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 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 guidance, hope, and deliverance from sin. It does not qualify, therefore, as an awesomely empowering, hopeful, or saving religious outlook.The fifth criticism of religious naturalism is that there is no purely spiritual reality or realm allowed for in its exclusive focus on a finite material nature, and therefore, no hope of eternal or everlasting salvation in such a transcendent reality or realm. The sixth objection is that religious naturalism is nothing more than a pale substitute for genuine religion by a thinly disguised kind of secular humanism. It is a human contrivance that makes no reference to the transcendent, non-natural source of all genuine religion. It has no legitimate warrant for claiming to be religious without a basis in graciously bestowed divine revelations and their indispensable, irrefutable saving truths. Religion cannot be invented by human beings; it must be bestowed on us from above by powers far mightier and overpowering than ourselves. I shall reply to each of these objections in a separate section of this essay.My response to this first objection is twofold. For religious naturalism as I conceive it, purpose is not primordial. It is emergent and derivative. And there is no such thing as nature as a whole. When I say that purpose is not primordial, I mean that I do not think of nature either as being the creation of some kind of purposive being or as having some kind of intended end or goal built into it. Nature is the source of many kinds of emergent, immanent purposes, but not the outcome of a single cosmic purpose or design. Nature produces and contains countless kinds of purpose but has no purpose for its being.Where are these many kinds of purpose located, then? They are features of every kind of life here on earth, if not in all probability in innumerable other parts of a vast universe, or, more properly, pluriverse, as I shall soon explain in this section. Each form of earthly life, from the tiniest one-celled organism to multi-celled creatures of various sorts, including us humans, has the natural ends of self-maintenance or self-preservation, successful sentient adaptation to its natural environment for the sake of continuing to accomplish this end, and the purposiveness implied by these two immanent goals.4 All forms of life are telic, end-oriented, end-striving. Each one has its particular kinds of built-in purposes and purposiveness. And in the increasingly conscious forms of life produced by biological evolution here on earth over vast stretches of time, these natural ends become increasingly more diverse, complex, and self-aware—increasingly subject to more sophisticated subjective judgments and varying kinds of individual intention. Our own consciousness, intentionality, and purposiveness as human beings is resultant from this same kind of evolutionary process. Nature has no overarching purpose, but it is eminently purposeful or purpose-containing in its emergent character.Purpose does not create nature; nature creates purpose. Nature is its own self-explanation; it does not need explanation by something else. We explain and give meaning to things by means of nature, not by means of anything more ultimate than nature. All explanations, meanings, and purposes are therefore natural, and there is no need for recourse to anything supernatural. No more ultimate sanction is required. I do not mean to suggest that nature itself is conscious or intentional, only that its immanent powers, disclosed over time and by the agency of time, give rise to purposes of many kinds.These immanent powers are attributable in my mind to matter-energy and time. Matter-energy is protean in character. It provides what can be endlessly worked and shaped over eons by time in time's combination of ongoing continuity with innovative novelty. Novelty is the cutting edge of time, the key to its successive innovations and creations. Nature is creative because of time, and what is creatively transformed over time is protean matter-energy. There is wonder enough, mystery enough, and sacredness enough in this view of nature to give it ample qualification as the focus in its own right of religious relevance, commitment, and regard.The second basic point I want to make in this section is that there is no such thing as a single world brought into being by some kind of supernatural agency. The world is no single order that contains all of its other systems or orders. No one of the orders is related to all of the other orders, although each of the orders is related to other orders and, in some cases, to many existent orders. In other words, the world is not an overarching unity but a complex congeries of many different systems or orders. It is a pluriverse or multiverse, not really a universe. And it evidences, as such, many different emergent purposes, and no single originative purpose.5 There is no such thing as a purpose of the whole of nature partly because there is no unitary whole of nature. Nature is many orders of being and becoming, not one.My talk in the previous section of how protean matter-energy becomes capable of supporting life