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Celebrate the Earth Alive! Religious Naturalism in Ritual, Festivals, and Celebrations…

“What the kangaroo and the koala are to Earth, we are to the universe… The secrets of the universe are not different from us”
(Paul Fleischman)

“[Liturgy] has lost its living roots in the soil of the world and become a pot-plant in the sanctuary of the Church” (John A T Robinson)

Its great wings outstretched, the brown pelican spirals in the thermal air.

Scarcely a flicker of those magnificent wings is required for it to soar further and further aloft.

Finally reaching an apogee of the spiral, it gently banks and slowly descends, only to be uplifted again in its circling flight…

For me, at that moment, this pelican’s flight is a compelling symbol of the numinous powers, presences, and wonders of the natural order to which we both miraculously belong. (Crosby 2014)

The story of the brown pelican soaring, by religious philosopher Donald Crosby, and the kangaroo and koala epigraph to this article by Paul Fleischman, are Religious Naturalism stories. So what is Religious Naturalism?

Religious Naturalism (RN) has two central aspects. One is a naturalist view of how things happen in the world—in which the natural world is all there is, and that nothing other than natural may cause events in the world. From nature we came, in nature we are, to nature we go… The other is appreciation of religion with a view that nature can be a focus of religious attention – the ‘cosmic religious feeling’ as Einstein called it.

Teasing both out a bit further… Naturalist views, grounded in science, provide a framework for understanding what seems real. These include a central story, the epic of evolution, that explains the origins of the cosmos and humans based on the best available evidence to date, with perspectives from which to consider why we do what we do. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality, where the metaphor of ‘web’ is used to describe this interrelatedness.1

“As earth-creatures we do not live in straight lines; we truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze… When the relationality is mutually supportive, and not distorted, we truly can speak of ‘mazing grace’.” (Larry Axel)

1 Others have challenged this understanding because the image of a web is too meagre and simple for the reality. A web is flat and finished ‘and has the mortal frailty of the individual spider’. And although elastic it has insufficient depth.

Religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy, at the wonder of being alive. It is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition. Wonder, although not the only possible response when contemplating the immense scale of matter, space, and time, is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us. Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply spiritual.

Just home from post graduate studies in Germany (1931) and still shaping his ‘mystical naturalism’, American empirical theologian Bernard Meland wrote:

“Have you ever communed in the first person with this total wealth of living life about you? Have you ever stood with awe and wonder before the unbounded totality of all reality—this ongoing process we call the universe, feeling your own intimacy with all its life, thrilling with the realisation of the magnitude of that relationship, relating you to all the world’s life, past, present and future? If you have, you have experienced first- hand religion.” (Meland 1931:665)

Meland suggests the natural world has the capacity to inspire a response—an expression of our awe of nature, of our attraction to the mystery of existence, to something intangible—called ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ from humans. Likewise, religious philosopher Jerome Stone asserts there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than

taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.2 “If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred,” says Stone, “surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred…”

But there is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves.

“What we need is to realise,” suggests Stone again, “that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.”3

So why (non-legalistic) ritual? Ritual provides us with a tool to think logically, emotionally, and ecologically. During rituals “we have the experience, unique in our culture, of neither opposing nature or trying to be in communion with nature; but of finding ourselves within nature, and that is the key to sustainable culture.”4   Ritual then is a specialised kind of human thinking in group mode.

Writing back in 2002, Crosby lamented that Religious Naturalism had “no practicing communities, no institutional structures, no duly constituted cadre of leaders, no body of traditional beliefs, no rituals or ceremonies, no revered founders or scriptures, no stories, myths and symbols.” (Crosby 2002:155) Well, since then there have been a few developments. An online RNA community was established in 2014 with a >500 persons online-only membership from 28 countries; some authors and others have been identified as ‘leaders’—or at least ‘mentors’: Ursula Goodenough, Loyal Rue, Jerome Stone, Karl Peters, yes, and Donald Crosby—to name just a few.  And RN has even made it onto one of the newer agendas of the progressive biblical literacy centre, the Westar Institute, and its ‘Seminar on God and the Human Future’.

