Category Archives: Uncategorized

Experiences of, in, and as nature

One type of encounter with nature involves an awareness and sense of connection that Michael Hogue described as being “of, in, and as nature”. When reflecting on watching rain blow in across a lake and then envelop him, he said . . .

Practices-in-of-nature (rain on lake)“It was an experience of nature’s awesome otherness and its intimacy at the same time, its trickiness, and its indifference to my concerns, timetable, and preferences.

It was an experience in nature that unsettled some of my ordinary perceptual patterns – it is very disorienting to be so enclosed by rain and so intimately close to the sky.

It was an experience as nature, too – I was watered with lake and sky, I was no longer apart from them standing at their edge but had become fully soaked and included within them.”

Eric Holmstrom said “Those words have become aides to thought, imagination, and reflection as I go about my daily activities of living.” And, as he reflected on . . .

“Driving on Highway 202 . . .

the shuddering of the Prius in the extreme crosswinds (of nature),

seeing the raptor on the tree limb hunkered down, not moving but still meeting the challenge of the weather front leading winds as I do (in nature),

and then, contemplating my hybrid in all its complexity as an expression of one species expression of its life (and my own expression) in the numberless niches it has filled (as nature) . . .”

he thought that this way of noticing and appreciating “all locate me particularly and universally” and could be “an element of a spiritual discipline or practice for those of us pondering such things.”

 

PS
The photo above is copied from the AmbientMixer.com website, where those who are interested can listen to the sound of rain.

Religious attitudes

As an attitude inclines us to look at things in certain ways, like colored glasses, it can affect how we interpret what we see.

Religions highlight particular attitudes – to encourage states of mind and ways of living that support values. For example, Christianity encourages attitudes of love and faith, and Buddhism encourages an attitude of compassion.

A challenge for religious naturalists is to consider what attitudes to adopt or try to nurture as ideals. Some of these may be shared with other traditions, and some can have a particular focus related to a naturalist understanding.

Attitudes that religious naturalists may consider or embrace include:

Appreciation/gratitude
Reverence/respect
Humility
Compassion/caring
Acceptance

Music

Music plays a central role in most religions. It sets moods, reinforces messages and, with group song or chant, can help people feel connected.

Some say “music is my religion”. Concerts, not church, are where they gather with people who share their beliefs – to listen to songs that have meaning and to be, at times, moved and inspired.

Some music examines connections with nature and other themes related to RN. Also, separate from beliefs, we can be moved by a gospel choir, a Gregorian chant, or a sitar raga and appreciate how, with melody, tones, and rhythm – often wholly separate from words – people can express and experience a sense of something spiritual.

Links:

Musical selections
Dougie McLean. I Feel So Near
Ziggy Marley. Love Is My Religion
…..Iris DeMent. Let the Mystery Be
     Tracy Chapman, Heaven’s Here on Earth
…..Peter Mayer, Blue Boat Home 
…..Carrie Newcomer, Room at the Table
Paul Winter Consort. Wolf Eyes
Beethoven. Moonlight Sonata
Beethoven. 6th Symphony (Pastoral)
TED talks about music (top 10)
A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong
Emergent Universe Oratorio
Environmental songs and music


What is the purpose of life?

 

Purpose - cartoon - that's it

“The more the universe seems comprehensible,
the more it also seems pointless.”
Steven Weinberg

With a naturalist view, it’s hard to see how there could be purpose in the cosmos. Particles, atoms, and molecules act in accordance with natural laws, assembling in varied ways with no intent or goal.

But, on Earth, purpose may have been introduced as something that accompanies life. As Loyal Rue described this:

Might it be that telos [a purpose or goal] is an emergent property of matter?
Maybe the universe was, as Steven Weinberg thinks, completely void of any point or purpose for most of its aimless and completely meaningless history. Maybe matter behaved exclusively, as Richard Dawkins thinks, according to a blind because-of logic [where things act in certain ways, simply because that is their nature] for billions of years. But then, quite unexpectedly, the odds favoring a new kind of causality came within reach. Could it be that a pointless because-of logic created the conditions for the pointful so-that logic of biological function?
Imagine that: a universe with no telos, no purpose, no agenda—a universe that just inadvertently made possible the spontaneous emergence of purpose. What is that? Irony? Paradox? Whatever it is, it’s weird, because it implies that if there is any genuinely purposeful behavior in the universe, it serves absolutely no purpose. An emergent theory of meaning implies that the existence of meaning is itself totally void of meaning.
Think about that!

Living things do have purpose. Based on drives that are shaped by DNA (and that have persisted due to natural selection), living things receive internal signals that inform them of needs, and they respond with purposeful actions – to obtain nutrients or to move away from harm – so-that they can continue to live and reproduce. This is present in all forms of life – from plants stretching toward the sun and sending out roots to reach water, to the actions of fish, reptiles, mammals, and humans as they seek food and acceptable temperatures, and as they mate.

Unlike the actions of atoms and molecules, these are actions that have purpose – with cells and organs, as well as organisms and groups, acting in coordinated ways to achieve this purpose. And, going beyond basic survival, they also act in ways that enable the beings (and/or their groups) to stay healthy and thrive.

This biological mandate gives purpose that guides the actions of living things. For most creatures, this is all there is. But many find it unsatisfying to think of ourselves, in the words of a Monty Python song, as “simply spiraling coils of self-replicating DNA” (or, in the words of Richard Dawkins, elaborate shells for a “selfish gene”). We want to feel that what we do matters in some way, and that our struggles and actions have some meaning.

