Using Nature and the Universe as a Spiritual Path
Dr Paul Harrison
I’d like wish everyone a Happy New Year, I feel fortunate to
be given this particular spot on the first Sunday of 2005. And I’d like
to thank the many people in the fellowship and the nature
reverence/pantheist group who helped out. I never realized how many
people it takes to get this together every Sunday.
I’m going to be talking
about using nature and the universe as a spiritual path, but I’d
like to start with the question:
What does it take to be the focus of a spiritual path?
Back in 1917 a historian of
religions called Rudolf Otto published a classic work called “The Idea
of the Holy.” He compared religions east and west to try to sum up what
it takes for something to be considered “holy” or “sacred” or numinous.
Otto summed the qualities needed in one phrase:
An awesome yet fascinating mystery.
three aspects here, all of them related to the way humans respond:
The first and the heart of it is
Mystery – something that is greater than human comprehension.
The second is a sense of awesome
overwhelming Power – the power to create and to sustain, but also the
power to destroy.
Finally there is a sense of
Beauty, so breathtaking that you have no choice but to love it.
The place where humans first felt those three feelings was in the midst
of nature, and looking up at the galaxy we call home, the Milky
Way. It seems to me that the idea of the gods and then God came later:
they were attempts at summing up those feelings. But the ideas took over
the feelings, and removed them from their true origin in Nature, and
changed them. In the West people got deeply detached from nature for
more than a thousand years, focussing on heaven or the end of the world.
Some people still do.
I find that fully restoring those feelings to the natural universe can
create a completely satisfying and fulfilling alternative to belief in a
god or gods. This alternative approach to spirituality goes by many
names. Probably the most common today is Pantheist, which refers to
someone whose only “god” is the natural universe. God in quotation marks
– something you deeply revere. But there are many people with this same
approach, maybe even some of you here, who call themselves religious
humanists – or religious atheists – or religious naturalists – or
naturalistic pagans – or eco-atheists. The name is just a label: what
matters is the shared acceptance that Nature is all there is, we are
part of Nature, and Nature is the ultimate focus of our feelings of
reverence, awe and wonder.
natural universe alone, without any gods or spirits, be a sufficient
centre of one’s spirituality? I believe it can. There’s no doubt that
the natural Universe, just as we see it in front of our eyes and
telescopes, possesses all those numinous qualities that Otto required.
The Universe has unfathomable Mystery
Some of you may try keep up with modern science.
Science is the best way we have to find out what is really going on out
there and how it works. But science isn’t the neat and fairly simple
thing it was back in Newton’s day. Our current understanding of the
Universe at the largest and the smallest scales, is way beyond the
comprehension of common sense.
at the very large scale, relativity teaches us that as you accelerate
towards the speed of light length shortens and mass increases and time
slows down. That is far outside our everday experience. We can, with
some effort, grasp the maths of this: but we can’t get any commonsense
feeling for it. In some ways it defies common sense.
can’t get our heads around the vast numbers involved. We evolved and
mostly live at a scale of a few miles, maybe up to a hundred miles if we
commute. We can have some grasp of a few thousand miles when we go on
long flights. We can perhaps even understand the distance to the moon,
about 240,000 miles, if we imagine 24 round trips from New York to
Hawaii. But we start to get very lost at the distance from the earth to
the sun – 93 million miles. A light year is 5,866 billion miles. The
Milky Way is 100,000 light years across. The edge of our telescopic
abilities is about 12 to 14 billion light years away.
Moving down to the micro scale things get even stranger, down to the
crazy chaotic dance of quantum particles. Quantum mechanics teaches us
that reality at the tiniest level is unpredictable. Things can be both
waves and particles, things seem to be smeared out in space until they
are pinned down. Even the leading quantum physicists admit that they
have no common-sense understanding of their own theories. Richard
Feynman once said to his students: "I think it’s safe to say that no one
understands quantum mechanics. Don’t keep saying to yourself, ‘But how
can it BE like that?’ Nobody knows how it can be like that."
even smaller scale, the most fashionable current theory suggests that
all the tiniest particles may be made of infinitesimally small vibrating
strings of energy. String theory suggests that we live in world of 10
spatial dimensions. Our brains evolved to move around in just three
spatial dimension, we are not built to get our heads around more than
Section 2 Audio]
The biggest mystery of all is one that neither science nor
religion will ever answer:-
Why does the Universe exist? Why does anything at all exist?
curiosity drives us to ask this question. God has been offered as an
answer – but it is not really an answer at all. I’m sure most of us,
being good UUs and questioning kind of people, asked our parents or
priests at one time or other: but who created God? And most of you
probably got the answer: “You can’t ask that question, that’s God’s
Well we – especially UUs, and other cosmologists – continue
to ask these questions about origins. Maybe our local Universe came out
of a black hole in another Universe, maybe it was one bubble in a vast
foam of universes, the Multiverse or Omniverse.
we can’t help asking: so where did that come from? However far back we
go down the line, there’s always the new question. We know that
ultimately the question can’t be answered, and that’s the mystery of
existence. And maybe the ultimate answer is the one proposed by the
"eternal inflation" theory of Andrei Linde. The Multiverse didn’t
come from anything, nor did it pop out of nowhere. It was always there.
