Shuck and Jive

Friday, January 08, 2010

Makin it Natural

From Uncle Albert:
I don't try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.
--Albert Einstein
And Uncle Doug:
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? --Douglas Adams
Both quotes are from Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.

I am in one of those moods.

This is the mood in which I test the waters of my readers so to speak. This is a risky post in which I could distance myself from some of my progressive friends. I trust that even those who disagree with me on this point will nevertheless work with me on other points.

This is one of those posts that my detractors love to read as they hope it will be the one that will finally be worth reporting to my superiors and therefore oust me and my heretical ways from the denomination. Hi ho. Godspeed.

I have a few questions.
  • Is religion, by definition, concerned with the supernatural?
  • Is it forever wedded to the premise that the supernatural exists?
  • Is religion about God and/or gods?
I will come back to those. I do want to say at this point that I like reading Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the other naughty atheists. I think they are fun and pretty much right regarding the problems of religion today.

I also enjoy reading Lloyd Geering, Don Cupitt, Matthew Fox, Sallie McFague, Ann Primavesi, John Shelby Spong, Gordon Kaufman, and others who are probably atheists as well but to greater or lesser degrees hold on to "God" language in some form.

As far as the use of God language is concerned, I am not a purist nor am I terribly consistent. I regard it as poetry and symbol. Depending upon the day you catch me, I may defend singing some of the old supernatural hymns just because I like the
feelings they invoke in me. Catch me on another day and I want to rewrite the entire hymnbook from naturalistic point of view.

I, in company with Richard Dawkins, reject the God Hypothesis that...
there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. p. 31, God Delusion
Frankly, I really don't insist. I just don't think "God" is the point of religion. God is a secondary consideration, kind of a parlor game or an intellectual puzzle. Hymns to Jesus Christ, God, Spirit et al, are the spice and poetry of our heritage, but it isn't to my mind what we are really about.

I would say that we could if we wished do without all of the God language, creeds, poetry, music, art, architecture, and so forth and still be religious,
Presbyterian even. I don't particularly want to do so. I like it. It feels good, usually anyway. I enjoy swimming in it.

But I don't believe a word of it to the extent that it is about supernatural reality. To the extent that it helps me appreciate the natural reality, I believe it. Or to use a phrase from Marcus Borg, I "be-
love it." My answers to the three questions I posed above are no, no, and no. Religion is and needs to be about the natural not the supernatural.

We gather for observances, celebrations, community-building, to reverence existence, discover creativity, let go of idols, and make for compassionate change to the extent that we can. The word religion has its Latin root in
re--back and ligare--to bind. To be religious is to bind back or to bind together.

Religion doesn't have to be about believing in supernatural entities even though it may have started there. It started there because that is how people thought the world worked, by supernatural forces. Now that we see that natural forces explain the world and the human presence in it, we can let go of the supernatural part and "bind together" in making life meaningful and helping ourselves and others manage and cope with life.

Managing and coping with life has always been the goal of religion.
I am advocating for a natural, secular religion. As far as I am concerned, the symbols of our past are welcome. Even speculation regarding the supernatural is welcome. It is simply not central.

There is no reason to make huge sweeping decisions by banning all God-talk or declaring our communities supernatural-free zones. This is a transition time. People are exploring. People are waking.

People are open to a new of way of being religious. I think that if our traditional institutions,
such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are going to have a part in these folks' lives and have a part in helping society manage and cope with life in the 21st century, they will need to be more forthcoming about the changes we are facing.

We need to begin listening to those who are creating theology in naturalistic terms.

Hopefully we will have better luck getting off our supernatural addiction and
Makin It Natural than these lovable stoners did.


  1. Once again, John, you have nailed me dead center. I think may be time to restart the "Science and Spirit" group to once again explore this area.

  2. Oh, I am glad you said Science and Spirit. Yes we do.

  3. I'll start with ur quote:
    "Religion doesn't have to be about believing in supernatural entities..."
    "have to" may be the significant words here, as in 'not required;' tho they may be helpful for some.
    when i think about the 'truly spiritual' leaders of the faith, as St. Francis, i don't recall them making much of a distinction betw the 'natural' and 'supernatural.' Isn't it really all the same? Isn't [God's] creation one, unified? so for me, its all one? Sure its super, in its beauty, awe, & wonder evoking gratitude from me (which is what i think religion, is among other stuff). God is Artist who, somehow, is responsible (by faith, mine) for this whole stunning universe (tho, i understand that just appreciating it is enough without having to 'name' a Creator.) {this may be why i also don't 'believe' in miracles; EVERY thing about life is a miracle. no parts are particularly 'more miraculous' than any others.}
    some rambling thoughts; but essentially, i'm 'with u' john! thanks again for going 'out there.'

