Naturalism: How Divine!
A Seminarian’s “Conversation” with Two Professors
Jane A. Page
(With Excerpts from the Writings of Karl E. Peters and Jerome A. Stone)
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment for Requirements of
20th Century Liberal Theology
E533INTCreation-Evolution, the Sacred, and Creative Living
Meadville Lombard Theological School
September 13, 2003
During the summer of 2003, I took two intensive courses from Meadville Lombard Theological School. One was “20th Century Liberal Theology” and was taught by Jerome Stone, author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (1992). The other course was “Creation – Evolution, the Sacred, and Creative Living” and was taught by Karl Peters, author ofDancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God (2002). Early in my email communication with these two professors it became clear to me that they knew each other as fellow scholars in the field of “science and religion” and each respected the work of the other. During the second class, my professor, Karl Peters, indicated that he was having dinner with Jerome Stone. I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a conversation with both of them together. Perhaps some day I shall have the real conversation. In the meantime, however, I have decided to use my creative energies (which some would categorize as the God in me) to imagine a conversation the three of us might have related to four topics: (1) science and religion, (2) naturalism, (3) their own naturalistic models, and (4) ethics and morality.
While the conversation itself is a fabrication, the thoughts and words attributed to me are truly mine. And approximately 98% of the words attributed to Peters and Stone are, indeed, words extracted from their writings. Some words and phrases have been added to these extractions for transitional purposes and to facilitate the conversational tone of this work. I have included information in parentheses at the end of Stone’s and Peter’s contributions to the conversation that identify the location of these ideas. If a page number is identified, the information was extracted (with modifications for conversational purposes) from those pages in their respective books. I have also identified any information taken from my class notes and email communication. Additionally, I have extracted some information from an article by Jerome Stone in the on-line Journal of Liberal Religion and have used the letters LR to indicate that source. Finally, I have extracted information from an article by Karl Peters published in Zygonand have used a Z before the page number to indicate this source. Although there is no break in the conversation, I have used subheadings to assist the reader in an understanding of the major topics being discussed. At the end of the trialogue, I have included a “journal entry” providing reflection and analysis of the conversation held earlier in the evening.
This discussion takes place during the third week of July 2003 at the guest apartment I’ve rented from the Lutheran Theology School of Chicago. Jerry Stone and Karl Peters are going out to dinner later in the evening and I’ve invited them over for a “Happy Hour” of drinks, appetizers, and conversation. They arrive together at my door at 5:15. I’ve placed the refreshments in the living room and we sit around the coffee table.
Jane: I’m so glad you two could drop by for a while. I decided to put the snacks out up here in the living room since there is a window air conditioner here.
Jerry: You need one today.
Jane: Yes, I was delighted to find that this apartment had some air conditioning. So many of the places the students stay here in the summer don’t have any. And it can get really hot. Even though I’m a native South Georgian, the heat can get to me. I’m usually here for intensives in January and it’s quite different!
Karl: Well, you’re coming during the most extreme times of the year.
Jane: Yeah, but it’s been worth it. This is the first summer that I’ve taken intensives and I really feel fortunate to have had both of you for classes. If I can ever get through all of this schooling and other preparation for ministry, I may even see more of you because the conference that you both go to on Star Island really intrigues me.
Jerry: You would certainly enjoy it. It’s sponsored by the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science and they have some great programs. (Class Notes)
Science and Religion
Jane: I’m sure I would enjoy it, but my life is just too full to add anything else now. When I retire from Georgia Southern in 2005, I’ll hopefully be able to put more on my plate. And religion and science are two of my favorite dishes! I’ve always had an interest in both of these, but for much of my life, I’ve separated these interests because I had such a hard time reconciling them. And here you two and others are actively pursuing the relationship of science and religion rather than separating them. What motivated you to get into this stuff?
Karl: To begin with, I find my mind has been shaped by the world view of modern science. I live with a scientific understanding of things in my daily life. (ix)
Jerry: That’s true. In our day, our observations are often shaped by the scientific outlook. (112)
Karl: I use the fruits of the natural and social sciences to clean my house and gain knowledge of what’s happening in other parts of the world, treat my illnesses, understand the workings of my brain, and find insight into my personal relationships with others. (ix)
Jane: I’m still waiting for that button to push which will clean the house for me, but I am thankful that I can now just push a button and cook supper! Of course now that we have all this work saving technology, we have to buy exercise technology to keep us in shape! It seems that with each good outcome of scientific thinking, there’s a counterproductive aspect that has to be addressed.
Karl: That’s true. In fact the whole science and religion movement grew out of the concern of the National Academy of Science for World Peace after the first atomic bomb was dropped. (Class Notes).
Jane: I guess that was an awakening for folks that science alone is not enough. The scientific method seems to me like the body without the soul. Now I’m not saying that the soul is some real matter or something like that. But it’s just that aspect of ourselves that connects to goodness – in some ways that we don’t understand now. And when we just use the tools of science to make our way in the world, I think we fail as a society to connect to the goodness and that can lead to disaster.
