Karl E. Peters

Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God


Review by Troy Dujardin, 2013

Review by Zachary Rodriguez, 2010

Review by Troy Dujardin, 2013

Dancing With the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.  By Karl E. Peters.  Trinity Press International, 2002.  171 pages.  $15.00.

 This is a very exciting book.  It is exciting to read, as emotionally evocative as any work of nonfiction I have read.  Peters’ grasp of precisely how to express the range and depth of feelings that he wants to evoke is unmatched.  There is no section that does not come across as genuine and heartfelt—Peters is not trying to convince us of something, but has opened himself up as one human being to others.  The result is that it is hard to read this book without feeling moved, even if there are sections of the story that are not entirely satisfying.  By the end there is very little to criticize—nothing, in terms of writing style, clarity, and power.  And that really is the core of this book, for Peters does not especially care to convince us of anything.  He is clear from the outset that he has come to this understanding of the sacred because the picture of the universe that he had been handed by his traditional religious upbringing no longer works for him.  In a universe best investigated by science, Peters needs an understanding of the sacred that is capable of moving him to feel the influence of God in his own life, to become a better person.  Not only should this worldview mesh with modern science, it should be fully informed by it, without becoming emotionally sterile.  For readers who do not feel a similar need, Peters might not have much to offer.  But for those who do, this book is a unique piece, as it does not suffer from any lack of real, emotional kick.  This book has it in spades.

So where this book is successful, I will say no more.  It speaks for itself better than I could hope to speak for it.  But some space for criticism does open up in relation to three central themes that are not addressed to completion.  I should state outright that these are not sections where Peters has gotten anything completely wrong.  Rather, they are places where his intuitions seem to be right, but he just doesn’t push hard enough against the niggling doubts that are likely to trouble the sorts of readers who might devote their thoughts to the kinds of problems discussed in this book.  I will explain what I mean, but a brief glance at Peters’ worldview (which he calls a thought experiment, so perhaps the metaphysics need not be taken too literally) will be helpful.

As the title indicates, Peters wants us to learn to dance with the sacred.  He thus wants to appropriate the concept of a god who creates and sustains the universe, but to keep it impersonal in accordance with naturalism.  To accomplish this, he borrows Gordon Kaufman’s expression, “serendipitous creativity” (35).  This kind of god is neither a thing, nor a person, but a process, a creative force that makes possible the rise and fall of order in the universe.  It is thus both transcendent, in the sense of creative potentiality, and immanent, insofar as it is clearly observable at work and acts only through other things that exist; this god is in the world, but more than the world.  We human beings are now obviously going to need some good metaphors to make sense of this god, and Peters favors one in particular: god dances.

With this, we can readily consider the several points on which Peters has come up short.  There are three points in particular that stand out: the epistemology of error and mistake, a sort of pragmatic fallibilism; the concerns about increasing technological domination and destruction of the world as the results of the growing global village; and the problem of suffering, what it should tell us about our attitudes toward technology, and whether nature really represents an object worthy of worshipful devotion, as opposed to just awestruck reverence.  In addition to these three major points, there are several small, scattered points of criticism throughout the book.  For example, when he talks briefly about the nature of value in a universe without a personal god, he finds that everything natural has inherent value, as everything natural participates in the dance.  I wouldn’t debate the attractiveness of this position, but he seems to overreach with his premise, “If it can value, it is intrinsically valuable” (65).  This statement doesn’t warrant too much argumentation, since the outcome of this stance on value is mostly desirable, but the language of intrinsic or innate value is irksome, and perhaps misleading.  Small quibbles like this pop up occasionally, but it is usually a simple matter to set them aside in favor of allowing oneself just to get the larger point.  So let us take each of the three primary concerns in turn, as they are not so easily ignored.

