Natural vs. Supernatural Religion

I’ve been thinking a lot about faith recently. I have also been thinking about the ways that churches and fundamentalist try to erect barriers between people and God. We have priests and sacraments and statements that are thrown in our path to keep us away from a personal experience of the Divine. We have so many barriers that it’s easy to miss the DOOR to God: Jesus Christ. The main reason I wanted to dispense with the barrier of church is to perhaps see Jesus again. He was the main reason I came to God, but he’s gotten lost in the blabber about God and religion that so characterizes the news and the Internet today. I wanted peace and quiet to search for that Pearl of Great Price again. It seems close, real close…

But, yet I read. I came across an article at the Unitarian/Universalist web site this weekend by William R. Murry, in which he talks about religious humanism and what that means for the future of religion in the world. He defines the difference between natural and supernatural religion and what natural religion means for human beings who are not too comfortable with the transcendent quality of the supernatural. Religious humanists believe in the sacredness of the natural world. They do not believe that we should necessarily go beyond the natural world to find our sense of mystery or to find “God.” For religious humanists and/or naturalists, God is a process of nature, not a transcendent controlling Being beyond nature.

To be viable in the future, Murry discusses five characteristics of humanist religion that he believes must be emphasized for religion to not only survive but meet the needs of ever-evolving cultures;

First is the affirmation that human beings are an integral part of nature. We are not separate and distinct from the rest of the natural world; we are part and parcel of it. We are related to every living creature, both plant and animal. The elements of which we are composed—carbon, calcium, iron—are the same elements of which the rest of the universe is made.

The second characteristic follows from the first: We are not dominant over nature, as we once believed; we are its stewards and trustees. A religion of the future will affirm humankind’s responsibility to preserve and sustain the natural world. The future of life on this planet and indeed of the planet itself depends on it.

Third, any viable future religion must take seriously the implications for religion of the remarkable discoveries of the modern natural and human sciences. The world of modern science is a different world from that of our ordinary perceptions and that of the ancient peoples who gave birth to Western religions. The religion of the future should be a religion that learns from science and adapts its teachings accordingly. And since every religion needs a story, the story of the religion of the future will be a scientific story with mythic significance.

Fourth, such a religion will recognize the importance of both reason and reverence. The human ability to think critically and constructively has made possible our many artistic achievements and medical and technological advances, but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished. As Paul Woodruff writes in his elegant little book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He goes on to note that reverence keeps human beings from acting like gods. It is thus essential to our true humanity. I also think a strong case can be made that lack of reverence is a major cause of all forms of human violence throughout history and in family and community life as well as with respect to the natural environment. And while reverence is not only a religious quality, a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.

I see no problem with a progressive Christianity that espouses these views, but Murry goes further and says that this is all that is necessary for religion to prosper.

Jesus

Obviously, this view poses problems for even the most progressive Christian, because an essential is missing. Jesus Christ. To be a Christian one must adhere to one thing and one thing only: Jesus Christ. If you do not believe in the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ as God’s incarnate Son, then you cannot call yourself a Christian. It does not matter how you define God as a Christian. Your salvation does not depend on that. It does not matter how you define scripture or even that you believe it has magical, supernatural qualities as fundamentalists do. Your salvation does not depend on that. It does not matter how you pray or where you worship. Your salvation does not depend on that. As a Christian, what your salvation does depend on is your belief or unbelief in Jesus Christ.

Rom 10:9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Now religious naturalism as described above by Murry makes no provision for the necessity of Jesus Christ. In fact, I would bet that there is no place for “salvation” of any kind in its worldview either. Or, for original sin. What’s there to be saved from if we are all part of the process that is nature? All is as it should be when we take the view of evolution. Does even Jesus matter in the 21st century then? This question is obviously answered by believers.

