Religious Naturalism - Essays

Ultimate and non-Ultimate Pivots of Salvation: Evaluating The Soteriological Potential of Jerome Stone's Minimalist Vision and Donald Crosby's Religion of Nature by Stefani Ruper


One of the most pressing issues in the field of religious naturalism today is the role that ultimacy should play in varieties of religious naturalism. Does religious naturalism need to have a notion of ultimacy in order to be truly religious? What is at stake when ultimacy is present or absent in varieties of religious naturalism? Are there consequences for a religious naturalist when she adopts a notion of ultimacy, or when she foregoes one? A close look at soteriological aspects of varieties of religious naturalism in this exercise seems to indicate that there are.

But there is great complexity to the story. For one, there are many components of religion we could analyze with respect to notions of ultimacy. Why choose the salvific? Soteriology is an appropriate component to analyze with respect to ultimacy because it is a specifically religious component that has been important for the existential concern, healing, and moral lives of people throughout history (see below). If an individual's experience of salvation is influenced by the notion of ultimacy present in her worldview, as I predict, then this is a practically important category to analyze with respect to notions of ultimacy.

Religious naturalists as a broad class are generally more open to the idea of religion without ultimacy[1] than traditional theologians of Christianity and other world religions. [2] One example is Jerome Stone, a self-proclaimed religious naturalist who puts forth a religious sensibility that is “ontologically reticent” and that is oriented around real values of the physical world rather than ultimacy. Stone offers a worldview appropriate to secular and ontologically reticent individuals, and he does so with soteriological power, even if he prefers to use secular language. [3] However, the level and kind of soteriological potential he has to offer religious naturalists is unclear.

Donald Crosby is another religious naturalist, but he takes the opposite approach and embraces ultimacy whole-heartedly. He takes Nature to be the unique, ultimate source of life that merits religious devotion and awe. We could therefore set out to compare Stone and Crosby's versions of religious naturalism and see what comes to light, but that would be a fairly empty analysis on its own. What is further required is a robust conception of salvation that both elevates the issue of ultimacy and allows components of religious naturalism unrelated to ultimacy to shine independently.

To that end, I first explore salvation in world religions and reasonably establish for the purposes of this exercise that it is a universal endeavor. I then construct a notion of salvation based predominantly on the soteriological thinking of Robert Neville. This elevates ultimacy in our analysis. Yet we must also analyze aspects of soteriology unrelated to ultimacy, and to that end I have deliberately created non-ultimate categories of salvation against which I also hold Stone and Crosby's views. This enables me to illustrate how diverse elements of each worldview function soteriologically in different ways. Two things emerge from this analysis: 1) similarities between Stone and Crosby's visions, which highlight soteriological themes that may be of particular interest to religious naturalists, and 2) differences that include but are not limited to the role of ultimacy in each vision. This whole analysis thus yields a rich diversity in soteriological potential and flavor among varieties of religious naturalism.

Reasonably capturing the essence of salvation

Scholar of religion T. Patrick Burke defines religion as “paths to salvation.” [4] Indeed, broadly defined, salvation has been characterized by scholars as diverse as William James, Robert Neville, and John Hick as central to the religious life. [5] One obvious objection to this term, however, is that it is too Christian or supernatural to be universal. This fear is warranted. Terms such as “healing” “brokenness” “rectification” and “transformation” would perhaps serve our purposes just as well. The word “salvation,” however, appropriately captures the essence of rectification as it has been manifested through world religions, and as such is the best term for the purposes of this essay.

In reality, it may be impossible to universalize the notion of salvation. Indeed, S. Mark Heim has argued that religions do not mean the same thing by “salvation” and that they are all on different paths aimed at different goals. [6] Robert Neville argues in turn, however, that diverse notions of “salvation” are still rooted in a universal sense of human “wrongness.” Different religions may have local flavors, foci, and symbols, but they are still all aimed at healing or rectifying some aspect of wrongness inherent to the human condition. [7] As such, there exists a wide range of universal “defects” that can be addressed, and it would be impossible for one religion to give each defect the attention it deserves. [8] What we are left with then is a sense that religions are united by being in the business of salvation from the human condition but doing so with necessarily diverse foci: a Lutheran Christian may be primarily concerned with sin and salvation from moral failure, whereas a Mahayana Buddhist may be more oriented towards universal liberation from suffering.

