Donald A. Crosby

A Religion of Nature


Review by David Rohr (2013)

Review by Brice Tennant

Review by David Rohr (2013)

A Religion of Nature. By Donald A. Crosby. State University of New York Press, 2002. 200 Pages. $29.95.

Beautifully written, carefully argued, dense with insights, and spiritually compelling, A Religion of Nature is one of the most satisfying and complete articulations of religious naturalism to date. In it Donald Crosby argues that nature is both metaphysically ultimate and the proper object of religious devotion. One need not appeal to gods or transcendent realms to find profound meaning, moral orientation, and spiritual illumination. Nature, the giver and sustainer of all life, is also the source of our deepest fulfillment. In a religious world suffused with supernaturalism and its anthropomorphic antidotes, Crosby’s is a tough case to make. His success, I will argue, is due to an intuitive balance that avoids common oversimplifications and the antagonistic polarizations that plague other naturalistic philosophies. After highlighting four examples of Crosby’s balanced approach, I will offer two general criticisms of his position.

First, and most fundamentally, Crosby balances his dependence upon scientific understanding with an explicit rejection of epistemological scientism. Like almost all naturalists, Crosby cherishes the sciences and defers to their conclusions whenever they are relevant. Nevertheless, he refuses to believe that behind the jealously guarded perimeter of “science” there exists the objectivity, methodological unity, and comprehensive scope that would justify excluding all non-scientific ways of understanding. Specifically, Crosby argues that science changes over time and depends upon imaginative models, theory-laden instruments, and unexamined assumptions (46); that the mathematical precision of physics has little to do with most other sciences and few other sciences are reducible to physics (47); that there are no clear boundaries between scientific methods and other rational ways of knowing like history, literature, and metaphysics (48); and that the precision of science is often bought at the price of isolating knowledge from the encompassing contexts that give that knowledge its deepest meaning (51). Instead of scientism Crosby advocates a generous, fallibilist empiricism that seeks to include and integrate all types of experience. Data collected from particle accelerators is relevant, but so are the insights of poets and the speculative constructions of metaphysicians. This epistemological openness need not lead to fuzzy, unrestrained thinking; indeed, the clarity Crosby’s own arguments demonstrates the potential fruitfulness of his broad empiricism.

The second example of Crosby’s balance derives from the first: because he takes many non-scientific methods of inquiry as sources of relevant data, Crosby quite naturally assumes that our common experiences of value are genuinely rooted in reality. Though his position is presently uncommon, Crosby states it forcefully: “The wholesale denial of values to nature, and the radical subjectivizing of the metaphysical status of value, is one of the strangest and least plausible legacies of the rise of the modern era in the West” (57-8). Because scientific methods and languages are not designed to assess value, “The silence of the natural sciences on [the question of value] has, therefore, no relevance whatsoever to how it should be answered. To think otherwise would be similar to concluding that ultraviolet rays do not exist in nature, because we take no notice of them with ordinary vision, thus ignoring the possibility that they might be detected in some other manner” (61). Scientists who insist that values are not real are deluding themselves: the scientific enterprise itself depends on values such as honesty and the willingness to value the rational criticisms of a larger community of inquiry over one’s favored opinions (61). After providing several compelling arguments against the claim that values are merely human projections onto nature, Crosby argues that value, properly understood, has both objective and subjective components. For instance, it is inherently good that our universe is dense with information-bearing components like photons whose precise and predictable wavelengths make all vision possible, including the “vision” that allows astronomers to determine the composition of distant stars. Yet actual valuation or appreciation of this goodness only occurs subjectively, in enraptured freshman astronomy majors and other organisms.

