Over the years, I have encountered people who believe that spirituality and naturalism are incompatible and think the term ‘Spiritual Naturalist’ is something of an oxymoron. Here is my personal statement on this.
Is Spiritual Naturalism an Oxymoron? Like many philosophical questions, the answer depends upon how we define the terms. Some people define “spiritual” as dealing with something called ‘spirits’, immaterial beings; defined thus, it is necessarily at odds with naturalism. Others define the spiritual as a particular mental perspective, a way of seeing, and as such it is quite compatible with naturalism. So the simple answer to the question posed is that “spiritual naturalism” is not an oxymoron if it is defined as a particular way, we’ll call it an alternative way, of perceiving and being in this world.
So what is this alternative way of perceiving and being in this world? In the Gospel of Luke, Christ says: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” This singular statement is rather at odds with much of the rest of the Bible and what the Jewish and Christian traditions say about “the kingdom of heaven,” but is a good starting point for answering our question. In the mainstream tradition, God and heaven are transcendent from the world and from our experience while we are alive. In short, God and heaven are supernatural. But if the Kingdom of Heaven is within, then it is a part of our world and a part of our self. It is something that each of us potentially can experience and even live from right here and right now. It is a part, a mysterious part, of the structure and working of the brain.
Is there any evidence that we can actually have such an experience? The answer to this is unequivocally yes. Through all of recorded history in each of the major civilization writers have spoken of this experience. One famous example from the West comes from the poet Blake who in describing this experience wrote:
To see the world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
A rather literal naturalist might complain the obvious: one can’t literally hold infinity in the palm of one’s hand, and an hour by definition is not an eternity. What Blake is referring to here is an experience where the mental calculations through which we mark time and space and other proportions simply cease to matter; an experience of boundlessness.
In the Eastern traditions this experience of boundlessness is often referred to as the experience of non-duality. In the experience of non-duality, subject and object, experiencer and experience are one and the same. Since our ordinary way of experiencing usually includes a sense of a distinction between the self and its world, to see in this way is certainly a different way of seeing.
While the Eastern spiritual traditions and some in the West systematically pursue this way of perceiving and being (with its sense of a greater depth of being and connectedness), many come across at least a taste of it through love, through ordinary religious practice, through the experience of wild nature, and in many other ways. While it is the rare human who is able to permanently transform his or her being through the experience of boundlessness, it is quite common for people to have, and be deeply affected by, this experience.
There is little that the various religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world have in common. One element that many do have in common is a concern with both the ultimate context of existence (a concern with cosmology) and with the ultimate internal good (a form of which I have described above). In the traditions, these two elements are always interrelated, even integral. Modern science has brilliantly expanded our understanding of the first of these concerns. The modern world in general has increasingly lost touch with the second of these concerns. And as far as the relation between them, Steven Weinberg’s statement that, “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” rather sums it up. In short, we no longer sense a connection between our inner lives and the mindless swirling of the stars.
In my opinion, a primary goal of Naturalist Spirituality is to recognize and articulate the wonder of the comprehended cosmos that comes to us from science, while re-discovering the boundless inner cosmos that the spiritual traditions had opened up ages ago. And to reconnect them. From within the experience of boundlessness, the inter-relationship of self and world is simply what one knows for sure. Naturalism and spirituality complement one another.
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