An Excerpt from The Sacred Depths of Nature

by Ursula Goodenough

So we arrive here at what is, for many, the heart of it all. If there is a major tension between an approach like religious naturalism and the monotheistic traditions, it centers on the question of whether or not one believes in a personal god. Most people raised in the context of theistic traditions would probably say that "being religious" means "believing in God." Indeed, when reminded that personal gods are not inherent in such systems as Buddhism or Taoism, they would likely question whether these traditions are really religions and not something else, like philosophies.

For me, and probably for all of us, the concept of a personal, interested god can be appealing, often deeply so. In times of sorrow or despair, I often wonder what it would be like to be able to pray to God or Allah or Jehovah or Mary and believe that I was heard, believe that my petition might be answered. When I sing the hymns of faith in Jesus' love, I am drawn by their intimacy, their allure, their poetry. But in the end, such faith is simply not available to me. I can't do it. I lack the resources to render my capacity for love and my need to be loved to supernatural Beings. And so I have no choice but to pour these capacities and needs into earthly relationships, fragile and mortal and difficult as they often are.

Theism versus Non-Theism. The choice has been presented to us as saved versus damned, holy versus heathen. But when I talk to thoughtful theists, I encounter not a polarity but a spectrum. Belief and faith in supernatural Being(s), when deeply wrought, are as intensely personal and individual and dynamic as our earthly relationships. They add another dimension, another opportunity for relationship, to be sure. But those of us incapable of embracing that dimension remain flooded with opportunities to open ourselves to human relationship and hence to fill our lives with the religious experience of love.

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is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.

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