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Essay of the Month: Naturalism – the Sermon

Diablo Lake - North Cascades, acrylic on panel, 20" X 16", 2010

This essay was presented on November 7th at the Boise Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship in conjunction with the congregation’s minister, Elizabeth Greene, who presented on Spiritualism

Introduction: My belief system, which is very much still evolving, is based on nature and what is natural. For the lack of a better word and even though the term has been used in many other ways I call this belief Naturalism. This is the belief that the universe is an unfolding natural system. I believe there are no supernatural elements to this system. If there is an elemental energy that underlies all, it is the base of the natural system. This is a very simple belief system that can encompass all one encounters in life’s experience, from cutting-edge physics to mystical visions. It is all the same – the same natural elements, whether sub-atomic particles or brain function.

I do not see nature as positive or negative, good or bad – nature is. The stunning designs of nature create endless delights for our curious minds. It must be remembered that we can only understand a small fraction of what is nature. We are very limited creatures. This should lead to sense of humility – certainly we are not the center of the universe and what is more, we do not know what makes up 97% of the universe. Some people might find this unknowable and vast perception of the natural world as cold and meaningless. I find it quite the opposite. To be part of this beautiful and awe-filled system gives me deep meaning and direction in my life and my understanding of how little I know leads me to not condemn other people’s belief systems.

Religion: I have experienced religion on many levels: the fervor and fear of my childhood Baptist days, the hip Zen Buddhism of graduate school days, then more sincere study of the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh, to the decade of the 1990’s when I studied world religions, and now my new UU life in a religion of community.

I see religion as serving two primary roles — first as a tool to structure groups of people living together and second to satisfy personal needs of individuals within those groups.

To have human beings banded together in groups – large or small – a system of control is needed for success. Religion provided that structure, usually with a deity or deities as the ultimate source of authority, as the supernatural can explain all and the deities spokespeople can form the order. Religion served this function very well for thousands of years. But in recent centuries human beings began to gain more understanding of their natural world and the need for supernatural explanations declined. This coincided with the rise of modern states, some of which had no affiliation with a specific religion. These states created the order once given by religion and science provided answers once given by religion.

But religion did not cease to exist. Even in modern states that tried to suppress it as soon as the suppression was lifted religion enjoyed resurgence. This is due to the second main function of religion – it satisfies personal needs of the individual. One of those needs relates back to the tribe – religion creates a sense of belonging to the group. Religion creates a community – something that BUUF does exceptionally well. In the modern world where attachment to groups has become more tenuous, even family groups have become diffused over thousands of miles. The church can provide a secure group, providing much needed personal services for the individual and comfort, support and guidance through the various stages of life – education, marriage, and death being three. Religion plays the role of moderating the fear of death, usually after religion creates that fear — promoting the concept of the soul or spirit that transcends death and continues in a state of reward or punishment dependent upon how well the rules of the religion were followed during the lifetime. This concept dovetailed perfectly with the dominant role of the ego in individual’s lives. Many people cannot conceive of the fact that who they believe they are, their ego/soul/spirit, could perish — it must be immortal.

This rather objective view of religion is from my naturalist perspective. I consider the soul as part of the supernatural. I believe that when I die “I” will be no more. The matter that makes up my body is eternal and will take on countless forms in the unknowable future. My genes will live on in my children and grandchildren. My ideas will live on in my students and friends. My art will hang around for a while and eventually turn to dust as I have. I am sure that there are many that, again, will find this a cold maybe even frightening belief, but again, I do not. I find being a part of this remarkable natural process completely fulfilling. The fact that “I” come to an end could not be more natural. But I certainly do not reject religion. I can see its role in society and all of its weaknesses are usually balanced by strengths and benefits to people.

Practice: I have a daily practice that consists of  both meditation and prayer. It may seem unnatural for a naturalist to pray – after all, who would I pray to. Let me clarify. In my morning practice I do a series of loving kindness prayers based on the Buddhist tradition.  I visualize in my mind a loved one and recite the following: “May you be joyful. May you be healthy. May you live in safety and freedom. May you live with mindfulness and ease.”  I do this for a series of individuals, then some groups, possibly for someone who has stood up in service and asked for prayers, and finally for all beings. I do this not as a petition to a deity, but to make myself conscious of others and bring myself out of my ego. I am also open to the idea that sending kind energy to another might help – all is energy and I know how much I don’t know. The second part of my practice consists of the repeated reciting of the following three words “nonresistance, nonjudgement, nonattachment.”  I have gleaned these three words from the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, who gleaned them from Buddhist teachings. The final part of my practice consists of a mental scan of the seven energy centers (chakras) of my body. I use this scan to become aware of what is happening inside of me. I have no doubt of the benefits of these three practices as when I miss a day or two my mind is less focused and my body less at ease.

Conclusion: In essence there is much that Elizabeth and I agree about, but there is also an essential difference, and that is in our understandings of the concepts of spirit and mystery.  If the word spirit was used in the sense of the sameness of the energy base that generates all, and if spiritual meant that one was in touch with that sameness, I would be happy to use the term. But the term carries far, far more baggage and often jumps into the realms of the supernatural. In my acceptance of all as natural, I exclude the spirit and even Mystery, with a capital M. What may be called Mystery I would call ignorance — our ignorance as very limited creatures to understand the vast unknowable nature of the unfolding of the universe. Now mystery is obviously a much warmer and friendly way to express this, but I prefer to express it in as ignorance in that it reflects my Buddhist roots and also points out our weaknesses in hopes of leading us to our lost humility as a species and countering some of the mess we have created.

image and essay copyright 2010 Mark W. McGinnis

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