Jerry: One way to think about it is that scientific observation is narrowly focused. Science is interested in particular types of data and looks for the kinds of data which meet these interests. (112)
Jane: Nothing wrong with that if that is as far as you want to go.
Jerry: Yes, science tends to narrow down concerns to manageable problems and reduce meanings and data to the quantifiable, the repeatable, and the statistical. Whereas, sensitive discernment, a term I use for a broader and more open inquiry, doesn’t restrict itself to quantifiable data or data capable of being recorded with precision. (113)
Karl: But most of us do assume a scientific view of things – which is more and more common as people use the technology and experimental methods of science – we see the causes of things in nonpersonal terms, in terms of laws and forces. (9)
Jane: Yeah, I admit that my mind works like that much of the time. And I don’t really have a concern with that because I think the scientific method has done so much to help us solve problems. But I do want to be open to other ways of understanding. I guess something like the “sensitive discernment” that Jerry’s talking about. But I just wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I’ve got too much Dewey in me to reject the scientific method.
Jerry: Sensitive discernment doesn’t require the rejection of the scientific approach and its type of perception. But it does involve a broader and more sensitive type of perception. I’m trying to encourage abroader empiricism that includes scientific observation but also recognizes the validity of other types of perception. (112)
Jane: Okay, I guess I was viewing it as some way of perceiving the world or life or your experiences in addition to a scientific way of thinking about it. But it’s not really separate is it? The openness you are talking about includes science and builds on it.
Jerry: Yes, it’s broader. Sensitive discernment refuses to restrict observation by the canons of precision and measurement. It’s much like Bernard Meland’s idea of appreciative awareness. Unlike science, it doesn’t have to manipulate the variables in a situation. It is appreciative of resources of healing and gifts of kindness for example. (113)
Jane: So let’s say after a walk around my pond, my headache goes away. I’m aware that my walk is a resource for healing, although I can’t explain it. I’m appreciative though and so I’m using some kind of sensitive discernment to reinforce that what I have done is good. I feel healed and there is something transcendent in what is going on here. But it’s not just “feeling good” is it?
Jerry: No, it’s what some call a widening of the intellect. It’s more profound than thought but more disciplined than sheer sensation. (123)
Jane: It seems to me that what you are talking about is a much more qualitative type of inquiry. Most of the research I’ve done in the last couple of decades in the field of education has been qualitative or a combination of quantitative with qualitative, so I’ll certainly go along with that. But I do value science and the scientific method greatly and I sense that both of you do too. You seem to have an appreciation that is almost reverent.
Karl: Jane, science discovers that there are laws, that there is order in the universe. I know you really like music. If we use a musical metaphor, we might say science is discovering the “beat” of the universe, it uncovers the underlying rhythms of nature. Science also discovers something else besides the underlying rhythms. It discovers that the tune is constantly changing. Discovering laws of nature does not eliminate chance and change, because lawful sequences of events still affect each other in unpredictable ways. (132-133)
Jane: And how does all this appreciation of this music of science affect you religiously?
Karl: For me it is only one more step to ask how scientific knowledge might help me in my religious living. For one thing, it helps me to understand the causes of what happens naturalistically. (ix,9)
Jane: Aha, naturalistically! I’m trying to come to terms with what that means. Both of you talk about naturalism. Although you do combine it with different words. I think that Jerry’s term “religious naturalism” might fit my own theology. – but I’m not sure. I’m still trying to figure out what it is and how it’s different from Karl’s “naturalistic theism” and how that’s different than a secular version and different than humanism.
Jerry: Well, there is certainly overlap. And my ideas are really a work in progress. (Class Notes)
Jane: I told someone in my church that I was thinking of doing a sermon on religious naturalism. And she said, “Oh, is that those folks who worship in the nude? ” Ha! Well, I said, No, I think that must be religious naturism – but that could be a more interesting sermon! I generally define naturalism to people in terms of what it is not – rather than what it is. It’s just easier for me to say that I don’t believe in the supernatural. But I need some help in trying to go beyond that in my explanation.
Jerry: Naturalism is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world. It affirms that attention should be focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life. (LR)
Karl: And, naturalism means that everything is energy-matter and the information according to which energy-matter is organized. It also means that the causes of things are not personal, mental, and intentional – except when personal creatures such as humans and probably some animals are involved. (9)
Jane: Well then it would almost seem that phrases you two use – like “Religious Naturalism” and “Naturalistic Theism” would be oxymorons.
Their Naturalistic Philosophical Models
Jerry: There may be those who agree with that statement. But I see religious naturalism as a type of naturalism. It’s a set of beliefs and attitudes that affirm that there are religious aspects of this world which can be understood within a naturalistic framework.. (LR)
Jane: So it’s a matter of language?
