The religious naturalist orientation has two words, religious and naturalist. Persons who take seriously the arc of our science-based understandings of nature might be called “vanilla” naturalists, while those who go on to explore religious responses to those understandings, including those in RNA, self-describe as “religious” naturalists, but in both cases, the first move is to access and absorb these understandings.

A key figure in offering an accessible version thereof is David Christian, a historian who, in 1989, coined the term Big History to denote the history of the universe, planet Earth, and living beings in addition to human history. He recorded 48 college-level lectures for the Teaching Company, and then teamed up with Bill Gates to develop the Big History Project website for high-school students. His recent (2018) and excellent book, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, tells the story in book form.

Christian also founded the International Big History Association, and a few weeks ago I attended their biannual meeting in Philadelphia, getting to know several RNA members who attended as well as David himself. He staunchly considers himself a vanilla naturalist, declaring himself “allergic” to terms like “sacred” and “religious,” but I think we made some conversational progress in acknowledging the complexity of those terms and the possibility that they are amenable to re-definition in the Big History context.

One of two highlights was a presentation by Bob Regan on the trajectory of the Big History Project. A remarkable 1800 high-schools had introduced the course in 2017-2018, with 22,000 logins that year, and outcomes are being carefully monitored. It’s exciting that this “first move” is playing out so successfully, complementing the curriculum that has long been in place at Montessori schools and the Deep Time Journey Network launched by Jennifer Morgan.

The second highlight was a full-orchestra-and-chorus performance of the Emergent Universe Oratorio composed by RNA member Sam Guarnaccia. The large church on the Villanova campus was completely packed with both conference attendees and local folks. In my brief introduction to the performance I noted that we humans are narrative beings through and through, that we absorb most deeply those stories that are laden with music, poetry, images, and dance, and that Sam has wonderfully interwoven the arts and the naturalist perspective, a key step in moving from the vanilla to the religious.

With love to you all,


Ursula Goodenough

President, Religious Naturalist Association

” src=”blob:″ alt=”RNA_logo small.jpg” class=”Apple-web-attachment Singleton” style=”display: block; opacity: 1;”>