Into the Sacred Depths
Our reading this Sunday came to us from the poet Billy Collins, titled, “As If To Demonstrate An Eclipse.”
As a child, I was always encouraged to look upward. For hours, I would look. My mother would just look with me. Not much was said in these moments beyond, “Wow” or “What are their names?”
I’d invent names for them when I didn’t know. Against the dark of night, I’d marvel at Arcturus, Vega, Altair, and Antares. Names with stories attached to them.
Names of stars that are hundreds of light years away, stars that could have gone supernova in the middle ages but the light had not yet reached us, stars that could have planets with fellow watchers looking up and marveling at our own star, stars I would never see, could never see, we will never see beyond looking up on a clear summer night.
Those points of pale light piercing through the dark of night to my eyes – just one human amongst billions – would stay with me for years and years and up until this moment, too. The passion would persist.
An amateur telescope would be used to the point of wearing out, learning the names of more of those points of light. Books about the formation of the planets, stars, and universe would be poured over time and time again — learning the differences between neutron stars and white dwarves, and the immensity of the entire subject, the depth of not knowing, would circle round and call me to ask questions that were, for lack of a better word, religious – questions concerned with ultimacy, mystery, wonder, and all manner of pondering.
I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to be an astronaut. And I know the questions I was asking about the universe were not too concerned with numbers, elements, or process.
They were, at the end of the day, concerned with meaning. What was our place in this vast emptiness? What was beyond the limits of the universe? What was before it? What will be after it? What wondrous discoveries about the universe will I miss out on given my mortality?
Let’s just say a child with such questions is seen as an oddball. An oddball that felt called to peculiar professions, an oddball that never forgot the wonder waiting above and around. But to this day, to this moment, to this coming evening, and I know I’ve mentioned this little tidbit before, but should I look upward, I am lost and taken away by the magnitude of it all.
The cathedral of the starscape sings alleluia and all is well in the world before such grandeur. All the petty arguments, all the strife, all the selfish wonderings, the tragedies of the world, are washed away by that reminder that we are so small compared to the universe. And then I am reminded, we are small! This is it! There is nowhere else to go! I hear the words of Carl Sagan in the back of my mind:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
And the worries come back but are redefined. They have purpose. They have meaning. In those moments looking upward, I can only describe them as being purely religious.
When have you felt that way about the world around you? What moments have called that into the forefront of your mind, your heart, your soul? Was it walking through the forest, bathed by the blithe air?
Was it reaching a mountain summit? Was it looking upward at the sky and seeing the pale points of light shine down upon you? Was it feeling the sunlight, hearing the birdsong, simply being alive?
That feeling, that reverence, that humbling hush before the power of the natural world and the infinitude of the Universe is what thinkers call religious naturalism. A worldview that celebrates, in community and in our personal lives, the splendor of nature, the mystery of life, and the victories of reason, science, and discovery.
It is a worldview that is hard to argue with. And it is a worldview that many hold without necessarily having a name for it. It is generous in its accessibility to many viewpoints, it strikes at the core of being a human being in this large world and frighteningly vast universe, and it celebrates mystery, wonder, and that which is knowable.
Roger Gillette describes this celebration as such:
Thus was religious naturalism born. It takes the findings of modern science seriously, and thus is inherently naturalistic. But it also takes the human needs that led to the emergence of religious systems seriously, and thus is also religious. It is religious, or reconnective, in that it seeks and facilitates human reconnection with one’s self, family, larger human community, local and global ecosystem, and unitary universe (…) Religious reconnection implies love. And love implies concern, concern for the well-being of the beloved. Religious naturalism thus is marked by concern for the well-being of the whole of nature. This concern provides a basis and drive for ethical behavior toward the whole holy unitary universe.
Yesterday, countless people across our nation marched in celebration and in fear FOR science. Celebration of its achievements and fearing for the dismantling of funding and other structures so that research could continue under the current administration.
If I were to look at that march through the lens of the words I just read to you, I would say that it was a nationwide demonstration of religious naturalism. Various people coming together – reconnecting with themselves, their neighbors, and all of humanity — behind a common cause and expressing their concern for the whole of nature.
It was, one could say, a type of worship service for religious naturalism. Just as walks through the forest and caring for animals are their own votive celebrations. And while I’m sure many folks on those marches would not appreciate being termed religious, as a religious naturalist myself, I can’t help but see it.
It’s pretty obvious by where I’m standing, but the religious is important to me. Without the religious, why bother? And I am not speaking of piety. I am speaking of that fundamental cornerstone that makes anything religious to begin with: Community. Connection. Reconnection.
The word religious has taken on sort of a negative connotation. I get it. I won’t excuse the abuses of religion. But more so these days with the popularizing of the term “spiritual but not religious.”
I’ve lost count the amount of times that, upon hearing what I do for a living, someone has gone on to tell me they are spiritual but not religious and then waxed poetic about sunrises and sunsets and trees – as if it were an original thought and they’d just put me in my place. I’m glad they’re spiritual. I do not blame them if they prize their individualism over being in community.
But when I hear the word religious, as a religious naturalist, I hear a call to be a part of a community of celebration and concern that treasures the natural world and seeks to care for it. It’s the community piece that I feel is most important.
