THE LANGUAGE OF WONDER
A Zen priest reflects on religious naturalism
James Ishmael Ford
Let’s talk about natural religion.
First that word religion. It is a slippery term, no doubt. In the Nineteenth century when various European scholars began the project of religious studies, they saw religion as that part of a culture devoted to God or gods, and the attendant ritual life. By the middle of the Twentieth century it became obvious that term was inadequate. Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism as major examples while there were supernatural elements, were largely unconcerned with the doings of divinities.
A precise definition of religion has proven elusive. A handful have even gone so far as to say there is no such thing. Although, like pornography, many people know it when they see it. I count myself among that later crowd. And, I take a stab at a working definition with religion as those parts of a culture that are concerned with meaning and purpose, together with attendant rites and practices.
Another way to approach religion is through the lens of secularism. Merriam-Webster defines secularism as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” In the political realm this means rejection of the primacy of any one religion. In the United States this form of secularism is enshrined in the Constitution in the First Amendment, stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Anyone not adhering to the religion of a majority has to be grateful for this. And it has allowed a level of freedom of thought and expression in my view which has greatly enriched the world. Within a secular society like the American nation, whatever you believe, or do not believe, you may hold that view and while there are always challenges to those at the edge of commonly held assumption, and uneven defense in practice, the plain language of the American nation’s founding document protects the individual and the individual’s religious community’s right to exist.
But there are other issues regarding secularism. As it is commonly understood, secularism and secularists often assume religion to be irrational and superstitious. And the process of secularizing for an individual or a community is replacing these irrational and superstitious ideations with reason and especially the scientific method.
Of course, the very use of the terms irrational and superstitious invokes conflict. And in secular societies the religious often find themselves on the defensive. Here in America majoritarian inclinations seen as populism or simply democracy, are checked by the constitution. In fact the difficulties in adjusting the constitution specifically exists to protect minorities from majorities.
I suspect this is why the dominant religious block in the United States, Evangelical Christians consider themselves under assault. Even with their far-reaching political clout due to their numbers, they see their inability to dictate their views of morality in the making of laws as repression. Taken together with the disdain built into the matter by many secularists, we find a simmering pot of resentment which the Evangelical majority often call persecution.
I take this as a reminder this world and any given culture is unstable, and nothing is certain.
But, I’m more interested in how reason, and that evolving scientific method has interacted with and birthed new forms of religion. There are deeper roots, but no one more significant in the West than Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza is sufficiently important that we could almost say the history of Western religion is divided into that period before him, and after. Spinoza brought two elements to a reflection on religion: naturalism and reason. And, out of that he arrived at a religious stance that revered nature as divine.
Spinoza is incredibly important because he shows a middle way between traditional ideas of religious and the rising secular world view. He shows that accepting the natural and embracing the rational can be approached in a religious or spiritual way.
Of course, Spinoza isn’t the only one of those bridging the rational and the religious. But for our purposes a good placeholder.The currents of liberal and rational religion flow through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A pantheistic mystical tradition has arisen and offers itself as an alternative to a relentless secularism.
Today’s Unitarian Universalist churches are a collection of people and congregations that embrace rationalist and naturalistic views. With, I fear, mixed results. That they often miss the depths offered by the tradition’s pantheistic spiritual heritage is a caution. As the old Japanese saying goes, vision without action is a dream, but action without vision is a nightmare.
Actually I believe this is the great question: how do we understand and how do we live?
The fundamental difference within the rational or liberal or naturalistic current rises in how we experience the world. There are two major ways of engaging. In its starkest terms on the one hand is an instrumental view, where the focus is on understanding and manipulation. There is also an implicit dualism in this perspective, a gap between the mind and the world. It can become a rationalism disengaged from consequences. It is the great observer. Secular naturalism. The other is viewing an enchanted world, where metaphor, dream, and the language of wonder seeps into all encounters. It is fundamentally monistic. Religious naturalism. It is the grand embodiment.
Obviously, I hope, obviously there is no necessary divide. But in practice there are often hard and harsh lines between these approaches. This is most obvious in the shadows of these two ways. The secularist often confuses the method of reason as some sort of ontological stance, thinking a method is the thing in itself. While the spiritual often forgets the need for critical analysis, confusing wonder and metaphor for a literalist magical world view. Having, as one wag put it, a mind so open the brain falls out.
We need observation and embodiment. Dream and action.
I believe the fix to much of the world’s hurt is found within natural religion, a sacred and reasoned engagement with our human hearts and this world within which we live and breathe and take our being.