Searching for an epistemological model that fits the metaphor of the dancing universe, Peters settles on a sort of fallibilism, based largely on the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce.  This down to earth view recognizes the inherent limits of human understanding, but ennobles those limits by seeing them reflected in god itself.  The creative, evolutionary processes that drive the cosmos are themselves like ambitious scientific experiments, often failing to produce anything substantial or enduring, but giving rise to incredible beauty and meaning on the rare occasions when they succeed.  Error is not merely a human limitation, but a genetic trait that we have inherited from our mother universe.  But Peters wants to go further, and he is right to: mistakes not only make for a sort of solidarity between humankind and the rest of the universe, but are actually required for progress (well, for change; for dancing) to occur in both the arts and sciences.  “One who makes mistakes and refuses to correct them may be harshly judged, but that person may also pave the way for a new movement in science, in art, or even in religion” (42).  In any given field, until a mistake is made, in the sense of diverging from the status quo, no change can take place whatsoever; and without occasional paradigm shifts, stagnation is bound to set in.  About all of this, Peters is correct.  But he hasn’t taken the last step, which may well be the most important, especially in terms of motivating a worldview that fosters a religious understanding of a naturalistic universe.  Mistakes are so necessary, that it is only if mistakes are made that knowledge can develop.  This is a logical consequence of the fallibilism that Peters endorses, and I think that he realizes it.  Since human knowledge is fallible all the way down, no hypothesis is susceptible to Cartesian certainty.  However, possible explanations can be reliably falsified by new information, thus progressively eliminating more faulty explanations over time and making our understanding of the world more reliable, but never unfalsifiable or infallible.  Thus it is literally only because of mistakes in our theories, which are discovered later, that we are able to formulate new, more adequate theories.  All human understanding depends on mistakes.  While this slightly more aggressive conclusion is not contrary to Peters’ conclusion, and I do not think he would oppose it, it is fundamentally important to drive this point home, especially in a book designed to appeal to atheists who, at least “occasionally,” but probably “often,” tend to cleave to an outdated enlightenment picture of science and naturalism as the new champions of certainty.  Shooting this foundationalism down is the most critical step toward legitimizing any religious naturalism of the pragmatic variety.

The second and third concerns are closely connected.  As Peters sees it, technology has forged the human race into a global village.  This is wonderful in many ways, especially for the improved access to diverse ideas and cultural forms that it affords us.  But all is not well.  In our frenzied pursuit of increased freedom from the various ravages of nature via technology, we have tended to turn a blind eye to the catastrophic damage these freedoms often inflict upon the environment.  In fact, our underestimation of these costs has been so dramatic that we now stand at a critical juncture, where we either make drastic changes to our fundamental attitudes about technology, or risk annihilation.  Despite understanding this quite well, however, many still stubbornly resist the idea of change.  What we have, in Peters’ terms, is a “lack of will.  This is the problem of moral motivation” (17).  So we should consider, from a practical standpoint, what we are up against; what motivated us to seek to dominate the natural world like this to begin with?  The answer, of course, is suffering.

This brings us back to the dance.  Peters does not shy away from the issue of suffering, nor does he seek to cover over it.  He genuinely tries to do it justice.  And as we know from several deeply personal sections of the book, he has a longstanding and intimate relationship with suffering of some of the worst sorts that humankind can endure.  As we read over these solemn chapters, the nature of this dance with the sacred finally comes more fully into view.  In order for serendipitous creativity to thrive, there must be available material, and that material must be liberated from its current form by destruction, terrible destruction.  “The divine destabilizing spirit and restructuring word constantly call us to become fresh and new.  They call us in the midst of, through the midst of death, loss, and suffering” (136).  The dance of the sacred turns out to be the Danse Macabre.

In some sense, this sounds like the tired cliché that it has to be dark in order to see the light.  But Peters falls short in pursuing this train of thought to its horrible extreme, and in doing so he likewise fails to offer the necessary motivational force to win over those who choose to answer this horror by beating it down before the march of technological advancement.  I do not mean to doubt that Peters truly found deep and powerful meaning in the suffering he has endured, and that often suffering can be fruitfully interpreted as fertile soil for new growth.  But surely the human experience encompasses suffering that exceeds that possibility entirely.  Surely there is pointless and agonizing suffering.  The philosopher William Rowe famously created the thought experiment of the fawn, trapped by a burning tree in a remote forest, left to die alone and in agony; while new life may certainly result from the fawn’s death, that life certainly did not require the agony as well (see “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 335-41).  Rowe was focused on the traditional problem of evil, but in Peters we now come up against a sort of naturalistic problem of evil: given the extreme depth of pointless suffering that we know to exist, is it really possible to conceive of nature as something worthy of our religious reverence?

