Ursula Goodenough

The Sacred Depths of Nature


Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

Review by Carrie Brunner (2010)

Review by Ashley Theuring (2013)

The Sacred Depths of Nature. Ursula Goodenough. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; 978-0195136296). $19.99.

Such a simple thing
    you give me,
Just a lens—a piece of glass that bends the light.

Simple in design,
    But hidden,
Deep inside—Inside itself it gently bends.

Kindly bending light,
    and bending,
Then at last—I see the vision that was yours.

“Now I see” I laugh,
    I thank you,
For this gift—you have graciously shared with me.

It seems only appropriate to respond to Ursula Goodenough’s “daily devotional booklet,” The Sacred Depths of Nature, with a poem of appreciation for the gift of sight given to us within these pages (xviv). It is a gift handed delicately to a wide range of readers in the form of a short and simple book, which is meant to open the reader’s eyes to the wonders of “The Epic of Evolution.” Goodenough’s book focuses on two major themes: “How Things Are” and “What Things Matter” (xiv). Each chapter is broken in half. The first half explains the reality of our world’s cosmology in accessible scientific language and the second half reflects and develops an ethos from the cosmological reality. It is clear from the introduction that Goodenough intends this book to be a constructive work. She creates a space for the development of an underlying ethic which would not be based on one single culture or religion, “but would seek to coexist with them” (xvi). Goodenough believes an underlying ethic would provide a common ground for people to use to communicate and respond to each other (xv). She is not intending to create this ethos herself, but rather develop a space for its “articulation” by untangling a cosmology from “The Epic of Evolution.” She sees the creation of this ethos as a realistic, “global project” (xvii). Certainly this is a beautiful vision, but I am left wondering whether this vision of an ethical, global ethos is possible or oxymoronic.

Mystery becomes a major theme for Goodenough. Rather than using any type of theistic or religious language to describe ultimate concern, Goodenough chooses to use the “locus of Mystery” as the central reality to her cosmology (11). The reality of the universe in all its infinite greatness can be a frightening and hopeless experience. Goodenough has found that focusing on the idea that “Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe” brings her comfort and mitigates her own nihilistic fears (13). Goodenough does not wish to further understand Mystery. In fact, she leaves it undefined and manifold, writing “to assign attributes to Mystery is to disenchant it, to take away its luminance” (12). Instead of pinning down the universe’s meaning in one form, such as a religious tradition, Goodenough accepts the universe in all its complexities (47). These early ideas around the multiplicity of nature are helpful and beautiful, but unfortunately are replaced with more normalizing claims later in her book to the detriment of her argument.

Other themes present throughout Goodenough’s work are notions of physicalism and emergence. Because she is a biologist, it makes sense that she incorporates a strong preference towards physicalism. She argues early in her chapter on the “Origins of Chemistry,” that “like everything else, chemistry is reducible to physics” (18). But later, she unpacks this idea, arguing that life is “something more than the collection of molecules” (28). There is something more to life than just the layers of chemistry and physics underneath, something “unique to living creatures, processes that have no counterpart at simpler levels” (28). Here she argues for an emergent reality, in which there is “Something more from nothing but” (28). These two ideas, physicalism and emergence, are not necessarily contradictory, but Goodenough does not dig into these tensions as far as might be necessary to set up a clear understanding of her cosmology at this level.

Goodenough expands her theme of emergence, arguing that our need to be “Known” as something special can be met by this reality. By understanding our own unique existence as emergent, we are freed to “sing [our] own song, with deep gratitude for [our] existence. With this comes the understanding that [we are] in charge of [our] own emergence” (60). This is a wonderful image and a very strong point for Goodenough’s atheist approach, which allows her cosmology to provide a sense of comforting uniqueness for which humans long; however, I find the assumption of humanity’s agency troubling. This assumption assumes a lot about individual lives. It assumes we have enough agency in our lives with which to construct our own emergence, but many in our world, the subaltern, are often left without the power to change their situation. It is also assumed we are in control of our lives in a way which does not always fit with individual experiences of poverty, oppressive cultural settings, or tragedy.

