I am a religious/spiritual naturalist. (Religious and spiritual don’t mean the same thing, but for this discussion, they are close enough to let religious serve for both.) But I find in what I read about the subject, and in what I myself have written, the meaning of nature seems to narrow selectively to suit particular religious ideas and feelings. I discuss the topic here with some trepidation because it is about a belief at the center for a group I am part of, but I think it never hurts to take another look at our definitions.
The definition here seems clear enough. Nature, as religious naturalists conceive of it, is distinct from the supernatural and it refers to the universe of materials and forces that we perceive with our senses and that scientists infer from their observations.
But the breadth of this definition, if we follow it literally, takes us places where we may not want to go. We say, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But we might be reluctant to include as “natural” our human products such as cities, cars, computers, and pollution, all of which fall within the category of things in the universe. Moreover, nature in its raw physicality has almost none of the characteristics that we attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be enchanting. Similarly, while nature as a whole may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the natural universe is not “alive” in our sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, certainly no values.
But within it, we tiny humans seek meaning and understanding. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the world around us. So it is not surprising that we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the fields, mountains, and oceans for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (though that society too is, strictly speaking, natural). And we value the cooperation and interconnection that we find at all levels of earthly life and in the cosmos itself, even though such linkages in nature are not always benign; animals or human often cooperate mainly for the purpose of prevailing over others. We find in nature what we need.
Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I think sometimes that nature is too much. It’s too big and elusive. The definition we have assigned to the word is not so easy for us to live up to in our religious discourse.
Up into my middle age, I was intrigued by accounts of how the universe began and how it unfolded. But for the last couple of decades, that question has faded and others have taken its place. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the underlying flow of daily life. Today, I don’t share the feelings of many religious naturalists for the universe story, but I am moved to my depths by the history of living things, as I’ve written in this blog. I too have my own slice of nature.
I share the focus that Ursula Goodenough describes in “Are You A Religious Naturalist Without Knowing It?”, a piece for NPR in 2010:
Nature is all that we know there to be; its source is a mystery; its dynamics generate emergent phenomena of increasing complexity. Full stop. How might one find Purpose and Value in such a perspective?
There are many responses, but my own is to see purpose and valuation in every biological trait, every adaptation….Traits are about something, for something. They have been evaluated and selected in their ecological contexts. Therefore, for me, the flourishing and continuation of life has deep intrinsic Value and Purpose.
“Full stop”—meaning, as I understand her, that there is nothing more that can or should be said about nature as a whole after we have noted that it is emergent and increasingly complex. Any more would be incomplete, would be to choose some aspects and leave out others.
And Goodenough writes that “There are many responses” to how we seek purpose and value given that nature “is all we know there to be.” Some find their core in the universe story, some in celebration of the earthly seasons, others in the history of living things. Perhaps we need a double vision (something our natural brains are not so good at) to hold in mind both the totality of nature that is beyond description and that portion of it that feels like our intimate spiritual companion.