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  • Sacred Nature: The Environmental Potential of Religious Naturalism by Jerome Stone
  • David E. Conner
Sacred Nature: The Environmental Potential of Religious Naturalism. Jerome Stone. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. 146 pp. $140 cloth, $44.95 paper.

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...


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