  4. I'm with Rob, to a certain extent. The division between the natural and the supernatural I think is a false dichotomy. I don't know whether to blame it on the Aristotelean tradition in the Roman Catholic Middle Ages or Enlightenment and post Enlightenment Modernism. In any case part of our problem is our attempt to separate the two.

    How exactly does one separate the natural from the supernatural? When my children were born sure they came in the natural way but when I held them in my arms they were great miracles.

    It seems to me, John that putting the question as you have before as is God personal or impersonal is a more precise way of discussion the question.

  5. My answer to you're 3 questions would be




    Part of the problem with Richard Dawkins , Sam Harris etc etc is that they would answer those three questions




    The same answers aa a fundamentalist would indeed give .

    I take the existance of the Divine to be a Philosophical question not a religious question , as it concerns the ontology of whatever exists .

    With you I take religion to be a way that humankind copes with the world through myth and symbol. Rather than postulations about this or that entity existing etc .

    In short I basically agree with just about everything in you're post and I put the case that the western world has still not fully come to terms with eastern spiritual traditions . In fact ( setting aside those who claim that these are not fully ' religions ' in the western sense ) I would also put that something like Buddhism is a good argument for you're case .



  6. * Is religion, by definition, concerned with the supernatural?
    * Is it forever wedded to the premise that the supernatural exists?
    * Is religion about God and/or gods?

    I am going to guess here that the distinction between natural and supernatural either arose when the first wave of modern scientific discoveries - 19th Century science - hit the news-stands, or became popular about then. It was part of the divorce settlement between religion and science. Science gets all things natural, and religion gets all things supernatural. That way they leave each other alone.

    Science has done a really good job at defining its property: "Everything in nature is ours. Religion gets all the rest."

    At first Religion thought that was a good deal. But unless you "believe" in God, all of a sudden Religion loses its power. So in the more scientific and technological cultures, Religion is more and more about what you BELIEVE. In the less scientific cultures, religion is more about what you DO.

    What science and religion have kept in common is that both are about defining and following rules. Making sense out the world we live in, finding the order in the chaos, in order to enhance our own chances of survival.

    Animals are really good at it. Humans specially.

    But rules eventually enslave. It is important to always remember that the rules are artifacts of how we relate to the Cosmos as well as the Cosmos itself. We may think we know the difference but we don't. When you stop to consider that we are made up of exactly the same matter that makes up the rest of the universe, and that nobody understands how a bunch of commonly found inanimate subatomic particles can self organize into decision making, self aware living entities such as us, you have to admit we know nothing.

    Is it inevitable? Is the Universe itself alive? Where is the boundary? When I see the heavens above, where is the 'me' that 'sees' the 'it'? Is what we think of as God just our own ability to occasionally tap into a common life force that ultimately binds everything together? Or is it the product of outside divine intervention in an otherwise dead Universe?

    We don't have the foggiest idea!

    So it is really important to remember not to get to enamored with what we think we know. Which is why I think it is really brilliant and important to remember that in the Biblical description of God, God is the ultimate "Rule Breaker". Somehow the founders of our faith got that right. Rule number one: Break all the rules.

    Doesn't make for good Religion perhaps. But it does make for good living.

  7. Thanks Bob and Rob. I think there is a difference between supernatural and natural. The supernatural is what we call superstition (although we usually reserve that word for someone else's superstition).

    When we no longer believe something, it becomes either poetry or superstition. We used to credit and blame "the gods" for everything from rain to romance. Now, we credit or blame what we call natural causes.

    I cannot think of one thing that is better explained by supernatural rather than natural causes. The supernatural simply has no meaning. At least for me.

    @Hugh, Thanks! I don't agree with everything Dawkins writes. I think there is a place for religion that is naturalistic and humanistic--that embraces creativity.

  8. @Jodie

    Our paths crossed.

    So it is really important to remember not to get to enamored with what we think we know.

    True enough. I think it is also important not to give a free ride to any superstitious claim that comes along because we have made this deal to separate religion from science.

  9. John

    I just put things on a line from regularly happens to highly unlikely.

  10. Has anyone heard how Dawkins et al have reacted to Anthony Flew's move toward a believe in a god (completely undefine, personal/impersonal etc.). Flew changed his mind because of what he saw as a higher probability that the universe is as it is because of someone/something who chose it to be as it is. He refers to gravity and stars, the Big Bang etc.