Karl: Language is part of it. For instance, I use the term “naturalistic theism,” which I think I got from Wieman. And I believe that is different than Jerry’s religious naturalism. It is interesting as to which word is the noun and which is the adjective. I think that I consider myself a naturalistic theist because I have a sense that the creative process has agency, that is – it brings about new good – new truth, new beauty, new community, new love, new justice. (Personal Email Communication: 9-7-03)
Jane: But doesn’t the creative process also bring about destruction. You see my little image of Shiva that I have on the end table over there. I bought that dancing Shiva for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I believe that any god who dances can’t be all bad.. And for another, I do realize that the dance of life has positive and negative aspects. I think the song in our hymnal called, “Let it be a dance” is a beautiful example of the appreciation of that.
Jerry: That’s also an issue I have with Wieman. For him, all meanings are intrinsically good. But I think some things are evil. And I’m glad you brought Shiva into this because that’s something I’ve been asked by others about my own ideas. Where is Shiva? Even with Dewey, God is a selective term for the forces and conditions aiding us in the construction of Good. But where is Shiva? (Class Notes)
Jane: Shiva’s doing his dance over there on my end table, Jerry! You know, it seems that the three of us are alike in wanting to at least focus on the goodness of creativity. But Jerry is right in that it’s important to recognize what some label as the evil or destructive aspects of creation.
Karl: Yes, there are certainly aspects that seem destructive. When I think of the dance of creativity, though, I prefer to think of one aspect of that process as mistake making. “To err is divine.” (38)
Jane: Karl, do you mean to tell me that God as conceived by you in this dance is making mistakes, stepping on toes and such?
Karl: Well, this is not the way we traditionally think of God. But, if we understand what an error or mistake is, we might make sense of it. “Error” or “mistake” can mean a deviation from the way things have usually been said or done. These words signify mis-takes, so that the past is not reproduced in exactly the same way. Yet, from another perspective, mis-takes are new variations on the past; therefore, they may possibly be a creative advance into the future. And the model of the dance is important because it has some structure, namely processes of variation and processes of selection. There is much more to the creative process. It is in Jerry’s sense minimally transcendent, or in my sense it is creative mystery. (38, Personal EmailCommunication: 9-7-03)
Jane: Well, I’m trying to get an understanding of this discourse, because you do use different words and that may or may not be important.
Jerry: The language or religious discourse is an important feature. For example in my own variety of religious naturalism, the key word that I use for articulating this approach is “sacred.” I learned this word and how to use it by attending services as a child and early adolescent in a liberal Protestant church. We didn’t use this word often, but when we did it always carried a notion of respect. You held something sacred by treating it with respect. Later through graduate study I became familiar with the classical texts and theorists concerning the sacred. And now I recognize certain experiences in my life as sacred. (LR)
Jane: Jerry, it’s interesting that you put such an emphasis on the word “sacred” and Karl actually uses that word in the title of his book, Dancing with the Sacred. But I’m not sure you two have the same concept of this word.
Karl: There’s certainly overlap, but that’s where my theism comes in. I’m suggesting that God – conceived of as the creative process – is like a dance. And we participate in the dance as co-creators. In this dance, no one leads. There are rules to dancing though implied in the rhythm of the music and of the particular type of dancing. Nevertheless, when one is in the interaction there is spontaneity. There is the opportunity to improvise, to “go with the flow.” And by participating in the creative process we are dancing with the sacred. (vii, 46-47)
Jane: I just love that metaphor. And that theistic use of the word is one that I’m accustomed to hearing. But I’m not sure what you mean by the term Jerry. I need an example.
Jerry: Okay, here’s a couple. I remember the day my father died. I was sitting in my apartment feeling rather sad when my daughter, at that time about eight years old, came home from school. When I told her what had happened, she said, “Oh, Dad” and put her arm around me. It was one of the most comforting and supportive moments of my life. Another event occurred after Martin Luther King was murdered. Some residents both Black and White, of the city of Evanston, Illinois organized marches to put pressure on the city council to pass an open housing ordinance. At that time it was perfectly legal in that place to refuse to rent or sell a house to anyone, including Blacks and Jews, because of their race or ethnic origin. Now I was quite busy as a father, breadwinner and graduate student. Yet I felt that this was the right moment to pressure the city council. Also my wife and I felt that this was a way to educate out two children by direct participation in values that we held dear. Now, I’ve learned through the years to think of these events and others like them as sacred. I’ve gradually developed a technological theory of sacredness that goes something like this. The word “sacred” is a word we use to describe events, things, and processes which are of overriding importance and yet are not under our control or within our power to manipulate. (LR)
Jane: Are you talking about some kind of mystical experience – that wouldn’t be naturalism, would it?
