By Ursula Goodenough
Each religious tradition has its core narrative, often referred to as its Mythos, a term that connotes a large story and not a judgment on its veracity. The life of the Buddha or Christ, the sagas of the peoples of Israel or the Greek gods, the elaborate adventures of the Hindu deities -- these accounts "define" a tradition. Interpretations of the mythos and moral/ethical edicts are built into the fabric of each narrative and elaborated by clerics (theologians, talmudic scholars, Buddhist monks). Spiritual responses are supported by wondrous art and ceremony.
In these traditions, nature is usually framed with respect to the human. In indigenous perspectives, animals are endowed with human sensibilities; in theistic accounts, nature is created by a god with human attributes. The natural world is commonly depicted as a human resource.
Scientific inquiry has provisioned us with a mind-blowing core narrative--the story of the cosmos and our place within it -- where its coherence is a very recent achievement. Of the many names on offer -- the universe story, the epic of evolution -- my favorite is Everybody's Story since it conveys a foundational concept: this is a narrative about us all. The account is based on human discoveries but was not written by humans, and indeed, humans don't show up until the very last moment, albeit our evolution is anticipated in all of its biological chapters and was made possible by the nucleosynthetic marvels called stars.
A naturalist can be said to take nature seriously, to adopt this account as a core narrative. This then raises a question: what would it mean to be a religious naturalist? Are there ways to work with the narrative religiously? What is its interpretive, spiritual, and moral potential? Here are some thoughts.
The interpretive axis of any religious tradition -- akin to the philosophical -- entails probing the narrative for its Meanings: what does it tell me about Incarnation? Suffering? Death? Free will? And, of course, the big one: is nature all there is, or is there "Something Else" in addition, be it God or an afterlife or a timeless consciousness that moves in and out of beings?
Persons who couple the natural world to Something Else are presented with another set of questions -- what is the relationship of this Something Else to the natural world? What is its agency? Its presence? But the coupling also offers some answers; for example, the Purpose and Value of the natural world is usually attributed to this Something Else, as in "God gives my life meaning."
The alternative axis of interpretation can be called non-theistic: 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, every humming bird dipping into a flower with its exquisitely shaped beak. 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.
The spiritual entails inward responses to one's core narrative, and here the menu is rich. Nature elicits both awe and humility, as lifted up beautifully by Marcelo; there's the gratitude and astonishment of being alive at all; there's reverence for nature's outrageous beauty and complexity; there's the joy of participation.
And finally, what about the moral/ethical, which entails outward communal responses to one's core narrative? Here many argue that while nature may tell us how things are, it doesn't tell us how things ought to be nor how we should behave; moral precepts must come "from without."
This perspective is countered by students of our primate lineage, like Frans de Waal, who lifts up "the antiquity of our moral sense." Our moral history, as reflected in the group life of modern great apes, includes robust nurture of the young by all troop members, strong friendship bonds, empathy towards the suffering of others, and complex patterns of reciprocity and respect. These traits have not been left in the evolutionary dustbin. Nor are they experienced as non-human primates experience them. They are experienced as human minds experience things: symbolically. Our symbolic language has generated the capacity to transfigure our proto-moral sensibilities into concepts, such that we speak of nurture in terms of care and love, empathy in terms of compassion, and reciprocity in terms of fair-mindedness. Critically, the religious naturalist is also immersed in an orientation we can call ecomorality -- the recognition that morality is a far larger concept than human interactions, that the earth itself merits our respect and responsibility.
So what's the difference between a naturalist and a religious naturalist? Both take nature seriously; both adopt Everybody's Story as their core narrative. And then, in the words of Loyal Rue, the religious naturalist also takes nature to heart. Taking something to heart means that your heart can be broken: you can experience moral outrage when that which is revered is desecrated.