This great fountain of creation and experimentation was always there.
children ask us that kind of question, and keep on pushing, we often end
up answering: Well, it just IS. We must learn to live with the kind of
answer we give to children, because ultimately there is no other answer.
And if you live for long enough with that answer, it becomes actually
has overwhelming Power.
Along with the mystery goes power. The Universe has an
awesome power of creation and of destruction. All of us, all planets and
all stars emerged from the natural Universe.
It’s in destruction that
we see the power most dramatically. We see a tiny part of it in
earthquakes and tsunamis. On a much wider scale, huge meteors cause mass
extinctions. Suns explode. Galaxies go scything into each other peeling
off stars and tearing planets out of their orbits.
But the destruction is the stepping stone to new creation. All the
higher elements were baked in the stars. Exploding suns spread those
elements out into new clouds which formed new solar systems. And here
in a planet in one of those systems, life emerged. And probably on many
billions of other planets, too. And eventually you and I were born.
said, we are all starstuff. Just as much, we are the children of stellar
explosions. Without the supernovae life could not have emerged. Without
the death of the dinosaurs mammals and humans could not have emerged to
the destruction there could be no creation.
Size is part of the impression of power. We have already talked about the size of the
known Universe, with a radius of 12-14 billion light years. We are
coming to grasp the awesome diversity of the Universe, all those
billions of galaxies, each one with billions of stars. Every galaxy is
different, every nebula, every supernova, those exotic blossoms of
Next to these it seems that all human conceptions of God are almost
trivial and dwarfish. If God made humans in his image, then God is also
in our image, yet how limiting is this conception in comparison with the
overwhelming awesome mysterious power of the Universe. Of course the
most modern conceptions of the entity called “God” try to approximate
the Universe – but why try? The Universe is already there in front of
us, the only god-like thing we really need.
Finally, the Universe has fascinating
This is the part we know and love the best. We are very
privileged to live right here in the Santa Monica Mountains, one of the
most beautiful natural environments in the world. I was amazed, when
first I came to live here two and a half years ago, to see pelicans
skimming the waves and porpoises arching through the air. I was stunned
by the dramatic jagged skyline, the colours and textures of the rocks,
the astonishing variety of wildflowers that vary from one turn of the
trail to the next, and the snowy mountains and baking deserts just an
hour or two away.
We are also very lucky to live in the first generation that can
finally see the full beauty of the Universe: the fantastic art display
of the earth’s surface from space. Jupiter’s swirling coloured bands of
clouds and Saturn’s complex rings. Solar flares and the beautiful floral
diversity of planetary nebulae, left over from stellar explosions. Even
the spectacle of destruction is also beautiful. The Milky Way seen with
the naked eye was enough to inspire previous generations: we have so
much more that it should blow us clean away.
One of the most amazing thing about all this is how diverse it
is. Not only are there tens of millions of species on earth – but every
individual of every species is different in some way, however slight.
Every rock is different from every other rock, every planet and every
moon has different textures and structures.
natural universe enough to be a spiritual focus?
Is the natural universe mysterious enough? To me at least, a God with a
mind anything like the human mind would be far less mysterious. The mind
is a very familiar thing: we hang out with it for sixteen hours or so
every day. Reality is much bigger and more diverse and – well, more
mind-blowing. If I thought that some conscious being planned and
designed the Universe, I would find it less captivating and mysterious.
For me, the idea of a mental God takes the mystery right out of the
Is the universe powerful enough? Whenever people were told that Zeus or
Thor hurled a thunderbolt, it was nature itself doing it. Yahweh at his
most vengeful could not outdo the work that a meteor six-miles in
diameter did at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago.
Is nature beautiful enough, does it inspire love enough? Every
intimation we have of beauty comes from the natural world. People
sometimes say, even as they gaze at Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, that
beauty is a manifestation of God’s greatness. But again I think that
diminishes its impact on us. As I see it, God’s greatness is an idea
that derives from Nature’s infinite creativity.
Celebrating our connectedness
be thinking: okay we may feel that way and think that way, but what
difference can it make to our lives from day to day? Is it a
spirituality that can enrich our lives?
I have been talking about Nature and the Universe as if it were
something out there, separate from us. But it isn’t. We are all part of
it, each one of us in this room, all humans, all living things on the
planet, all planets and all stars: we are all in it together. It is the
sum total of all of us. It’s a community. Everything is connected. We
are not alone: we are all interwoven in a community of being.
