“The wildness we all need to live, grow and define ourselves is alive and well, and its glorious laws are all around.” (8)
- Robert B. Laughlin
A Different Universe (2005)
“We have all grown out of the geological landscape, and perhaps unconsciously we still relate to it.” (367)
- Richard Fortey
Earth: An Intimate History (2004)
Hiking along one of the rails-to-trails projects recently, my mind came alert and I found myself engaged in an internal conversation with myself as I walked along.
At first, as my mind 'woke up' (becoming unshackled from the torpor of the ordinary round of daily affairs), I was simply reveling in the luxuriant beauty of the season, as we move into High Summer; the leaves waxing a darker green and the Hawkweeds, Common Mullein and Black Snakeroots coming into bloom. Then, however, my mind waxed toward the love of wisdom, and I heard an internal interlocutor – as I imagined him – asking about where any well thought-out ‘spiritual’ approach to Naturalism begins – i.e., with what 'presuppositions' it starts. I then ‘heard’ him proposing that “a ‘spiritual’ Naturalism must begin with the denial of supernaturalism, right?”
I was struck by this and immediately realized that this is not the first tenet of a spiritual Naturalism! A naturalist – as I imagine him or her – strives to start out with as few presuppositions as possible; not coloring their experience and study of Nature with an assumption that is not only not provable but also – and this is just as important – the equivalent of putting on blinders.
A Naturalist studies Nature, loves Nature, and is engaged with Nature
on a number of levels.
You don't want to cloud that experience with a presupposition like "there is nothing supernatural."
Rather, I would urge anyone interested in developing a spiritual approach to Naturalism to begin by clearing their minds of as many presuppositions as possible. _And this can be begun in a bold immediate step, accomplished through introspection and honest reflection over the course of several days—perhaps via a listing of one’s beliefs and assumptions about Nature and self at the moment. It then becomes part of the process of becoming a more realized version of oneself; unfolding over a period of years through the study of Nature coupled with experiences in Nature—presuppositions are let go of, and more grounded beliefs begin to form. The revelations that come from this two-pronged mode of discovery will aid in the untangling of presuppositions from valid hypotheses about Nature and our place in it! An assumption like "there is nothing supernatural" sets one up to always be in opposition with those who believe there is something supernatural. It's a negative stance.
Start from a different trailhead, and you will most likely end in a different place.
Let the first ‘principle’ of a ‘spiritual’ Naturalism be that “we should seek to be grounded in Nature; to have a deep understanding of Nature—for we are Nature.” This implies that to be on the way to wisdom, we must study and experience Nature; which would seem to sum up the primary praxis guiding any practicing Naturalist. We must experience Nature, and not be armchair enthusiasts. We must study Nature, scientifically—as the sciences reveal Nature to us in the most objective way; showing us what is Given—at both the most fundamental levels as well as on the grandest cosmological scales. And then we must allow for the aesthetic experience of the natural world as well as the phenomenological and narrative exploration of Nature as known via science to embellish our understanding of life.
I would think that to have a positive spiritual thrust in one’s Naturalism is essential to a life-affirming philosophy and poetics. I have tried over the last three decades to construct positive, life affirming, poetic spiritualities that a wide range of people could participate in, as I believe such constructs are on a much broader footing and can take a person much deeper into the nature of reality and our own existence than a platform that can be nothing more than a stance against something else! While my earlier attempts at constructive spiritualities were rooted in religious and mythological traditions, I am now attempting to live out a ‘spiritual’ approach to life grounded in science, and the spirituality I am constructing I call Spiritual Naturalism or Earthen Mysticism, as well as Poetic Naturalism.
A first positive 'tenet' of a spiritual approach to Naturalism might be that "we must ground ourselves in both the experience of Nature and the study of Nature." This is not a presupposition; but rather a praxis. It opens the way towards sustainable knowledge. It opens the practitioner to Nature in a complex way; going out and experiencing Nature as well as devoutly studying Nature; that is—learning what science has revealed to us about the Earth, ourselves and the Universe.
The initial motivation for undertaking and embracing this praxis may be thoroughly aesthetic; as it was for me—or it might be the result of a rational drive to understand Nature and ourselves. Whether a spiritual Naturalism arises out of our sensual, aesthetic, intuitive love-of-Nature, or out of a desire for knowledge—experiencing and studying Nature would seem to be the two most logical tools at our disposal for bringing our 'love' to fruition.
Now, Naturalism anchored in a 'first principle' such as this may, in the end, lead to the conclusion that “there is nothing supernatural.” But this is very different from the kind of stance where, from the get-go, a ‘Spiritual Naturalist’ considers themselves to be an anti-supernaturalist! The position “there is nothing supernatural” – taken as a starting point – is a metaphysical assumption. _At worst, it is ideology. Turned around, however, the conclusion that “there is nothing supernatural” – coming as the result of many years of life lived via a naturalist praxis (experience elucidated by study; study deepened by experience) is a profound climax; a realization that changes everything.
I have, in fact, had this realization—and it has changed everything.
Nothing I ever experienced in all of the years I was religious – whether as a Christian, Pagan or Celtic mystic – turned out to be unexplainable in naturalistic terms. And I am referring here to ‘mystical’ experiences, (imaginative-poetic) ‘visions,’ revelations (actually powerful intuitions), deep experiences of communion in prayer, etc., all of which I thought were genuine and which my spiritual mentors and guides thought to be genuine as well. Now I see that whatever is, is part of Nature. There is nothing supernatural. But this I still provisional. I remain open to the possibility of the supernatural, and would embrace it were evidence for it ever found or demonstrated. Perhaps the definition of what were once considered to be ‘supernatural’ events and experiences needs to be updated in light of cognitive science, religious psychology and that species propensity we have for transcendent experience? Be that as it may_
The point of this “1st Principle of Naturalism” being about the praxis of Study and Experience of Nature is to keep Naturalism – Practical, Poetic, Spiritual – open to reality; to the What-Is beyond our subjective worldings and pre-critical intersubjective agreements. The conclusion “there is nothing supernatural” is best arrived at as the fruit of the ongoing journey of discovery, in awe and wonder.
So mote it be.