But Crosby’s comments about the importance of symbol and ritual are still applicable. Religious Naturalism has to move beyond the ‘scholarly’ and the ‘abstract’ as often expressed in the online chats on the RNA blog. Scholarly analysis and abstractions may burrow into and challenge our thinking, even inspire us. But facts and statistics are not enough. The shaping of a progressive ‘natural’ spirituality needs both the voice of the scholarly critic—to keep any community “athletically trim and free from a sloppy sentimentality”5 —as well as the concern of the creative artist—to strike a chord and resonate within. Ideally the two should function ‘in stereo’— simultaneous but quite different. (Pierre Babin 1991)

To substantially change how we feel we will need to participate in some spiritual practices or rituals including storytelling. The weaving of story (what we tell) and ritual (what we enact) are ways we make sense of our world.6 Put it another way: one can give us an oversight, the other gives us sight merged with smell and touch and terror… However, as Jewish religious naturalist Mordecai Kaplan cautions:

“While… abstract ideas are not likely to make profound impression on the minds of most people unless accompanied by some activity, meaningless activities dissociated from any significant ideas are no less ineffectual.” (Kaplan 1962:38)

Traditional theistic religion has long employed liturgical practices to instil supernatural connotations by deploying music, theatre, incense, architecture and other ritual elements—affirming the existence of at least one divine person. Being no longer plausible, these practices and ritual shaping can be absorbed and appreciated, but the supertheology shaping of such practices put aside.

Religious Naturalism is ‘different’ in its outlook compared to most Western religious traditions. It is often identified as the ‘forgotten’ religious orientation compared to classical theism. It does not belong in the ‘worshipping’ religions. So it is appropriate that several questions about a possible present, if not future, be raised:

i. does RN seek to go down the track of becoming a new, separate religious institution?

ii. is its future primarily for individual RNs, gathering as an online association with little to no institutional embodiment at all?

iii. could it become a subgroup grafted onto or within existing religious traditions—progressive Christianity? Buddhism? Humanistic Judaism? Religious Humanism? Atheist Assemblies?Without the baggage of the old institutions.7

iv. can RN sustain itself apart from religious organisations—that is, recruiting creative, largely compatible allies and secular RNs outside religious traditions for fellowship, collective enjoyment, and a stimulus to ethical/moral behaviour, to help secure a more substantial role?

In the light of these questions, especially associated with point (iii) above—become a subgroup within existing religious traditions and adopting some practices and naturalising them—what follows is a mixture of suggested stand alone and grafted ritual possibilities. I will offer some cameos of naturalistic-inspired ritual worth considering further, acknowledging that while such rituals may have the potential to be grafted onto a progressive ‘christian’ expression, in the near future they may need to stand on their own.


A ritual link can be forged between naturalism and such feelings of wonder and awe, in progressive Christian Sunday morning gatherings. Indeed the annual Christian festivals of Christmas (sun) and Easter (moon), as well as the ‘cross quarter days’ between winter and summer solstice and spring and autumn equinox—all originated as festivals celebrating the changing seasons of nature, but were taken over by Christianity.8

But for there to be change a radical crafting—something we ‘bring’ or ‘create’—of ritual/liturgical rites must happen. Such crafting can happen when people break away from the dead hands and dead minds of the past, and are able to see and think creatively. (White 1994:128) Thus, a new Sunday morning experience designed from the ground up with new music, new rituals, new scriptures, new ceremonies, new rites of passage is needed, all freed from restrictive creeds and dogmas and supernaturalistic theology. And where congregants/participants are invited to celebrate the wonder of the universe and the mystery of life, and to revere “the natural processes that have brought life into being and continue to sustain it.” (Lloyd Geering)

The goal of such a crafting is to arrive at a rich tapestry of language, metaphors, poetry, song, and design that (i) celebrates life in the present, (ii) can enrich such expressions of naturalistic beliefs,9 and (iii) reflects we are people of the earth rather than people on the earth! There is no reason why a ritual/liturgical link cannot be forged between naturalism and such feelings of wonder and awe. It’s finding the appropriate language along with designing rituals and practices that enriches these feelings with expressions of naturalistic beliefs.


