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  • Religious Naturalism:A Framework of Interpretation and a Christian Version
  • Walter B. Gulick (bio)

I. Introduction: The Need for an Emotionally Rich Religious Naturalism

Religious naturalism takes very seriously the meanings inherent in both a scientific understanding of the world and a religious orientation to life well lived. It rejects—as implausible and incompatible with science— the supernaturalism that has dominated Western religious traditions. But can one or more of the varieties of religious naturalism satisfy the fundamental religious needs or yearnings for meaning that have typically been responded to within supernaturalistic worldviews? A challenge facing all types of religious naturalism, if any are to take hold, is to engage these religiously colored needs and yearnings with coherence and integrity.

Religious belief and practice typically seem to have more to do with emotional security than with intellectual rigor, yet discussions of religious naturalism tend to concentrate upon the quality of intellectual belief about the world at the expense of a consideration of how religion actually functions for adherents in everyday life. The result is that often religious naturalism morphs into a form of philosophical naturalism in which evolutionary, prosocial bases for ethical action, claims about ultimate reality, and perhaps aesthetic sensibility are more emphasized than normative religious practices. In this essay I will try to lay the ground for a religious naturalism that is both intellectually truthful and emotionally relevant—to wit, existentially meaningful. The notion of meaning will thus be central in my exposition.

What are some of the important functions that have been carried out by religious institutions whose views do not fit within the orbit of religious naturalism? Some of these meaning-creating or meaning-sustaining functions are essentially social (overcoming alienation, embedding the adherent in a community of concern); some are attuned to a person's sense of well-being (healing, protecting from harm, forgiving wrongful acts, aiding the fulfillment of hopes or goals); some provide guidance in how best to live (moral codes, purity laws, behavioral standards); some are expressed in ritualized observances of the important transitions in life (initiation rites, marriage ceremonies, funerals); and [End Page 154] some offer cosmic narratives or otherwise interpret what is significant in life (myths, sermons, theologies). The challenge to religious naturalism is, as much as possible, to satisfy these functions in ways that are community sustaining and personally enriching, yet to acknowledge the ambiguous or sometimes tragic way the world is, rather than settle for comforting illusions.

I will employ a two-pronged approach to begin meeting this challenge. First, this essay sets forth an all too abbreviated account of a framework displaying structures and processes that are, I contend, especially helpful in illuminating human meaning-making actions. This framework is sketched out at a level of abstraction such that it can be applied to meaning-laden actions in any domain of human endeavor. If successful in meeting such a daunting standard of generality, it could serve as a basis for interpreting and comparing any of the world religions and perhaps even serve as a heuristic thrust toward an emerging world theology.

Second, I will illustrate the way this framework can meet the challenge of sustaining emotion-laden meaning by proposing a naturalistic version of Christianity that makes use of the framework. That I focus on a particular religious tradition (even though I am tempted to discuss world religions in general) is shaped by five practical sociocultural considerations that enhance the likelihood that a form of religious naturalism would flourish in the West. First, very few novel religious ideas have taken root apart from preexisting religious traditions. Second, healthy religious faith and practice thrive best when situated in dynamic belief systems that evolve as the social conditions in which they are situated change. Some Christian traditions are dynamic in this way. Third, evolutionary adjustment generally occurs by increments within traditions rather than through revolutions opposing traditions. Fourth, in the dynamism of reform, renewal, and accommodation, ideas that appear too radically divorced from established precedents are highly unlikely to thrive. Fifth, it follows that a version of religious naturalism is most likely to be viable within some ongoing major religious tradition that is not irredeemably locked into supernaturalism, and...


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