Now I believe in evolution, but I also believe in a Creator. While I believe there is a place for humanism and the development of human potential and the relieving of needless human suffering, I can also see that there is most definitely a kernel of evil in people that is not easily overcome just because we educate ourselves or better ourselves. That evil is still there and can come to the surface at any moment. It is a stain on humanity that we cannot, of our own doing, wipe away. While I see no benefit in suffering or redemptive qualities in it, I can see that eliminating suffering would make us lesser people, less empathetic, and lessened in character. We have not wrestled and overcome this bent toward evil. Although, we learn in spite of suffering, not because of it, we have not yet learned to live with it.

Now, I also cannot bring myself to say finally that Jesus is not necessary to the world. I’m not so jaded with religion and faith to come to that point. Something in me tells me that to give up that is to give up some vital, necessary part of my need for faith. To believe that God chose a human being to rescue fallen human nature, to redeem that stain of sin, appeals on some deep level that goes beyond mystery. Murry would say this is too anthropomorphic of humans; to insist that we are more important than animals or rocks or trees. Why should a creator care more for us? He would say that one tribe’s view of God does not forever prescribe the world’s creator. But doesn’t humanism also take a dim view of humanity precisely because it says we are no different than animals, rocks, or trees? Why shouldn’t God create us for a special purpose? Isn’t that what living is about? To find out this purpose and try to fulfill it?
In my never-ending search for the source of religious authority, I questioned why we must assume that the Jewish God is the true God? Why not the Native American Great Spirit or the Norse Gods? The simple answer is that IF Jesus is the necessary part of religion, the one who makes Christians unique, the One who saves us from our sins, then God indeed must have chosen the Jews as the bearer of this Messiah and there can be no compromise with that. Jews would not agree that Jesus is their Messiah, but as Christians understand their faith, they are inexplicably tied up with Jewish history precisely because Jesus IS the Messiah. There’s no getting around it. The Christian church is the new Israel of God (of course some denominations don’t believe this, but this is a doctrinal argument not addressed here). Unitarians and Universalists cannot lay claim to the Christian faith without this belief in Jesus as Messiah. Neither can other religions that dispense with Jesus. And this is what people of faith find most worrisome.
Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, of the Episcopal church had this to say about Jesus:

In the interview, Jefferts Schori also said she can “affirm” Jesus’ statement: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But she does so with caveats.

“I certainly don’t disagree with that statement that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. But the way it’s used is as a truth serum, or a touchstone: If you cannot repeat this statement, then you’re not a faithful Christian or person of faith. I think Jesus as way – that’s certainly what it means to be on a spiritual journey. It means to be in search of relationship with God. We understand Jesus as truth in the sense of beingcross the wholeness of human expression. What does it mean to be wholly and fully and completely a human being? Jesus as life, again, an example of abundant life. We understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar. What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? Here we have the evidence in human form. So I’m impatient with the narrow understanding, but certainly welcoming of the broader understanding.”

Asked about the rest of Christ’s declaration: “No man cometh unto to the father but by me,” Jefferts Schori continued.

“Again in its narrow construction, it tends to eliminate other possibilities. In its broader construction, yes, human beings come to relationship with God largely through their experience of holiness in other human beings. Through seeing God at work in other people’s lives. In that sense, yes, I will affirm that statement. But not in the narrow sense, that people can only come to relationship with God through consciously believing in Jesus,” she said.

What other possibilities does this declaration of Jesus as the only way to the Father eliminate? Natural religion? Why be Christian at all if there are other pathways to God besides the central figure of Jesus? Christianity must inherently be supernatural to place the divine stamp on the natural in us.

To espouse a natural religion, we are once again taking giant leaps back, returning to simpler beings of old who saw spirits in all things. We are once again appeasing the spirits of rain or of thunder when we are afraid. We become organisms that are merely evolving and existing, for nothing more mystical than our own chemically enhanced dreams and experiences. We are temporary conglogmerations of elements and carbons, looking to mix our seed with other carbon elements, watching our lives interact with others of like composition and then decomposing, eventually returning to the earth out of which we crawled millions of years ago. Why should we care about other humans if survival is the only goal? Why should we attempt to locate the holy in other human beings as Murry suggests? Who or what are we to reverence but ourselves and our processes? Where is the humility in that? To espouse natural religion, the stories and myths we have told ourselves so elaborately over the centuries become no more important to our evolution than ghost stories and have been a huge waste of time. And because of that, we are as far away from God as we can ever be.

