The Sacred Depths of Nature
A sermon delivered September 17, 2006 to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro by Jane Page
What do you believe? As Unitarian Universalists, we share common principles regarding how we treat each other and this world. But invariably we are asked – But what do Unitarian Universalists believe? Then we try to struggle through our little speech about how we do not have a particular creed and are supportive of the search for truth and meaning that each of us undertakes, etc. Sometimes the questioner pushes further and asks – Well, what do YOU believe. Hopefully, you can respond. You may also NOW be asked – well, what does your minister believe? I would imagine that most of you might not be able to respond to that – although you could probably guess.
I was thinking about this the other day and imagined a discussion among a group of you trying to respond to that question. In my little daydream – one of you said, “Well she quotes the Bible and Jesus a lot – and I know she spent most of her life as a Southern Baptist – so she’s probably a liberal Christian. But thankfully she doesn’t push that on the rest of us.” Another responds: “Oh no, I’ve been with Jane to womenspirit and SEEN her participating fully in those pagan rituals they have up there at The Mountain. She’s a pagan all right. But she probably just doesn’t want to announce that in this group because it would turn some folks off.” Another says, “No, no – Jane’s a Buddhist. She’s always reading Buddhist literature and I’ve seen her at Steve Black’s meditation group. I think Buddhism is probably something she’s come to more recently – but she’s a Buddhist now.” A fourth said, “You all haven’t been listening to her sermons. She’s practically told us time and time again that she’s a humanist. Remember that time she dressed as John Dewey and shared his “common faith” and then another time; she said he was her hero. Dewey’s a humanist. Jane’s a humanist. She’s just one of those ‘warm, fuzzy’ humanists.”
Well – all those folks are all “sort of “ right. I could probably put some claim on each of those identities because of my affinity for participation with other folks who identify in these different ways. But I’ve never really cared too much about taking on a particular theological identity since I’ve been in UU and preparing for ministry. For one reason – I didn’t want folks to think I was trying to convert them to my own theology. I preferred for them to see me as a minister supporting them in their own theology. So – I thought I was okay letting my theological identity remain ambiguous to others and perhaps to me. But my seminary professors and the UUA fellowship committee would not let me by with that. In course after course and in essay after essay I was asked to “articulate my theology.”
Now this is probably the only sermon I’ll give – (at least this year) – in which I share with you what I believe. Because – although I’m a UU evangelist – I’m not an evangelist for a particular creed or spiritual practice or belief. But I do think you should know – because in fact, my theology (or some might say it’s more of a cosmology) does support my ministry and is important in how I see the world and all of us in it.
When I first became a Unitarian Universalist, I took a survey that was supposed to help me ascertain my theological identity. The conclusion indicated that I was a humanist. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests. I’m not opposed to any of that! But the concept and some of the language used by many humanists was a little “too human” for me. So,
I tried to modify the term by using words like “neo-humanist” in my theological essays. In any case, I never warmed up to that identity.
During summer 2002, I was introduced to “Religious Naturalism” by two of my professors, Jerry Stone and Karl Peters. Now that’s religious naturalism – not religious naturism. These folks are not folks who worship in the nude. In any case, I resonated strongly with their ideas.
I wrote a paper further exploring religious naturalism that I presented here in church with a couple of friends a few years ago. Chris and Laura acted out the part of these two professors in a conversation with me. Those of you who were here may remember that trialogue and may also remember that at the end of that discussion, I was moving in their direction but wasn’t quite ready to claim religious naturalism as my own identity. Since then, however, I have studied Ursala Goodenough’s book entitled The Sacred Depths of Nature, heard her speak at General Assembly in 2005, joined the newly formed UU Religious Naturalists, and attended a gathering of them at Ursala Goodenough’s home in St. Louis last June with others who claimed that identity.
