Religious naturalism offers additional insight into this exploration of the place of humanity in the natural world, and what meaning we can find in a more intentional approach to living in it. The Rev. Jerome A. Stone, Ph.D. wrote this piece (PDF) in the Meadville Lombard Theological School’s Journal of Liberal Religion in the Fall of 2000, explaining his own personal experiences and how they have informed his view of the world around him. Rev. Stone is Professor Emeritus at William Rainey Harper College, frequently serves as an adjunct faculty member at Meadville Lombard Theological School, and is the author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalists Philosophy of Religion.
from “What is Religious Naturalism?”
by Rev. Jerome A. Stone
The key word that I now use in articulating this approach [to religious naturalism] is “sacred.” I learned this word and how to use it by attending services as a child and early adolescent in a liberal Protestant church. We did not use this word often, but when we did it always carried a notion of respect. You held something sacred by treating it with respect. We referred to Sunday as a sacred day. Of course, we were explicitly taught that all days were holy, but that by observing one day a week as sacred it helped us realize that all days were holy. This non-dogmatic yet traditional upbringing is here noted, although its degree of importance calls for further reflection. Later through graduate study in both the Christian tradition and the major religions of the world I became familiar with the classical texts and theorists concerning the sacred.
Now I wish to select four events from my experience which I have learned to think of as sacred. I will briefly depict them. What I wish to emphasize is their overriding importance in my life.
I remember the day my father died. I was sitting in my apartment feeling rather sad when my daughter, at that time about eight years old, came home from school. When I told her what had happened, she said, “Oh, Dad” and put her arm around me. It was one of the most comforting and supportive moments of my life.
After Martin Luther King was murdered, some residents both Black and White, of the city of Evanston, Illinois organized marches to put pressure on the city council to pass an open housing ordinance. At that time it was perfectly legal in that place to refuse to rent or sell a house to anyone, including Blacks and Jews, because of their race or ethnic origin. Now I was quite busy as a father, breadwinner and graduate student. Yet I felt that this was the right moment to pressure the city council. Also my wife and I felt that this was a way to educate our two children by direct participation in values that we held dear.
One summer evening walking in a park after dinner my wife and I heard a presence just over our heads and looked up just in time to see a kestrel catch a junco in midair and carry it in its bloody claws to eat on a nearby telephone pole. It gave us both a thrill at the excellence of the hunter and a vivid realization that this struggle so close to us was yet quite other than our concerns.
For close to forty-five years, as I write this, my life has been entwined with that of my wife. Through shared joys and struggles I have always felt that my life has been made real by her companionship. I have not deserved her, but I am very grateful for her. We both say that we have learned what “we” means.
These four events have been paradigms, that is, events which have clearly illuminated things for me. I have learned to think of them as sacred. Reflection on them has helped shape my philosophy of life. I have described these four events partly to illustrate my path. An early religious training provided a set of ideas which helped me reflect upon some very personal experiences, ideas which were transformed in the process of interaction with these events. Inherited language and lived experience have always been in transaction. I have described these four events also to call forth analogous events for the reader, events which will be quite different and yet perhaps may share some features with my experience.
Gradually I have developed a technical theory of sacredness. It goes something like this. The word “sacred” is a word we use to describe events, things, processes which are of overriding importance and yet are not under our control or within our power to manipulate. In this sense these four events and others are sacred. But there are further twists.
The stance for living which flows from this emphasis on the sacred is essentially that of openness, of readiness for the appearance of sacred events. Disciplined preparation and loyal commitment to the sacred are called for but need to be balanced by a recognition that the sacred is essentially unmanipulable. Thus Confucian focusing of heart and mind needs to be balanced by a Taoist openness to the spontaneous play of the sacred.
1) Given my commitment to a philosophy of naturalism, sacred events are not understood as manifestations of something deeper. Rather the overriding importance is the “depth” or “height.” All of the world religions, as I understand them, speak of going beyond the surface understanding of life. My naturalistic outlook suggests to me that the deeper vision we seek to attain is not of another realm or of invisible spirits, but rather a revised insight into importance of things. There is a “depth,” not apart from, but right in the midst of things.
2) There are no clear boundaries around the sacred. Some events are clearly sacred. Others are perhaps boundary line cases. It is not always possible know whether some events or places are sacred. Perhaps this means that all things are sacred, although I am not sure that we are capable of sustaining such a sense.
3) The sacred is not a separate sphere of life. It is not to be found separate from the pursuits of truth, justice, beauty and selfhood. It is more like the caffeine in the coffee than like a cherry on top of a sundae.
4) Religion could be thought of as a self-conscious acknowledgment of the sacred. In that case there is no clear separation of the sacred and the secular, yet there is still a role for the deliberate recognition of the presence of sacred things. Religious communities and their traditions, what we sometimes disparagingly call “organized religions,” are attempts to nurture and pass on the sense of the sacred. Each tradition has what Mordecai Kaplan calls its sancta, the times, persons, events which the tradition recognizes as sacred. That is what they are at their best. All of these communities are in danger of being at their worst, for in representing the sacred they are in continual danger of claiming to be sacred, to be of overriding importance themselves.
5) Spirituality can be thought of as the attempt to cultivate an awareness of the sacredness of things and an attempt to live out the revised sense of the importance of things which sacredness brings. Like organized religion, spirituality has its perversions, including self-importance, lukewarmness and lack of discipline. These may be corrected or worsened through organized religion.
6) It seems that almost always sacred things have a dual aspect. They both challenge and support the people that acknowledge their sacredness.
7) My own vision is that the sacred is probably plural in nature. As I sense it, sacred events and processes are just that–plural. I am among the most radically pluralistic of religious naturalists. Over the years I have found a formula by Shailer Mathews helpful in thinking theoretically about the divine. His The Growth of the Idea of God gives one version of this: “For God is our conception, born of social experience, of the personally-evolving and personally responsive elements of our cosmic environment with which we are organically related.” In my own The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence I have modified this formula to read: “the transcendent is the collection of situationally transcendent and continually challenging aspects of the world.” This formula, besides replacing the term God with “the transcendent,” and dropping the anthropocentric language focusing on personhood, emphasizes the plural aspect of the formulation of Mathews and also brings out the dual aspect of the sacred as challenge and support. A short version of this which I now favor for its brevity is that sacred things are things of overriding importance.
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8) This version of religious naturalism, like all versions, must speak to issues of social justice, environmental care, and repudiation of idolatry. It can speak to them and it can speak as well or better than traditional theism. The sacred is found in the human and the non-human others and its overriding importance undermines all the idols which our minds create.
Source: from “What is Religious Naturalism” (PDF) by Rev. Jerome A. Stone, Ph.D., as published in the Fall 2000 issue of the Journal of Liberal Religion, hosted by Meadville Lombard Theological School. For further reading, see also his 2006 submission (PDF).Tags: Jerome Stone, nature, philosophy, religious naturalism, sacred