An example of how wonder and awe is being nurtured in meditation groups and eco-spiritual retreats, is the Cosmic Walk, influenced by the thought of Thomas Berry and designed by Miriam MacGillis. A long rope is placed in a spiral. Its central point symbolises the Big Bang, while the spiral’s end represents the present. Crucial milestones in the evolution of our universe are marked out on the spiral. These include such things as:

“the emergence of galaxies, stars, and supernovae; the explosion of a supernova giving rise to our solar system; the birth of the moon from the impact of a body onto the earth—an event that also tilted the earth, producing the four seasons of the year; the formation of the earth’s atmosphere; the emergence of life on earth; the invention by cells of photosynthesis and the consequent profusion of oxygen into the atmosphere; the emergence of multicellular organisms; the coming of the first amphibian animals; the age of dinosaurs; the proliferation of mammals after the dinosaurs became extinct; the appearance of hominids; the emergence of humans; the origins of spoken and written language; the inventions of agriculture and domestication of animals; the age of classical religions; and the dawn of modern science.” (Crosby 2014:148)

Standing at the place of the first “Flaring Forth,” the participants are to reflect that they too are 14 billion years old. Likewise, they are invited to “enter” each great transition period in evolutionary history by walking the spiral track. At the end of the story when they come out of the spiral, they call out their names: “The Universe has become Trisha!” “The Universe has become Jim!”

Of the ritual Crosby writes:

“Reenactments… can plant its meanings ever more deeply in heart and mind. We humans are from the earth and of the earth, and our loyalty should be given to it, to all of its creatures, and to the dynamic, fecund system of nature of which we, they, and it are integral parts. The ritual of the Cosmic Walk can arouse not only a mood of grateful celebration but also a spirit of fervent dedication.” (Crosby 2014: 148-49)

A similar ritual has been the shaping of The Stations of the Cosmos by a Jesuit Centre in Canada, that depicts the story of the emerging universe in 25 stations. Again, influenced by and dedicated to the memory of Thomas Berry, the stations are laid out in a spiral pattern “so that, as you walk, your path is expanding”. Each step taken represents millions of years. “You will walk around the spiral several times before humans come on the scene,” says the printed guide.

As has been pointed out by others: Such rituals can arouse not only a mood of grateful celebration but also a spirit of fervent dedication. Such rituals can also be adapted to reflect a naturalistic understanding of the universe rather than a traditional theistic celebration.

Celebrating the awe and wonder of the universe “and acknowledging our failures and misuse of other people and of the planet”, daring international progressive liturgists have produced special complete sacred rituals/liturgies. Three specifically come to mind… One is ‘The Cosmic Mass’10 (Matthew Fox, USA)—one liturgy per month—which begins with a “prolonged period during which participants experience and express awe through images, music, and movement”.

A second is ‘Sacred Energy: Mass of the Universe’ (William L. Wallace, NZ) featuring prose, confession/lament, original choral and song,11 “with accompanying powerpoint presentation aiming to heighten the participants’ sense of wonder and foster participation in the Mystery.” The third is ‘A Celtic Mass for Peace, Songs for the Earth’ (Samuel Guarnaccia, USA), based on the writings of Celtic spirituality author, theologian, and poet, J. Philip Newell.12

Perhaps a stand-out example of such celebrations within the ‘progressive’ Christian tradition is the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. The Cathedral hosts resident artists and artistic companies, while its celebrations of winter and summer solstices have become so popular that tens of thousands pilgrimage each year to participate in services led by African drummers, nationally known jazz musicians, resident theatre and dance groups, and an ever expanding spectrum of artists. (Hal Taussig 2006)


A recent development within liturgical/ritual crafting is the use of the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), often coupled with the four cardinal elements (fire, earth, air, water). And then there are the celebrations on the solstices and the equinoxes. Crosby writes:

“water, fire, air and earth… can be put to use as religious symbols and, in particular, as symbols of nature as the religious ultimate.” (Crosby 2014:90)