Another major theme developed by Goodenough is humanity’s intricate connection to nature. A key component to developing a global ethos from Goodenough’s cosmology is to fully consider humanity’s “deep genetic homology, with the rest of the living world” (72). She makes this point in a number of ways; for example, in her chapter on biodiversity she explains that everything alive on Earth today has a common ancestor in the first single-celled organism. For Goodenough this reality of kinship, should call us to care for other creatures, especially in regards to the “preservation of their habitat and their dignity” (164). Another human instinct that is often cultivated within religious traditions is the instinct to pair-bond, which is extended to a theistic God. In many theistic religions, God is described in love-language as a Lover or the Beloved. Goodenough reflects on the possibility of extending this instinct in order to cultivate instinctually strong “earthly relations” (140). She also points to our human uniqueness for language and symbolic thinking as the loci for developing compassion and empathy, which we can extend past our kin, and appears in religious traditions as the golden rule (114). Our uniqueness for these types of emotions and our ability to extend them to all of nature is why Goodenough argues humanity must act as stewards of the planet (171).

One of the themes I found most compelling was Goodenough’s approach to death. A person’s response to tragic death seems to be hardwired. “Our sorrow at the death of others is a universal human emotion that transcends cultural and religious particularities” (150). Goodenough points to this shared response as one of religious naturalism’s approaches to death. I am left unsatisfied by Goodenough’s treatment of this approach. Taking Goodenough’s point further than she is willing to go in her book, the reality that we share this reaction as a human race reveals to us the underlying nature of tragedy and its place within the human story. Tragedy has always been with us and yet never makes sense. This would be a wonderful place for Goodenough to return to her covenant with the “locus of Mystery.” Unfortunately, the abysmal side of mystery and nature seem to be missing from her book entirely. The other approach to death within religious naturalism is to understand “death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love” (151). This is a striking reflection on death, based on the reality of our biology. It creates a compelling space for death in which it becomes a necessary aspect of human consciousness and life.

In the final chapters, Goodenough summarizes several of her major propositions for future work towards developing a universal ethos. One of the most important points for Goodenough is the notion of “taking on ultimacy.” She writes, “the important part, I believe, is that the questions be openly encountered. To take the universe on—to ask Why Are Things As They Are?—is to generate the foundation for everything else” (168). Here Goodenough is arguing for the development of capaciousness in one’s world-view. Goodenough wishes to leave us with an open posture that explores the depths of reality with an open-mind. This also includes postures of gratitude and reverence.

Goodenough finishes her book arguing that the cosmology she is communicating with this book can fit within any religious context because of its scientific veracity. “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoist, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each” (173). While Goodenough’s simple approach is an asset throughout most of her book, here it becomes a detriment. Goodenough’s ultimate goal of building a single cosmology that can act as a common ground for all peoples is flawed. There is a dangerous simplification in the possibility of developing a single “origin story.” While every aspect of Goodenough’s “Epic of Evolution” is “true” in a factual sense, narratives always include lenses and infinite perspectives from which to understand them. In the gentle hands of Goodenough, the “Epic of Evolution” is told beautifully and simply, but there are dangers in meta-narratives even when they are based on science. Goodenough has ignored the abysmal side of nature and in her simplification of her ethical reflection we are left without any warnings of the dangers of totalizing cosmologies and positivist science.

Review by Carrie M. Brunner (2010)

The Sacred Depths of Nature. Ursula Goodenough. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; 978-0195136296).  $19.99.

The opening notes of a classical sonata establish the base for the rest of the piece, as the composer introduces the thematic content that provides the listener’s center throughout the composition. Unfortunately, not many people know or care about Sonata Form. In fact, one could say that the sonata’s existence is endangered in today’s culture. Ursula Goodenough, a cell biologist, uses the metaphor of a sonata to describe portions of her religious naturalism. She describes her book as a series of devotionals on scientific topics, offering explanations of and reflections on each topic. Each of these subjects is chosen to form a religious bridge between How Things Are and Which Things Matter (xiv). It is her goal “to present an accessible account of our scientific understanding of Nature and then suggest ways that this account can call forth appealing and abiding religious responses – an approach that can be called religious naturalism” (xvii). Along with her form of religious naturalism, she seeks to provide a planetary ethic that works with existing religious traditions in individual cultural contexts, while concurrently uniting these traditions with a mutual motivation for life’s future on Earth. Goodenough dissects life’s brilliant sonata to show the world how beautiful it is, so that she can rescue it from extinction.