Third, Crosby also finds illuminating middle ground between extremes by emphasizing human uniqueness without denying our seamless continuity with all other organisms. From Earth-centered cosmologies to religious traditions that assume the cosmos is merely a backdrop for the drama of human salvation, Western culture has been and continues to be profoundly anthropocentric. In this context, naturalists are obligated to resist such distortions by emphasizing human continuity with other life on Earth. However, many naturalists take this corrective measure too far and speak as if there is nothing particularly interesting or unique about human beings. Often, one is left with the impression that we are nothing more than a chimp that learned to walk upright. Crosby’s account is more nuanced. On one hand, he makes it absolutely clear that human bodies, DNA, sociality, and even culture and consciousness all evolved in uninterrupted continuity with other life. On the other hand, Crosby argues that our unprecedented linguistic aptitude has granted humans several entirely unique abilities: abstract rationality that allowed humans to “roam in thought across reaches of space, time, and possibility that far outstripped their immediate sensate experiences” (104); the capacity for purposive freedom, illustrated by our species’ unparalleled behavioral flexibility; our extremely intricate and sophisticated cultures which are passed on via intentional instruction; and our astounding technological proficiency, manifested in skyscrapers, space shuttles, and social networks. We are not just another primate. Something radically new is happening among Homo sapiens. Not only do we have the technological power to reshape the surface of our planet; we have the symbolic distance, creativity, and expressive tools necessary to decide how we want to form this world. Thus, for Crosby our unique gifts come with a concomitant responsibility: to create an ecologically balanced civilization that supports the flourishing of all life forms in addition to furthering human cultural projects (107).

Lastly, Crosby achieves a balance between frankly acknowledging that nature ultimately obliterates human beings and their projects, yet resisting the rhetorical sloppiness of accusing nature of wastefulness, cruelty, and sheer indifference towards humans. Crosby is keenly aware that suffering and evil represent a major challenge to all religious philosophies, including his own. Characteristically, he faces the problem head-on. Crosby readily admits that, though value inheres in nature, the dissolution and destruction of value is essential to nature’s creativity. At one point he even insists that, despite potential anthropomorphic misunderstandings, nothing less than the word “evil” does justice to the intensity of suffering in reality. Yet he also defends nature against common indictments. Nature is not wasteful but extremely, almost perfectly, frugal. Most seeds don’t become trees, but they sustain the life of many other organisms. All living things die, but their bodies are efficiently decomposed and reinserted into nature’s cycle of self-consuming creativity. Nature is not cruel, because only intentional agents are cruel. Here Crosby hints that modern biology has been so shaped by antagonism with personal theism that its rhetoric has grown lopsided. The natural world certainly doesn’t look like the heaven a friendly personal God would create, but its shows no signs of an underlying sadistic agency either. Nature is not utterly indifferent to human beings and their projects, but the supportive fabric that makes our goal-oriented lives possible. Obviously, the real possibility of a giant meteorite instantly vaporizing human dreams reflects a certain type of indifference. But sheer indifference is, in a very deep sense, incoherent from an evolutionary naturalist perspective. Nature also creates, sustains, and fulfills us. Nature is our mother, even if she is red in tooth and claw.

Having made my enthusiastic endorsement of Crosby’s text clear, I would like to conclude by offering two critical responses. First, Crosby fails to deliver on his promise to provide a metaphysics of nature that makes no appeals to an ultimate reality transcending and grounding the contingent natural world (ix). To be clear, Crosby’s metaphysics Crosby well-argued, profound, and spiritually compelling. In the end, however, Crosby explains the existence of the actual world we know (nature natured) by appealing to a deeper, unknowable, and necessary reality (nature naturing) that eternally creates the actual world (154-5). Certainly Crosby’s metaphysics is different in content from most theisms, but I remain unconvinced that it is a different kind of explanation. Indeed, a theism that rigorously insisted that God as creator was unknowable except as reflexively defined by the creation would probably result in a theology whose character even closely resembled Crosby’s nature naturing.

My second criticism concerns Crosby’s unjustified identification between human moral goodness and nature in the book’s conclusion. There Crosby identifies four exemplary human beings whose lives happen to model the selfless generosity that defines all Christian saints, and he describes how this type of goodness possesses an attractive force that seductively draws human hearts. Then, without warning, he concludes by saying, “our felt urge toward goodness bears witness to a power of goodness in the natural order of which we are a part” (169). The incongruity of this statement with the rest of the book is palpable. Crosby senses —rightly, I believe — that the deepest well of religious inspiration is tapped only when our most dearly held ideals are seen reflected on the abyssal waters of ultimate reality. People need to sense that vital connection before they abandon themselves, subordinating all other goals to the religious quest; to strive for sainthood is, almost necessarily, to believe that saints embody the divine. Regardless of whether Crosby’s instinct here is correct, nothing in A Religion of Nature justifies making this connection in any strong sense. A naturalist could easily explain goodness’ pull upon human hearts in less ultimate ways: humans are an extremely social species with hardwired moral instincts; they have evolved intense empathy systems that motivate human parents’ unprecedented energetic investment in their offspring; and they typically mature in cultures equipped with symbols and rituals that utilize these evolutionary endowments to ingrain early and deeply the self-sacrificial behavior necessary for a modicum of civilizational stability; thus, the tug of moral goodness derives from the humans’ particular evolutionary history and their present culturally mediated survival pressures; and, therefore, that tug is uniquely human, not something that can be generalized to other organisms, much less to nature itself. This is the obvious naturalist route, but Crosby refuses it. Rightly or wrongly, he insists on finding the existential sweet spot and concludes by affirming the beating heart of the religious quest. I sympathize with the choice, but I believe it requires a justification that is lacking in Crosby’s A Religion of Nature.