Jerry: No, my naturalistic outlook suggests to me that the deeper vision we seek to attain is not of another realm or of invisible spirits, but rather a revised insight into importance of things. There is a “depth,” not apart from, but right in the midst of things. (LR)
Karl: One way to understand the great variety of ways in which the sacred has been portrayed is to recognize that all ideas about the sacred, including mine and Jerry’s, are related to particular times and places, to the cultural symbols available to human imagination. All these, even though quite different, are human attempts to comprehend the mystery that has created the world. At the same time, human beings have understood the sacred as something present in their midst. (30)
Jerry: It’s more like the caffeine in the coffee than like a cherry of top of a sundae.(LR)
Jane: Hmmm, but depending on whether I was taught to believe as a Hindu or as a Southern Baptist – even in today’s world – I’m going to have a different view of what’s sacred? Some might think that the cherry on top is what’s sacred about that sundae.
Karl: That’s true. And one way to understand the diversity of religion and various conceptions of the sacred is to turn to contemporary science and to the ideas of naturalism and evolution. You see, the modern scientific perspective holds that everything in the universe is ultimately comprised of energy-matter and information, and that the processes of change going on in the universe can be described in general evolutionary terms. From this starting point is it possible to outline the general history of the universe in such a way that religious diversity makes sense.(25-26)
Jane: Okay, go for it.
Karl: Well, one of the primary characteristics of energy-matter is described by the second law of thermodynamics: the natural tendency of the universe is to move toward a state of random disorder. If this is a fundamental feature of the universe, how did more complex entities such as life and mind arise? To resolve this question, one can postulate that creation comes about through the interaction of chance and law. The process is essentially random until a particular combination of positive and negative energy uncovers a new stable state. The same random search for stable states continues as atoms form more complex arrangements. (26)
Jane: Okay, I can foresee a long explanation before we get to the diversity of religions.
Karl: Not really. Basically, as the energy-matter and information within the universe continually reacts with itself, it produces an almost infinite variety of structures. Many of these reproduce in ways that bring about still greater variety of forms into being. To bring about diversity seems to be what the universe itself is engaged in doing. And I think this evolutionary-naturalistic picture helps us see how the variety of religions and their understanding of the sacred might be rooted in the very nature of things. And I think this evolutionary picture can help those who affirm a more traditional, personal view of God. Arthur Peacocke, who’s a biochemist and a theologian, suggests how we might understand God’s purpose in a pluralistic world. He suggests that God and creation might be portrayed in aesthetic terms. You know – the universe is like a cosmic symphony with God as the composer and conductor. (26-27)
Jane: So one difference in the view you and Jerry have of the sacred is God’s place in it. How did you get God in there.
Karl: Well, actually Wieman saved me from atheism! (Class Notes)
Jane: It seems to me that both of you connect to in some ways to Wieman in the early development of your ideas. You say he saved you from atheism Karl?
Karl: Yes, when I finally got around to reading his works in graduate school, I discovered a person who had thought what I was trying to think twenty-five years earlier. Wieman wrote of God as the creative event, the creative process, the process of creative transformation. His God consisted of those interactions taking place among humans and between humans and the rest of the world that gave rise to truth, beauty, love, and community. The important thing for me was that I could observe such interactions. By defining God as an event or process, I could see God working in the world. I could again believe in God. (3-4)
Jerry: My connection with Wieman is more in the area of the development of my ideas of a minimalist position. These ideas came in my early reading of Wieman’s Religious Experience and Scientific Method. He defines God minimally and says that in that minimal sense, God cannot be denied. A difference is that I soften his absolute certainty about God to a more appropriate tentativeness. (6)
Jane: I took Process Theology from Ken Olliff last year and he required us to read Wieman in that class. I think, however, that by the time I got around to reading Wieman, his ideas as well as other revisionary theists had become articulated by so many others that they probably were not as inspirational to me. But I was intrigued with how Wieman developed a philosophy which reconciled his rejection of the necessity to adopt Christian myth with his need or desire to maintain his Christian faith. He seems to view Christianity as something he inherited just as surely as he inherited his skin and eye color. You know, he acknowledges that transformation may be possible with other traditions but he assumes that the tradition must be inherited for this revelation to take place. I need to remember that this work was published in 1945. Yet I can read John Dewey’s ideas in A Common Faith which were written before then and say “Amen” almost throughout the whole book.
Jerry: I can say “Amen” to a lot of Dewey too. My views are actually situated between Dewey and Wieman, not as confident as Dewey and the humanists in their anti-theism and not able to make the affirmations of most theologians. (xi)
Jane: Well, the whole concept of whether a philosophy or theology is theistic or non-theistic has been giving me a lot of trouble. I mean, even Dewey can say God – although he prefers to use the word Divine. And when I read about Naturalism from other sources, it seems to be non-theistic but my understanding from your classes is that some naturalists consider themselves to be theists.
Karl: Others generally call my ideas “naturalistic theism.” As a naturalistic theist I don’t deny that God is more than the world, but I do want to focus continually on how we can know and be related to God in our natural world. To me, this is crucial for religious living. (vii)
Jane: Okay Karl – so you’re a theist. I think I can see that. But to me so much of what you and Jerry say about the world and the divine sounds very similar. Jerry, you don’t use the word God much -instead, you are always talking about the transcendent. So, I’m a little confused. Is your “the transcendent” the same as some folks God?