and, with life, self-maintenance, adaptive sentience, and purposiveness, shows that religious naturalism as I interpret it is materialistic in its metaphysics. This means that no primordial mind or spirit is involved, but also that there is no such thing anywhere as pure spirit or purely immaterial forms of being. I hasten to stress, however, my view of matter-energy as protean, that is, susceptible of and demonstrably capable of evolving from its earliest pre-atomic state to the character of ordinary atomic and molecular matter, thence to the many kinds of anaerobic and aerobic, single-celled and multi-celled life, and conscious forms of life, including us humans. Matter-energy is not something static and inert, not at all similar to or made up of the indivisible atoms of pre-twentieth century physics or to its non-evolutionary perspective. Matter-energy has undergone many striking transformations of property and character over the 13.8 billion years since the conjectured Big-Bang of contemporary physics. When accompanied by the different kinds of cultural creation produced by many conscious life forms, these transformations become even more impressive and amazing.The transformations, furthermore, are non-reducible because the innovative processes of time that make them possible are irreversible. The clock of time always moves forward and cannot be made to move backward. Finally, matter and mind, or matter and spirit are not opposed to one another when regarded in this manner. Matter-energy in its continual transformations is what has made the functions of mind and spirit possible.Seen in this way, there is no opprobrium attached to metaphysical materialism or to the idea that nature is through and through something embodied and materialistic. Mind and spirit as evolutionary products of matter-energy and time are no less important or real despite their not being primordial. The same is true of biological life itself, commonly viewed today as coming into being at some point in time rather than as having always existed in some form on the face of the earth.The importance of life, wherein, in my view, mind and spirit also first come into being and continue to develop and proliferate via the evolutionary process, is not lessened by its being the product of evolution. For me, life, mind, and spirit are sacred outcomes of the natural processes of a sacred nature. They bear witness to the creativity of time working with protean matter.In saying this, I take issue with the two writings of Michael Leidenhag cited earlier, and also with the philosopher Thomas Nagel's defense of panpsychism in his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012). Both of these thinkers argue that mind should be seen as primordial rather than derivative in a proper understanding of nature, and that only this assumption can do justice to the evolutionary emergence of life and mind in nature and, more specifically, here on earth. In their judgment, protean matter and time are and would by themselves be insufficient as explanations of mental, purposive, value-directed, and end-oriented processes in nature.I think, however, that their view radically underestimates what the two primordials posited in my metaphysical outlook can accomplish, and demonstratively have accomplished over time, by nature in its creative, ever-changing, ever-innovating role as natura naturans. Neither primordial mind nor overarching, all-encompassing cosmic purpose is, in my judgment, required. The sacredness of self-sufficient nature, operating with the two primordial factors I posit, is explanation enough to account for the teeming abundance of minds and purposes that comprise the emergent and now pervasively immanent features of the earth.According to the third objection, nature considered in and of itself is a mélange of facts, not an arena of values. It is such, this is to say, if it is not the creation of a primordial spirit or pervaded by the presence and power of such a spirit. When God in the concluding verse of the first chapter of Genesis says of God's creation, “It is very good!” it is often thought to be such only because God has decided to make it good. Nature can have value and be pervaded by crucial values of many different kinds—nutritional, recreational, moral, aesthetic, epistemic, religious, and the like—only when God or some kind of primordial, purposive creator determines to build values into it. Apart from God or some such primordial creator, nature is a chaos, a watery darkness devoid of structure, purpose, meaning, and value.There is more than a whiff of Western provincialism in this objection because some of the great religions of the world are not theistic, to say nothing of their being monotheistic. Theravada Buddhism and Daoism are examples, and many forms of Hinduism are to this day polytheistic. But that response aside, let us consider the merits of the idea that nature is made up only of facts apart from commitment to belief in its creation by God, and that facts are something radically different from values—so different that it would be possible to have a world all of facts and no values. This view is a version of the famous fact-value dichotomy.But consider this fact: there