Assuming now that salvation broadly construed occurs throughout world religions, we are left with the task of a universal definition. I rely heavily on the work of Robert Neville, who defines salvation as the process of coming into right relationship with that which is ultimate. Religion is simultaneously “ways of remedying the ultimate wrongnesses of life and shaping ecstatic fulfillments” [9] as well as the emotions, feelings, and acts of an individual “so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”[10]

It is clear from this definition that Neville's definition of salvation is explicitly about ultimacy, a fact to which some may object. [11] The deeply ultimate and religious nature of the definition, however, is entirely my aim. Neville makes the case that there are significant ultimate boundary conditions of the human life. The “wrongnesses” and the “ecstatic fulfillments” of life are nearly incomprehensible boundaries of the human condition that define what it means to be human. [12] The profound depth of these conditions is the content of religion, and they in all likelihood are best addressed by religions that contain within them notions of ultimacy.

There is no room in this exercise to fully justify my preference for ultimacy, though two examples from real life applications, in contrast to Neville's philosophical defense of ultimacy, [13] point towards the depth of exploration that this topic merits. First, M. D. Faber argues that individuals “feel centered in themselves, feel secure, attached, happy, joyous” the most when there is a transcendental other “out there” that gives them life and acts as an existential partner to them. [14] God as one example of ultimacy serves as an “other” with which humans can interact in a variety of ways including reconciling, harmonizing, and communing. While Faber's work has a distinctly psychoanalytic flavor, that does not detract from the power with which it points towards the usefulness of ultimacy for existential comfort and reckoning. Secondly, ethnographer Arthur Kleinman demonstrates that across world cultures physical healing is facilitated by having ontological worlds in which individuals can situate themselves and understand the context of their lives. Patients consistently refer to God, the gods, and other ontological realities when making sense of their physical and existential suffering. [15] The brief examples of Faber and Kleinman's work as such may not prove the importance of ultimacy for soteriology, but they do point towards a need across diverse disciplines to take ultimacy as it relates to human wellness seriously. [16] This exercise follows through on that charge.

Many scholars argue that ultimacy is not necessary for salvation, and Jerome Stone is one of them. [17] Is ultimacy really necessary in order to experience salvation? Perhaps not. Perhaps there are adequate ways to address the defining boundary conditions of human life without ultimate ontology. One such way would be to rely on real resources in the world, such as therapy and community in times of suffering. Another might be to orient one's self towards the good, the beautiful, and the true of the real world as one sees it. Perhaps the adequacy of these methods is a decision best left to individuals and individual communities on a case by case basis. But that is a key question we are addressing in this exercise. What is at stake for varieties of religious naturalism when ultimacy is included in the worldview and when it is not?

As committed as I am to holding these varieties of religious naturalism against Neville's “strict” soteriological criteria, I respect these objections. It is important that Stone and Crosby's varieties of religious naturalism be showcased on their own terms, or at least be held against criteria for salvation that are not quite as strict as Neville's. This enables soteriological nuances among these thinkers to come to light with the gravity and appreciation they deserve. It also showcases different soteriological notions that each thinker has to offer to the field of religious naturalism. To these ends, I have crafted a multi-layered notion of salvation unique to this exercise. In the pages that follow, I break salvation down into several components: A, B, and C1, which are my own constructions, C2, which I borrow from Frederick Streng, and C3, which constitutes Neville's definition and which includes all of the other categories within it. Holding Stone and Crosby's views against these components showcases, with as much nuance and details as possible in this exercise, the soteriological potential of Stone and Crosby's visions on a variety of levels.

Components of salvation

First, the idea of salvation implies A) that there is some aspect of human life or the world at large from which humans require saving. This is often articulated in religions as a fall from a perfected state, but it may also simply be the natural and universal facts of pain, loss, or the inevitability of death discussed above. [18] Salvation also entails B), an ideal state towards which humans aspire and which they can conceivably achieve. This could be immortality, Nirvana, release, longevity, or the natural phenomenon of happiness. B has traditionally been a static ideal that requires no more “work” once achieved. We will see later that Stone and Crosby both re-conceptualize this ideal state as a lure perpetually out of reach, continually calling individuals on towards higher levels of flourishing. The final component of salvation is C, the means by which to bridge the A-B gap.

The C component is more complex than A and B and requires heavier conceptual lifting. First, “C,” as the “how” of salvation, comprises a near infinite set of tools. I designate these tools as “C1.” Some examples include meditation, prayer, pilgrimage, good works, faith, sacrifice, or even worldly resources. This is a component of salvation that has the potential to be minimally religious – for example, one can be “saved” by undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy – and thus it creates space for more secular worldviews to fit into our analysis. Building upon these tools, I turn to Frederick Streng who argues that there is a truth component to salvation (C2). In Streng's view, there is a reality to the cosmos, and understanding it provides the necessary context within which salvation can take place. One must know her place in the cosmos, where she has come from and where she is headed in order to address her salvation appropriately. [19] C2 as such does not necessarily contain notions of ultimacy, though it might, and it varies by levels of ontological and religious commitment. C3, as the final component, returns to Neville's definition of salvation, which he articulates as an act of coming into right relationship with the ultimate. Examples of this include adhering to God's will or channeling the Dao through Taiqi practices. C3 as such contains within it both C1 and C2. In fact, Neville's definition can be thought of as the “final” stage or the “highest” level. It is, after all, our gold standard of salvation and contains within it all the other categories (A, B, C1 and C2). But ultimacy is not the sole determinant of soteriological potential. Having a multi-faceted notion of salvation is thus crucial for showcasing the diverse soteriological potential of Stone and Crosby's varieties of religious naturalism.