I certainly don’t mean to create a straw man out of Peters: he does not suggest giving up science or technology, and would surely scoff at the suggestion that his viewpoint reduces to a dichotomy of science versus nature.  The point I mean to make is that suffering is almost bottomless, and I think Peters underestimates the prices we are willing to pay to assuage our primal fears in the face of oblivion.  To create the motivational tool that he wants, a levelheaded calculus of some sort is necessary, a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the damage to nature that we find reasonable (and sustainable) against the reduction of suffering that we expect to derive.  While the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of species at human hands are lamentable, I cannot imagine that we should give up, say, medical research on animals that can save humans (and potentially other animals, too) from unimaginable misery and death.  Peters agrees with all of this, I think, but not loudly enough.  To motivate us, he needs to appeal strongly to our sense of responsibility and connectedness to nature, precisely as he has done, but also to our intuitions about our small and precarious place in the cosmos, and the legitimate terror that that entails.

Review by Zachary Rodriguez, 2010

Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God. By Karl E. Peters. Trinity Press International, 2002. 170 pages. $21.95. Paperback.

I cannot dance. I try to avoid dance clubs or dinner-dances for fear of publicly embarrassing myself. I do enjoy watching people dance though. It seems that some people can salsa or swing dance with such elegance and harmony that you feel as if this couple is connected in total synchronization with the rhythm. A constant reciprocation of movement and leading, dancing creates this moment of intimacy where people can truly submit themselves to the other. All of this said, Karl E. Peters suggests and develops a dance and rhythm that I can participate in. In his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God, Peters maps out a form of religious naturalism that thinks of God or the Sacred in non-personal, Darwinian terms. Explaining what God is and how God is observable in our world today, Peters carefully shows how humans can engage in a meaningful relationship with the Sacred, using the metaphor of a dance. To this end, he stresses our ecological responsibility as being part of this relationship and how our civilizations knowingly contribute to material decadence, global warming, and species extinction, which “steps on the toes” of the Sacred. Adopting this worldview allows one to engage fully with the Sacred that is apparent in the constant renewal and rebirth of our ecosystems, cultures, and ever-expanding universe.

Peters begins by explaining the history behind the Dance and how the basic steps are done. He defines God as “the creative process or creative event rather than a being who creates the world” (vii). In an increasingly scientific world, Peters has difficulty reconciling an anthropomorphic, Creator God with his training and interest in the natural sciences. By conceiving of a God that constantly acts and changes this world through the Darwinian processes of natural selection and random variation, humanity has the ability to physically and psychologically interact with God. He does acknowledge the limited capabilities of language in capturing the entirety of the Sacred, which is why he shows his appreciation for the use of personal metaphors as a way to signify our relationship with the Sacred (33). He begins to walk a difficult line in allowing one to use personal metaphors, but he does so beautifully, not giving the Sacred personal characteristics.

We engage with this creative process by understanding our “sacred centers.” To have something as the center of your being means "that our lives revolve around it” (22). This sacred center is where we turn to for our specific social and emotional needs. Peters wants humanity to acknowledge the work of modern science in presenting the vastness and mystery of our universe. With this knowledge, we must re-center ourselves in order to recognize both the expanding universe in conjunction with our own lives. This seems like a big task, but it is one that Peters faces with the proper attitude and shoes.

To understand how we can be the center of both an expanding universe and our own lives, Peters suggests looking at ourselves in terms of a “socio-ecological self.” This takes into consideration a self that is “woven out of threads of the history of the universe, my species on this planet, and my culture” (68). By reorienting our perspective, we can see ourselves as part of a much larger picture - one that takes into consideration our sensory, biological, and cultural heritage. One can see Peters’ desire to detach the Western reader from the individualistic, material world by drawing one into a worldview that makes them a part of an evolving and expanding universe. Coined as “our natural family,” Peters shows that with the increase in new technologies and globalization, we are more aware than at any other point in history of the many different cultures and ecosystems that inhabit our planet (61). However, according to our biological propensities, this worldview seems almost impossible. Peters looks at the role of religion throughout our evolution and concludes that it is still possible to create this large, natural family (63). Using the term “kin-altruism,” we are to extend our meaning of kin to incorporate every living thing on this planet. Already apparent in such Eastern religions as Taoism and Buddhism, one accepts what these religions acknowledge: that we are part of the cosmos, and we are interconnected with every being past, present, and future. This breaks down the barriers of in-groups and out-groups and allows humanity and nature to be mutually dependent on one another. I believe, like Peters, that this is an absolute necessity if we are going to feel moved to care for the rest of humanity and the world that provides for us.

