Religious Naturalism: A New Theological Option
Presented by Rev. Dr. Jerome Stone, Meadville/Lombard Theological School
Prepared for UUA.org by the Rev. Dan Harper, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor.
Religious naturalism, according to Dr. Jerome Stone, offers a theological option that can encompass both those who find it important to talk about God, and those who prefer not to talk about God at all.
"I am the self-appointed expert on this subject," said Stone to general laughter, and in presenting a lecture on religious naturalism Stone said he hopes for "rational dissensus and creative interchange."
"Religious naturalism" was one of the theological labels used by the recent report, titled "Engaging Our Theological Diversity (PDF)," on theological diversity by the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Stone said in his talk he would offer a "portrait of religious naturalism" based on a book that he's now writing, to show what religious naturalism is—and what it is not.
"In many ways, this is a tale of two cities," he said. Rather than talk about the religious naturalism of country-dwellers like Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Annie Dillard, Stone spoke about philosophers and theologians who were based in New York City and Chicago. He said there was a good deal of overlap between Unitarian Universalism and religious naturalism.
"'Naturalism' means a set of beliefs and attitudes that focus on this world," Stone said, as opposed to supernaturalism which would assert that there is something which is beyond the natural world. Looking at the concepts of soul, God, and heaven, Stone said that soul could be meaningful within a framework of naturalism, "maybe God," but probably not heaven.
"For me, religious naturalism is a kind of naturalism," he continued. "Religious naturalism is a philosophy or theology that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalist framework." Some religious naturalists use the term "God" in a naturalist sense to refer to all of the universe, or to refer to a part of the universe (e.g., Henry Nelson Wieman in his middle period).
But religious naturalism would deny that God, or the soul or heaven, is distinct and superior to everything else. "This denial is made with varying degrees of confidence," said Stone, which range from agnosticism to outright atheism.
"On the topic of God, I find that religious naturalists tend to fall into three groups," he said. "There are those religious naturalists who conceive of God as the creative process within the universe." As an example of this type, Stone named Henry Nelson Wieman. "There are those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously." As an example, Stone named Bernard Loomer. "Then there are the folks like Ursula [Goodenough] and myself who do not speak of God and yet whom I think can still be called religious," he said. Goodenough, a religious naturalist thinker, was present in the audience.
Stone emphasized that religious naturalists do not have to reject of the concept of God, but if they use the concept of God, it "involves a radical naturalization of the idea."
Describing the first group, which says that God is the creative process within the world, Stone used the work of Henry Nelson Wieman, who joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation late in his life. Because Wieman wanted religion to be rooted in reality, he turned to the empirical method. Then Wieman tried to develop an operational definition of God, specifying the object of religious inquiry. Humanity is transformed, saved from evil, and moved towards creating the best life possible. One such transformative principle, according to Wieman, was what he termed "creative interchange." Stone called this a "naturalistic theory of grace."
Stone also looked at Ralph Wendell Burhoe and Karl E. Peters as examples of this first group of thinkers who conceive of God as the creative process within humankind, or within the universe. Burhoe, who taught at Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary, used modern science as a major resource in developing his theology, and evolutionary selection could be identified with the traditional religious concepts of God and soul. Karl Peters, whom Stone called "one of our finest Unitarian Universalist theologians, is teaching this summer at Meadville Lombard Theological School. In his book Dancing with the Sacred, Peters uses the image of dancing instead of outlining "a great grand teleology" to show that "the meaning of life is to be found right here and now where you're dancing."
The second group of religious naturalists would see God as the totality of the world. As an example of one such religious naturalist, Stone mentioned Bernard Loomer, who helped give rise to process theology in the United States by teaching such prominent process theologians as John Cobb. Loomer's essay "The Size of God" (1987) describes the stature, or size, of God. In this essay, Loomer identifies God with the "web of life," and the size of God is as large as it is because the web of life is large. Furthermore, said Stone, "the web of life is morally ambiguous—Wieman, I love you, but you got it wrong." To use a Whiteheadian term, "the concrete is morally ambiguous," which helps explain why persons have the potential for evil.
"It was probably Loomer who cooked up two terms" now widely used by Unitarian Universalists, said Stone: "power-with and power-over," and "the web of life."
"Loomer says we have got to use the word 'God'," said Stone, because the word "God" has such power. In saying this, Loomer echoed what American Unitarian Association president Frederic May Eliot said 60 years earlier.
The third group of religious naturalists, according to Stone's typology, are "folks who want to have a religious orientation without God." Stone puts himself into this third group of religious naturalists. As an example of one such religious naturalist, Stone talked about Ursula Goodenough.
Goodenough, a professor of biology at Washington University, "relates to the world with a religious feeling," according to Stone, a feeling response that is related to science. For Goodenough, a sense of awe and mystery results in a religious response to each level of evolution.
While Stone himself prefers not to refer to God in describing his own theory of religious naturalism, he has a "minimal definition of God" which he can use in ordinary conversation, when leading worship that includes theists and non-theists, and for talking with other religious traditions: "God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community, and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe." Stone does distinguish between the language of devotion and the language of theory. Within this context, it is of interest to note that Stone, like the Rev. David Bumbaugh, a humanist, and the Rev. William Sinkford, a theist, wishes to develop a "vocabulary of reverence," and it could be that Stone's religious naturalism will provide theoretical insights into such a vocabulary.