Stone's Minimalist Vision

In order to avoid the “fanaticism” and “obscurantism” that are often a part of the theistic package, Jerome Stone sets forth a religious worldview characterized by “ontological reticence.” Stone's mission is to strip religion of its fanatical and obscurantist dangers while simultaneously preserving the power with which it orients human beings to the good. His method is to investigate world religions, to develop a reasonably universal framework for them, and then to use this framework to construct a universal and secular minimalist vision. [20] Doing this reveals the bare bones that Stone believes lie at the heart of all religious traditions.

These bones are organized in what Stone calls the “triadic schema.” In the triadic schema, each religion has a transcendent source, usually God or the gods, and two poles of relationship to that source. [21] Stone argues that throughout world religions these poles are those of “blessing or salvific transformation” on one hand and “obedience or divine judgment” on the other. [22] In many if not most or all cases, this framework operates soteriologically. One example is Luther's articulation of the Christian God which offers eternal life on one hand but demands whole-hearted faith on the other. The triad does not universally have to be viewed with a soteriological lens, Stone asserts, but he cedes that the myriad of thinkers who have analyzed religion and have characterized it as soteriological such as John E. Smith have had a fair point. [23] In order to make sure that the religious vision Stone constructs is properly religious, then, Stone charges himself not just with crafting a naturalistic concept of a transcendent source, a pole of “blessing” and a pole of “demand,” but also with providing means by which individuals can approximate what religions are doing when they save a person. Stone articulates his version of salvation as “ultimate transformation.”

The concrete religious resources of Stone's Minimalist Vision stem from the transcendent source, which constitutes “real creative processes transcendent in a significant sense to our ordinary experience.” [24] Is the transcendent source an ontological or ultimate reality from which all values spring? Stone explicitly states that it is not. Even while there is a sense of unity among transcendent resources in the world, there is no “one” that stands over and above the “many” of the real resources of the world. The “source,” then, is simply a vast collection of real resources available to us. Stone then breaks these resources down into two aspects, the real and the ideal. By “real,” Stone refers to “the unexpected and uncontrolled processes in the universe insofar as they are productive of good.[25] These vary by situation and by individual discernment, but the common thrust of them is that they can be seen rather like a blessing. The world contains within it unexpected moments of healing, for example, or of productivity or forgiveness or grace, all of which are beyond our control but which are very real, and which merit “sensitive appreciation” and grateful, trusting orientation.

The ideal aspect of transcendence on the other hand comprises “the set of all continually challenging ideals insofar as they are worthy of pursuit.” [26] The basic thrust of these ideals is that they act as a “lure.” These ideals cannot be fully achieved; instead, they “continually challenge us to new attainment beyond our present level.” [27] Stone borrows from theologian Paul Tillich four categories of the ideal: reflective inquiry, art, the moral life, and social responsibility, which includes ecological responsibility. In each of these realms, ideal production and behavior are forever luring us, calling on us to higher and more productive levels of actualization. Ideals are meant to be transformational in that their “sensitively determined” worth demands from us a response. We have no ontological impetus driving us, it is only a presupposition constituted by “our sense of the worthwhileness of the pursuit of meaning.”[28]

So how well does Stone's minimalist vision match up with the components of salvation outlined above? Not very well, at first glance. For example, ontological reticence clearly prevents Stone's vision from cohering with Neville's account of salvation as right relationship with the ultimate. On closer analysis, however, Stone's vision is not without soteriological promise. The Minimalist Vision contains within it correlates to ultimacy where we might otherwise expect to find ultimacy itself, as well as its own soteriological elements, which I explore in greater depth after summarizing Crosby's Religion of Nature.

Donald Crosby's Religion of Nature

Contra Stone's minimalist formulation of naturalism, Donald Crosby posits a Religion of Nature that is rich with axiological and ontological claims. In this worldview, nature is a unique whole, “aboriginal and self-sustaining” with nothing “outside, beyond, or behind it” that is both metaphysically and religiously ultimate. [29] Nature is the ground of all that exists and all values and all meaning. This fact warrants whole-hearted religious devotion and awe.

