Religious Naturalism: Let the Mystery Be
a sermon by Rev. Kevin Tarsa
UU Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, CA
December 9, 2018

Opening Words by Chet Raymo

“I have a friend who speaks of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. Let this then, be the ground of my faith: All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or ever will have, is as an island in the sea [of mystery]. And still the mystery surrounds us.” 

Time for All Ages   Snow Music by Lynne Rae Perkins

Music Holy Now by Peter Mayer. (see/listen at


Sermon: Religious Naturalism: Let the Mystery Be   by Rev. Kevin Tarsa



[1-minute video of the Yuba River in the spring]

I know that many of you feel a profound sense of connection to the Yuba River and its tributaries, its forks and its surroundings. Several people offered photos of the river to represent what is holy to them. That video was taken at the end of the Buttermilk Bend Trail at Bridgeport, in the spot where a friend and I once watched a river otter work its way upstream just a few feet from us, along the edge of the rushing water.

Even though I am new to this area, I too feel a powerful connection to the river and to my experience of it, and often, after I am there, I wish I could bring the river home with me.

This usually brings to mind an image from Alan Watts, something I read over 30 years ago: He wrote,

“…you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life…” he adds (Watts 24).

The book’s curiosity-piquing title is The Wisdom of Insecurity. It has shaped my thinking and awareness ever since I read it right after college, and simply remembering the title is enough to get me contemplating anew.

I’ve mentioned this title and concept here before to a number of heads nodding in recognition. In these times, in which so much seems less secure than it did a couple years ago, in this month inviting us to focus on the idea and the experience of “mystery” in our lives, an invitation to come to terms with the inherent uncertainty of our existence feels important, an invitation to consider (despite any of our natural human resistance) the wisdom of insecurity.

It’s tempting to think that we are experiencing an especially uncertain age. Allan Watts said the same thing that about his times when he published The Wisdom of Insecurity…in 1951. In truth, he wrote then and says to us now, “our age is no more insecure than any other (15),” though our perceptions of security do wax and wane, I would note.

I have titled and framed today’s focus within religious naturalism. Lest this feel like a bait and switch, I’ll assure you that the wisdom of insecurity is not only a very Buddhist kind of perspective, it is also a naturalist perspective, and I’ll focus on that aspect of religious naturalism today.

Years ago I told someone I was preparing to speak in a service about religious naturalism and they got a strange look on their face. The person thought I was going to be speaking of “naturism” – i.e. social nudism. Now religious nudism would be a fascinating topic, I am sure, but in case you are about to be disappointed, I’ll let you know that naturalism is something else.

Although………. there is a kind of spiritual, psychological and intellectual nakedness and vulnerability that comes with naturalism.



Sometimes when I name religious naturalism a person will reply, “Oh, I love nature too.” Naturalism includes a valuing and even love of nature, but is more than that. The defining aspect of naturalism is the stance that nature is all there is.  That there is nothing else, nothing that is not natural. It is to say that there is no super-natural realm outside of the natural world, “no supernatural agents, no supernatural means of knowing, no supernatural [seals of approval], and no supernatural [entities] (Hogue).”

Which is not to deny all that is incredible about this world, and the marvelous, mysterious and unexplainable aspects of this universe! It is, rather, to say that all such awesomeness, mystery, extraordinariness, divinity wonder and sacredness is part of this one natural world in which we live….and which we will never fully know or understand. It is to see everything in the world as holy.

From a naturalist perspective, this includes us human beings, meaning that we too are completely from, thoroughly part of, and entirely held within this natural world. There is no part of us that isn’t.

As Donald Crosby summed it up, for a naturalist:  “Nature in some shape or form is all there is now, ever has been, and ever shall be (Hogue 204).” Amen.



I’m drawing on Michaels Hogue’s insight again….as well as Allan Watts’ today, starting with Michael noting that this kind of naturalist perspective has not been the norm in much of the dominant white, western European thinking and history.

The sacred was separated from the profane, Heaven above and Hell below were placed in realms separate from earth, God above a different substance and reality from humanity, humanity located in a different realm from animals and nature, mind and soul existing separate from the body and belonging to a different, more true home somewhere else…Hogue and Watts claim that all those separations and creation of unchanging categories are ways of trying to create a sense of sureness and security in a world and life that is inherently risk-filled and precarious.

There have long been naturalist currents within every religious tradition, but it was the scientific discoveries of the 1800’s that started to challenge all that separateness in a broad way in white western societies.

The theory of evolution, among other new ideas and discoveries, challenged the notion that human beings are totally separate from nature, and suggested, instead, that not only did humans arise out of nature and out of other animals, but also that humans too, are still evolving. …Sort of.

The problem is that we appear to be evolving like this:

But I’m getting ahead of things.

The bottom line, from a naturalist perspective, is that neither we humans nor the world were created once and for all, as is. Instead everything that exists is continually changing, unfolding, becoming….which means that certainty is never more than momentary.



One of ironies is that the white intellectual history of the west –  including both the religious search for unchanging truths and an unchanging God, as well as the scientific search for verifiable knowledge and unchanging natural laws – was driven by that quest for certainty, a quest to allay our human fears for our safety in a precarious world. But, instead, it led and continues to lead to an awareness that nothing is static, that everything is thoroughly interwoven and changing continually, and that knowledge and understanding are therefore endlessly slippery. It turns out the world is even less certain than we thought (Watts 93).

Though this is initially exhilaratingly liberating, when the truth of it settles in emotionally, it is not a happy discovery for survival-driven, finite creatures like ourselves. It tends to trigger our anxiousness, which drives us to an even more desperate search for some sort of certainty, and leading to yet more anxiousness….

