Alison Wohler, April 11, 2010

Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst

Maybe it was the Transcendental dust of Emerson and Thoreau I breathed in while a student minister in Concord.  Or maybe, even before that it was all the time I spent playing in the woods as a child.  Or maybe it was all the science I studied throughout my high school and college years – especially the environmental science that tied together all the other areas of the physical and chemical and mathematical world.  The awesome spiritual nature of the interdependent web became fixed in my mind, and became a systemic part of my religious understandings, early on.


Somehow I have arrived at a point in my spiritual life where the sense of connection and interdependence between and among everything that is and everything that happens has become the cornerstone of my theology, my religious understanding, my faith.  It’s also why I am so prone to saying, in response to almost any question for which we might prefer a definitive answer, “It’s more complicated than that.”  When everything is connected to everything else it is difficult to separate out explanations or answers that are truly independent.  It’s always more complicated.


Religious Naturalism is the term I use to describe my own theological views, but I would answer to the description Mystic Naturalist too.  What is the difference between these two modifiers, mystic and religious?  Pantheist is another word for me, but only in my own particular definition of pantheism.  Pantheist atheist is probably more applicable, but just as in the pairing of mystic and naturalism, the two words can appear, in their common usage, to be at odds.  I also identify with some aspects of Religious Humanism, but do not like to call myself a Humanist.  Let me try and sort some of these theological positions out for you.


Let’s start with the idea of Naturalism.  To a Naturalist, all that is necessary to understand the universe and our human lives is available in the natural world, as opposed to the supernatural world.   A Naturalist, by definition, is a non-theist.  


I feel like I say this a lot, but some of you may not understand my distinction between the words atheist and non-theist.  Atheism, to me, is more about denying the existence of a god, or God with a capital G.  A-theism: against God.  Non-theism, on the other hand, is simply a religious position in which a god or God simply plays no part.  One seems more militant than the other, to my mind.


John Dewey, an early naturalist, wrote “Values prized in [many] religions have ideal elements [that are] idealizations of things characteristic of natural association, which have then been projected into a supernatural realm for safe-keeping and sanction.”  (A Common Faith, p. 73)  This was the beginning of a kind of dualism, and separation of ourselves from nature, that I believe has been damaging to our psyches and to our earth as well, but that’s a story for another day – maybe Earth Day in two weeks!

I want to be clear, though, that just because a naturalist is a non-theist does not mean that person cannot be religious.  I consider myself to be a pretty religious person.  In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Andre Compte-Sponville writes “People can do without [organized] religion…but they cannot do without communion, fidelity and love.  Nor can they do without spirituality.  Being an atheist by no means implies that I should castrate my soul.” (p. 134)


Here are some helpful quotes from the website of


“A religious naturalist adopts as her/his core narrative an understandings of nature as made manifest by scientific inquiry, and develops integrated religious responses … interpretive, spiritual, and moral/ethical … to that narrative.”


“Some common features of the worldviews of various Religious Naturalists include respect for science; religious emotions; morality; concern about the ecosystem; denunciation of racism, sexism, and tribalism; responsibility to the future, [an intellectual appreciation of the deep consistency between and among the various disciplines of the sciences and the humanities], and a regard for divergent viewpoints.”  Sounds a lot like Unitarian Universalism, doesn’t it?


“What makes a religious naturalist religious?  Our attitudes make us religious. Being religious is not about rituals and churches, but about how we feel and address our philosophy of life.”


“Why use the word religious at all when it makes so many people uncomfortable?  The Latin root of legere (as in ligament) means “to bind together”, and thus religion is a fine word to describe the holding together of the components that make up a personal philosophy and way of life.”


“What about the use of the word God?   Most religious naturalists tend to think that anything said with god-language could easier be said in more ordinary language. Indeed many Religious Naturalists prefer using ordinary language whenever possible because we want to communicate in ways that are accessible to all persons.  If a religious naturalist does use the word God, they mean it to be understood as a metaphor, perhaps as a synonym for mystery, for creation, for love or for some other psychological dynamics.”


There are some fairly well known religious naturalists out there.  Some you may have heard of: Ursula Goodenough, Michael Cavanaugh, Connie Barlow (creator of The Great Story), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, to name just a few.  Transcendentalism, with its emphasis on finding the spiritual through nature, may not have referred to itself as religious naturalism, but we can see from this distant perspective, the similarities.  There are several other UU ministers who identify as religious naturalists, as well as many scientists, but you wouldn’t recognize most of their names any more than I did.


I found one contemporary religious naturalist whose writing perfectly reflects my own feelings and beliefs.  In an article for the Journal of Liberal Religion, Roger Gillette writes:


“Findings of modern (mostly twentieth-century) science indicate that what we call nature is a unitary universe of matter-energy in space-time, which has emerged and evolved over a period of about 13.7 billion years into a complex of perhaps 100 billion galaxies, at least one of which contains perhaps 100 billion stars– some of which are surrounded by planets, at least one of which supports an emerging and evolving complex of life forms, including a species we call human. The life process involves taking in food and discharging waste, while avoiding being taken in as food–all of which require what can be called decision-making. This decision-making gradually evolved into a specialized activity we call information processing or thinking.