would be no kinds of life in the world without values. A world with innumerable forms of life like our pluriverse has innumerable kinds of value precisely because the adaptations of particular kinds of organism to what function as their particular environments, to one another, and to other kinds of life require recognitions and responses to potential and actual values. An ecosystem, for example, is not just a collection of facts. It is a complex system of responsive and interactive valuations. Values have a vector character. What is seen there is evaluated from here, from the perspective of some kind of living being. Seen in this relational manner, values are pervasive and commonplace in lived nature. Everywhere we look, we can perceive values.What is true of values is also true of facts. Neither exists simply out in nature as such. Facts are recognized, responded to, and communicated as such by living beings. They both exist in relation to those beings. Facts are interpreted to be such by lived experience, and they have values qua facts because of those interpretations and to the extent that the interpretations continue to find confirmations in experience. Were there no experiences of values or telic ends by purposive living beings, there could be no successful adjustments to facts, and were there no facts to be adjusted to, there could be no such thing as lived values. Relevant facts and values are created as such in the crucible of life.Facts and values, despite their indisputable differences from one another, are interlinked. I also need to add that neither facts nor values are arbitrary constructions. They are discoveries in nature, and values are no less discovered than are facts. Neither is purely objective nor purely subjective. They both exist in the relations of living beings with their environments. There are neither non-relational facts nor non-relational values. But the appropriate relationships abound in nature. They exist in the interfaces of physical lives and what function as their physical environments.Thus, what count as facts and what count as values of nature are outcomes of evolution. Neither is there as such prior to the emergence of life. It is true that life requires confirmation to nature, but it is also true that a meaningful nature of either fact or value also requires confirmation to life. We must avoid the fallacy of thinking that either facts or values exist in and of themselves apart from conscious or unconscious acts of interpretation. Both are creatures of interpretation by living beings of various kinds and for fulfillment of various purposes. The interpretations can be recognitions of what can subsequently be claimed to have been already potentially there, but they have factual or valuative significance only from the standpoint of what is here, namely, a form of life. Thus, both facts and values have a vector character, meaning that neither has meaning apart from the necessary relationship of here and there.Truth and value, or what functions as either, are outcomes of interaction, not of the correspondence of supposedly pristine inner subjects with supposedly pristine external objects. Without life, there are neither facts nor values as such because there are no living beings to sort them out in wide varieties of ways. There are commonalities and overlaps of such sortings, of course, and that is what enables life forms to relate to one another and to a shared environment, both factually and valuationally.Would there not still be at least an in-itself factual world, a world that is just what it is prior to and apart from all interpretation? Because such an envisioned world would have no interactive interpreters, no discerners of potential fact or value, how could its supposed purely objective existence as such be grasped or understood? A response to this pertinent question might be that to conceive of such a world is a reasonable extrapolation from present experience. But that extrapolation is itself an interpretation by presently existing human beings, with their particular neuronal equipment, and their linguistic and other kinds of cultural conditioning. Even the hardest of supposed hard sciences requires innumerable acts of interpretation. Other organisms would in all likelihood extrapolate their worlds differently, perhaps not entirely so but differently, nonetheless. There are intersections of acts of interpretation, but also significant differences.The upshot, therefore, is this: no interpretation, no world. A supposed in-itself world, devoid of either interpreted facts or values, is a creature of active but misguided imagination that can lead only to a dead end.6 At the very least, the idea that there could be no values in a world that creates itself and its forms of life through its ongoing evolutionary processes instead of their being created by some primordial purposive being has for me little plausibility or merit. It is one thing to have the theological conviction that all values are conferred on nature by God; it is quite another to insist that reliable, meaningful values can only exist in this way. I respect the first allegation although I disagree with it. But I must respectfully reject the second