The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough, Oxford University Press, 1998
This is a most interesting and ambitious and yet personal and beautiful book. The author asks in the preface whether it is possible to feel religious emotions in the context of a fully modern understanding of nature. This book is her answer, and the answer is in the affirmative. The book presents an insightful overview of contemporary scientific knowledge, touching lightly on the physical sciences while emphasizing biological science and particularly evolution, and combined elegantly with associated religious reflections.
The author is a cell biologist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and a former president of the American Society for Cell Biology. In parallel with her life as a scientist she has a deep religious orientation and a fine religious sensibility, and has also served in the leadership of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. The religious reflections that she presents are non-denominational and non-theistic, but she has great respect for and wide knowledge of different religions, and includes quotations from a variety of religious traditions.
In the introduction, the author says that it is the goal of this book 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 impulses, an approach that she refers to as religious naturalism. Thus, her ambitious agenda for this book is to outline the foundations for a planetary ethic. (She indicates however that such an ethic would make no claim to supplant existing traditions but would seek to coexist with them, informing our global concerns while we continue to orient our daily lives in our cultural and religious contexts.) She indicates that such a global ethic must be anchored both in an understanding of human nature and an understanding of the rest of Nature. She believes that this can be achieved if we start out with the same perspective on how Nature is put together, "and how human nature flows forth from whence we came".
Goodenough points out in her introduction that the major religions address two fundamental human concerns: "how things are" and "which things matter." "How things are" becomes formulated as a cosmology, and these aspects have been essentially superceded by science. She refers to the scientific world picture as "the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true." "Which things matter" has remained to a larger extent in the domain of religion. The author recognizes and affirms the human quest for meaning. This book appears to be an attempt to restore, to the understanding of science, a sense of the sacred in Nature while viewing "How things are" within the world-view of science.
Thus, this eloquent book is addressed toward a coordination of science and religion. In form, it consists of 12 concise chapters, each lucidly treating a topic in science starting with the origin of the earth, and discussing various topics including the evolution of biodiversity. Following the science content of each chapter is a short religious "Reflection" that presents an associated religious or spiritual perspective, and corresponds to a religious meditation on the meaning of the topic.
While the direct experiences of our encounters with Nature have always had the power to evoke emotions such as awe, reverence and spiritual responses in human beings, the scientific interpretations of Nature unfortunately too often elicit emotional detachment or even negative attitudes, especially in non-scientists. Early in the book the author describes her own brushes with unemotional rationalism and nihilism and even existential fear in conjunction with her early studies of science, thereby providing an empathetic connection with many readers. Then she invites the reader along and shows the reader, eloquently and effectively and with great charm, that scientific understanding can be a source of positive emotions such as awe, wonder, reverence, and joy. What Goodenough is aiming for and to some extent accomplishes is to bring in positive emotions as accompaniments to the scientific understanding of Nature. She helps the reader to realize personally that the origin of life and the universe can be even more meaningful with our increased scientific understanding of them. It seems to me that this is a very good thing and that such efforts should be widely supported by other scientists, even for mundane and practical reasons such as improving public understanding of science.
Goodenough's efforts to lay the foundations for a planetary ethic come across with mixed success. Her evocations of joy and wonder in contemplating the scientific understanding of the biological world are really very fine. She discusses sex and sexuality in the biological evolutionary context, and then reflects on nurturing and the love of God and Christian love. Yes, there is real wisdom here, but what about the intense emotions of human sexuality? She addresses the issue of death sensitively in context as the price we pay for life as multi-cellular beings. This is a clear insight, but does not resonate with the agony of suffering. It is important, but it is not enough. She does not bring up the most primitive issues of evil, such as the fact that the very existence of living beings requires food and thus the death of other living beings, nor does she address the darker aspects of evil and destruction in the world and in human culture.
This is a very valuable book that makes an important contribution to the ongoing dialog between science and religion. It is my hope that it will not only open a spiritual vista on contemporary science but also inspire readers from both scientific and non-scientific backgrounds to think long and hard and meditate on the topics that it touches and illuminates.
Caroline L. Herzenberg