Review by Brice Tennant (2010 )

A Religion of Nature by Donald A. Crosby. SUNY Press, 2002. 200 pages. $16.98.

It may be tempting to interpret Donald Crosby’s opening chapter, “From God to Nature: A Personal Odyssey,” as a nod to sentimentality; however, such an interpretive move would fail to comprehend its strategic shrewdness. By means of this narrative of spiritual and intellectual odyssey from religiously fervent high school youth group through elite seminary training and provocative pastoral ministry to religiously rigorous doctoral research and university teaching posts in philosophy and religions of the world, Crosby induces a sympathetic reading from his audience. Whether it be the parochial childhood, the bold Barthianism of Princeton, the trenchant problem of evil, the bewilderment of pluralism, the tantalization of Tillich, or the experience of rich secularism, the thoughtful reader is likely to find a point of resonance with the tale. Crosby has subtly transitioned from being the iconoclastic, immoral, nihilistic, depressed, and aggressive atheist to the struggling, valiant, honest, loving, and homesick Odysseus. Enduring loss for the hope of liberation, Crosby has made “unexpected landfall” on the shores of “a religion of nature” that has filled him with feelings of “relief” and “a sense of rightness” that has given his life “an integrity and wholeness … that it seemed to lack before,” and, along the way, he has earned, minimally, a hearing (10, 12).      

In Part II, “The Nature of Nature,” Crosby presents his case for conceiving nature as metaphysically ultimate. The first chapter of Part II, “Concept of Nature,” is an engagement with classic metaphysical categories. Crosby’s first concern revolves around establishing the meaning of the term “nature,” which he employs technically. “Nature,” he writes, “is the creative matrix from which all things arise and to which they return, the complexity of orders and powers by which these things are upheld and by which each of them, or each type of them, attains its own peculiar attributes and capabilities” (21). There are two essential points relating to Crosby’s view of nature that must be remembered while reading the text. First, nature is the lone reality. Crosby rejects all forms of supernaturalism and dualism, and, consequently, he consistently asserts that human beings, in all their distinctiveness, are exhaustively natural. As the lone system, nature is the originator, sustainer, and destroyer of existence in all its diverse manifestations. Second, nature carries out these functions without “purpose, sentience, or consciousness” (21). Nature has produced life forms possessing consciousness that are capable of creating purpose, but such capacities are devoid of antecedent intentionality. Transitioning to epistemological issues, Crosby, by rejecting dualism has avoided Descartes’ skepticism regarding matter, but is still left with the task of accounting for the locus of perceived order. Therefore, he must ask whether order resides in nature itself, or whether it is imposed upon discordant nature by an ordering subject. A middle line is chosen that acknowledges order in nature, but also emphasizes the subjective act of interpretation. Nature “is a nature for us” he states (25, original emphasis). This epistemological stance reverberates through Crosby’s system, and it allows him to characterize metaphysics, scientific paradigms, facts, and values as models that are subject to revision. The reader does not reach the end of this chapter without also charting a path through the problem of the one and the many, determinism vs. freedom, identity and difference, and the primacy of pattern or process.

With respect to the one and the many, Crosby advances a both/and perspective. Life as humans experience it points to a uniformity in nature, otherwise, there would be radical unintelligibility and unpredictability (as well as non-existence), and experience discloses “an impressive amount of intractable diversity” in nature that engenders change, chance, differentiation, freedom, and genuine alternatives for human agency to wrestle with (27).  Determinism’s explanatory power fails on two fronts, moral capacity and the ability to launch theoretical inquiry. In terms of identity and difference, nature is, fundamentally, a complex interrelation consisting of two types of relation, internal (identity) and external (difference), thereby simultaneously grounding the independence of beings along with a capacity for interaction. On the question of pattern or process, Crosby shows himself to be more “process” than Whitehead whom he critiques for having an underlying pattern. All regulatory patterns and laws governing nature as it is currently experienced are subject to the “innovative and destructive processes of nature that never cease” (40). The current permanence of the world will one day feel the crushing weight of the pestle of process.