Most of the values in Crosby's worldview are as plural and perspectival as those in Stone's. Values only exist in relation to its “perceivers and conceivers.” [30] Yet these perceivers and conceivers are real, and the values they hold are rooted in the ontological structure of Nature itself. This is because life exists in Nature, and life is characterized by purposiveness: all organisms strive not just to survive but also to flourish. To that end, all things which further life, quality of life, and flourishing for organisms are values.[31]

What of the destructive, the decaying, the dying, the tragic? Crosby sees these as part of the ultimate whole, too. They are “disvalues” and their evil is every bit as ubiquitous as good is in Nature. This is because value and disvalue are perspectivally linked: food for one organism inevitably means death for another, for example. Values are the good, and they lead to flourishing. In turn, that which interferes with an organism's “telos” or “characteristic mode of developing and flourishing” is a disvalue, or is evil, in Nature.[32]

These disvalues, especially manifested as “impediments” to the flourishing of life, are for Crosby the explicit facts of the world from which humans require saving. Much like Stone, transformation out of these impediments occurs for Crosby on two poles. On one side, the Religion of Nature provides salvation in the way of blessing and internal healing, and on the other hand it demands moral action.[33]

In order to provide “a basis for hope in the face of frustration, futility, and despair” [34] in the pole of blessing, Crosby's Religion of Nature does so in part by providing a sense of belonging. This may seem counterintuitive, as Nature is rife with evil, but that is exactly the point: orientation to Nature helps humans “come to terms with the laws of our natural home, and with our susceptibility as finite beings to the operations of those laws. It provides an ability to be rooted in nature, in a way that rejuvenates, inspires, and redeems.” [35] This healing sense of belonging and acceptance is facilitated by the “Redemptive Rightness” of Nature as ultimate. Nature's ultimacy helps an individual take spiritual comfort in her surroundings.

Complementary to the blessing component of Redemptive Rightness is the pole of demand: “religious faith in nature,” writes Crosby, “requires much of human beings in the way of work for maintenance of the health, diversity, beauty, and integrity of biological communities on earth.” [36] The sense of Rightness and home in Nature obligates the human to live responsibly in it and to develop ideals worthy of striving. These ideals “relate to our search for insight, inspiration, and power to heal our sense of failure and brokenness of spirit, our feelings of bewilderment and insignificance in the face of the enormity of the world, our feelings of fragmentation and lack of unifying purpose, our awareness of the chasm separating who we are from what we yearn to become.” [37] Ideals facilitate flourishing in that they give us hope while at the same time generating wellness for ourselves as well as for the wider community, much akin to their function in Stone's Vision. In this way they are powerfully salvific.

Salvation in Stone and Crosby: Charting the Soteriological Map

We have already seen how Stone's version of religious naturalism does not meet the ultimate demands of Neville's definition of salvation. But does the Minimalist Vision offer soteriological promise in other ways? What of Crosby? How do these worldviews stack up against each other, and what is revealed in the analysis? First I analyze each worldview with respect to the components of salvation outlined above, and second I highlight some similarities and differences between Stone and Crosby that may be important signposts for the field of religious naturalism.

A: Is there something in these worldviews inherent to humanity or to the cosmos from which humans require saving?

Crosby's Religion of Nature meets the traditional notions of this category. Crosby specifically articulates disvalue as that from which humans require saving. These disvalues exist both within the individual (such as intolerance or neuroses) and in Nature as a whole (such as disease or famine). Moreover, disvalues are ontologically inherent to life and the structure of Nature. Just as organisms live, so they must die, and with this drama comes an infinite host of suffering and moral failures from which humans require deliverance.

Stone, on the other hand, makes no assertions about any phenomenon in the world or within humanity from which humans require saving. In fact, he makes no assertions about the role disvalue should play in human life at all, though we might infer that disvalues are every bit as real as values are for Stone, just not worthy of the same religious attention. Nonetheless, Stone's Minimalist Vision does not explicitly reconcile itself to the negative aspects of human life. Stone is also bound by the minimalist component of his mission: he cannot as a matter of principle make statements about the ontological status of disvalue or suffering in the world.

That said, the Minimalist Vision is focused primarily on transformation. Humanity may not have an explicit state from which it must be saved for Stone, but transformation is marked by elevations from lesser to higher quality states over time. George Cross even argues that this is the true character of salvation-to continually “ascend from a worse state to a better state” over time. [38] Does this qualify as being properly salvific? The answer is a grey one. Transformation is always out of a given state, so in that regard, yes, it meets the category's requirements. We could even possibly map the idea that real pains, defects, and suffering in the world are the things out of which transcendent values are meant to transform individuals, and are therefore the things from which we require saving, onto Stone's vision. That would be our own addition, however. Stone in reality gives minimal religious attention to disvalue. This means that Stone's view meets this soteriological criterion, but solely in a transformational way.

