The Sacred Depths of Nature — Ursula Goodenough's religious naturalist devotional

View from outside the Memorial Church
I did not have to give today's address as we had a visiting preacher, James Barry.

However, since I have been talking about religious naturalism recently I thought it would be worth republishing an address I gave a couple of years ago about Ursula Goodenough's wonderful book, "The Sacred Depths of Nature".  It had a big influence upon me and I can thoroughly recommend it to you all.

Since then I've become actively involved in the Religious Naturalist Association (of which Ursula is the president) and am now helping to run for them a clergy internet discussion group.

So, here is that address from 2013 . . .


Just before leaving for the summer break (in 2013) I began to read a number of books by four leading religious naturalists, Jerome Stone, Donald Crosby, Charley Hardwick and Ursula Goodenough (her lab page at Washington University can be found here). (It's worth mentioning in passing that the first of these authors, Stone, is directly associated with the Unitarian Universalists (for example here) and the third, Hardwick, centres his own thinking on a Unitarian religious naturalist to whom I introduced you a few weeks ago, Henry Nelson Wieman.) [I've since discovered that Donald Crosby is also a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.]

Today's address aims simply to encourage you to look at a book called The Sacred Depths of Nature (SDN) by the fourth author and cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough because it addresses, in a very practical and beautiful way, the human need for stories which help us to reflect upon who we are, what we feel, what we know, and what it is we should be doing with our lives.

But, before we go on, it is important to be clear what the term "religious naturalism" means. A wide variety religious naturalisms exist but all of them 'assert that the natural world is the centre of our most significant experiences and understandings’ and that nature is felt to be ‘the ultimate value in assessing one's being.’ Religious naturalists share a deep ‘sense of Nature's richness, spectacular complexity, and fertility’ and, secondly, in the ‘recognition that Nature is the only realm in which people live out their lives’ and that ‘humans are…interconnected parts of Nature’. Of course, in all forms of religious naturalism the natural sciences are considered to be a ‘fundamental, indispensable component’. (cf.

Now, as one of those authors, Charley Hardwick notes, since today, whether or not we hold traditional theistic, religious beliefs, we are all ‘willy-nilly’ living within a scientific worldview any reasonable, genuinely truth-seeking, contemporary religion has to take this fact into account and, whilst I have no choice but to accept that there are many people and communities who don't think like I do, in a universe whose primordial reality is increasingly perceived to be wholly *natural* and not *supernatural*, as a representative of a four-and-a-half century old rational religious tradition I find I have no choice but to try and articulate what one form of flourishing, meaningful religious naturalism might look like for us today.

Stories form an important part of any such articulation and, as I have already intimated, Goodenough acknowledges this. In the book she explicitly says that "humans need stories - grand, compelling stories - that help orientate us in our lives and in the cosmos" and for her the "Epic of Evolution is such a story". It is a story that, she says, is "beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context". Not only that but she also feels "responses to this story - what we are calling religious naturalism - can yield deep and abiding experiences" (all quotes here from SDN p. 174). These are the experiences of awe and wonder that all of us had when encountering either directly through experiment or through texts and photos the sublime macro and micro-cosmic world of nature. The gasp of astonishment and wonder at our first sight of the Alps, a darting kingfisher, a photograph of distant galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or the tiniest organism through a microscope, the spiralling pattern of DNA, or the merest trace in a sea of data that allows someone to say, "Higgs-Boson!"

Goodenough's book is designed to tell something of this scientific, natural story, a story which is for her the *core* narrative. She recounts this in twelve brief, clear and shining chapters: "The Origins of the Earth", the "Origins of Life", "How Life Works", "How an Organism Works", "How Evolution Works", "The Evolution of Biodiversity", "Awareness", "Emotions and Meaning", "Sex", "Sexuality", "Multicellularity and Death" and, finally, "Speciation". She has a masterful way of introducing the current scientific thinking on these subjects that is able to elicit from a lay-reader like me, over and over again, the involuntary need to say "My goodness, that's amazing!"

But, although for her this is the "core narrative" it is not, by any means, the whole story. To illustrate why this might be the case let's consider Stephen Dunn's well known poem, "At the Smithville Methodist Church". Read it at the link below: 

It recounts a modern, naturalist couple's feelings upon seeing their child return from a Christian Sunday school beaming and singing "Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so". This causes their heart to sink as they experience a terrible kind of recognition; they know that "evolution is magical" but they also feel it's "devoid of heroes" and that they cannot, in fact must not, say to their child, "Evolution loves you". They cannot and must not say this because, of course, it's not true, evolution doesn't love their little child - any little child. The parents know, as Dunn says, that in an important way "the story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries". Off the back of this natural fact he allows the parents to express a commonly held view, namely, that a scientific world view leaves them religiously voiceless and without any of their own emotionally engaging religious stories to tell. For Dunn's parents "there was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence."

