Sacred Nature: The Environmental Potential of Religious Naturalism by Jerome Stone
In Sacred Nature Jerome Stone gives us an informative, earnest introduction to religious naturalism with a focus on its relevance for environmentalism. Environmentalism today often dwells upon warnings about the dire consequences if certain prescribed actions are not taken. Stone takes a different tack. He quotes Aldo Leopold: “Prudence never kindled a fire in the human mind; I have no hope for a conservation born of fear.” Stone’s approach—an engaging one, in my view—is to connect environmentalism with the hope and passion of religious feeling. But Stone’s religious vision does not entail belief in the personalistic, supernatural deity of traditional monotheism. Rather, a sense of the sacred is discovered within nature itself, with all of its beauty, complexity, and creative power. In support of this approach, Sacred Nature [End Page 68] is sprinkled with charming descriptions of specific personal encounters with nature—Stone’s own, and those of others.
Sacred Nature explains that religious naturalism eschews any reference to “heaven” or to the metaphysically transcendent. This perspective is religious when it attempts “to make sense of our lives and to act appropriately within the total scheme of things” (1). In the first chapter, Stone describes the thinking of several exemplary religious naturalists, including John Dietrich and Curtis Reese, Julian Huxley, Kenneth Patton, Albert Einstein, Sharon Welch, Chet Raymo, and Donald Crosby. Nature is viewed as the ultimate source of the sacred, where the word sacred is used to describe “events, things, processes that are of overriding importance and also are not under our control. . . . To acknowledge anything as sacred is to move beyond the narrow boundaries of the self” (18). Thus one’s own conviction of the importance of something serves as the criterion for its religious significance. This is not to say that religion is essentially subjective. One method of looking beyond the “narrow boundaries of the self” is to take scientific worldviews into account. However, matter-of-fact scientific observation must be balanced with what the author calls “appreciative perception.” In chapter 3 Stone mentions Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Delores LaChapelle, and Gary Snyder as examples of such perception. Chapter 4 describes the work of several authors whom Stone regards as helpful examples of naturalistic spirituality. These include Spinoza, Santayana, Sam Harris, Owen Flanagan, Robert Solomon, Ursula Goodenough, Sharon Welch, André Comte-Sponville, and William Murray. The chapter concludes with Stone’s explication of his own idea of spirituality: “I shall define spirituality in the primary sense as experiencing the extraordinary or the sacred, which I define as ‘which is of overriding significance’” (76).
Is it plausible to think of oneself as “religious” without embracing some concept of God? The author analyzes this question in chapter 5, culminating with his own conviction that the word “God” is so thoroughly permeated with connotations of anthropomorphism and authoritarianism as to be irredeemable. “I think that the dangers of intellectual obscurantism and psychological and social repression are sufficiently real that the ‘God’ word should generally be avoided” (94). Nevertheless Stone does acknowledge that several scholars have sought to incorporate revised concepts of God into a naturalistic worldview, and he summarizes the theologies of Frederick May Eliot, George Burman Foster, Edward Scribner Ames, Shailer Matthews, Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Loomer, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, Gordon Kaufman, and Karl Peters.
Chapter 6, “Needed Paradigm Shifts,” considers some traditional ideas and normative metaphors that need to be reconsidered. Chapter 7, “Learning from Indigenous Peoples,” provides a thoughtful discussion of several of the themes [End Page 69] and outlooks that are associated with certain native populations. The final chapter discusses possibilities for an environmentally minded public theology, that is, a type of discourse that embraces a religious outlook in principle but avoids concepts and arguments that are narrowly sectarian.
Sacred Nature is an example of clear argument, scholarly thoroughness, and meaningful analysis. The book finds a balance between the often-conflicting stances of scientific objectivity and religious feeling. An additional asset is found in the author’s anecdotes and other personal statements.
One issue that I believe could have been given more attention is the question of value, or what the author refers to as importance. Stone defines the sacred by connecting it with what we esteem as having overriding importance. He adds that the attribution of importance must reach beyond the self. “This is neither a subjective nor an objective judgment. Rather, it is a bridge judgment anchored in both our attitude and the value residing in the object of our attitude. We could say it is a transaction between our judgment and the worth of the object” (97, italics original; see also 131). The dilemma is that Stone elsewhere denies any intrinsic value to objects, claiming that “I do not think that values are objectively real. Rather, they are constructed through an ongoing interplay between the objective facts about human and ecological flourishing and the desires and interests of various living things” (134). Though the “transaction” identified by Stone does assess external conditions, the value actually ascribed to those conditions is purely the result of subjective “desires and interests.” I submit that this approach lacks the objectivity and the transcendence that most people wish to ascribe to whatever it is that they hold to be sacred. Some people’s feelings of “overriding importance” are expressed through their efforts to elect a certain candidate or through their obdurate loyalty to an exclusive social group or through their fanatical devotion to the local football team. A thoughtful person may experience a sense of overriding importance in connection with environmentalism, but obviously there are a great many people whose perceptions and priorities lie elsewhere. The difficulty, as I see it, is that Stone steadfastly refuses to delineate any objective criteria for value; the assessment of whatever is deemed to be of “overriding importance” is left entirely to the mind of the individual. Stone’s deliberate refusal to develop or endorse any specific metaphysical or axiological position has characterized his perspective for some time (see his The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence, State University of New York Press, 1992).
These comments in no way detract from the overall merit of Sacred Nature. Indeed, many readers may undoubtedly be delighted that Stone has intentionally eschewed detailed theories related to ontology and value theory. Sacred Nature achieves its main goals very ably without them. [End Page 70]