B: Is there an ideal state that can be achieved?

For both Crosby and Stone, the answer to this question is yes, but with a caveat. It is not an eternal state, nor even a static one, that individuals achieve in both world views. Moreover, no ontological changes accompany the individual upon elevation, which we might expect if we are thinking more along the lines of Nirvana or immortality as proper ideals. Instead, individuals and ecologically-minded communities strive towards greater flourishing without ever actually reaching the ideal state. This has the benefit of making the quest for universal flourishing limit-free.

There are, however, two differences for Stone and Crosby with respect to this category, and they are again attributable to ontology. First, for Stone, there is no ontological ground of flourishing, whereas for Crosby there is. Secondly, however, and perhaps most importantly, Crosby's ideal state of flourishing entails the crucial component of harmony with Nature. Harmony facilitates flourishing, and efforts at flourishing beget feelings of harmony. In this way, we can reasonably conceive of the ideal state for Crosby's vision as a harmonious relationship with ultimate Nature. [39] It might not ever be a fully achievable and static state, but it is a religiously ideal relationship towards which individuals strive.

C: What facilitates salvation?

For both Stone and Crosby, blessings and demand facilitate salvation as “tools” (C1). Blessing brings feelings of gratitude and faith to the individual, and demand compels the individual to moral rightness. Stone has the Real and the Ideal transcendent available to individuals, and he also emphasizes real resources in the world for healing, such as therapy. Crosby values real resources within the world, too, but his tools go beyond Stone's by offering ontologically rooted values, ultimate depth, and the healing powers of harmony with Nature.

The second component of the means of salvation is truth (C2). In the Minimalist Vision, Stone cites Frederick Streng's work as support for the view that salvation is “ultimate transformation.” He is not wrong in that regard. Streng's ideas contain more content than that, however: Streng argues that the power of knowledge is a key component in an individual's ability to be saved. He writes: “the power of religious truth comes precisely because it brings into focus what is true, and in doing so it is salvific; it manifests the most profound well-being.” [40] In this way, being able to situate one's transformation in the nature of the world is a powerful component of religious salvation. This is not to say, however, that Stone fails to deliver in this regard. While Stone does not provide any sort of narrative, context, or metaphysical explanation of the world that might contextualize a how, what, or why of salvation, he does describe a naturalistic cosmos that is real and that has real resources and value in it. We orient ourselves towards values because we have a “feeling of the worthwhile character of the quest”[41] and because we have a sense for what is good. This is thin so far as religious stories go, but it provides some knowledge in which an individual can contextualize her life.

Conversely, Crosby again meets the criterion of this component with ease, and this is precisely because of his willingness to embrace ontological truth claims. Crosby tells the story of the cosmos as the unfolding of creative Nature, or natura naturans, and this is meant to help the individual situate herself properly within it. Nature is a complex dance of organisms, value, and disvalue in a harsh if stunningly beautiful world to which every organism belongs. Crosby's natura naturans as the uncaring, metaphysically ultimate source of life may not be the most comforting of ontological realities, but it is one that provides a sense of religious truth, context, and understanding to the individual.

Finally, we arrive at our gold standard of soteriology, Robert Neville's stipulation that salvation occurs by righting one's relationship with the ultimate (C3). This notion obtains in Crosby's worldview. Salvation is achieved by cultivating the values inherent to a being in right relationship with Nature. Conversely, this category does not in any explicit sense apply to the Minimalist Vision. There is no ultimate with which the Minimalist Vision interacts in any sense of the term. There is only the transcendent source of value in the real world, which some religions may call “God,” but which Stone ardently does not.

However, Stone does articulate a worldview that is made religious by “right orientation.”[42] This is in fact the whole point of the Minimalist Vision. Stone takes value and the good of the world very seriously, and he constructed the Minimalist Vision precisely in order to orient secular and naturalistic thinkers towards “that which is creative of the good.” Values have objective worth in Stone's view, and the Minimalist Vision calls each individual to recognize and defend that worth. [43] This may not bring the existential comfort that ontological descriptions of reality such as Crosby's might to the religious naturalist, but it does provide worthy transcendent values towards which an individual should strive. Transcendent values are entirely real if ontologically empty objects of religious orientation; the “transcendent source” as a collection of worldly resources may thus constitute a religious object that requires right relationship for personal transformation.