Michael Hogue claims that this is what has gotten humanity and now the earth into trouble. That drive for certainty. It underlies the artificial splits our western white culture made between heaven and earth, sacred and profane, human and animal, mind and body, humanity and nature – and that these splits have led to the political and social challenges of our times, including climate change.

The anxiety of our times is both a source and a result of our reach for certainty.

When we don’t see ourselves as thoroughly part of and at one with nature, we treat the earth and all else within it as “other.” When we see a god as absolutely powerful in contrast to mere human beings, that sets us up to imagine some people as more worthy of power than other people. Splitting things into deeply separate categories keeps us from realizing that all is of one substance and thoroughly interconnected.

Seeing the world and ourselves as entirely natural, not separate and exceptional or uniquely protected, leaves us out there, naked, exposed in a sea of relativity and mystery. Seeing the world as not fixed, but ever in motion, leaves us vulnerable – spiritually and emotionally.

These also leave us knowing that we are interconnected with everything, able ourselves to change, and positioned to move through the world as it really is, to move through life more naturally.

There is hope to be found in all of this.



To get there, it may help to ask, “What is religious, then, about religious naturalism?”

Hogue gives a pragmatic reply: “Religion is a human response to living in a changing environment.”

From a progressive standpoint, religion does not require  – or rule out – belief in God.  Religion is, instead, defined by its purpose – religion helps orient us in the world, to know which direction is which, helps us locate meaning and discern value, and so helps us find our way “through the blessings and the burdens of life’s vulnerabilities (Hogue 138).” Religion, whatever it looks like in a given tradition, helps us find our way through this beautiful and precarious “world of uncertainty, creativity, [and] risk (Hogue 135).”

That is what participation in this community and this faith tradition is meant to offer, in many different ways – invitation, encouragement, inspiration, education, opportunity, practice and experience that help us get our bearings in the world, as it is, and to find our way in it – each and together.

Religious naturalism and our Unitarian Universalist tradition do this knowing that we must hold all of our orienting knowledge and understanding provisionally, open to change when our experiences lead us to new conclusions. I repeat this here often, because it is so foundational to our faith, this “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough says that religion’s function is to help people answer two questions…. “How things are and which things matter.” …and then to integrate those two answers. The thing is, the answer to the first question determines the answer to the second. Our understanding of “how things are” determines “which things matter.”

If we believe that the physical world and our earthly lives take second place to a more authentic existence elsewhere and elsehow, and if we think the universe and life are ruled by a set of unchanging absolutes, then we’ll get a certain set of answers to the question about what matters ultimately, and we’ll behave accordingly. What matters then is tolerating this time and place and preparing for another. What matters then is honoring, enforcing and shoring up the hard lines of all the absolutes.

If we believe that the world is entirely natural, including we humans with it, and that nature is all there is, and if we believe that everything we think we know could change at any moment, we’ll get a different set of answers to the question about what matters ultimately, and we’ll behave accordingly. What matters then is anything that supports or endangers the web of existence that connects everything. What matters then is remaining open, seeing all things as relative and related…and impermanent.



I define my own religious perspective as religious naturalist, so you get doses of it most Sundays. It’s what leads me to so many both/and notions. There are other religious perspectives in the room, I know. Whatever your religious understandings, I invite you to have faith!

Now if that word pushes your buttons uncomfortably, Allan Watts may be of help.

For Watts, “belief … is the insistence that truth is what one would wish it to be. The believer,” he writes, “will open [their] mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with [their] preconceived ideas and wishes (24).” We can only believe in what we’ve already known or imagined, Watts claims.

Faith,” on the other hand, says Watts, “is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.”

“Belief clings,” he says, whereas “faith lets go.”

“Faith, [in this sense of openness,] is the essential virtue of both science and any religion that is not self-deception.”

Watts claimed, back in 1951, that “Most of us believe in order to feel [spiritually and psychologically] secure, in order to make our individual lives seem valuable and meaningful. Whether one believes in God or believes in atheism,” Watts says, “belief has become an attempt to hang on to life, to grasp it and to keep it for one’s own. But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it.  You cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. To have running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.”he adds (24).



“It must be obvious, from the start, wrote Watts, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a Universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the conflict lies deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. To want security, [i.e. to want to be protected from the natural flux of life, is to want to be separate from life. [And] It is that very sense of separateness that makes one feel insecure (77).”

“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing (77-78). . . To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”

So, let go, he invites, have faith, and let the mystery be.

Or as Michael Hogue invites, “embrace a spirit of resistance to certainty (91).”

This is not the easy path, as you know, and it is long-term work, in whichever traditions we may travel it. But I’m coming to understand, with the help of Watts and Hogue, that not only is this the spiritually wise approach, it is an important part of the theological and political work ahead to midwife whatever is best to be born out of the current birth pangs in the nation and across the globe. It is the grasp for certainty that has gotten us into trouble. Resisting certainty is an important part of the answer.

Hope, in this regard, comes through knowing that the collapse of old realities and perspectives, though painful and frightening often, is always a potential blessing,

An opportunity opens up in the gap, a creative space for something new to be born.

This is where we are, my friends, traveling together through this amazing and uncertain world. The religious work is to get our bearings, and navigate it as best we can.

Let us have faith …wherever it may lead.

May it be so.

Works Cited

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 1998. Print.

Hogue, Michael, S. American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. Columbia University Press, 2018. Print.

Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. New York: Vintage Books, 1951. Print.