Jerry: That’s not a simple question to answer. On the one hand, it’s a long, long way from most traditional and even revised beliefs about God. On the other hand, the transcendent can function in a person’s life much like the traditional God. It is a real source for living and a continual challenge for growth. I think that whether or not one chooses to call the transcendent as defined minimally by the traditional name of God is a matter of personal choice and context. It is close enough to the traditional concept that one can extend the concept of God to cover the minimal transcendent. (18)
Jane: So you could call it God – but you still wouldn’t identify as a theist. Why is that?
Jerry: Because I think the word theism doesn’t stretch as far as I go. I guess the crucial point is that I do not affirm an ontologically unique and superior reality. (personal email communication, 8-07-03)
Jane: That’s a mouthful. And if that is what God is – perhaps that’s why I have trouble swallowing it. But as you say, it all depends on who’s defining it and what stance they are taking. For example, I really love Karl’s metaphor of a dance as the divine. And I’ve used that one myself. I did a presentation at my church with another woman entitled, “Let It Be A Dance,” and we used words, music, and dance to convey our message. I can’t recite it all for you but it started out with the words, “In the beginning was the Dance, and the Dance was with the Divine, and the Divine was Dancing.” Sort of a play on the first verse of First John. We go on to show the world evolving as a dance as well. So it’s not exactly the same idea that you have Karl, but it uses the same metaphor.
Karl: That’s true. Remember – my idea is that God – conceived of as the creative process – is like a dance. And by participating in the creative process we are dancing with the sacred (vii).
Jane: Well, I myself really tune in to this poetic way of thinking. But let’s say I’m more of a scientist than a poet. Can each of you give me your elevator speech describing your model to someone who thinks more scientifically. I apologize for asking for that, but Bill Sinkford’s emphasis on the discussions of UU on the elevator has me trying to put everything into that time frame if possible.
Jerry: How many floors do we get?
Karl: Or can we take the steps instead?
Jane: Nah, just give it to me quick and dirty.
Jerry: I’ll give it a shot. Briefly put, my minimal model of transcendence can be formulated as follows: the transcendent is the collection of all situationally transcendent resources and continually challenging ideals we experience. The situationally superior resources can be called the real aspect, the challenging ideals the idea aspect of the transcendent. This definition of transcendence is an attempt to state in the theoretical language of inquiry the meaning of what in the language of devotion we call “God.” (11)
Jane: And why do you use the word minimal?
Jerry: Because the less extravagant our claims about the transcendent, the more responsible our affirmations can be. The less we assert the more supportable our affirmations become. (11)
Jane: Okay, I can buy that. Your turn Karl.
Karl: I think if I were on that elevator with that scientist I would present my view of God in the way that I had just presented in a lecture at a conference on religion and science. In my lecture I had suggested that God be imagined not as a being who created the world but as the process of creation itself. I then went on to suggest that the process of creation could be partly understood as a two-phase process, characterized as random variation and natural selection. Darwinian evolutionary theory could then be a way of understanding God, and the idea of God could be a way of seeing the value of continuing creation. (1-2)
Jerry: Okay, your turn now Jane.
Jane: Nah, I’m the student here. I know we all are students and you all are still learning and modifying your ideas and stuff like that. But you’ve both done a whole lot of thinking and writing about this. I’m going to think about this tonight though and try to come up with something then maybe email you mine, okay?
Karl: I guess we’ll let you by with that.
Jane: Well, also I think because I’ve been involved in education all my life and trying to make a difference through what I do with my students and through social action kinds of projects, I’ve been more into the praxis side of things than the theory. I mean when it really comes down to it, there’s the “so what” to answer. But I know that both of you do try to apply your models to morality and ethics and – you know – thinking about how to make the world and the people in it a little better.
Ethics and Morality
Jerry: I try to apply my ideas to morality. And there’s one thing for certain. There is no Big Rock Candy Mountain. The imagined unity of values in the ideal aspect of Transcendence is a regulative idea. It has the pragmatic function of inspiration and lure. However, when specific choices are made in particular situations, the plurality of ideals becomes apparent, sometimes painfully. (105)
Karl: Yes. Is war moral? Is capital punishment moral? Is abortion moral or immoral? Under what circumstances? Rational human beings disagree – often with much feeling. (Z-344)
Jerry: Then choices and trade-offs must be made. (105)
Jane: That’s really been apparent to me since 911. I mean, I want to be safe. But I just think some aspects of the Patriot Act are not right.
Jerry: That’s a good example because liberty and security are different ends. It is possible to have a political system providing for a degree of both. They are compatible to a degree. But they are not maximally compatible. You can’t have maximum liberty and maximum security. (105)
Karl: It’s a messy world we live in – there is no fixed human nature, no fixed morality. (Class Notes)
Jane: And what does science say about this – or more specifically your ideas of naturalism?