Continued, in . . . 
How can I find a sense of meaning in my life?
Credo of Continuation – Ursula Goodenough 

 

 

John Muir

John Muir - 400 x 681

John Muir was a naturalist who called out – Go to the mountains. Go to nature. Drink her soothing waters. And learn the lessons she has to teach. He felt that something in us needs this and responds to it, even if we may not recognize this need.

He felt that understanding and accepting nature’s ways could lead to a special kind of faith. In this, recognition of beauty and order prompts a reverence, and appreciation of variety prompts respect for all forms of life.

Quotes, below, give a flavor for some of his views.

. . . . .

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

. . . . .

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

. . . . .

Wander a whole summer if you can. Thousands of God’s blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted. If you are business-tangled and so burdened by duty that only weeks can be got out of the heavy laden year, give a month at least. The time will not be taken from the sum of life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.

. . . . .

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature – inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

. . . . .

By forces seemingly antagonistic and destructive Nature accomplishes her beneficent designs – now a flood of fire, now a flood of ice, now a flood of water; and again in the fullness of time an outburst of organic life….

. . . . .

. . . all Nature’s wildness tells the same story – the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush or sap in plants, storms of every sort – each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.

. . . . .

Gulls skimming the glassy level. Innumerable multitudes of eider ducks, the snowy shore, and all the highest mountains cloud-capped – a rare picture and perfectly tranquil and peaceful!

. . . . .

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fibre thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves.

. . . . .

. . . this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fails not to worship as they never did before.

. . . . .

In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.

. . . . .

Few are altogether deaf to the preaching of pine trees.

. . . . .

The world, we are told, was made especially for man – a presumption not supported by all the facts. A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves. They have precise dogmatic insight into the intentions of the Creator . . .
Now, it never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one. Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit – the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo Sapiens. From the same material God has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals. . .
This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.

. . . . .

The water ouzel, in his rocky home amid foaming waters. How romantic and beautiful is the life of this brave little singer on the wild mountain streams, building his round bossy nest of moss by the side of a rapid or fall, where it is sprinkled and kept fresh and green by the spray! No wonder he sings well, since all the air about him is music; every breath he draws is part of a song, and he gets his first music lessons before he is born; for the eggs vibrate in time with the tones of the waterfalls. Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong -–the bird ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal. And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as a window look into Nature’s warm heart.

 

 

Seeking knowledge

“In every true searcher of Nature
there is a kind of religious reverence”
…..Albert Einstein

In a number of religions, seeking knowledge is seen as an option for a spiritual path. In Hindu tradition, jnana yoga (the Way to God through Knowledge), is one of four paths toward the goal of unity with the ultimate. Seeking knowledge is also a focus in study of the Torah and in the mandate, “Know thyself”, inscribed at the ancient Greek temple at Delphi.

For religious naturalists, the study of origins, human nature, and the natural world can give emotional and spiritual satisfaction. As Stephen Hawking put it,

“ . . . ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.”

Seeking knowledge can be done in a wholly secular way. But, when seen in context with a central myth, the urge to understand can be seen as a core part of who we are and what we do. In the spirit of “seek, and you will find”, active questioning and study can be part of personal spiritual practice.

This effort has provided advances in medicine and technology that let us to live longer and healthier lives. (For some, the “miracles” of modern medicine far outstrip the alleged miracles that once caused people to believe in the powers of gods.) Knowledge can also have psychic benefits, in leading to views that can help to minimize disappointments that come from misconceptions, and in leading to attitudes that can contribute to peace of mind. As it helps us to maximize good and minimize problems, seeking knowledge can be seen as a path toward salvation (as in the root word “salve”, to alleviate suffering or heal). Similarly, as part of the Buddhist 8-fold path, “right understanding” can contribute to avoidance of suffering.

Beyond practical benefits, understanding the workings of nature can prompt a deep sense of appreciation for the intricate order and beauty of the world. And, as partial answers uncover new questions, the quest to understand can prompt appreciation for the mysteries that remain. As Michael Shermer put it:

“It is not the answers of science that provide transcendence,
but the quest for those answers.”

stargazing telescope

Spiritual/religious experiences

Water and sky

Most people, at times, have feelings that can be seen as spiritual or religious.

With rituals, meditation, religious services, and prayer, these can be prompted by religious practice.

Similar feelings may occur with non-religious prompts, in responding to natural beauty, in encounters with art, and in marveling at the birth of a child.

These can also occur with use of some types of drugs, and for no apparent reason at all.

Feelings are often brief and mild, like moments of déjà vu. They can include a sense of reverence, appreciation, or wonder. In rare cases, they may be full-blown mystical experiences – timeless, with a sense of connection that can be powerful and in some cases life-changing. These can be beautiful, frightening, confusing, or full of meaning. Those who feel such things may want to experience them again.

In religious traditions, these may be seen in terms of contact with God. With a naturalist view, these are understood as particular types of activity in the brain.

One factor, for some, in attraction to religious naturalism is that it can provide science-based ways of understanding spiritual feelings. It can also identify activities that may contribute to these types of experiences.

Links

Personal descriptions of spiritual experiences
Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences
Daniel Dennett discusses secular spirituality
Neurotheology: This is Your Brain on Religion. (National Public Radio online. December 15, 2010.)
‘Magic Mushroom’ Drug Study Probes Science, Spirituality. (HealthDay News. July 11, 2006.)
Religious experiences. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Added reading

Wesley Wildman. Religious and Spiritual Experiences. Cambridge University Press 2011.
Patrick McNamara. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge University Press 2009.
Ann Taves. Religious Experience Reconsidered. Princeton University Press 2011.
William James. Mysticism. Lectures XVI and XVII in Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902.
Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Mysticism.