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  • Naturalism and Beyond: Religious Naturalism and Its Alternatives eds. by Niels Henrik Gregersen and Mikael Stenmark
Naturalism and Beyond: Religious Naturalism and Its Alternatives. Edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen and Mikael Stenmark. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2016. 264 pp. €74 paper.

"Naturalism" is still often identified with a reductive worldview that identifies the final real constituents of the world with the deliverances of the natural sciences—or perhaps only of physics. In the last thirty years, however, there has been a concerted effort among analytic philosophers (including several prominent ones, including Hilary Putnam, Carol Rovane, Akeel Bilgrami, and John McDowell) to distinguish between that reductive "strict naturalism" and a new "liberal naturalism" that does not deny that mental states, human agency, and moral norms are also natural realities. (For liberal naturalism, see, for example, the essays collected by Mario de Caro and David MacArthur in Naturalism in Question [Harvard University Press, 2004] and Naturalism and Normativity [Columbia University Press, 2010]).

In Naturalism and Beyond, most of the contributing authors explore the opportunities for religious belief and practice to be found in liberal naturalism (hereafter, "LN"). One exception is Charles Taliaferro, who defends supernaturalism, arguing against both strict and liberal naturalists that the belief in life after death and the desire for life after death for those one loves are existentially more attractive than their denial. Another exception is René Rosfort, who defends a strict naturalism, arguing that liberal naturalists (or at least some of them; the essay is not clear on this) presuppose an antimetaphysical pragmatism, a "quietism" about what lies behind the manifest world, that is not satisfying since it does not take seriously the unavoidability of inquiry into the nature of things. If Rosfort is right (and I agree with him), then the result is not a defeater for LN, however, but rather a call for some form of a stratified but still nondualist metaphysics.

Several chapters develop the religious potential of the work of LN philosophers. For example, Gitte Buch-Hansen discusses Grace Jantzen's process pantheism and its development as a better model of God for feminists than a female Goddess. Troels Engberg-Pedersen uses Hilary Putnam's critique of strict naturalism to propose a unity of knowledge, like that found in the ancient Stoics, that would not separate science and the humanities: "Here, theology is a part of physics (since God is part of nature) and ethics is no less scientific than the other parts of philosophy (since the good is living in accord with nature)" (105). This proposal will require a lot more work to make it plausible to more than a minority of scientists, ethicists, or theologians. And Niels Henrik [End Page 229] Gregersen gives a detailed discussion of three LN naturalistic "theisms": (i) Owen Flanagan's expressive theism or "as-if theism," which holds that religious truth claims are affective expressions of connection and awe and therefore instrumental tools for eudaimonistic self-improvement but which drops the assumption that they refer at all; (ii) Mark Johnston's ground-of-being theism that goes beyond Flanagan's by treating existence itself as "the Highest One"; and (iii) Arthur Peacocke's (and apparently Gregersen's own) theism that sees God as infinite and therefore including the ground-of-being to which Johnston pointed but also having a distinctive character that is revealed in some but not all worldly events. I would label these three as forms of nonrealism, pantheism, and panentheism, respectively, and Gregersen shows that the category of religious naturalism should be seen as permitting all three.

Some papers examine how one might make sense of the notion of transcendence without suggesting that there is another world somehow "above" the known universe. For example, Willem Drees argues that mathematical realism, moral realism, and the fact that there are always more truths than everything we know provide kinds of naturalistic transcendence. Similarly, Lars Sandbeck provides an account of how postmodernism, which emerged as an opponent to naturalism in its modernist, strict version, can develop a form of naturalism as a life-oriented, nontheistic ontology. Sandbeck sees this-worldly transcendence in the capacity of the world to defy conception and human mastery, and he points to John D. Caputo's concept of "the Event"—the creative irruptive potency of the world—as a promising example. Carl Reinhold Bråckenhielm considers how the supernatural/LN distinction produces distinct views of transcendence as (i) an addition to or (ii) a fundamental pattern within physical reality, a distinction that can then shape how the term "religion" is defined.