So enough about how I got to this place. What in the world IS a religious naturalist and what does that mean for me and others in terms of how we live our lives. In sharing about religious naturalism – I’m going to be pulling heavily from the work of my friend Bill Murray – who used to be the President of Meadville Lombard Theological School and has himself – evolved into a religious naturalist. (Note: All quotes in this sermon are from writings by Murray unless otherwise indicated.) Murray reminds us that religious naturalism is really a revival of older ideas. The ideas themselves go back as least as far as the philosopher Spinoza, but it’s only within the last several decades that these ideas have been more widely affirmed. And it’s really only within the last decade that folks have begun to organize themselves as religious naturalists – much due to the popularity of Ursala Goodenough’s work and the folks who have been gathering annually on Star Island for a week devoted to religion and science.
Religious naturalism says two things. First, it holds that the natural universe is all there is. The supernatural does not exist. Second, it maintains that there is religious meaning and value in nature.
There are two types of religious naturalism — theistic and non-theistic. They are united in their rejection of the supernatural and their belief that there is only one realm — the natural universe. For at least 3,000 years western religion has taught that the natural universe is transient and not ultimate, but what is real and ultimate is the supernatural. Religious naturalism says, “No, there is no supernatural realm. This natural universe is all there is.”
Now some may say that religious naturalists must then all be atheists – or at least agnostics. But that’s not the case. Many say they do believe in God and those are the ones that we identify as “theistic” religious naturalists. But their God is not a supernatural God. This is NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And – as much as I love Jesus – I must say that I do not believe the God proclaimed by theistic religious naturalists is the God of Jesus. And this is not the God of the majority of Americans.
When the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God, they have a supernatural deity in mind, a God who is thought of in popular terms as “the man upstairs,” the “heavenly father,”…the deity baseball players point to when they hit a home run (want) to give credit to something other than steroids.
The God of theistic religious naturalists is not a supernatural deity, but instead is a power or force within the natural universe. UU theologian Henry Nelson Wieman referred to God as the power of creativity. Others speak of God as the spirit of love that pervades all beings.
Now about three years ago, I asked this group if you could say “God” and if you could – what you meant by that term. And I found that many of you had ideas of God that were very different from most Americans. Some of you felt God was a power within each of us, or that God was creativity or that God was the goodness in all things or that God was everything. But I did not hear many folks refer to God as a supernatural creator who could punish or reward our deeds. And the fact that (whether we use the term God or not), most of us do not believe in an authoritarian deity – explains a lot about how we live our lives.
UU theologian Sharon Welch has noted that belief in an all-powerful deity leads to authoritarian institutions, including governments, because it glorifies domination. The supernatural God is also depicted as male. This results in justification for a patriarchal society and for discrimination against women, who are regarded as inferior in every way.
A naturalistic theism, on the other hand, tends to symbolize god in more feminine terms — like Mother Nature — and hence in more loving terms, less punitive, less judgmental, more nurturing and caring. People who believe in this kind of God tend to raise their children in a nurturing, caring environment, characterized by dialogue and cooperation. They favor a society that emphasizes peace and justice and negotiation in international matters. We human beings are symbolic animals, and I think the symbols we associate with deity make a lot of difference.
Now – though I can certainly “say God,” and I have no problem using religious language to convey ideas and feelings, I do not consider myself to be a theist – although there is probably not a hill of beans difference in what I believe and what a theistic religious naturalist believes. I translate the word God as “the power of love” and I can sing praises to that power and worship it. I DO believe in love. But I suppose if I am to be truly honest with myself and you, I think the word God is so sacred to those who do believe in a deity– that I don’t use it personally when I look to something that is greater than myself. I can use it with others and DO, just as I can use the term goddess or spirit or even Allah. I think we are all reaching for the same thing. And that is what connects us all. To me, we are all a part of nature. But if I’m forced to stick a label of theist or non-theist on me, I’ll wear the non-theist one, at least for now. Personally, I don’t think it should matter that much. It’s certainly not worth fighting wars over – and that’s part of the problem I have withsupernatural religion.