Similarities, Differences, and Soteriological Potential in Religious Naturalism

In all the components of salvation just analyzed, Stone and Crosby's versions of religious naturalism share some similarities significant to their soteriological potential which I highlight below. These similarities do not pertain to ontology or ultimacy, yet they still serve soteriological functions. Ultimacy is not the only way to experience some level of soteriology, as Stone's Minimalist Vision is proving to us in this exercise. These similarities thus comprise means of facilitating salvation that scholars and practitioners of religious naturalism, and especially the ontologically reticent ones, might find worthy of further exploration.

One important facet Stone and Crosby share in their soteriological potential is an open-ended ideal state towards which individuals strive. Many world religions contain within them fallen states and ideal states,[44] and once the ideal state has been achieved, no more work is required. For Crosby and Stone, however, the work is never over, the status never achieved. Ideals continually lure individuals and communities towards greater intellect, art, morality, responsibility, spirituality, harmony, and any number of other ideals they have elected. This process of open-ended transformation has a number of implications. First, it puts the impetus for salvation wholly in the hands of the individuals. Secondly, it compels unending betterment for individuals as well as for the whole interdependent community of life on earth. This betterment occurs both within short periods of time such as a lifetime, as well over the arc of generations and millennia. This notion may be of significant interest to ecologically, politically, and socially oriented religious naturalists.

Other shared facets for Stone and Crosby are salvific “tools.” Both Crosby and Stone put significant stock in the real resources for healing available in the world. These can be powerful for the religious naturalist. Additionally, both Crosby and Stone's versions of religious naturalism offer poles of blessing and demand for personal transformation. Why this is the case and how efficacious this model is are questions better left for another analysis. For now, a takeaway point suffices: these versions of religious naturalism were explicitly constructed in order to offer simultaneous blessings and moral demands. This does not mean that all religions or religious naturalisms must have the same structure. It does however suggest that there is something especially compelling about the coupling of blessings and demands. In fact, Stone and Crosby argue that coupling comfort with demand is precisely what makes progress possible: comfort and challenge feed off of each other in endless cycles of assuring individuals and pulling them onwards. This gives rise to continually greater flourishing for all of life on Earth. Given the strong ethical concern and ecological affinity of many varieties of religious naturalism, [45] these poles may be particularly appealing to the religious naturalist.

A final shared facet is the responsiveness of the cosmos despite its lack of personal character in each worldview. While Crosby treads through ontological territory that Stone fastidiously avoids, his cosmos is every bit as impersonal as Stone's. There is no loving deity or even caring cosmos for either thinker. This does not mean that Nature or the real resources of the world are not responsive, however. In fact, Crosby actively asserts that religious devotion to Nature calls for a sense of faith in the power and efficacy of human action, [46] and Stone asserts that real transcendent aspects of the world such as occasions of profound healing are played out largely because of human action (in this case, as doctors). [47] For both of these religiously natural thinkers, the cosmos is rife with potential to “respond” if impersonally to individual thought and action.

As powerful as these similarities are, however, differences between Stone and Crosby's visions put even more at stake. Ultimacy is the most striking point of difference, but how each thinker incorporates value and disvalue in his vision also has significant soteriological influence.

First, with ontologically grounded disvalue, Crosby is enabled to provide a concrete reality from which humans need saving. Stone's vision “fails” in this regard. Moreover, it is not just the ontology of disvalue that is missing in Stone, but a treatment of it at all. Disvalue and evils are almost entirely absent from Stone's manifesto, playing roles only as impetuses for transformation or growth. This results in a worldview potentially less helpful for contextualizing evil than Crosby's to the religiously inclined person. When Crosby systematically deals with disvalue, he explains and accounts for its presence in the world. This can help an individual tell the story of her life in the context of the whole, which can be comforting in times of suffering.[48]

Disvalue is not the only thing that helps an individual understand her life, however. Crosby's willingness to make ontological statements in addition to grapple specifically with disvalue means that he can assert ontological truths about the cosmos. He can relate facts and stories of Nature as ontological realities, and as such creates a world in which an individual can feel at home, can contextualize her life, and can create ontologically grounded meaning. This is something Stone does not have the ontological resources to do. Does this mean that Crosby's view is more efficaciously salvific in this sense than Stone's? Perhaps not, but the depth and breadth of literature on the power of story-telling, understanding, and relationship to the whole across a wide diversity of disciplines seem to indicate that it this is the case.[49]

Ultimacy is the final and largest difference between the thinkers, and it plays a role in each of the components of salvation, A, B, and C. For Crosby, ultimate Nature contains within it the disvalues from which humans require saving (A), flourishing and harmony with ultimate Nature is the ideal state towards which humans strive (B), and ultimate Nature facilitates salvation through correcting one's relationship with it (C). Ultimacy is the determining factor in how robustly Crosby's Religion of Nature matches up against our components of salvation. Moreover, Crosby's notion of Nature as ultimate provides many religiously helpful resources to the religious naturalist: 1) an ontological ground of value, 2) a story in which a person can situate her life, 3) a means by which to make sense of evil insofar as that is possible, 4) a religious object worthy of awe and devotion, 5) a sense of home and Rightness, and 6) an ultimate other with which she can be in relationship. Salvation occurs for the individual through right relationship with sacred Nature for Crosby. This makes Crosby's worldview wholly coherent with Robert Neville's conception of salvation.

