Ursula Goodenough is a retired Professor of Biology at Washington University and currently serves as president of the non-profit Religious Naturalist Association. She authored a book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, in 1998; a second edition is to be published in 2023. Her RN-focused articles and interviews can be read/downloaded here.
Most of the quotes below come from the first edition of Sacred Depths, where in some cases the language from the second edition has been swapped in.
Humans need stories — grand compelling stories — that help to orient us in our lives in the cosmos. The Epic of Evolution is such a story, beautifully suited to anchor our search for planetary consensus, telling us of our nature, our place, our context. Moreover, responses to this story — what we are calling a religious naturalist orientation — can yield deep and abiding spiritual experiences. And then, after that, we need other stories as well, human-centered stories, a mythos that embodies our ideals and our passions. These stories comes to us, often via experiences called revelation, from the spiritual and artistic and wisdom traditions of past and present times, and they burnish our souls.
Any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview — a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are. From my perspective, this part is easy. How things are is, well, how things are: our science-based understandings of Nature: the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life and sentience on Earth, the very recent advent of language-based consciousness in humans, and the concomitant evolution of human cultures. As science-based inquiry continues, our current understandings will deepen and evolve, but a core narrative – Everybody’s Story — is in place.
This book therefore seeks to present an accessible and engaging account of our science-based understandings of Nature, with a focus on planetary life, and then suggest ways that this account can elicit abiding, fulfilling, and joyous religious responses, generating what has been called a religious naturalist orientation (p. xx), an orientation that is poised to participate in the development of a planetary ethos. Once we experience a solemn gratitude that we exist at all, share a reverence for how life and the planet work, and acknowledge an imperative that both continue to flourish, our conversations will be infused with intimations of the sacred depths of Nature and our responsibility to nurture that which we deem sacred
The religious naturalist is provisioned with tales of natural emergence that are, to my mind, far more magical than traditional miracles. Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us.
The concept that mystical experiences entail access to some independent spiritual realm doesn’t resonate with me, whereas to think of the mystical dimension as emergent from my mind and heart makes it all the more wondrous and exciting to be a human. I am called to access the mysticism inherent in my participation in the planetary matrix.
This is how the religious naturalist thinks of our human advent within the planetary matrix. We arrived but a moment ago and found it to be perfect for us in every way. And then we came to understand that it is perfect because we arose from it and are a part of it. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here, right now, this. Once such gratitude flows from our beings, it can be offered to God or to Mystery or the Great Spirit or Cosmic Evolution or Mother Earth or Brahman. Or, just offered. One can feel deeply grateful for a gift without identifying the giver.
There are two flavors of God people: those whose God is natural and those whose God is supernatural. There are a lot of religious naturalists who have no problem with God language — God as love, God as evolution, God as process. Some consider God as part of nature and give God-attributes to the part of nature that they find most sacred, or speak in the language of pantheism.
I call myself a religious nontheist and not atheist because an atheist is considered to have a belief about God — that there isn’t one. I personally find that God-belief discussions get in the way of my religious sensibilities, but many, of course, consider them to be fundamental.
And so, I profess my Faith. For me, the existence of all this biological complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and relationship, embedded in its wondrous planetary matrix, 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, no Purpose other than that the continuation continue until the Earth collapses into the sun or the final meteor collides. I confess a Credo of Continuation.
I have come to understand that the self, my self, is inherently sacred. By virtue of its own improbability, its own miracle, its own emergence. And so I lift up my head, and I bear my own witness, with affection and tenderness and respect and compassion. And in so doing, I sanctify myself with my own grace.
We are embedded in the great evolutionary story of planet Earth, the spare, elegant process of mutation and selection and bricolage. And this means that we are anything but alone.
Perhaps we should all settle down and think about what’s good in the world and what we want to do here. If we find this planet and its history and its story to be sacred, let’s preserve and nourish it, and then we can go home at night and say whatever prayers we choose.
I am convinced that the project can be undertaken only if we all experience a solemn gratitude that we exist at all, share a reverence for how life works, and acknowledge a deep and complex imperative that life continue.
One can start from the perspective of a religious naturalist or from the perspective of the world religions and arrive at the same place: a moral imperative that this Earth and its creatures be respected and cherished.
The Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum can summarize: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”
We nurture our children selflessly. But we also recognize them as our most tangible sources of renewal — for a child, the world is always new. Renewal has been a religious theme throughout the ages … All of us see in children — our own and all children — the hope and promise of what we humans can become. As the forbears of our children we are called to transmit to them a joyous and sustainable vision of their future — meaning that we are each called to develop such a vision.