Religious naturalism (whether theistic or non-theistic) maintains that human beings are products of nature and natural causes. We are simply one of a prolific nature’s multitudinous creations, each unique and special, and all part of one interdependent web. Naturalism also maintains that we human beings do not consist of a separate entity called mind or soul or spirit, temporarily dwelling in a physical body, but that human beings are a psycho-somatic unity. This acceptance of human mortality and transience leads religious naturalists to feel gratitude for life and a commitment to make the one life we have as meaningful and as joyful as possible.
I’m a religious naturalist because I believe in life before death.
And I love to study life! I find the work being done now with genes to be so intriguing. And it just leaves me in awe. Scientists have discovered that all living things on this planet today share a huge number of genetic ideas. Current estimates indicate that human nuclear DNA is 98.4 percent identical to chimpanzee DNA. So most of my genes are like most chimpanzee genes – and they are also like many of the genes in a mushroom. We are deeply interrelated with the rest of the living world. And the more we find out, the more intriguing and awesome it is.
But why do I say I’m a RELIGIOUS naturalist. Why not just a naturalist. What’s religious about accepting the scientific method as a viable means for understanding the world? Well, I’m going to quote from a rather well known scientist to explain that. Ursala Goodenough is Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is one of America’s leading cell biologists and is the author of Genetics, a widely used textbook in the field. She is a past president of the Society of Cell Biologists and a prominent figure in the developing field of Science and Religion. Here’s what she says about religion in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature.
Religion. From the Latin religio, to bind together again. The same linguistic root as ligament. We have throughout the ages sought connection with higher powers in the sky or beneath the earth, or with ancestors living in some other realm. We have also sought, and found, religious fellowship with one another. And now we realize that we are connected to all creatures. Not just in food chains or ecological equilibria. We share a common ancestor. We share genes for receptors and cell cycles and signal-transduction cascades. We share evolutionary constraints and possibilities. We are connected all the way down.
Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow – the married duo who travel around presenting “The Great Story” – remind us that we are connected all the way up to the stars as well. We are products of stardust. Yes – YOU are star material!
I am so blessed to live in a nature wonderland right outside of the city limits. Like Ursala Goodenough – when I walk through the woods or across the damn by the pond – and see all the organisms flying, crawling, pushing their heads through the dirt – I can open my senses to them and connect. Although I enjoy their beauty, I don’t have to depend on their being beautiful to appreciate them. Now I can look at the fungi growing on that dead tree in the corner of my yard and think about their genes switching off and on their cells dividing rapidly and differentiating in pace with my own. And I can experience the tie that binds.
Now you would think that folks like Ursala Goodenough and other religious naturalists (including me) would be satisfied to just worship in the woods since we connect with the worms and the weeds. But many of us have the need for religious community and for a faith of some kind! That seems to be something that we have evolved and scientists are learning more about the brain and religion all the time. That’s a sermon in itself. In any case, when we participate in worship services and rituals with others, we can experience true reverence. Reverence is the religious emotion elicited when we perceive the sacred. And it calls us to our higher potential – just as Moses was called to a higher potential when he experienced the sacred on that mountaintop. As noted by my imaginary group of parishioners, I can experience this is as I read the words of Jesus’ sermon on the mount or as I participate in pagan rituals, as I meditate and study the four noble truths of Buddha, and as I become involved in social justice activities. I sing praises to God or to the Spirit of Life and I am filled with an appreciation for this wonderful world. I don’t have to believe every word I sing in a literal sense to understand the deeper meaning that the words represent. And SO, I profess my faith with Ursula Goodenough who says:
For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a scared circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides.
So, for now, I feel comfortable describing myself as a Religious Naturalist. I marvel at how the world has emerged and how we continue to emerge. I stand in awe at our interconnectedness. And yet there is much that I do not understand. Like Goodenough, however, I have a covenant with Mystery. I do not need definite answers. I do, however, need the religious experiences that provide the nourishment for my inner being.
And I get many of those here– with you – at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro. You and UU are the amazing grace that has come into my life. This life! And I am truly blessed.
Hallelujah, Amen, and Blessed Be!