Peters, being scientifically inclined, shows the reader how to observe the Sacred in our everyday life through the processes of natural selection and random variation. Peters speaks of these processes with great humility and reverence, such that one would think if it were not for “Darwinian revelation,” humanity would be lost. However, through these processes, we can witness the constant renewal and rebirth that has been occurring in the universe for the past 14 billion years. This is not only from a biological standpoint: Peters wants us to realize this renewal process within our culture. Using the phrase “To Err Is Divine,” he describes variations in thought and knowledge as ways for humanity to develop more complex and robust social dynamics (38). Citing examples like Jesus of Nazareth, Charles Darwin, and Salvador Dali, he shows us the progression of human thought towards new lifestyles and worldviews, which is seen as a way “God working in our midst” (44).

As one gets toward the second half of the book, one wonders what value this worldview or religious perspective has. Can one live meaningfully in a world that does not have a purposeful end or destination, like Paradise, Nirvana, or Heaven? Peters answers this question by offering a new way of thinking about life’s overall purpose. As part of an ever-changing universe, we can see ourselves as contributing to its overall progression and complexity. Peters explains that we can achieve our “quality of life” by always living in the present moment. Much like Zarathustra begging humanity to pull its head out of the “other-worldly,” Peters wants us to acknowledge and respect the life that we have in front of us. We can do this by expanding our “breadth and depth of experience and achievement” (85). Traveling and immersing ourselves in new cultures or educating ourselves to understand our world and how it works are ways that we can expand our experience. This expansion cultivates a sense of concern and respect for our world. This can move us to act in ways that take into consideration our future generations.

In considering our present moment, our relationships with friends and families, we run into an important faculty of religion, understanding suffering. Peters offers a beautiful narrative in which he describes the death of his wife. Diagnosed with a lethal form of stomach cancer, his wife leads them into a journey to understand their lives together and the love that they shared. Because of his naturalistic perspective, Peters sees these cancerous cells as part of the evolutionary process, trying to survive in the best way that they can. Although this rationalization is uncomforting, he speaks of a choice he and his wife made to not let this cancer “ravish and destroy their spirit” (115). Death and pain are heartbreaking and difficult, but in following the steps of the creative process, we can begin to see death and pain as ways to experience newness and rebirth. Peters talks about the love that grew in his wife’s dying days and how it provided him with the chance to become ordained. He captures this perspective by saying, “…even in the midst of grief and pain, possibilities for new truth, new love, and new life are present. It is up to us to discern and follow them” (116). Pushing this method for coping, I am having trouble understanding how to rationalize suffering on a large scale, like genocide. It is difficult for me to see these instances in history as moments of rebirth and renewal. I desperately want to find something positive, but it seems trivial in the face of such incredible destruction and misery. To dwell on this though does not seem fair to Peters because he does make the qualification that renewal and rebirth "could" or "sometimes" happens. It is difficult though to decipher when these instances of rebirth happen in Peters work. I think Peters' main point is to say that we cannot give up on the dance, for the music does not stop. It only changes rhythm, allowing us to move in new and different ways.

For Peters, this witness of constant renewal and progression provides him with the motivation to act responsibly in this world. Through our care and respect for this planet, we can fully engage ourselves in the dance with the Sacred. This is the more ecologically responsible tone of the book, one that I greatly appreciate. Peters proposes ways to act in this world. With the development of new technologies, our intentions have always been for the betterment of humanity (16). However, with things like extreme population growth and climate change, we realize that these new technologies are also to the detriment of humanity. Witnessing these things, the “breadth and depth of experiences” move us to act, living in the present and understanding how the world works. Our “capabilities such as empathy, compassion, and empowering the development of others” (86) emerge out of our experience of the moment. At this point, I feel action and integrity towards our planet seem obvious, yet ignored in our world today. This is where advocating for alternate fuel sources, saying no to “big-business,” and addressing the millions forgotten in poverty are vital to securing a better life for both humanity and the ecosystems we inhabit.

Peters shows a passionate concern for humanity throughout his book. He wants people to feel spiritually comfortable in an increasingly scientific world. He seems to be writing for the “spiritually nervous,” those that are unwilling to let go of a personal God for fear that the alternative leaves them feeling lost and homeless. However, Peters shows that by letting go of this personalistic framework and shedding our individualistic perspective, we are embracing our natural family. We are engaging in the lives of our ancestors and future generations, fully giving ourselves to the Dance and putting ourselves in relationship with the Sacred.