Two of the papers offer helpful typologies. Wesley Wildman's "mega" typology maps all the possible religious metaphysical positions. Wildman first asks the epistemological question whether we can have knowledge concerning the character of the cosmos as a whole. To those who say yes, he then asks (A) a cosmological question concerning the composition of the cosmos and (B) a theological question concerning whether the cosmos is ontologically dependent on a single ultimate reality. The cosmological question permits three general answers: (i) a monism that reduces the variety of things that exist to one type, either physicalist or idealist, (ii) a nonreductive naturalism that recognizes a variegated or stratified cosmos that includes the existence of agency and values (but no supernatural or disembodied agents), and (iii) a two-world answer with both natural and supernatural realms. The theological question also permits three general answers: (i) that there is no reality on which the cosmos ontologically depends, (ii) that the reality on which the cosmos depends is a [End Page 230] nonsupranaturalistic dimension of or ground of the natural world, and (iii) that the ultimate reality is a supranaturalistic being. When Wildman collates these answers, he produces a position matrix of six possible answers to the questions, including some that are overlooked but conceptually viable, including especially religious naturalism, the position that gives the (ii) answer to both questions.

Mikael Stenmark's more-focused typology sorts three kinds of religious naturalisms. Stenmark first distinguishes "no-God-talking" religious naturalisms from "God-talking" religious naturalists. The former (like Loyal Rue and Donald Crosby) drop the language of God(s) and hold that (i) there is nothing beyond or besides nature, and consequently everything that exists is a part of nature, (ii) there is no personal God or anything like God, nor any nonnatural entities such as ghosts, spirits, or an immaterial human soul, and (iii) religious meaning, value, or significance can be attributed to or found in nature or in some aspect of the natural order. The religious naturalists who keep the language of God are then distinguished into two types. The first is composed of those (I would say, like John Dewey or Karl Peters) who hold (i), (ii), and (iii), and add that (iv) "God" is the best metaphor or symbol we have to sum up, unify, and represent what we are taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values, and no other abstract concept such as Nature or the Universe can replace it. The second type is composed of those (like Gordon Kaufman and John Hick) who keep (i) and (iii), but drop (ii) and (iv) and add that (v) what we call God is not a being of some sort but is (completely or almost completely) beyond human categories and conceptions. For the first camp, the retained God talk refers metaphorically to human ideals; for the second, it refers to something utterly nonhuman (73). I would not call those who subscribe to noumenal realities "naturalists" (Stenmark sees this problem and also suggests "divine transcendentalists"), but Stenmark's enumerated points show how close the positions are. He furthermore points out that surprisingly there is, at best, a fine line between "no-God-talking" religious naturalists and nonreligious naturalists like Richard Dawkins who speak of awe at the marvels of the natural world.

Frederik Mortensen also sorts the "basket" of religious naturalists and makes a good distinction between (i) those who use the label of "naturalist" only in the negative sense that they reject supernaturalism and (ii) those who use it also in a positive sense to name a worldview based on what the natural sciences tell us. Those in the latter camp (like Ursula Goodenough) ground their religious views in a cosmology, whereas those in the former camp (like Charley Hardwick, Jerome Stone, and Henry Nelson Wieman) ground their norms in existential or subjective experiences, suggesting that cosmology [End Page 231] does not matter to religion. "The question of the world is dismissed" (94). Such positions would be better described as religious nonsupernaturalisms since "naturalism" is for them just a placeholder.

Unlike the books mentioned above by de Caro and Macarthur, the papers in this collection develop naturalism as an answer to both an intellectual problem and an existential problem (3). Each one is clearly written and fitting to the topic. They therefore witness to a wide range of religious options that are largely ignored in philosophy of religion textbooks but that are nevertheless available to those who embrace the idea that there is but one world and seek an ultimate source of value and purpose within it.

Kevin Schilbrack
Appalachian State University

Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
229-232
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-30
Open Access
No
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