one. There is in my view no convincing ground for the third criticism of religious naturalism.According to the fourth objection, in religion of nature there is no radically transcendent but also deeply immanent personal, purely spiritual, loving, saving God to offer saving revelations of Godself and God's holy will. There is no God to be our help in times of trouble, no God to save us from our sins, and no real sin that is not sin against God.7 Without God, therefore, there can be no dependable religion, no satisfying, alluring, reassuring religious hope, no adequate understanding of the destructive effects of evil.One problem with this objection is its unquestioning assumption that the only adequate religion is theistic religion. This assumption simply begs the question of whether or not religion of nature can qualify as an authentic religion. A second problem is that it overlooks two things: the help that we humans can give to one another, and the ways in which nature both judges us humans and eventually, if not immediately, makes us keenly aware of our sins against it.As conscious beings, we can love and care for one another. We can develop institutions that are devoted to love and care, such as schools, hospitals, and good governments. When we bicker, mistreat, refuse to cooperate, persecute, and wage atrocious wars on one another—as well as do deliberate or ignorant violence to the wellbeing of earth's other living creatures and their habitats—nature will soon take its toll. The absence of God does not mean either an absence of loving concern, guidance, or helpfulness among ourselves or of serious corrections and judgments of our relations to other aspects of a shared natural world. We not only adapt our natural environments to ourselves; the environments also check and warn us about our wrongful, destructive attempted adaptations (or usurpations) in obdurate ways. Our relation as humans to nature is two-sided, not one-sided. Nature is not our obedient slave, and we are not its absolute masters. We humans may learn these lessons slowly, but they are certainly not lacking in the absence of God. Religious naturalism calls on us to love one another and to be agents of loving care and concern toward all of our fellow creatures on the face of our planet. It bids us to give careful attention to building and maintaining institutions that can deal effectively with these matters.The second thing the objection overlooks is that nature guides and corrects our human behaviors in countless ways. We cannot survive as a species without carefully attending to the rigorous demands as well as the gifts and opportunities of the natural environment. When we sin against nature in fundamental ways, as we are routinely and sadly doing today, nature reacts against us and endangers other sentient beings, ceasing for long to put up with our pollutions and exploitations of its atmosphere, land, and sea, and with our many kinds of indifference to the continuing wellbeing of its millions of nonhuman forms of life. Only to the extent that we learn to live in strict accordance with these demands will our lives as humans be sustained and allowed to flourish.Thus, we have the love, support, and concern for one another. For religion of nature, this is where our attention should focus, namely, on us humans, our fellow living beings, and the magnificent splendors of nature. We are surrounded on every side by sentient beings. We can be faithful to one another and to nature rather than to a supposed supernatural God. Is that enough? For religious naturalism, it is more than enough. The sacredness of nature reaches out to us humans. Here is all of the direction, guidance, and value we need for living robust religious lives. But we must continue to cultivate sensitivity and attunement to this immanent sacredness throughout our lives.The sacredness of nature pervades all of nature. Something like Augustine of Hippo's reverence for the sheer givenness and goodness of all Being, as created by God8 and for Paul Tillich's power of Being-Itself9 is implicit in religious naturalism's focus on the sacredness of nature as a wondrous reality that has countless aspects of assurance, demand, and empowerment—if we have only the wit and wisdom to acknowledge and respond appropriately to them. But it is not only being but persistent becoming that is inviolably sacred in religion of nature. The sacred is not static or timeless but actively emergent. It emerges in our universe from matter-energy by the agency of time, first to ordinary atomic and molecular matter, thence to living matter, onward to conscious living matter, and finally to conscious living matter's creation of various kinds of culture here on earth. We humans are one of its emergent creatures. Isn't all of this miracle enough?In thinking about these issues, we can also reflect on the central teaching of traditional Christianity that God has deigned to descend from the awesome heights of God's realm of pure spirit to this physical earth. This is the doctrine of the incarnate Christ. Is there anything similar to it in religious naturalism? First, nature itself is thoroughly incarnate, every aspect of it being a manifestation of some kind of