Michael Hogue has an impressive title: Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy of Religion. He teaches at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, the premier seminary in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. His course list speaks to his breadth: Community Studies, Liberal Theology, Process and Liberation Theologies, Global Religions, Multifaith Theologies, Religious Ethics and Global Dynamics, and Religious Naturalism (which Ursula Goodenough co-taught with him several years ago). His book The Promise of Religious Naturalism lifts up the work of Donald Crosby, Ursula Goodenough, Loyal Rue, and Jerome Stone. The theme of his most recent book, American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World, is summarized here:
The Anthropocene marks the age of significant human impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, dramatically underscoring the reality that human life is not separate from nature but an integral part of it. Culturally, ecologically, and socially destructive practices such as resource extraction have led to this moment of peril. These practices, however, implicate more than industrial and economic systems: they are built into the political theology of American exceptionalism, compelling us to reimagine human social and political life on Earth.
Michael is a member of the RNA Board of Advisors and has written wonderful sets of descriptions of what the RN orientation entails, joining Loyal Rue as one of the top RN philosophers of our time. Quotes below.
Religious naturalism is many things.
- It is a life of contemplation, inquiry, and moral practice devoted to the beauty and creativity of nature.
- It is the belief that nature is the whole of reality and that this insight is religiously and morally significant.
- It is a form of life that takes nature as the context for the discernment of meaning, value, and what matters to us ultimately.
- It is a way of being religious that understands human culture and religiosity within the vast sweep of cosmic evolution.
- Its sacred text is an epic that arcs from the genesis of the Universe with the Big Bang and the swirling of the earliest cosmic elements, to the birth pangs of stars and planets and the constellation of galaxies; it includes everything from the Sun’s gestation of our solar system to the emergence of life on earth, from the stunning ubiquity of bacteria to the biospheric tipping point that our own species has precipitated.
- It is a humble religious path that decentralizes the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the Universe.
- It is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition.
- It is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths, and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendors of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences.
- Religious naturalism is not a religion. It is a religious orientation toward the world that becomes increasingly compelling in light of evolutionary psychological accounts of morality and religion, and evolutionary approaches in anthropology and the history of cultures. Among other things, religious naturalism holds promise as a way to span boundaries and dissolve dualisms—such as those between reason and faith, understanding and explanation, humanity and animality, nature and culture, and the religious and secular—that have alienated humans from one another, from other forms of life, and from the planet as a whole for too many centuries. One way to summarize this promise is to say that religious naturalism affirms the reality and significance of religious experience in naturalistic terms, even as it seeks to explain the nature of religion as a human biocultural phenomenon.
Religious experiences for the religious naturalist provoke questions about the meanings and values that ultimately orient life—they are interrogative rather than declarative. They are events, encounters, insights, relationships, undergoings, and overcomings that throw life into suspense, stripping away the pretense of the givenness of things, compelling one, even if just for a moment, to face the contingency of what is taken to be necessary, the vulnerability of what is taken to be invulnerable, and the perishability of what is assumed to be permanent. Experiences such as these throw life into a new frame; they rend the veil of the ordinary. They interrupt and can sometimes transform one’s life.
Religious experiences such as these contour religious naturalism as a form of religious life and thought. They occur within a context of experience in which nature is taken as the whole of things and in which nature’s patterns pervade all things. This context is part of what gives a particular shape to religious experience in religious naturalism. Since we humans are embedded in nature and since, like every other thing that exists, we are unplanned creatures of an exquisite latticework of natural processes which originated in mystery about 13.7 billion years ago, the answer to the question of why the Universe exists or why there is something rather than nothing is likely to remain infinitely out of reach of our human comprehension. But we know that we are creatures of the stars. We know that if the rate of acceleration of the elements out of the Big Bang varied even in the slightest, the Universe would not have unfolded the way that it has. We know that even a slight adjustment of the Earth’s coordinates in relation to the Sun would have made life impossible. We know that life first emerged on our planet about 3.5 billion years ago. We know that since then life has been in the midst of relentless transformation. We know that since modern humans have only been around for about 200,000 years that we are latecomers to the Universe. We know that we have purposes and values. And what is more, we are consciously and empathically aware that other living creatures also have purposes and values—if our eyes and ears are open, we have no choice but to witness them.
In place of the habit of imagining God as more than nature or the universe, RN affirms that nature is more than God. And in place of the habit of imagining that there is a divinely designed Cosmic Good, RN affirms that morality and justice are our human work.
Morally, it leaves us with the possibility of affirming that, even though nature may have no final purpose, nature is nonetheless inclusive of purposes. We empirically observe purposes in nature wherever and whenever we observe behaviors and motivations such as fear, curiosity, hunger, and desire. For an organism to desire some thing or another, whether that desire is mentally represented or not, means that it has a purpose or an interest, of some kind. And the satisfaction of that interest or the realization of that purpose is a value for that organism.