In the first chapter, “Origins of the Earth,” Goodenough details a condensed version of the history of the Universe. She takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Big Bang, through 15 billion years of expansion of space, including the formation of chemical and physical elements, stars, galaxies, and the Earth. Then, she asks us to reflect on these scientific truths, and addresses the impending sense of nihilism that comes with the knowledge that we are so small in the midst of all this space that is the Universe. She addresses this philosophical conundrum by challenging the reader to completely ignore the desire for a purpose in life. Instead, she asks us to embrace the Mystery with awe and wonderment; surrendering the need for answers to the Big Questions is a driving force in the religious naturalism she describes.

Her second chapter is devoted to the emergence of chemical and cell systems, and the processes that became the basis for life on Earth. By describing the intricate complexities of these processes, she embraces the incredible fact that they came to be at all. The amazing series of coincidences that science claims allowed these emergent functions to develop is inexplicable. This inexplicability is where theology often comes in, but Goodenough questions the Anthropic Principle that states the Earth must have been designed since chemistry flows perfectly from physics to create life as we know it, branding it a circular argument. For her, the true miracle of life is that it occurred at all, and for the religious naturalist this is enough.

She addresses reductionism in her third chapter, “How Life Works.” Responding to the traditional comforting reply to reductionism –there is a life-giving force beyond the mere matter we are made of – she turns to the Mozart metaphor. Her point is that when a Mozart sonata is taken apart in order to comprehend it more accurately, it loses some of its surface mystery. But while Mystery decreases, beauty and meaningfulness only increase with understanding. Goodenough’s reply to the alienation, or the “long existential shudder” (33) of reductionism, is that with greater understanding comes greater appreciation. She acknowledges her yearning for something more – a vital life force – but explains that the only way to live with a truly scientific understanding of life is to surrender, or assent, to the mechanics of existence. Only this informed assent can produce a joyful celebration for life.

While describing Evolution, Goodenough cites the musical patterns required for a successful sonata. Evolutionary patterns are biological at their basic level, with genes being the very center of the patterns’ dynamics in relation to the whole creature. After reducing ourselves to a series of chance mutations and gene expressions – variations on the sonata’s original theme – she asks the question: despite this, are we sacred? Her answer is a resounding yes, “by virtue of [the self’s] own improbability, its own miracle, its own emergence” (59). Then, against all expectations of throwing her hands up again in acceptance, she turns away from determinism and asserts that the self (which is made up of an individual’s cells’ countless reactions to decisions, which are influenced by other decisions, and so on) chooses the emergence of its own self-knowledge. For Goodenough, the choice to delve deep in exploration of the self is inherently sacred, and this sanctity flows not from above, but from the grace of the individual.

Turning again to music, Goodenough points out that Brahms’ compositions did not merely appear in his head devoid of influences. Rather, when Brahms' music is examined, the echoing of earlier composers is also heard. Such is Evolution, which Goodenough defines as “changes in the frequencies of different sets of instructions for making organisms” (64). These changes occur through a process that brings together the randomness of mutation and the selection of environmental traits. Like Brahms, Evolution is portrayed as a series of cumulative changes, and the complexity that arose through Evolution as “selections of selections of selections” (71). This chapter introduces her argument for environmental conservation, referencing that humans are “connected all the way down” (73), and thus are living in a natural community that is bound together by a shared evolutionary history.

Goodenough draws out values and religious principles from the results of Evolution, demonstrating that religious naturalism provides a framework for ethics. In Chapter Six, “The Evolution of Biodiversity,” a “deep, abiding humility” is suggested in response to the revelation that humans are in fact parts in a larger network of life (86). The next chapter, “Awareness,” explores the distinctiveness of humans through their self-awareness, a feature shared by a very small amount of the animal kingdom. She describes Awareness as the ability to respond to experience, and self-awareness as “the awareness of awareness” (99). She explains mystical experiences through this mental phenomenon of being self-aware, but seems reluctant to step on any religious toes. She belabors the fact that whether or not this is true doesn’t matter in the end, because, in regard to mystical phenomena, “all of us are transformed by their power” (102), and she encourages us to seek Immanence, and to lose ourselves in its blessing.

