Thursday, July 07, 2011

Religious naturalism

"I consider it a sign of human weakness," wrote the Roman natural historian Caius Plinius Secundus, "to inquire into the figure and the form of God. For whatever God be, and wherever he exists, he is all sense, all sight, all hearing, all life, all mind, and all within himself."

Indeed.

What Pliny describes is a robust pantheism, but more than pantheism. Call him, if you will a religious naturalist.

He was careful not to circumscribe God's attributes. Everything that exists was the subject of his study; everything enhanced his sense of wonder. Not one of his senses was neglected. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and tactile sensations of this world were each a partial and equally precious revelation of whatever was worthy of being called divine. Of these trifles Pliny constructed a natural history in thirty-seven volumes. No sand-encompassed oasis, no fish that swam in a faraway sea, no cave, no spring, no pebble or rock, was beyond his interest.

Pliny's song to the Earth is one of the most beautiful passages in his Natural History. "She receives us at our birth, nourishes us when we are born, and ever afterward supports us; lastly embracing us in her bosom when we are rejected by the rest of nature, she then covers us with a special tenderness."

Much of the contention between science and faith could be avoided if we listened to Pliny. God is not to be found in science, or disproved by science. The big bang or Darwinian natural selection is a foolish basis for a theology or for atheism. All science is tentative. Gaps get filled. What stays are sight, sound, taste, smell and tactile sensation. What resides is the mystery, the wonder, the beauty and the terror. We walk the shoreline between knowledge and mystery drop-jawed and grateful, rejecting all faiths and creeds that seek to lodge the divine in any human guise, in any patchwork of the miraculous. Whatever God be, and wherever he exists, he is not a "he." He is all life, all mind, unknowable, unnamable, ineffable, elusive. "The earth, kind, mild, and indulgent as she is," says Pliny, "always ministers to the wants of mortals."