Friday, February 18, 2011

Defining moment

It would be interesting to know who was the first to use the term "religious naturalism." I picked it up from Ursula Goodenough, but its pedigree predates her lovely book The Sacred Depths of Nature. In any case, it seems an apt term for describing the faith position articulated on this blog and in my books.

Let's pick it apart.

Naturalism is first of all a rejection of philosophical and theological dualism. Western civilization, especially, has been in thrall to a binary understanding of reality: natural/supernatural, body/soul, matter/spirit. Naturalism abjures the need for separate categories. The naturalist's reality is the world that presents itself -- directly or indirectly -- to the senses, a lawful world of matter and energy. The most reliable way so far devised to know that world relies on reproducible quantitative, empirical evidence in search of consensus. It is a way of knowing that, in so far as possible, is independent of cultural vernaculars -- politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. Pure reason can pose questions and suggest answers, but the gold standard of science is exact, reproducible observation.

This is not to say that the world as we understand it today is the totality of reality. A hundred years from now our understanding may be vastly different than now. But still, what we come to know will be mediated through empirical observation. It will be "natural."

And what is "religious" naturalism?

The religious naturalist is fully aware of the tentative, evolving state of knowledge and has a deep sense of the fullness of what we do not know. This awareness of ineluctable mystery evokes emotions of awe, wonder, praise, gratitude -- responses that have traditionally been associated with religion and no doubt spring from the same evolutionary roots.

The religious naturalist is always seeking to expand the circle of reliable empirical knowledge -- and therefore opportunities to encounter mystery -- but the human drama is central, central because the knower is central. As Goodenough writes: "Being at home with our natural selves is the prelude to ecology, both environmental and cultural, and there are many ways to see human beings as noble and distinctive even as we are inexorably part of the whole."