Stone's vision, on the other hand, has no ultimacy and no ontology. This is the essence of Stone's Minimalist Vision, and he sees this as a worthwhile tradeoff for avoiding the fanatic dangers of ontological truth claims. As such, Stone's vision does not provide a sacred ontological ground, a sense of home or rightness like Crosby's, or a harmonizing relationship that might be salvific for an individual looking for those things. However, it still provides correlates to ultimacy where there might otherwise be an ultimate-shaped hole. The Minimalist Vision has no explicit salvific states, yet it is transformational. It does not tell an ontological story, but it describes a naturalistic cosmos with real values in it of which we are a part. And finally, it contains no notion of ultimacy, but it does articulate a transcendent collection of values towards which an individual needs to be properly oriented.

In this way, Stone's Minimalist Vision entails Minimalist Salvation. Just as Stone's metaphysical worldview is constrained by ontological reticence, so what he has to offer in the way of salvation is equally constrained. This is not to say that he has nothing to offer. Clearly, the Minimalist Vision contains within it many powerful soteriological notions. In particular, individuals who are as committed to ontological reticence as Stone is might find his ideas of transformation and of right orientation to value to be appropriately salvific. But for individuals more interested in a) the practical aspects of what varieties of religious naturalism have to offer them in the way of salvation, or especially in b) how varieties of religious naturalism perform with respect to Neville's soteriological thinking, Crosby's richly ultimate Religion of Nature out-performs the Minimalist Vision. Contextualizing, harmonizing, grounding, and orienting are just a few functions Nature performs in a way that the Minimalist Vision's transcendent source of value does not.

The soteriological differences between these two religious naturalisms thus reveal a potential for diverse soteriological power and flavor across the whole field of religious naturalisms. Just as the two of them match up against the components of salvation as we have defined it here in diverse ways, so might other varieties of religious naturalisms, and Crosby and Stone have at least demonstrated different ways in which it is possible to do so. Of particular importance to note with regard to differences in soteriological potential are ontological commitments to value, disvalue, and ultimacy. This fact is especially important because levels of ontological and ultimate commitment vary widely among varieties of religious naturalism. For this reason, value, disvalue, and ultimacy may be significant points to bear in mind for future analyses of what other varieties of religious naturalism have to offer individuals.

As such, this analysis has demonstrated that the flavor of salvation is in fact at stake for the religious naturalist when electing to incorporate ultimacy into his worldview or not. It is not an all-or-nothing situation, as we have seen. But the fact remains that ultimacy is an important issue. Much appears to pivot on it. Does a version of religious naturalism need to have ultimacy in order to be truly religious? Or is it at least made more religious by including ultimacy in it? Answers to these questions are obviously out of the reach of this exercise. But the degree to which salvation appears to have been influenced by ultimacy -- if not solely on ultimacy -- in our analysis demonstrates that the field of religious naturalisms has good reason to hold up ultimacy as a critical issue.


[1] See Jerome A. Stone, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008).

[2] Theology can be practiced universally. See Wesley Wildman, Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life (Burlington, VY: Ashgate, 2009).

[3] Stone admits that the “language of devotion” can be used in lieu of the “language of inquiry” but is more in danger of making dangerous ontological truth claims. See Jerome Stone, The Minimalist Vision: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (Albany: SUNY, 1992), 160-162.

[4] T. Patrick Burke, The Fragile Universe: An Essay in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 3.

[5] See William James, A Pluralistic Universe (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1942), Robert Neville, Existence: Philosophical Theology Volume 2 (Albany: SUNY, in press), and John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974).

[6] S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995).

[7] This wrongness is both rooted in the scientific facts of human biology and sociology as well as going beyond that: “What it means to be human,” says Neville, “is not just to have the DNA of homo sapiens and belong to human biological and social communities: what is definitive of the human is being under obligation, needing wholeness, engaging others properly, and seeking a value in life that has meaning” (6).

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1982), 613.

[9] Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 147-148.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Jerome Stone, for one.