    Frankly I don't think you can find a god by evidence. You do so by experience of faith. Or in more traditional Christian/Reformed terms terms the Holy Spirit grabs a hold of ya. :_)>

  11. Jodie

    There are some Discovery Channel History Channel etc. things worth watching. I saw one about the Greco Romans era folks (particularly in Alexandria) being close to electricity and scientific method. What changed, from the film writer's point of view was a move from Aristotelean thought/method to Neo Platonism. I would wonder if the late Middle Ages/Renaissance/Reformation move away from Aristotelean Catholic tradition to a more Platonic first generation Reformation (and later back to Aristotelean method in the Scholastic second or third generation Reformation tradition) might not also show some of the same trends.

    Probably worth a PhD for someone.

  12. Bob,

    I am always fascinated by how close the Greco-Roman civilization came to a scientific/industrial revolution.

    They came REALLY close.

    There was an article in Scientific American a couple of months ago about a mechanical computer that was found in a ship wreck that dated back to 200 BC or so. Intricate delicate clock work, not seen for another 1800 years.

    The legend of Icarus was most certainly based on a hang glider experiment that is almost unavoidable with the tools and winds of the Aegean.

    What was the missing ingredient? Are they saying it was a wrong turn in philosophical methods? An interesting concept. Do you remember who or when the show was on?

    That IS a PhD.

    Personally I think the missing ingredient was a linguistic one.

  13. Sorry Jodie. I think it was a TV show but don't remember exactly. Maybe it was a book or journal article that I read. In any case, interesting, yes?

  14. I'm pretty much with Rob's comment in #3. Or maybe I'll take a cue from Matthew Fox and say it could be 'both/and' instead of 'either/or'. I'll try to unpack a bit.

    I agree in principle that belief in the supernatural is not objectively necessary. I certainly agree that the supernatural aspects of any given religious view should not be used as shackles, weapons, justifications, or litmus tests on people. Too much evil has resulted from that.

    But me, I'm with Neil Gaiman - I like things to be story-shaped. I'm a mythopoetic nutjob. For me, things don't always have to be actual in order to be true. This works for me because I think I need to feel like there are things beyond me, things to explore and wonder about. I need to ponder the possibility of something beyond objective, provable reality. I CAN appreciate the beauty of a garden without having to believe there's a fairy underneath it. But I also can learn, grow, and stretch my creativity if I remain open to the possibility that maybe there IS a fairy there - if for no other reason than to remind myself that there's probably stuff I don't know, that I can't contain or corral.

    This is not necessary for everyone, I realize - and it doesn't work for everyone. But it does help me.

  15. We are in a period of transition. We have been a period of transition for centuries. It could be the same for some time to come. I have been given the freedom (or I have taken it) to explore and challenge within the context of Church what have been considered its foundational dogmas (ie. the existence of a personal God).

    It is OK to be in different places. To grow, to change. When I was struggling with resurrection, Roy Hoover of the Jesus Seminar was very helpful. He said we don't need to decide. Live with the new awareness.

    We need to allow the freedom to have no question be out of bounds. I agree with Mick:

    I certainly agree that the supernatural aspects of any given religious view should not be used as shackles, weapons, justifications, or litmus tests on people. Too much evil has resulted from that.

  16. John - Theological question:

    Way back in college I read Thomas Altizer's book on the death of God. He refers to Bonhoeffer's letters from prison about a religionless Christianity. I'm wondering whether you might agree with some of Altizer's ideas. More than anything his emphasis is that humans have progressed to the point that we no long need God in a personal sense.

    It's been a long time since I read his book so I can't say much more and he became totally passe by the end of the 60s. Just wondered if you have read him and resonate with anything he says.

  17. Hey Bob,

    I haven't read Altizer. I have heard of him. I don't know if I resonate with him. I do resonate with what you said he says:

    More than anything his emphasis is that humans have progressed to the point that we no long need God in a personal sense.

    The only caveat would be a definition of "progressed." What I stumble over regarding Progressive religion or progressive Christianity (even as I call myself that) is the word progressive.

    Much of our progress is ambiguous. It is a mixed bag. I do think that science has taken over most of the role religion has held. That includes the gods et al.

    For instance, I think Genesis 1 is a "science" text. It was the best science of cosmology and origins the authors had available to them. It is simply outdated. We know more. We don't need elohim to screw in the greater and lesser lights and so forth.

    What do you do with outdated science? You regard it in its time and perhaps turn it into poetry.

  18. And I think Genesis 1 is in part a revolutionary poem (an intentional poem given the repetitions in it) directed toward the Babylonians saying "Everything you call a god really isn't a god. It is part of the creation that YHWH made. It was part of the theology that enabled the Hebrews to continue their religion and become a community without a country.

    Having said that the poem does use the cosmology of the time. I love the idea that God made the universe by opening up a space between the waters of chaos above and below the universe.

    Of course cosmology changes as science changes. The question is how that change in cosmology affects faith. About that we disagree.