The Naturalistic Equivalent of God

In recent post here, I have been developing the idea of a naturalistic equivalent to “God.” In these pieces, I have used such terms as “Source and Ultimate Context,” “Great Mystery,” “Otherness,” “the All-inclusive,” and “Creational Nature,” to refer to this equivalent notion (1).

Taken together, these articles argue that the world as a whole is ultimately a self-generating, self-organizing process. Simultaneously creator and creation, it is the source of everything. Each of us, ultimately, arose from, is sustained by, and returns to it. As such, it is as worthy of our homage as the “God” of any religion. 

It’s a strange thing that we humans do – attempting to pack all the vastness of space, time, and the mystery of creation into a single word. Yet we do. We use words like God, Brahma, Allah, Tao, the Absolute; or Cosmos, Universe, Nature, Mystery. We fill these words with great meaning. We can get hypnotized by these simple words and forget the complexity of the notion they represents. And no notion is as vast, complex and mysterious as that captured in English by the three letter word “God.” In developing this naturalistic “God,” I have been trying to reinvest this simple word with that vastness, complexity and mystery that we so easily forget.

Many people who adhere to Spiritual Naturalism are atheists who might well ask “why bother using the word ‘God’? Hasn’t the idea of God caused enough harm”? I certainly sympathize with this position: dogmatic ideas of God have caused and continue to create turmoil and suffering in the world. But I would balance this with the contrary view that enlightened ideas about God have caused and continue to cause much good in people’s lives. It is, of course, my hope that the naturalistic idea of God that I am presenting is a more enlightened view.

There are a few other reasons why I find the word “God” preferable to inventing some new term. These include:

Most of my family and many friends are Christians. If the topic comes up, I find it easier to say that I believe in God, rather than getting into the complexity of belief that Spiritual Naturalism entails. Sometimes I will add to this simple affirmation “but I suspect my idea of God is considerably different than yours,” but not always. 

Similarly, I meet a lot of Christians and I have found that, particularly when talking to strangers, if I deny a belief in God, they will no longer be open to what I say, but if I say I do believe, I can maintain dialog with them. By sharing the word “God,” naturalistic traditions like SNS at least have a chance of maintaining a dialog with theists and possibly expanding our own and helping others expand their understanding of “God.”

The most important reason for developing this naturalistic concept of God, though, is that I find it a great value when reading spiritual texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Bible, the Koran, as well as other inspired writings that come out of the various traditions. 

When reading these texts and encountering the word “God,” I am always interested to know how the tradition in which the text arose understands that word, but I also can simply substitute my own understanding and read on. In fact, I find I can judge the universality of the spiritual message of the text by the degree that I can translate the word “God” or equivalent words into naturalistic terms. 

If the text speaks of a God with emotions or that picks and chooses, that really doesn’t translate readily into naturalistic terms. That the God that has created a galaxy such as ours, a tiny portion of which we can see when we look into the night sky, should have human-like emotions or simple preferences, well, I would just call that a rather unsophisticated view (and all the more so if we add the countless other galaxies seen by our telescopes). But many of these writings can be readily translated.

It is through the writings and practices of the various traditions that my own naturalistic spirituality has taken shape. These writings often contain fanciful myths and supernatural imaginings of God. One can scoff at these, but I think it shows greater understanding to recognize that people everywhere feel a need to give form and expression to the great mystery of being and the awesome fact of creation. The forms and expressions used represent the best the people of a giving age and place are capable. (Similarly, the forms and expressions I am using are the best of which I’m capable.) 

We don’t know why, but here we are, each of us with our brief moment in the sun. Does it not seem proper and fitting that we should use at least some of this time paying homage to that Great Mystery using whatever understandings, images and words we have available to us? 

I believe, of course, that the understandings of modern science, incomplete though they are, are superior to those of pre-scientific peoples; but the homage paid by these people may have been all the more sincere, and their communion with the All-inclusive Source all the deeper. We still have, I believe, much to learn from the great spiritual writings we have inherited. 

I do not wish to set the “God” of naturalistic understanding at odds with the various understanding of “God” held by others. Any understanding of “God” is fine with me if it guides a person toward greater intentionality, lovingness and compassion. I do wish to show, however, that we do not need to include supernatural or grand metaphysical notions in order for “God” to serve as such an ideal. God, from within a naturalistic understanding, serves as no less an ideal. 

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There is a saying from Greece that dates back to roughly the third century BCE: “God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”

In modern cosmology it is well understood that there is no edge to space, no place to set a circumference. And if no circumference can be set, than it follows that no particular center can be set either, so to say that the center is everywhere makes a certain geometric sense. So far, this saying translates readily into naturalistic terms. The idea that the “center is everywhere” points toward something deeper. From a spiritual perspective, it implies that each of us is a divine center of the creation.

Amidst our busy, distracted lives, might there not be some value in stopping every so often to contemplate that we are a center of the Universe, each of us equally, each of us uniquely? To keep that in mind, to develop greater mindfulness around that idea, can in itself be a spiritual practice. And if in our contemplation, we recognize that the experience of our divine centrality is also the experience of the kingdom of heaven that is either found within us or nowhere at all, that might really throw open some doors in our understanding.

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Notes:
(1) These articles include the following:
The All-Inclusive (What Naturalism Means to Me), published Sept. 6, 2018
1-1 = The Great Mystery, published Feb. 6, 2020
Defined by Something Larger, published Sept. 3, 2020
Creational Nature, published Oct. 1, 2020

2 thoughts on “The Naturalistic Equivalent of God”

  1. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this, Thomas.

    Simply honoring and participating in the mystery greater than ourselves is far more helpful than trying to define, prescribe, or enforce a way of interaction (for oneself or others). Knowing and not knowing is an ok paradox in which to live.

    Reply
  2. Fascinating and important. A couple of centuries from now I wonder what word English speakers will be using casually to mention this naturalistic total of all things, forces, and order. I don’t see a redefined version of “God” catching on widely, although, as you point out, it’s an advantage that it fits easily in to “I believe“ statements. Some other words that you include – Universe, Cosmos, Nature– might gradually take on even wider use and greater status in the years ahead than they have now. I like “Universe”; it has a quiet, indisputable quality.

    Brock Haussamen
    38by.blog

    Reply

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