Chapters four and five of Part II, “Values in Nature” and “Humans and Nature” respectively, make up the remainder of Crosby’s metaphysical enterprise. For Crosby, values are essentially relational. He writes, “Values are present in the interactions of subjects and objects rather than in either aspect by itself” (74, original emphasis). Western thought has gravely erred by locating value in the subject and would err again by locating value in nature itself. But, by positing value as a byproduct of relation, Crosby has avoided latent dualism while still maintaining a theory of value. Building upon his epistemological position, Crosby argues that values, like facts, result from a subject’s interpretation of an object. Values are not “read” off the object, but follow from the subject’s critical reflection upon the experience of the object in question. Humans, animals, and plants are all capable valuators, yet each possesses a differing degree of valuating breadth and depth. Crosby expounds upon eight positive values of nature (life, species, ecosystems, biosphere, diversity, practicality, creativity, and splendor) and five disvalues (forfeiture of life, death, starvation, suffering and pain, and disease). The crux of disvalues is their paradoxical character. Disvalues tend to be a good, positive value, from one perspective, e.g., the predator, and a clear negative value from another, e.g., the prey.

Crosby’s discussion in “Humans and Nature” revisits the theme of human nestedness and totalizing naturalness by highlighting the traits that humans share with other animals and organisms. Foremost, human beings share the trait of embodiment, with all of its joys, pains, sensations, and limitations. The common evolutionary origin is noted, and so too is the shared trait of DNA. Crosby’s shared traits become progressively controversial, however. First, he draws a parallel between human culture and animal culture. He recognizes that human culture is far more complex, but his point that social animals have and transmit culture remains. Next, he asserts that humans share the trait of consciousness, subjectivity, and inwardness with some species. Crosby’s primary argument here, and throughout this chapter, is that the difference is in degree, not in kind. Crosby spends the second part of the chapter delineating the distinct values of human beings, i.e., language, reasoning ability, purposive freedom, creation of sophisticated cultures, and technological proficiency. Again the distinction derives from a difference in degree and not in kind, but he robustly notes that the amount of degree is sizeable and primarily the result of language acquisition and its intricate development.             

In Part III, “A Religion of Nature,” Crosby argues that nature as a metaphysical ultimate is a worthy object of reverence and devotion. Employing a system of classification that he developed in a previous text, Crosby evaluates the function of religious objects for the religion of nature. The six-fold taxonomy addresses the roles of uniqueness, primacy, pervasiveness, rightness, permanence, and hiddenness from two perspectives, the personal and the cosmic. This analysis draws heavily upon the content of Part II, but contributes to the conversation by translating the metaphysical system into an accessible and practicable perspective. The religion of nature weathers the storm of Crosby’s analysis and is deemed a worthy focus of ultimate attention. However, Crosby wants to press further by asking, “How well does it qualify?” for this role (130, original emphasis). This qualitative thirst is quenched by addressing six objections that may be raised against the religion of nature. Three of the objections are classified as moral (the wastefulness of nature, the alleged cruelty of nature, and nature’s alleged indifference to human beings), two as metaphysical (absence of intentionality, personality, or consciousness in nature, and the proposition, nature, being contingent, cannot be ultimate), and one as practical (highlighting the lack of institutional, communal, and ritualistic support).

The theme of ecological responsibility prominently appears within the text, and Crosby aims to ground this ecological ethic metaphysically. Since human beings have a capacity for freedom and purposive action plus a tremendous technological proficiency that outstrips that of the planet’s other species, and, since life, diversity of life, and protection of the biosphere are natural values, human beings have a responsibility to care for and consider the well-being of the planet’s life. Beyond being laudable, the inclusion and primacy of this emphasis is timely and thought provoking.

Crosby ends his text, his odyssey, as one who has returned home. His words ring with joy, inspiration, exultation, poetry, and awe. However, his closing comments carry another intonation as well, a pastoral tone. Crosby perceives that his arguments may have been effective, and that Odysseus has brought newfound friends home with him. And, when gazing at these friends, Odysseus/Crosby recalls from personal experience the hardship and anxiety that tends to accompany a radical change of perspective. In response, Crosby offers compassionate encouragement by sharing vignettes of five paragons of naturalistic love, courage, and responsible social action.