Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Right here, right now, this

Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a good book on biology, I always suggest Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature. In a little over 100 pages, Ursula presents the most lucid and concise survey of the subject I have ever read. Biology, pure and simple.

Of course, there is another part of the book, the "Reflections" at the end of each chapter, where she puts what she has said into the context of religious naturalism. If you are just interested in biology, you can skip that. But I wouldn't. It's the icing on the cake.

Ursula is a first-rate microbiologist. We've had a sometime e-mail relationship (and one lovely breakfast in Harvard Square). The Sacred Depths of Nature is a demonstration that one can be religious without believing in miracles or the existence of a personal God.

Ursula worships with a traditional Presbyterian congregation, singing in the choir, reciting the liturgy and the prayers. I would find it difficult to do that. On those celebratory occasions when I attend a Catholic Mass, I remain silent and sit out Communion. It seems to me that if one recites the Creed, the words should mean what the universal church assumes them to mean. Anything else strikes me as disingenuous.

But I respect Ursula's ability to revel in all forms of traditional religion.
I love traditional religions. Whenever I wander into distinctive churches or mosques or temples, or visit museums of religious art, or hear performances of sacred music, I am enthralled by the beauty and solemnity and power they offer. Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe hat we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each. The words in the traditional texts may sound different to us than they did to their authors, but they continue to resonate with our religious selves. We know what they are intended to mean.
Goodenough knows that awe and gratitude in the face of mystery are part of human nature. "Hosannah!" she exclaims; "Not in the highest, but right here, right now, this." Her little book is a splendid manifesto for religious naturalism, and a useful antidote to the stridency of a Dawkins or Hitchens. She exemplifies what William James said about religion: "There must be something solemn, serious and tender about any attitude that we denote religious. If glad, it must not grin or snicker; if sad, it must not scream or curse."