Thursday, September 20, 2012

Religious Naturalism

Scott Bradley

I've recently come across a book by Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, entitled The Sacred Depths of Nature. Her project is to use what science knows as a springboard for a spiritual appreciation of what it does not know (and does), with the hope of establishing a spiritual common ground acceptable to all religions; one that might help us solve our very real existential problems. She calls this over-religion, “religious naturalism”. Good luck!

I've only just begun the book, but suspect I'll be commenting on it more than just this once. So far, she has advocated for an appreciation of the utter Mystery which is behind and beyond everything that science can know. Yes. "What is" is Emergent, it arises. Yes. And she has suggested that our response to what is might be one of "thankful assent". Yes! Thankfulness arises!

This second response comes on the heels of her observation that human consciousness is entirely explainable as a biochemical and biophysical phenomenon. There is no "vital force", no qi, that animates us. There is no Life, only lives. This last is my deduction. Life with an "L" is a concept intended to generalize what exists only in the particular.

If there is no Life, but only biochemical creations that live, then there is no consciousness that survives death. Ms. Goodenough believes that science demonstrates this, and with an appropriate nod to the fact that we cannot be so absolutely sure about anything, I accept her conclusion.

I admit to having dabbled a bit in vitalism here in these posts, making of qi something more than Mystery. Zhuangzi suggests that qi is "a waiting for the presence of beings", a fertile emptiness. It does not exist; it is that things do. And this, like absolutely everything, is Mystery.

The real focus of this post is an affirmation of this point of departure. The spirituality that I wish to pursue begins with what we know as a springboard to an appreciation of what we cannot possibly know. It begins with an acceptance that "I" is a momentary biochemical phenomenon. It begins and ends without a speculative metaphysics that would try and convince me otherwise.

I feel some ambivalence here, not because I wish it to be otherwise, but because I am wary of all knowing, even scientific knowing. Drift and doubt remain. Nevertheless, I believe this stark, reductionist 'fact' that human consciousness is only a manifestation of the workings of physics and biochemistry is an excellent place to begin one's spiritual response to reality. Deal with it.

Dealing with it, we are confronted with the delusional character of the "I" which demands to be more than it is. "I" is not delusional, only we make it so. I exist. I won't exist. My response begins here. I can’t imagine a more challenging place to begin.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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