We are not something separate. We are not spirits somehow trapped in
bodies until death releases us. We are physical beings and our
consciousness is the living activity of our brain. Recognizing and
accepting that we are physical beings can help us to enter fully into
our bodies and to recognize our full fellowship with the coyote and the
lily and the rock.
This intimate connection with everything else is the key to using Nature
and the Universe as a spiritual path. The key lies in feeling that
connection more deeply, with humans, animals, plants, rocks, rivers and
the sky at night, and deepening that connection in every way we can. It
can lead to a life that’s lived and felt and enjoyed more intensely.
our connection means being awake and aware at every moment.
ourselves up to the mystery power and beauty of the natural Universe is
like a wake-up call. It is an invitation to true mindfulness of
everything we do, both in human contexts and in nature, rather like Zen
Buddhism but without any supernatural beliefs about reincarnation.
You can use it when drinking water, eating, exercising, hiking, going to
sleep, even while breathing. It is at the heart of extreme sports where
you ride the elements, like surfing, skiing, rockclimbing, skydiving,
accessible to anyone, especially here in the Santa Monica Mountains. We can go into our beautiful
parks and study all the different rocks and flowers. We can go out to
the darkest vantage point we can find, and stargaze. We can watch the
shooting stars, full moons and the Milky Way.
Using Nature as a
The Natural Universe is not
just a source of wonder. It can also be a source of support in times of
One of the reasons people believe in gods is that life can
sometimes be really tough and we need all the help we can get. A big
daddy or a big mommy to look after us and guide us would be nice. But
it’s clear that the big parent, if there is one, does not look after us.
It visits us with great gifts, and tough challenges, and troubles
great and small. And leaves us humans to take care of ourselves. He or
she behaves just like Nature.
Believing in a benevolent God, in a world full of
disease and accidents and natural disasters small and large, is a
difficult mental exercise.
If we take the
natural universe as our focus, we do not have that problem. The
Universe is not good or evil – those categories are human ones. The
Universe is beyond good and evil.
The Universe just is. It is what it is.
And it does what it
I find a deep kind of peace in accepting that. The natural
universe made me and I’m grateful for that. The universe is playing the
game of creation, and for a while it is letting me play along with it,
and it is fulfilling fun and we should make the most of it.
Nature can help in
more particular ways. Going out into nature in a time of trouble will
always place personal problems into perspective. Our troubles are small
in the scale of things, when seen against the night sky full of suns and
galaxies. Nature always goes on, regardless.
And we can learn from Nature. The strength and flexibility of trees can
teach us lessons in endurance. The mobility of rocky streams can
teach us lessons in freedom and adaptability. The condensation and
dissolving of clouds can teach us to let go of our pains.
This way of thinking also helps to cope with the thought of death. Ever since we humans became aware of death we have sought to escape
it. We have invented all kinds of afterlives, both on this earth and
under this earth and in the skies and beyond the skies.
Some of us can cope with the idea of total extinction, but many
non-theists still need to feel that they and their loved ones will
persist in some way after death. Well we do persist, in many realistic
ways – in the memories of those who knew us, in the genes of our
families, in the things we have created, in the actions we have done.
And our elements are recycled in nature. If we are cremated, they fly on
the winds and encircle the earth. If we are buried in a natural way free
of metals and chemicals, our elements break down for use by other life
forms and part of us will live on in grass and trees and squirrels and
rabbits and hawks. I find that a pleasant thought.
We are a part of nature. We will always be a part of nature.
Nature as a
guide for ethics
use the focus on Nature and the Universe as a guide for ethics. I don’t
mean that we should watch what animals do and do the same.
Chimps, for example, occasionally indulge in war, murder and even
cannibalism. We know better – or we should know better.
The focus on nature requires and enables a deeper
level of compassion. It means respect for human rights, for animal
rights, and for the health of ecosystems and of the planet.
The awareness of our unity with nature and the universe means that the
community is not just our family or place of worship: it’s everyone on
earth. All of us are equal centres of awareness. It’s the people
devastated by tsunamis and hurricanes. It’s AIDS orphans in Africa,
it’s victims of war and oppression. We are all in the same boat
just people: all animals on earth with central nervous systems, they are
all centres of awareness peering out on the world, playing in it,
studying it, worrying about survival. And all the non-sentient beings
that they depend on. In the final analysis we should be concerned about all
life forms, because in complex ways they all depend on each other and we
living responsibly not just in how we act with other humans, but how we
interact with nature: what we consume, what we waste, and how we dispose
of it. And it means doing that not just as individuals, but in our
families and social groups. That’s why it’s one of my hopes that we will
try to make our new UU home sustainable, conserving water and energy,
with a place hopefully close to, and hospitable to native wildlife.
obvious questions are: how does this relate to Uuism, atheism, humanism
or paganism? And there’s a leaflet that explains that.