But what I find so valuable about Ursula Goodenough's approach is that she offers us a way to begin to emerge, naturalistically and religiously, from out of this silence. Although she is herself not a believer in God - she explicitly calls herself a "religious non-theist" or "religious naturalist" - she was profoundly influenced by her father, whom she loved dearly. Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (1893-1965) started life as a Methodist preacher but went on to become Professor of the History of Religion at Yale University. He apparently used to begin his undergraduate course on the Psychology of Religion by announcing "I do not believe in God" and yet, despite this, he was still able to end one of his last books by saying "I still pray devoutly, and when I do, I forget my qualifications and quibbles and call upon Jesus - he comes to me" (SDN p. ix).

His example of how naturalism can combine with some kind of real, living Christian religious understanding clearly played a powerful role in helping Goodenough to ask and think through her father's question of "Why are people religious?" and then to ask of herself "Why she was not religious?" (SDN p. x). This led her, in turn, to ask whether that was true? and to ask whether it was "possible to feel . . . religious emotions in the context of a fully modern, up-to-the-minute understanding of Nature?" (SDN p. xi).

The answer for her was, "Yes" and part of that answer was The Sacred Depths of Nature. Her answer holds together three integrated responses to the modern understanding of Nature. In one of her public talks she points out that the core naturalist narrative cannot simply stand alone but requires, 1) an interpretation of the story, 2) some kind of spiritual response, by which she means "internal feelings" of, for example, wonder and gratitude and, lastly, 3) some moral responses.

In the same talk Goodenough points out that in our theistic, religious, core narratives these responses are indissolubly bound up in the narrative itself. However, in the story of nature the responses are not built in. Consequently, those who, to borrow another of her felicitous phrases, "take nature to heart", have to find ways together, in community, to articulate these responses in both words and in deeds.

(In the following Youtube film entitled "Does Evolution Imply Atheism?" Ursula Goodenough offers, what seems to be a primarily Christian group at Washington University, St Louis, a basic précis of her religious naturalist position. Her contribution starts at 14'20" and finishes at 24'50").

But the thing is, and this is something I will never cease from pointing out, "reality, our world, is always-already 'experienced within horizons which are made up of a series of echoes, linguistic resources, messages from the past, messages coming from others, and others beside us such as other cultures' (Gianni Vattimo cited in 'The Weak Thought and its Strength' by Dario Antiseri, Avebury Press, Aldershot 1996 p. 9). None of us can ever start articulating our responses to anything from a blank, neutral, supposedly objective position. Goodenough, thanks to her father's life and work, knows this intimately. So in addition to the "Epic of Evolution" she says:

". . . we need other stories as well, human-centred stories, a mythos that embodies our ideals and passions. This mythos comes to us, often in experiences called revelation, from the sages and the artists of past and present times" (SDN p. 174).

Her book takes this insight beautifully into account in its basic structure. A conventionally religious friend of hers, a Lutheran, saw an early draft and pointed out to her that her book was "set up like a Daily Devotional booklet" (SDN p. xix).  Not being a Lutheran she hadn't noticed this. The structure of the book is simple: "core text" (in this case a scientific and natural rather than a religious and supernatural one) followed by a section entitled "Reflections". She says of the latter that:

". . . for the most part each response is personal, describing the particular religious emotion or mental state that is elicited in me when I think about a particular facet of the evolutionary story. For example the evolution of the cosmos invokes in me a sense of mystery; the increase in biodiversity invokes the response of humility; and the understanding of the evolution of death offers me helpful ways to think about my own death" (SDN p. xx).

She concludes by saying:

"If religious naturalism is to flourish, it will be because others find themselves called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from their own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives - in which case this book will become one of an emergent series of Daily Devotionals" (SDN p. xx-xxi).

I find that I am one of those people called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from my own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective. I also believe that our own liberal Christian tradition with its historic affirmation of the natural sciences and the natural world is likewise called. Also, through conversations with many of you, I believe that most of you here today are also called to reflect on the dynamics of Nature from your own cognitive, experiential, and religious perspectives.

My question is, what would such a religious naturalist, Daily Devotional book (or Sunday service liturgy for that matter) look like that came from this community, one rooted, as it is, in a liberal Christian cognitive, experiential, and religious perspective?

I have some ideas - I've even tried a few of them out, especially in the context of our evening service with its central practice of mindful meditation - but I'd very much like to hear yours.

But whatever emerges in our conversation about this I unhesitatingly encourage you get hold of Goodenough's "Devotional" book and spend some time with her in prayerfully, devotionally, meditating upon the wonderful story of Nature.


Harvey said…
Andrew, you say I am now helping to run for them a clergy internet discussion group.

Can you give details on this group. I am interested. Harvey
Greetings, Harvey. Good to hear from you. The thing you have to do first is join the Religious Naturalist Association and, in your membership request, say that you are interested in joining the clergy group. It would be great to have you with us.

Warmest wishes as always,