Karl: I’d have to say that it seems likely that natural selection is the ultimate cause of biological and psychological processes in some very specific ways, which in turn become proximate conditions of human behavior. So it seems likely that natural selection is the ultimate cause of a nervous system capable of developing and transmitting moral rules, which become another set of proximate causes of behavior in customary morality. Finally, the biologically evolved human brain is capable of reflecting on culturally evolved customary morality, so that individuals, like us, can decide for themselves what is moral and what is immoral. All this contributes to what I have called moral ambivalence and moral pluralism. (Z-344)
Jane: I can see that we do have this plurality of values. But it seems that acceptance of that plurality could lead to folks just regarding values as something with little value universally – if that makes sense.
Jerry: Yes, a common approach in our time has been to create a dichotomy between judgments of fact and value judgments, relegating value judgments to the domain of the arbitrary and meaningless. Value judgments are then merely opinions and, while you have a right to your opinion, in the end your opinion is no better than anybody else’s opinion. As a result, value judgments, including moral judgments, are frequently regarded as arbitrary and subjective. (83-84)
Karl: And in addition to the problems that seem to result from moral pluralism, there is the issue that I mentioned about moral ambivalence. How is it that human beings seem to have the capabilities to be both moral and immoral, depending on the understanding of morality in any given culture? In my judgment, we would be better off if we affirmed the ambivalence of our human biology, if we started with the notion that biology can support as well as present obstacles to the moral development of human beings. (Z-336).
Jane: You know as Unitarian Universalists, we encourage a lot of plurality of thinking and I think even recognize and respect that we have an ambivalent nature. But as religious beings, I think that we have to move beyond this acceptance and encourage some kind of values. We, as Unitarian Universalists, have at least agreed on those seven principles and I think most major religions would applaud those principles as well. I guess I just don’t want our recognition of plurality as well as ambivalence in this area to trap us into thinking that we can’t do something to be better and to make the world a better place.
Jerry: I think that’s where the discernment of worth that I’ve been talking about comes in, Jane. When discernment of worth is taken as a guiding concept, there is room for individual preference and cultural difference. Such room, however, does not make such judgments arbitrary or mere subjective opinion. When a person seriously makes an appraisal of value, she is personally underwriting the judgment backing it with her personal commitment. But such a commitment does not mean that it is subjective in the sense of being arbitrary or privatized. (84-85)
Jane: Okay, I can kind of see what you mean. It’s like when I grade my students essays. I mean – I have certain things that I’m looking for that make for a good critical response. And I’ve shared those ideas with the students. So, although to a certain extent, I guess one could say the grade I put on the paper could be biased to some degree by my own opinions or whatever, it’s certainly not an arbitrary grade. I mean I don’t dump the papers out at the top of the staircase and give the ones that land on the top step an A and the ones at the bottom an F. I do attach a certain degree of worth to each response. And since I’m hopefully a competent professional teacher educator, the value that I place on the paper – or my discernment of worth as you call it, should be somewhat meaningful. Also, when I try to guide my grandson to not pull the dog’s tail, I’m using that same discernment of worth, I guess.
Jerry: Yes, because the dog is a worthful thing. And you want your grandson to do no harm to the dog. However, when worth is discerned there often if more that is expected of us than doing no harm to the worthful thing or event. We may be called on to protect or defend it. Or we may be called to nurture, reinforce or enhance it. (86)
Jane: Yeah, and sometimes we have to work hard to right some of the wrongs we’ve done – not only to others but to this earth we call home. Our so called progress in this world is destroying it. That became especially apparent to me in a class I took on ecology from Carol Hepokoski last January
Karl: That’s true but we really already know much of what we must do to mitigate the harmful effects that have resulted from our good intentions. We must control human population growth, develop more fuel efficient and less polluting technologies, replant forests, reduce our consumption of things that are not necessary, and shift toward economies that repair and reuse material goods instead of throwing them away and replacing them. However, even though we know what we can do, we usually do not do it. A major hindrance to changing our perilous behavior is our lack of will. This is the problem of moral motivation. It’s not a new problem. Knowing what is right does not always mean we will do what is right. (17)
Jerry: And that’s why we need the transformation that comes with religious experience. Our responsibility for this planet with its fragile web of life needs to include an openness to transhuman value. Such an appreciative openness will not solve our ecological dilemmas, but it can provide a challenge to narrow specie-ism. Here too, we need to be open to continual challenge so as to overcome apathy and to be open to resources of transformation to ground our courage. (110)
Jane: Maybe we need to all get those bumper stickers that say, “What would Jesus Drive” to motivate folks! I guess I think that’s so funny because the “What Would Jesus Do” tee shirts and bracelets are often worn by folks whose actions of exclusivity seem to indicate that they haven’t really read much about Jesus’ life.