It’s the community that was marching for science yesterday across our nation, it was the community that developed life saving vaccines, it was the community that found several earth sized planets light years away, and it will be the community that fights cancer, cures AIDS, confronts global warming as best we can, and looks toward greater sustainability for not just humanity, but all living things.
That is why I join with so many others in using the term religious naturalist. If I wanted to just be a naturalist, I’d be like Henry David Thoreau, cloistered away in his cabin.
Though his ideas and words are beautiful, he chose a solitary life. Community is of the utmost important to a religious naturalist. And in many ways, it is of that same value to Unitarian Universalists as well. We speak endlessly of covenant – our shared promises in a diverse community.
If ever there were a religious tradition that welcomed religious naturalism, it would be Unitarian Universalists. Our principles, those seven high ideals we unite behind, speak to that core value of being a religious naturalist: that of celebrating and being concerned with the whole of nature.
You need only look at them. Worth and dignity of every being. Justice, equity, and compassion. Search for truth and meaning. An interdependent web of which we are a part. Each one could serve and be served by a religious naturalist viewpoint.
But what about humanism? Some might ask. Humanism being defined as an outlook which places important on humanity instead of the divine and an outlook which is the most represented group amongst Unitarian Universalist members and clergy. Humanism is a noble pursuit.
But I prefer the term naturalism. For me, the basic precepts are the same but the focus, in words, moves beyond a human centered approach to life to an interconnected approach. There are indeed religious humanists and their goals are shared by religious naturalists. Basically, it all boils down to preference. Which word combination strikes a chord with you the most?
And it is likely neither of them work for some of you and something else does as well. But the two are not against one another, they are harmonious – one would hope.
But this leads to another thought. If there is religious naturalism and religious humanism, what other varieties are there? There are naturalists that use the word God, there are naturalists that believe in a God, though you might not describe it as such.
There are naturalists that have no use for the word God or any metaphor concerning it and others that include concepts of God that are most definitely not God to theistic religions. And then there is everyone else in between, uniting behind their common goals but debating language. It all sounds very Unitarian Universalist at times.
What this religious viewpoint boils down to is not language, not which scientist is more revered, or how proud we are to be rejecting supernatural hokum – and I say that last bit mockingly, because shame on us if we put down the sincerely held and life-affirming beliefs of our neighbors – but no, this viewpoint, religious naturalism, ultimately concerns itself with where one turns their heart and mind and passion.
If it is on the natural world, if it is not caring for this one and only planet that we have, if it is for marveling at the cosmos and asking those impossible questions, if it’s more having compassion for your fellow human beings, if it’s heeding the guidance of science and reason and, yet, leaving room for mystery and wonder – if that is where your heart rests, you might be a religious naturalist.
As with anything though, there is an accountability that comes with any worldview that we claim. Well, at least there should be an accountability. There should be risk and responsibility to how we live our lives.
To anyone that calls themselves a religious naturalist or think that term might apply to them, it requires a thoughtful examination of your place in this interdependent web of life, and from that examination, a commitment to do what you can to responsibly steward this planet and be humble before the natural world. It also means calling people and institutions out that are not respecting our planet.
This earth day weekend, we, the collective we, all people of any faith, are called to embody the principles of religious naturalism. It does not matter what our views on God are. It does not matter if we believe in a heaven or hell, a resurrection or a final judgement.
What religious naturalism calls us to in this moment is take hold of those individual moments of awe and beauty – and join in community with others who’ve felt as we have felt. From that joining together, from that reconnecting, we need to find the motivation to take seriously the threats before us.
As the words of Carl Sagan reminded us, there is nowhere else to go, not yet. It is important to do your small part, but even more important to make some noise, make yourself heard. Be annoying, because what’s at stake is everyone’s future. It is up to us.
As a Unitarian Universalist, my theology changes often. Some days I feel more Christian and others I have inklings of Paganism or Buddhism or whatever indwelling wisdom visits my heart.
But there is one constant throughout all of this: And that is a humility and reverence toward the universe. This vast, dark, sweeping landscape with points of light peeking through. This is the fuel of my faith, wherever it leads me.
The well-known religious naturalist, Ursula Goodenough – yes that’s her name – sums up what could best be called a credo for religious naturalism in her book, “The Sacred Depths of Nature.” Words that still strike true for me, she says:
And so, I profess my Faith. 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 sacred 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. I confess a credo of continuation.
And in so doing, I confess as well a credo of human continuation. We may be the only questioners in the universe, the only ones who have come to understand the astonishing dynamics of cosmic evolution. If we are not, if there are others who Know, it is unlikely that we will ever encounter one another. We are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet.
If we can revere how things are, and can find a way to express gratitude for our existence, then we should be able to figure out, with a great deal of work and good will, how to share the Earth with one another and with other creatures, how to restore and preserve its elegance and grace, and how to commit ourselves to love and joy and laughter and hope.
Look upward. Look around. Listen to what your heart is telling you. Feel the sunlight upon your face. What do you feel in those moments? Where is your heart pulling you? Is it toward love and joy and laughter and hope? Is it toward mystery and wonder? Is it into the sacred depths?