What Is the “Nature” In Naturalism?

Religious or spiritual naturalism (I’ll use spiritual for both) is a subject dear to my heart. But sometimes I wonder about what exactly we have in mind when we use the word nature. In what I read and even in what I’ve written, the meaning of nature seems prone to being shifted or narrowed to suit the discussion. I bring up the topic with some trepidation because nature is at the core for groups I am happily part of. But maybe that’s a good reason to raise it.

Virtually everyone values nature in the form of the woods, the fields, the mountains and ocean, the animals, plants, the air and water around them. But if asked for a definition of nature, spiritual naturalists offer up a generally accepted definition that is much broader than any of this earthly scenery. Nature as spiritual naturalists conceive of it is all that would not be considered supernatural. Nature 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 may take us places we had not planned on going. We often reiterate, for example, that we humans are part of nature. But many people might be reluctant to include our cities, cars, computers, pollution and other human products as part of nature, even though all of these fall within the category of things in the universe.

Another complication in labeling the whole universe as nature is that this natural vastness possesses almost none of the characteristics that we often attribute to it. The light at sunset shines in various wavelengths, but without humans to admire those sunsets, they would not be so famously gorgeous. Similarly, while the universe may resemble organic life in its evolution and its cycles, the universe—nature in its totality— is not “alive” in our usual sense of the word. In short, apart from certain principles of physics, nature has no universal characteristics at all, no living qualities, no values.



Still, so many of us seek meaning and understanding from nature at large or from some piece of it. We take strength from our traditions of gratitude and reverence for the universe. In doing so we select from nature according to our spiritual needs. We value the land, sea, and sky for the transcendence they offer from our rough-and-tumble society (even though that society too is natural). And we cherish the cooperation and interconnection that we find in the cosmos and among living things—even though such collaboration is not always benign, for animals and humans often cooperate in order to prevail over others. We find in nature what we need and we set other parts of it aside.

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 moved to the foreground. These are questions related to reviewing my life, anticipating death, and trying to grasp the flow of daily life. Today, the universe story no longer raises the hair on the back of my neck. But the history of living things still does. I too have sliced nature my own way.

Loyal Rue has written, “Nature is enough.” I sometimes think that “nature is too much.” It is big, it is both unchanging and in constant transformation, and it is easy for us to read into it without realizing that we are doing so. Perhaps inevitably, we carry a double vision of nature. We need to hold in mind the totality of nature that is beyond easy description at the same time that we revere the portions of it that move us.



Is the Universe Alive?

Is the universe alive? What about the earth? Or nature as a whole?

My belief is that the universe along with our earthly mountains, oceans and atmosphere are not alive but that we feel they are living because we respond to them so strongly. Many persuasive writers,  though, seem convinced that they are alive—not merely similar to living things but animated by a life of their own. I’m trying to clarify my own thinking.

The living earth? (headstuff.org)

The living earth?

The literature dates back to the Greeks. The philosopher Thales, for example, wrote around 600 B.C. that magnetic stone attracts iron because the stone has a soul. The 19th century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt believed that one could not understand nature unless one understood the interaction of all its parts, including human society, because nature as a whole was a living thing. In his 2007 essay “Earth in Eclipse,” David Abrams refers to humans evolving in “intimate rapport with the other bodies—animals, plants, mountains, rivers—that compose the shifting flesh of this breathing world.” And Bart Everson, in his essay “Awakening to Gaia” in the new collection Godless Paganism, writes, “To awaken to Gaia is to recognize other animals and plants as our distant cousins, to recognize that our kinship extends even to rocks, to the sea, to the atmosphere” (273).

In such statements, it’s difficult to know where personification and metaphor leave off and the belief that nature is literally alive begins. But collectively they show how easily we think of inorganic stuff as living or lifelike—lifelike not just in the way of simple bacteria but lifelike in the way of humans, with complexity and awareness.

I think the main reason people belief our environment might be alive is that we are constantly pouring and projecting ourselves into it. We are hypnotized and soothed by the ocean, and so we say that the ocean is hypnotic and soothing. We feel enlarged and humbled in the presence of mountains, and we call them inspiring. In this way, our responses become their qualities, and their qualities make them seem alive.

In addition, people worry that we are out of touch with nature and think that by viewing the seas, the wind, and sunlight as alive, we might grow closer to them. I’m not so sure. I think we might feel more in touch with nature if we saw more clearly the differences between its living members and its inanimate materials and forces. We—all living things—may be inextricably linked with the earth and the sun, but we are also very unlike them. We are unusual, reproductive, self-modifying, enclosed mini-systems. Rocks, water, and stars are not.

It even, I think, smacks of vanity for us to see the oceans or the stars as versions of ourselves. Many marvels arise in nature, and life is only one of them. We see nature in our image because doing so comes easily to us. But we have great difficulty understanding the quantum oddities of nuclear bits and the dynamics of the unfolding universe. We—most people—are best connected to the rest of nature, I believe, by valuing the story of life on earth, managing our power over nature more responsibly, and standing humbly before the mysteries of non-living matter and energy.

As humans, we can’t help but radiate our energy out to the mountains, the oceans, and the sky. Doing so is our way of feeling fully alive and of seeking connections with what is greater; it’s a form of love. The glow, the seeming “aliveness” that shines back at us from inanimate nature is, I think, only our own reflection, but it helps fulfill us.

A World Without Blue

I was surprised to learn recently (thanks, iain carstairs) that Homer, despite his vivid descriptions of the sky and the “wine-dark sea,” never once used the word blue in the Iliad or Odyssey, composed nearly 3000 years ago. Ancient Greek had no word for that color.

The absence reminds us that we process what we see with the categories that we have and that the world outside our skin is not as directly accessible to us as we might think.

Blue is absent not only from Homer’s Greek but also from the ancient Hebrew bible and from the Hindu Vedic scriptures. It’s not that the early Greeks, Hebrews, or Hindus couldn’t look at the clear sky or the sunny seas the same way we do. But they would describe it and maybe remember or imagine it differently. Their early works were full of words for red, yellow, and green, as well as the shades of light and dark. (It’s likely that, if pressed, they would have said the sky was a light green or grey or almost white.) But blue came later in each culture’s vocabulary.

"Taupe," French for mole (Wikipedia)

“Taupe,” French for mole

One factor perhaps in this strange absence is that unlike green plants and brown earth, few things on the planet’s surface are blue, so blue was rarely used to produce dyes and pigments that might have given it a greater public presence. The blue stone Lapis Lazuli, mined in Afghanistan since 6000 B.C., was exported to the Middle East to make rare jewelry, but the first blue pigment was a compound produced in Egypt and used in art, decoration, and cloth. Blue dyes remained expensive and exclusive enough for the Catholic Church, in 431, to make it the official color of Mary’s robe in works of art.



The experience of seeing and understanding things more clearly when we have names for them is a common one. To stay with the example of colors, I never noticed exactly what the color taupe looked like although I think I have bought Dockers slacks that were labeled as such. Then I read recently that the word labels a range of greyish-browns and is named after the French word for a mole of that color. I’ll probably be seeing taupe more often now.

I wonder, though, if there is some loss as well as gain here. Maybe, if we don’t have a name for the color of something, we are more likely to look at the thing as itself. Perhaps the Greeks, without blue, looked at sky as an intricate mix of light and whites and shades of air, instead of as “blue sky.” I’ve looked at tree trunks in winter as stark, rather dramatic-looking pillars. Will I now see them mostly as “taupe tree trunks”?