Jerry: Well, you know I do use the life of Jesus as a paradigm for the ethics of openness that I think is so important. But I always mention this with hesitation because using Jesus as an example increases the probability that I will be seen to argue for a stance of caring because of a prior commitment to the Christian paradigm, that I’m a Christian at heart with a nostalgia for the old Christian story. However the model of Jesus serves not as a warrant for the stance, but as a good example. And I always try to use examples from other religious traditions as well. (99)
Jane: Yeah, I think people need these models. But let’s say we all agree that Jesus would probably take public transportation or ride a bike. It’s kind of like with what Karl was talking about with solutions to our ecological problems. We might know what is right, but we don’t do it. It’s a motivational problem.
Karl: According to people who study the evolution of morality from a scientific perspective, we have biological propensities to look out for ourselves, to help others if we think we will be helped in return. They call this reciprocal altruism. And also we have the biological propensity to act for the benefit of family, even to the point of self sacrifice. This is called kin altruism. So reciprocal altruism certainlymotivates, but it has limits. How can one benefit from doing good to future human generations? How can one benefit from doing good to nonhuman creatures? When we move out of the human sphere into the wider spheres of life and nature, reciprocal altruism becomes more tenuous as a source of moral motivation. (62)
Jerry: There has to be more real commitment. We should adopt and encourage this movement toward universal intent, to critically commit ourselves to this process of self-correction and widening of intent. Besides maintaining an openness to the divine, we should also commit ourselves to care for others in the universal community. (87,98)
Jane: Well Jerry, modern day folks some times have problems with commitments. Of course, as a parent, I’m really very committed to my children and grandchildren, even when they disappoint me. So maybe that “kin altruism” that Karl talked about is at work there.
Karl: It definitely is. Now the challenge is to get folks to expand their notion of kin. I myself am trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. I’m trying to look at the earth the way Native Americans saw it – Mother Earth. I’m trying to see even insects as “people” – the way the Hopi talk about some of their ancestors in one of their creation stories. It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room. Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the earth – as members of the same natural family. (60)
Jane: Brother Karl, I think you have a point there.
Karl: Now you’ve just given an example – when you called me brother – of how many religions try to extend the kin altruism. Organic metaphors of family may help reorient our ways of thinking and feeling toward others, so that we are more likely to become motivated to care about the impact of our actions on the rest of the natural world. However, organic metaphors are not likely to be effective unless they make rational sense to those who live in a scientific age. That’s one reason I required you all to read Eric Chaisson’s book. All species are, in Eric Chaisson’s word, “children of the universe.” We all are recent developments in the transformations of energy-matter that have been taking place since the beginning of the universe fourteen billion years ago. We all contain “star dust” formed when supernovae created the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Everything on Earth has come out of the stars. (64)
Jane: Does that relate to this “bigger self” that you talk about Karl?
Karl: Well, I actually got that idea from Ralph Burhoe. In contrast to what I initially think myself to be, a relatively solid substance called Karl E. Peters, sitting here in your apartment, occupying a particular space at a particular time, Burhoe suggests that my self extends far beyond my present location. At this moment I am an individual woven out of threads of the history of the universe, my species on this planet, and my culture. I am a social-ecological self, or what we might call a “big self.” And because that self lives beyond my own consciousness, this offers us important implications for morality and meaning: what matters is not just how long we live but how well we live in the sense of contributing further to human culture, biological well-being, and the ecosystems of the earth. (68,74)
Jane: Okay, I can see how having this knowledge that Chaisson and Burhoe relate can actually serve to help motivate us to being better people and taking better care of the earth. Which really gets back to my original point that the separating of science and religion that I used to do and that many others still do is actually counterproductive to morality. So if I do as Jerry Stone says and commit to the universal community and I’m motivated to do this more when I have the scientific understanding of my kinship with it all and the understanding of the contribution I’m making to that bigger immortal self that Karl Peters talks about, then I gotta do right – whatever that means.
Jerry: It means a life-style of agape, of service, an appropriate willingness to concede in a conflict to be a servant. It means a sense of humor towards ourselves, a willingness to compromise, to adopt a giving attitude. It does not seek martyrdom, but is ready of self sacrifice if need be. (98)
Karl: It’s not easy, though, to leave selfish ways behind, to move beyond the childhood of our biological and cultural conditioning into responsible adulthood. Yet, when I think that I am a “big self,” that what I do in my life influences how I live on in the future, I feel a sense of responsibility for the wider web of life of which I am a part. When I think about what gives my life quality, I realize that friendship and love are much more fulfilling than material goods. And when I feel the transforming power of the creative process and the excitement that comes from participating in the emergence of new ways of thinking and living, I realize that continuing to dance with the sacred is truly to flourish as a human being. (143)
Jane: Well, you know guys, in some ways I feel that we’ve had a religious experience in our conversation tonight. When I connect with others like you two on ideas like this, I am experiencing a little “this worldly transcendence.” Indeed, I do feel as though we’ve been in the flow and “dancing with the sacred.” And may I say, I’ve enjoyed the dance.
Karl: Oh, it’s been our pleasure.