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4 thoughts on “Natural vs. Supernatural Religion

  1. dear author,

    thanks much for your eloquent inspection of the true DOOR to God. however, i would like to contend with you a moment.

    being a MA in English, think of famous literature like The Iliad or like Beowulf or Hamlet, etc. any piece of literature like this is intended as fiction. although the iliad and beowulf are legend/myth, no scholar would contend that they are purely true. troy may have been attacked by the greek kings, and there may have been a man named achilles or hector. there may even have been a beast that roamed the woods that people named grendel.

    however, these works (no matter how much they are based upon truth) have smatters of fictitious information seemlessly sown in the midst. how then can we determine fact from fiction? how do we know that the gods didnt interfere in the trojan war? how do we know that there was a palace under the lake where a troll lived? most people would quite quickly deny that any of the fantastic events in these works were based upon truth.

    this may or may not be completely objective, but it is only fair, because these works are not intended to be a recording of history, but a rendition of it.

    in comparison, the Tanakh (old testament) was written as a historical document to remind the Israelites of the goodness of the LORD. and the New Testament, was written to be eyewitness accounts of the man Jesus of Nazareth. thus, the Bible does not fall into the same genre as any other seemingly fantastic story. many of the stories in the Bible do not make sense according to scientific observation today. however, the work itself calls itself history. therefore, unlike beowulf or the iliad, it is very easy to test its veracity.

    if the facts of the Bible are true, then it supports itself as a historical document. to date, i challenge anyone to find an historical inaccuracy within the contents of the Bible. additionally, we have more manuscripts of the Bible than any other ancient text (by an overwhelming margin). there are many, many reasons to believe in the historical truth of the Bible.

    in light of its accuracy, the stories that seem incredible may actually be true. there is nothing wrong with believing that God created the earth and everything in it in 6 days. this is what the Bible claims. evolution is impossible to coexist with the Bible. one of the two is wrong. please see my in depth argument of such at http://merehumanity.wordpress.com part 1.

    therefore, i much appreciate your inspection of Jesus being the way or not. but remember that there is accuracy in the Bible. we do not have to believe that the Bible is completely true, but we cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence for its truth. if this is so, there are many, many conflicts with not only humanism, but also evolution. please check out my blook at the above site. i would appreciate your thoughts on it.

    peter

  2. PB & J,

    Again, a very insightful post Peter. I will venture to your site and read it, although I must say that I don’t believe we need to say the bible is historically true to benefit from mythology. Mythology is written by a culture and those in power in that culture. The men who wrote these myths didn’t have a lot to say about women, faith, doubt, or science. We have to infer much. The bible serves as a chronicle of a people’s experiences with God. Whoever wrote Genesis used literal days to describe creation when in reality, at the time of writing, no one was there to transcribe God’s actions to paper. This is tradition, much like what the Catholic church ascribes to. We can’t take the bible alone and we can’t take tradition alone. A good mix is necessary to arrive at the truth.

    I don’t see a problem with a Creator and evolution. My salvation does not hinge on my believing the literal 6 day creation story. Like you said, there is an element of truth in the morals of those earlier Anglo-Saxon myths, but they aren’t necessarily historically true.

    Good discussion, thanks! 🙂

  3. Ann(?):

    You were kind enough to leave a comment on my blog last week regarding spacing after periods. I wanted to say thanks.

    I wrote something awhile back regarding evolution and why I don’t see it as compatible with Christianity. You may be interested in it.

    In any case, thanks again for stopping in and taking the time to comment.

    mg

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