Religious Naturalism takes the findings of modern science seriously, and thus is inherently naturalistic. But it also takes the human needs that led to the emergence of religious systems seriously, and thus is also religious. It is religious, or reconnective, in that it seeks and facilitates human reconnection with one’s self, family, larger human community, local and global ecosystem, and unitary universe.” (  


If religious naturalism is where science and spirituality meet (as the RN web site states), then mystic naturalism is where science and our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle meet.  I sometimes call myself a mystic naturalist because while I hold the natural world to be all that there is, I understand that natural world to be, as Roger Gillette describes, all one thing – one energy that expresses itself in many forms and in many relationships.  


The classis mystical experience is one in which a person finds him or herself, by meditative means, or often not, having a visceral feeling of oneness or connection with everything.  In some religious traditions this is described in terms of oneness with God.  Sigmund Freud (who for the most part I like to ignore but in this case he actually said something I like) called this sense of “indissoluble union with the great All” the “oceanic feeling.”  (The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Andre Compte-Sponville, p. 150) I like the inference to water in this.  For me the mystic understanding is of a profound connection with the one energy of which all the natural world is composed.  You can see, perhaps, why it seems we are all talking about the same thing, just in different language.


I can’t say that I’ve ever had a classis mystical experience.  I guess the closest I can come is this intense faith I have that I am somehow both held in the infinite web and known by the infinite web.  If everything is connected, then I must be connected, too, not just standing here outside and looking in.  What I do makes a difference to that web, therefore I am known.  I often wear a necklace with an ancient Jewish symbol called a Hamsa, which stands for the number 5, which symbolizes five fingers of the hand of God.  With its small gem set into the hand, it becomes both the hand and eye of God.  I am held in the hand, and known by the eye, even though I use totally different language to say the same thing.


Why do I prefer the description Naturalist over Humanist?  Because Humanism concentrates too much on us, and not on the interdependent web.  To me, it places too much importance and value on human beings.  We may be the high-functioning thinking animal, but we are still just a part of the web in the natural world.  I could say that I think Humanism gives “us” a delusionary significance, but that probably happened out of a negative reaction to the importance placed on God (the non-human) in traditional monotheistic religions.


A Pantheist is one who believes that all is God.  Pan, all; Theist, God.  Seeing as how I believe that everything is one creative and relational energy, but not God, I feel comfortable describing myself as a Pantheist Atheist.  Richard Dawkins has written “Pantheist [Atheists] don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the [theist part of Pantheist] as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.”  ( 


 Carl Sagan said “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.  Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” ( 


I believe that our Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, about our respect for the interdependent web of all existence (which could also be described as my one creative and relational energy) is leading us in that direction. 


The UUA has recently published a number of new religious education curricula on the web, both for young people and adults.  I found this story in a course called Spirit in Practice.  This one is for us grown-ups. 


The Mystic and the Scientist

One day a Religious Man approached a Mystic and asked, “Does God exist?” “Allow me to go within for an answer,” the Mystic replied. 


After meditating for quite some time, expanding her heart-consciousness to embrace the totality of existence, she answered, “I do not know what you mean by the word ‘God,’ but I do know that this world is more mysterious and more wonderful than I could ever imagine. I know that you and I are part of something so much larger than our own lives. Perhaps this ‘something larger’ is what you seek.”


Then the Religious Man approached a Scientist. “Does God exist?” he asked. “Let me think,” the Scientist replied.


And so she thought. She thought about the vastness of the universe—156 billion light-years, or something like 936 billion trillion miles, in diameter—and the almost immeasurable smallness of a quark. She thought of how the energy of the Big Bang fuels the beating of her own heart. And then she answered, “I do not know what you mean by the word ‘God,” but I do know that this world is more mysterious and more wonderful than I could ever imagine. I know that you and I are part of something so much larger than our own lives. Perhaps this ‘something larger’ is what you seek.”


The Religious Man then thought to himself. He thought of what he knows and what he does not know. He thought about how he knows what he knows, and how he knows he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He thought about his experience of the world and how it is but one tiny, infinitesimal fraction of all experience. He thought about his dependence on forces larger than himself, and he thought about the interdependence of all existence. He experienced wonder and pondered mystery. And then he knew—he knew in his soul the truth of what the Mystic and the Scientist said—that he is part of something so much larger than his own life. 


And then, only then, did he think about what he’d call it. 


Why did I mention Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning of this sermon?


“Emerson and the Transcendentalists are probably more relevant now than they were in their time,” said the Rev. Suzanne Meyer, associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. “They speak out of our UU tradition to a postmodern mindset that is tired of scientism and reductionism, just as they were reacting against the Enlightenment rationalism of their day. They offer us a naturalist spirituality, a naturalist mysticism, without metaphysics and supernaturalism.” ( 


I always knew I liked Emerson.  I think he and I have a lot in common – although he’s more famous.


There is so much potential within the roots and the wings of Unitarian Universalism to engage people with a different kind of religious thinking, and take our hurting human hearts and this hurting world on by storm.  


My path to that healing is through religious naturalism.


May you have heard something of yourselves in the part of me I have brought to you this morning.