Wednesday, January 19, 2011

East of Eden?

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James sought to put his finger on the qualities that all religions share. These, he said, are twofold: 1. An uneasiness; and 2. Its solution.

The uneasiness reduced to its simplest terms is a sense "that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand." The solution is a sense that "we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers."

I've been thinking about how this analysis might apply to what we call religious naturalism.

It seems to me that the defining quality of naturalism is precisely a sense that there is nothing wrong with us, that we are part of a natural order (as opposed to a moral order) that embraces all of creation, that includes light and dark, dynamism and stasis, life and death, law and chaos.

In other words, we do not have a sense of original sin -- a primeval falling out with the gods that separates us from the natural order. If we sicken and die, if we must earn our living by the sweat of our brows, it is not because there is something "wrong," but simply because that is the way it is. All of it.

We have not been cast out of Eden. Eden is nature as we find it. If it seems morally flawed, then we can try to cultivate bowers of goodness, but those bowers themselves are constructed of natural elements.

If there is nothing "wrong" with us, then there is no need for a "solution." But we can enhance our sense of rightness by learning as much as we can about the natural order and our place in it.

The "religious" aspect of religious naturalism comes not from "making proper connection with the higher powers," but by integrating ourselves as fully as possible into the natural order. As humans, this means paying attention, taking pleasure, expressing gratitude, and celebrating a richness and depth to creation that we only partially experience and imperfectly understand.

(More about the moral dimension of religious naturalism tomorrow.)