natural (rather than supernatural) sources, including science, art, literature, philosophy, and world religions—appreciating ancient stories as metaphor or myth, rather than as literally true;
(iv) respects things that clearly matter, such as ecological stability and social justice;
(v) seeks to learn from and care about the natural world, including its humankind.

And in what might sound like the beginnings of an ‘open’ definition, Goodenough suggests a religious naturalist:
“seeks to synthesise his/her interpretive, spiritual, and moral responses to the natural world into a coherent whole, a synthesis that functions as his/her version of religious naturalism, where the vocabulary, metaphors, and meanings that emerge from that search are not expected to conform to some external received credo.”   (Goodenough et.al. 2018:311)

At-homeness in Nature as ‘Main Game’… 
Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘the main game’ for any progressive spirituality despite the continuing influence of old-stream ‘revealed’ religion centred on Belief with a capital ‘B’. 

If we think back over the past two centuries and recount the ways scientific knowledge has impacted our lives, what would top the list? I would suggest the recognition that nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings.  Given a chance, the cosmic evolution story is too compelling, too beautiful, too edifying, and too liberating to fail in captivating the imagination of a vast majority of humankind. 

I return to the wisdom of cell biologist and self-confessed religious naturalist, Ursula Goodenough. She offers this powerful scenario of our at-homeness in nature…
“That we possess as part of our genetic heritage an aesthetic for the natural is readily 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.” (Goodenough 2001:26, Goodenough (n.d)

Horizontal transcendence. Natural not supernatural. Responding “to the nature of nature with attunement and participation and delight” in an environment “that is ongoing, changing, and unpredictable”.  An experience animated by a sense of wonder, belonging, and relatedness. 

But it is also important, as a UK colleague reminds us, to push strongly against any sentimental reading of nature. Nature does not always wear a naturing Mother Earth face — she sometimes wears the face of Mars, god of war and destruction in the form of earthquake, storm, fire, war and disease. My colleague writes: “We must never forget that, even as it may be for some of us religiously ultimate and worthy of our religious loyalty, ’nature naturing’ is always morally ambiguous.” (Andrew Brown)

Religious Naturalism and Progressive Christianity…
How amenable is Christianity, in its ‘progressive’ guise, to Religious Naturalism?  Of four possible subjects of exploration let me briefly approach just two: (i) the god G-o-d, and (ii) the peasant sage Yeshu’a/Jesus.

(i)  On the god G-o-d…
Twenty-first century cosmology creates a huge ‘housing problem’ for the god G-o-d. Challenging most G-o-d thought, past and present, Karl Peters suggests a g-o-d beyond an ever more rapidly expanding universe is no longer conceivable.
“Neither is God within the universe—if God is conceived of as some kind of being, force, energy, or spiritual reality that exists along-side the physical world. The current scientific story of creation, and its physicalism makes it impossible to locate God as a distinct reality within or separate from the world as known by today’s science.”  (Peters 2018:238)

Religious naturalism does not require a belief in the god G-o-d although it may include belief in G-o-d naturalistically conceived.  For many religious naturalists the intellectual component of religious life takes the form of insight rather than specific beliefs.  Allowing for the different meanings attached to language the ‘naturalism’ represented by current advocates is diverse. Generally speaking they can be grouped as:
(a) those who think of G-o-d as the totality of the universe considered religiously;
(b) those who conceive of G-o-d as the creative process within the universe;
(c) those who think of G-o-d as the sum of human ideals, and
(d) those who see no need to use the concept or terminology of G-o-d yet can still be called religious.

What is not ‘diverse’ in all this is the rejection of the concept of the god G-o-d who actively alters the course of natural events via episodic interventions, or acts as some kind of personal chaplain—such rejection being compatible with much contemporary progressive Christian thought! But the question of the ‘existence’ of the god g-o-d is far from settled.  “Whether or not we believe that there is something more”, suggests Lutheran systematic theologian Philip Hefner, “nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Hefner 2008:x)

(ii)  On the Sage Yeshu’a/Jesus…
Judging from what little firm knowledge we have of Yeshu’a/Jesus, he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom and cultural/social traditions, forcing his hearers to directly take a second look at what helped or hindered them make their way in the world.  With an oral storyteller’s imagination he was able to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life. 

Now none of this makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine.  Or No. 2 in a Trinity.  Just human. Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books that strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet.  Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…” (Johnson 2010)

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not an incredible one. (Galston 2012)  And a possible Jesus is a Palestinian Jesus situated in his historical circumstances—in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire sometime between the years 26-36 CE—and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.

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The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans has long been recognised—even before the new level of stunning cinematographic visualisations as in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet 1 & 2 and before that, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Thus 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,” writes Jerome Stone,
“surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred… 

There is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves. What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.”  (Stone 1997)

Religious orientation only lives while we are making it up, while our imaginations and creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’—crafting (religiopoiesis)—new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.  And such ‘crafting’ is much more than embarking of a salvage operation!  What matters most for the religious life, is imagination and experimentation.  Engaging the mind imagining, not just thinking

Religious Naturalists do not take any particular religious tradition as the normative framework for their expressions of religious naturalism.  They do not work from within but alongside traditional religion.  However, it is the hope of a growing number of people that the religious ethical worldview of RN will eventually be the default worldview of most people.

In the public sphere, debates continue between naturalism and spiritual or religious or dualistic world views.  In a time of ecological vulnerability and dislocation of the social fabric, contemporary religious naturalism’s conceptions of and attitudes toward nature and religiosity have much to commend it.  Especially its willingness to entertain radically new approaches, “and explore trackless places and experiences” (Michael Hogue) as it engages with some of the most pressing religious and moral issues of our times.

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A loving ‘nana’ to three grand children, she has been a volunteer teacher’s helper at the local public school for nearly ten years.  Reading, Science, and Maths are her helping specialities. 

But this day it was an outdoors activity - tree planting.

Down on her knees with the children, hands deep into the earth,
one seven year old with tiny, dirty hands, looked up and said:
“When I grow up I want to be a tree planter…”

Then pausing, her head cocked on one side, the seven year old asked:
“How do you be a tree planter?”

Before an answer could be given, the regular teacher called:
“Time.  Everyone back in the classroom.”

As they walked across the oval towards the classroom and regular teaching, the nana helper said:
“Well, I’m not sure how you’ll do it in the future, but today you are a tree planter…
“And you can consider yourself a tree planter for all your days on one condition.”

“What’s that?” asked the seven year old.
“You keep planting trees…”

Sometime during this Conference, go outside and literally sit under a tree.
Go outside and realise that we’re surrounded by genius!
Look up and say, what is this tree doing that we need to do
in our industrial/technological/social media world to meet our needs?

Here’s a few clues:
• There are solar arrays.  And they’re not flat on top of a roof, they’re in vertical arrays.
They are tilting as the sun moves across the sky.
• It is defending itself against pest.
• It is pulling water hundreds of feet up.
• The roots are exchanging nutrients with the roots of the tree next door…

In the spirit of some words from the late prize-winning poet of nature, W. S. Merwin:
‘On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree…’


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