The Sacredness of Nature: Response to Six Objections to Religious Naturalism

American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 43 (1):24-39 (2022)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:The Sacredness of Nature: Response to Six Objections to Religious NaturalismDonald A. Crosby (bio)The poet Mary Oliver speaks as a kind of religious naturalist when she writes in her book of prose and poetry Winter Hours, “I would not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple. Under the trees, along the pale slopes of sand, I walk in an ascendent relationship to rapture, and with words, I celebrate the rapture. I see, and dote upon, the manifest.”1 She speaks as a poet and not as a philosopher or religious scholar, but she does so as one who is ardently in touch with the sacredness of nature. Her vocation as a poet is testimony to this constant attunement. Her daily walks in the woods and by the sea are her portals of access to the temple of the natural world. Her every step makes contact with holy ground.Oliver’s poetic vocation shows itself to be in deep sympathy with all of the living and nonliving aspects of nature, and thus with the imminent ecological crisis of our time, when she reflects later in this same book, “The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense of honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”2Poet, philosopher, religious scholar, ecologist, and perceptive human being are bound together in Mary Oliver’s alert responses to the sacredness of nature. She captures in both her poetic and prose writing the essential spirit and outlook of religious naturalism. I do not claim that she is a religious naturalist; that would be going beyond what I am capable of knowing. But she certainly sounds like one in many respects throughout the poetry and prose of this book.I want us to keep constantly in mind her spirit and outlook as we ponder the cogency, adequacy, and appeal of religious naturalism as a way of thinking and living religiously, for they are the ultimate tests of that adequacy. I want us to do so by considering objections of various sorts arguing that religious [End Page 24] naturalism fails to be sufficiently religious in the way of satisfying the deepest discernments, needs, hopes, and foundations of authentic religious faith. My plan for this essay is to present what I surmise to be some of the most substantive objections, and to reply to each of them in turn.I do so in defense of the thesis that religious naturalism—at least as I have come to interpret and understand it over many years—is a strong contender for having an honored place among the religions of the world. My personal conception of religious naturalism is of course only one of many, and other religious naturalists might have different kinds of response to at least some of these objections. But my responses indicate the capability of religious naturalism to take such objections seriously into account and to provide plausible answers to them.The objections I want to respond to in this essay are six in number. All of them, as will be seen, assume a kind of panpsychism or the primordiality of some kind of mind or spirit, a view I find unnecessary and tending strongly toward an untenable mind-matter dualism in my defense of religious naturalism. 3 The first one is that nature by itself has no overarching purpose or reason for being. The second is that if mind and spirit are emergent rather than primordial, then they are reducible to blind physical processes, meaning that religion is implausibly reduced to physics. The third objection is that nature is just a mass of meaningless facts, with no objective, dependable values of any kind, including religious values. The fourth objection is that with impersonal nature rather than a personal, loving, God as its focus, religious naturalism lacks essential divine...

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