matter-energy, subject to the ceaseless transformations of time. The sacredness of nature is thus metaphysically immanent, part and parcel of its own here-now being and becoming. But second, in contrast with a purely spiritual God becoming immanent in a physical world, the physical world is awesomely creative in its own right, for religious naturalism.Instead of God emptying Godself in order to become a human and thereby to exemplify the character of God-given, intended humanity and to live and die among us in order to save us from our sins, nature expands itself evolutionarily throughout the present universe and here on earth, manifesting the inexhaustible creative potency of its sacredness. Nature becomes, among many other of its creations, human in all of us human beings rather than God becoming human only in Christ. The incarnational metaphor of emptying is replaced with the incarnational metaphor of filling.10 And the ultimacy of a purely spiritual and yet in many ways unavoidably anthropomorphic God gives way to the ultimacy of nature—nature in which human beings, for all of their admirable capabilities and accomplishments, are but one of nature's astonishing array of living creatures. Where in Christianity God humbles Godself in order to become human, in religious naturalism humans are called upon to humble themselves in order to assume their rightful but responsible role among the myriad other life forms of the earth and in relation to their habitats and ecosystems.The fifth objection to religious naturalism is that there is no ultimately real realm of the pure spirit free of the restrictions of space and time, no hope of an eternal or everlasting afterlife to free us at last from the desperate pangs, sorrows, injustices, uncertainties, and dangers of our finite earthly existence. According to religious naturalism, we humans, like all other kinds of life on earth, are material beings whose species, like all other kinds of earthly life, evolved from matter-energy over time, and, like them, we are born only eventually to die. Death is a necessary part of the economy of ecology on earth for all of its living creatures. In order to be pro-life, nature must also be pro-death. The carrying capacity of earth from generation to generation is limited.It is objected that here is no overarching, God-given purpose for our existence. There is no purely spiritual God, no purely spiritual divine realm, and our own mentality or spirituality is nothing more in the last analysis than a function of mere matter, a particular kind of matter blindly arrived at with no intentional spiritual guidance or direction. This kind of finite mortal materialism with no immaterial spirituality to offer, is the antithesis of a genuinely religious outlook, according to this fifth objection. It offers no real religious help, assurance, empowerment, or hope for the living of our lives. If this is all that there is to our lives in the world, then they are ultimately bleak and pointless. Religion by its very nature orients us toward another order of being. Absent that, it fails its primary purpose.I have several responses to this fifth objection. The first one is that we humans, like all of earth's creatures, are created by nature and exist, like all of the others of earth's creatures, in the image of nature rather than in the image of God. We are neither the crown of a divinely created nature nor do we stand over against it in a divinely appointed role of dominion or supervision. And there is no God conceived, on reflection, by religious naturalism as perhaps much more in our human image than we in an assumed image of God.Because we humans, like all living beings, are emergent creatures of an evolutionary nature, we are not exceptions to any of these other beings. We are their kith and kin. Just as they are born and die, so do we. Just as they are physical beings with gifts of life and thereby of unconscious or conscious mind, so are we. There are differences of degree among the creatures of earth, but no ultimate differences of kind. We humans have marked differences of capability and accomplishment from other species of life, but no absolute dividing line separates us from other natural beings. All without exception are finite, physical, time-bound creatures of nature.There is for religion of nature no such thing as a purely spiritual realm or a purely spiritual divine being or beings. Whatever purposes, meanings, and values we humans experience are provided for us within nature, not outside of or beyond it. Our destiny is here, not in some kind of imagined, purely spiritual, unchanging, or everlasting realm far removed from physical nature. It is not at all clear, moreover, how we humans could continue to be our finite physical selves in such a realm, how we could retain our self-identity there in a world allegedly devoid of risk and uncertainty, temptation to sin, opportunity and need to freely choose among alternative courses of action, or an uncertain future.And what need for us would there be in such a purely spiritual realm? Since it is allegedly already and everlastingly perfect in every way, what more could we contribute to it

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