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] Neville has written several books dealing with the relationship between ultimate boundary conditions of life, religious symbols, religious practices and notions of the divine or ultimacy. In very brief summary, Neville argues that religious symbols must refer, and therefore that religious symbols must refer to ultimacy, or else they are not religious. This is a philosophical defense of ultimacy and Neville’s The Truth of Broken Symbols (Albany: SUNY, 1995) reveals Neville’s thought in much greater detail that can be had here. In deference to that argument and as a complement to it, as well as for the sake of highlighting the soteriological importance of ultimacy, I instead chose to rely on (if in severely truncated form) the practical value of ultimacy in this exercise

[14] M. D. Faber, The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief: Searching for Angels and the Parent-God (Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2004), 108.

[15] Arthur Kleinman, The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, & The Human Condition (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

[16] Faber and Kleinman’s work, and, indeed, much of the literature on wellness and ultimacy, deal with God and other notions of ultimacy in a more personal sense than it typically applies in religious naturalisms. Does this mean the defense of ultimacy as I have articulated it here and as it might manifest in religious naturalism fails? It does not. Just as one can have a relationship with a personal God, so can one have a relationship with an impersonal Dao or an impersonal Nature, just one with a less personal flavor.

[17] Other examples include Ursula Goodenough and Loyal Rue. See Michael S. Hogue, The Promise of Religious Naturalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[18] Ibid., 12.

[19] See Frederick J. Streng, Understanding Religious Man (Belmont, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1969) as well as Frederick J. Streng, “Mutual Transformation: An Answer to a Religious Question,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 13 (1993), 121-126.

[20] Stone does not assert the absolute truth of this framework. Rather, he believes it is a relatively universal “map” of the territory of religions that works as well as many other maps. See Jerome Stone, The Minimalist Vision: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (Albany: SUNY, 1992).

[21] Other scholars Stone cites as proposing similar frameworks are Rudolph Otto, HH Farmer and H Richard Niebuhr.

[22] Other words he uses are support, succor, demand, and obligation. See Stone, The Minimalist Vision, 23.

[23] See John E. Smith, Themes in American Philosophy: Purpose, Experience, and Community (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

[24] Ibid., 12.

[25] Ibid., 13.

[26] Ibid., 16.

[27] Ibid., 16.

[28] Ibid., 40.

[29] Donald Crosby, A Religion of Nature (Albany: SUNY, 2002), 21.

[30] See Crosby, 76.

[31] Crosby posits eight specific values, all of which are universal to life and ontologically real: progeny, species, conditions necessary for the diverse forms of life, the biosphere as an interdependent whole, diversity, creativity, aesthetic values, and practical values, which provide food, shelter, and the materials for tools. Ibid., 78.

[32] Ibid., 87. Crosby deliberately uses the term evil to convey the seriousness with which his worldview treats disvalue.

[33] In this way Crosby's worldview perfectly fits Stone's triadic schema.

[34] Ibid., 142.

[35] Ibid., 142.

[36] Ibid., 120.

[37] Donald Crosby, Living with Ambiguity: Religious Naturalism and the Menace of Evil (Albany: SUNY, 2008), 83.

[38] George Cross, “The Modern Trend in Soteriology,” The American Journal of Theology 19, no. 1, (1915), (accessed April 29, 2013).

[39] See the chapter “Nature as the Focus of Religious Faith” in Living with Ambiguity (43-65).

[40] The full quote captures the aspects of both transformation and knowledge: “The function of religious claims is not simply to describe reality but to assert a stance or commitment through which one can be healed, made whole, become enlightened, or eliminate one's bondage to illusion-that is, become ultimate transformed…the power of religious truth comes precisely because it brings into focus what is true, and in doing so it is salvific; it manifests the most profound well-being.“ From Frederick J. Streng, “Mutual Transformation: An Answer to a Religious Question,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 13, (1993), 121-126.

[41] Stone, The Minimalist Vision, 40.

[42] This argument is made in detail by Michael S. Hogue in his book, The Promise of Religious Naturalism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

[43] For a discussion of the objectivity of worth, see Stone, The Minimalist Vision, 83-87.

[44] Neville, 4.

[45] See Stone, Relgious Naturalism Today, and Hogue, The Promise of Religious Naturlaism.

[46] Crosby, A Religion of Nature, 120.

[47] Stone, 13.

[48] See note 49.

[49] Evidence for this position abounds in many fields of study. For ethnography, see Arthur Kleinman, The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, & The Human Condition (New York: Basic Books, 1988). For theology, see Don Cupitt, “What's the Point of it All?” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 4, no. 2, (2005), 149-158. For hermeneutics, see Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). For philosophy of religion, see Joseph J. Kockelmans, “On Religious Myths” in The Challenge of Religion: Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, Fredericke Ferre, Joseph Kockelmans, John E. Smith, eds. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1982), 213-233.


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