Jerry: Thanks so much for inviting us over. And you know, we can continue having virtual conversations via email.
Jane: Oh, don’t worry, we’ll keep in touch because I have a lot more questions! Who knows? I may even decide to start identifying myself as a naturalist. You naturalistic missionaries just may have a convert. See you guys later.
Date: July 22, 2003
I had a wonderful conversation tonight with my two professors, Jerry Stone and Karl Peters. It really helped to clarify some things in my mind about Naturalism and their ideas. I still have lots to learn. But hearing them share tonight makes me want to know more.
I told Jerry and Karl that I would try to summarize my own philosophy (or maybe theology) as it relates to naturalism and email it to them. I need to rethink things a little first, especially in terms of how I articulate my theology. I become somewhat frustrated whenever I’m asked to label my beliefs or theological framework. Whenever I put a name on an idea or set of ideas, it feels like I’ve put the ideas and myself in a box with a big label on it. I guess I’m afraid that the box will be closed. But my faith is just too dynamic. I don’t think that can happen. Perhaps it’s okay to climb in a box and see if it feels like a good place to live – at least for a while. Before we began these classes, Jerry asked his students to submit a statement of their theological outlooks. So I should probably start with that box and see how my new understanding of naturalism might be something I can assimilate within it or whether those ideas still apply with my new knowledge and understanding. Here is what I wrote in that statement:
My theological stance has always been dynamic, so what I write today is only for today. I have always been a pragmatist and what works for me is to view God as the power of love. Because I place high value on reason and intellect, some may categorize me as a humanist. But that term isn’t big enough for me. I can celebrate and experience spirituality with those who practice many religions. I can “tune in” through spiritual dance, meditative acts, and other spiritual practices. If I must wear a label, I’ll choose Neo-Humanist. P.K. Sakar defines Neo-Humanism as follows: Neo Humanism is the spirit of benevolence. To teach love one must embody it. To embody love, one must see all as divine. To see all as divine one must contemplate the divine self within us all and dance with divinity as we proceed through our lives.
The conversation that I had tonight, as well as my readings and class time with Jerry and Karl, have stimulated the need to articulate what I mean when I talk about “the divine.” Is the divine within this world? Is it natural? My answer is probably yes. (My faith tends to based on probabilities rather than certainties.) All the evidence that I have gained through my lifetime leads me to believe that this natural world is what it’s all about. And even though I’m open to experiencing the mysteries of life and all the feelings that go with the appreciation of the mysteries, I don’t believe any of those events are supernatural. I just don’t understand them. So in that case, one could label me a naturalist. But like Karl, I don’t know if I like the idea of that word being the noun. That places a special emphasis on that aspect of my thinking and carries more weight than I believe should be placed there – at least for me. Certainly, though, the term “neo-humanist” doesn’t do a good job of explaining who I am either. I do appreciate humanism and I’m especially sympathetic with Dewey’s ideas and the ideas of “new humanists” like Bill Murray. It seems that humanism and naturalism have similar views except that the term naturalism takes the emphasis off of the human being. Yet, if humanity is the “consciousness” of the world, then perhaps the responsibility, if not the emphasis, should be placed on humans. Therefore, I’m not quite ready to throw the humanist term out. So where does the naturalism come in? If it’s not the noun, is it an adjective? Perhaps, for my views, it’s even one more removed. An adverb! Hence, with this new information and appreciation gained from our conversation tonight, I could describe myself as a humanist who is naturalistically religious.
Why does it matter anyway? The main thing is what works to make the world a better place for all. I enjoy reading and discussing philosophy and theology. It’s important and fun to play with ideas and to at least try to figure out “what it’s all about.” Perhaps it is the hokie pokie? Perhaps, though, it’s like the last revelation Ellen Cherry Charles had during the dance of the seven veils in Tom Robbins’ book,Skinny Legs and All. And that revelation was, “We’re making it up” (413). Indeed, we are creating these ideas and therefore participating in the divine. P.K Sakar said it more poetically in the quote I used in my statement of theological outlook. To see all as divine one must contemplate the divine self within us all and dance with divinity as we proceed through our lives. That’s where I choose to put my energy – for all of my “natural” life!
Peters, Karl E. (2002) Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Peters, Karl E. (September 7, 2003) Personal Email Communication.
Peters, Karl E. (June, 2003) “Pluralism and Ambivalence in the Evolution of Morality,” Zygon, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 333-354.
Robbins, Tom. (1990) Skinny Legs and All. New York: Bantam Books.
Sakar, P.K. (2003) “What is Neo-Humanism,” http://nhe.gurukul.edu/what.html
Stone, Jerome. A. (1992). The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Stone, Jerome. A. (August 7, 2003), Personal Email Communication.
Stone, Jerome A. (Fall, 2000). “What is Religious Naturalism,” Journal of Liberal Religion, Volume 2, Number 1. http://www.meadville.edu/jlr.htm.
© 2003 Jane A. Page, Statesboro, GA.
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