Current Journal | Volume 32 (2024)
SYMPOSIUM ON THE SACRED DEPTHS OF NATURE
Click on Ursula Goodenough’s article to learn more about contributing to this symposium.
The Sacred Depths of Nature: 25 Years Later
by Ursula Goodenough
I wrote the first edition of The Sacred Depths of Nature during a 3-month marathon in the spring of 1997, weaving together a lifetime of science-based understandings as a biology researcher/teacher with newly acquired understandings of spiritual perspectives, histories, and languages, where a key mentor was philosopher Loyal Rue. In the fall of 2021, I launched a 5-month marathon to fact-update the first edition and, more importantly, to deepen both sets of understandings. I anchored the science-based perspectives in the concepts of emergence (see below) and self-hood that have been developed by biologist Terrence Deacon, and the spiritual reflections were nurtured by the heartfelt responses of readers and participants in book-centered gatherings and internet forums. The new edition was released in February 2023, and initial reviewer responses have been deeply enthusiastic.
New Stories for a New World
by David Christian
In The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough argues that all coherent social communities or cultures have been held together in part by sharing and committing to a core story about the world, which is often embedded in what we think of as a religious tradition. The core story has three distinct “axes”. First, it describes the world. It tells how the world came to be and how it works. Second, it stirs people. It resonates emotionally with those committed to it, so it can energize them and inspire action. Third, it offers moral guidance about the sort of action and behavior we should commit to. In Goodenough’s words, every religious tradition has an “interpretive”, a “spiritual” and a “moral” axis [p. 220]. Her book asks if we can imagine a new worldview or world story that is based on the descriptive power of modern science, but also has the inspirational and moral power of traditional religions. Much of her book describes what that new story may look like. In contrast to many religious traditions, the new story will not be theistic because it draws largely on the insights of modern science. That means it will lack the gods that populate and give shape to so many traditional religions. Nevertheless, she argues that the modern world story, like all religious traditions, will eventually work not just as a description of the world and a guide to manipulating it (science already does that), but also along the inspirational and moral axes that have made traditional religious traditions such powerful agents of both social cohesion and change.
The Knife and the Gate
by Eric Steinhart
The first edition of The Sacred Depths of Nature was generally treated badly and unfairly by the reviewers. The reviews were all the same: some nicely written science stories, some heartwarming reflections. The reviewers placed the book, incorrectly, in the romantic tradition of nature writing. The second edition provides a welcome opportunity think about the book more carefully. Sacred Depths (in both editions) radiates power; in other words, it is talismanic. Sacred Depths is a grimoire, and I take grimoires very seriously. I am a Pennsylvania German (that is, Deitsch). I am a descendant of brauchers (experts in Deitsch folk-magic), and I was born and raised in the culture of Deitsch folk-magic. I know grimoires, and Sacred Depths is superlative.
That shift in the way the naturalism of scientists like Ursula Goodenough tends to replicate the epistemological assumptions commonly attributed to religion—assumptions, that is, that Enlightenment, in its pursuit of knowledge won by reason alone, is assumed to have extirpated. To this end, my argument is that the naturalism found in Goodenough’s , recently updated and reissued, isn’t all that natural after all. But it could be; if only it would treat knowledge as emerging not from an awareness of “how things are,” as Goodenough says (3), but as entangled in traditions whose paradigmatic expression is, paradoxically, religion. Naturalism need not be a repository for the metaphysical ambitions Enlightenment frustrated by supplanting religion. Embracing the very naturalistic means whereby, in collaboration with those traditions we’ve inherited and those interlocutors who comprise our present social situation, might allow us to lay claim to what we know by our words.