Emotions spring from awareness, and from emotion come meaning, value, and symbols. In this way Goodenough addresses morality. She informs us of the harsh reality that basic emotions are indeed hardwired functions of survival, and feelings are results of these emotions. Acknowledging that the disclosure that we aren’t unique in regard to having emotions might be a bit rough, she comforts us with the fact that our ability to derive symbols really is unique (as far as we know). The religious framework she provides is derived from our experience with meaning, value, and symbols. Compassion for others in light of the desire for justice is paramount to our religious experiences within this framework.

Goodenough also explains the emergence of biological relationships, as necessitated by procreation via eukaryotic sex. Following a complex explanation of the intricacies of DNA, and evolutionary strategies of sexual reproduction, she reveals that this compares favorably to how we care for one another in our everyday relationships. The catch is that in addition to caring for other humans, we must also be in a caring relationship with the Earth, recognizing nature as a “tangible source of renewal” (129). Sex creates sexuality, producing the mutual “Need for Other” (133). She extends this notion to include religious need, for monotheistic religions “suggest that the most stable and fruitful outlet for passion and dependency is in relationships with the Divine” (136). Personal relationship with a deity is at odds with religious naturalism, so she subtly calls for us to exchange this association for relationships in the natural world.

Finally, at the end of the life cycle comes death, and Goodenough tackles the horror of non-being by framing death as the price paid for consciousness. She is able to find meaning in death because of the gift of conscious life, which would not be biologically possible without eventual death. She returns in her final chapter to speak more on human distinctiveness in light of our commonalities with the rest of the natural world, especially with apes. But instead of becoming depressed about the fact that, once again, we really aren’t that special, “religious naturalism exhorts us to celebrate human distinctiveness with the same full-throated thanksgiving that we celebrate the whale and the spotted owl” (165). Despite humans being no more unique than other creatures, we should wonder at our distinctiveness, through our special abilities to create art, to critically analyze the world, and overall, to be religious.

Goodenough reflects on the preceding topics in her section, “Emergent Religious Principles.” In this, the coda to her sonata, she identifies gratitude, reverence, and preservation as the major principles associated with the religious naturalism she proposes. In “Taking on Ultimacy” she suggests “a covenant with Mystery” (167), encouraging that Big Questions be asked not in expectation of an answer, but to “generate the foundation for everything else” (168). Her “Credo of Continuation” asks us to preserve nature – including ourselves – with gratitude and reverence for life’s existence. For, “we may be the only questioners in the universe… we are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet” (171). Comparing religious stories to the Epic of Evolution, she identifies religious naturalism as a response to this story, a response that calls us to live spiritual, ethically responsible lives.

The religious naturalism that Goodenough introduces is only the first step on the path towards living a religiously naturalistic life. As mentioned in her introduction, her principles are meant to be employed in a way that causes nature to receive the respect and care it deserves. However, this larger goal is often lost and forgotten amidst the myriad of details in the scientific explanations offered each chapter. At times we may wonder if she is poking fun at herself when, after a two-page explanation, she says things like “and that’s basically all there is to biochemistry” (39). These scientific details can be overwhelming at times, but as Goodenough mentions before Chapter One, she does not expect her readers to remember all the information; she wants us to take in the experience.

This book is an honest, accessible, and eloquently written reflection of a religious naturalist struggling to live with the issues that often arise from science. However, does her reflection convince us of The Sacred Depths of Nature, and does this reflection provoke us to create the planetary ethic for which she seeks to provide the building blocks? I believe that it does. One of this book’s strengths is that Goodenough’s writing has the ability to resonate with any member of the general public who has encountered the pressing realities of Evolution and felt the religious conflicts that result. In this book Goodenough, a scientist, is venturing onto theological turf. Therefore, I find it easy to forgive when she does not provide more than a loose definition of “sacredness,” even though it may have assisted her theological position. She may also be too subtle in how her form of religious naturalism will work practically. However, the groundwork that she lays for her readers is thoughtful and accessible, and I think that part of the beauty of this book is that she leaves the practical vision open to the reader’s imagination.