Not just seasonal occasions but also issues of ecological justice… especially climate change and the domination of nature. Unfortunately traditional church liturgical councils and scholarship have paid little to no attention to the environment or landscape as important factors forming and informing the way of life and world views of people. “The native environment,” writes Australian liturgical studies academic Clare Johnson, “is the one undeniably common denominator between the various people living in a particular location.” (Johnson 2009:41)

But some interest can be identified. In the mid 1980s, Columban Father Vincent Busch developed a

Stations of the Forest using the ‘stations’ format to lament the death of the Philippine rainforests. Various versions of it were used by Catholic agencies over the next decade. A revised production was updated in 2009 by the Columbans in the UK, incorporating additional global issues related to rainforest destruction such as the extractive industries and climate change. Seven years ago, in 2011, an Australian version was edited.13

While sounding post-modern, such ‘landscape’ and ‘seasonal’ celebrations are every day to indigenous peoples. Close to where I was born and raised is a low mountain range called the Grampians, or the Gariwerd, home of the Djab Wurrung and Jardwidjarli clans. The local clans do not have specific names or dates for the seasons such as autumn or winter, instead seasons were described by what was happening at the time, that is, ‘The wattles are now flowering so we know that the eels are on the move’. The actual length or timing of the season depends on the environment and climate.

Each area around Australia has a different version of the seasons because each area has different climates and ecosystems. Historically, settlement for most ‘latecomers’ in Australia has been at the edge, by the sea—on a large island. As one has observed: if Aboriginal people are a land-dreaming people, we late-comers are a sea-dreaming people. This sentiment is expressed by West Australian writer Tim Winton:

“The desert is a spiritual place, but we are coastal people, a people who predominantly dwell on our continent’s edge. It is there on the beach or pretty near it that the majority of Australians have discovered many things about life and what it means deep down to be Australian… The sea is more forthcoming; its miracles and wonders are occasionally more palpable, however inexplicable they be. There is more bounty, more possibility for us in a vista that moves, rolls, surges, twists, rears and changes from minute to minute.”

Indigenous dreaming is a tradition of story and ceremony, not a tradition of appeasement or offerings… “the landscape itself is imbued with the sacred”. (David Tacey) For Aboriginal people religious identity is more a question of geography than theology. Tacey goes on to claim the main language in Australia is earth language.

“The sacred songs and chants [of Aboriginal peoples] are sung to gigantic and ancient rock formations and to vast expanses of red earth. The sacred dances are earth dances, where the celebrants gather to ‘sing up’ and sustain the spirits of the earth. Significantly, Aboriginal dance and celebration is concentrated upon the movements of the feet.”14

Such naturalistic and nature-naturing deeds and celebrations need to be given value when shaping progressive Christian liturgies for those same liturgies to be ‘real’. Religious Naturalism is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendours of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences. (Michael Hogue 2014)


Several religious naturalists have proposed practices aimed at extending a concern to the natural world beyond humanity. Dated somewhat now but back in the late 1960s when an environmental/ ecological concern was first being given a public face, a ritual response to issues raised was being explored. Given the mundane name of ‘tea-drinking’, the ritual became part of several study and meditation groups on ecology/composting.

The sessions began with the members drinking ‘billy’ tea quietly and ceremonially while sitting on cushions. Then the group moved on to a time of discussion

“in which practical techniques [concerning composting] and questions were aired. Finally, at the end of the meeting each person reverently sprinkled used tea leaves on the compost pile and took away a cup of half-finished compost and two worms.

These items were seed for the compost pile that class members would later begin at home.” (Karl Peters 1989)

Commenting on this ritual Karl Peters wrote:

“In such a ceremony the rational understanding of natural, ecological renewal is combined with ritual actions that may help establish new behaviour patterns in human beings.”15

In my book, When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations, I offer commentary and liturgical examples grounded in both a religious naturalism and as a Celebration of Life— each takes seriously the ecological shaping of our lives. A personal example comes out of my reshaping of the ‘Words of Committal’ from the Funeral Liturgy—often the most common ‘public/secular’ event with echoes of ‘religion’…

The spirit of (NNN) shall not know the blight of mortality:
for it shall live on in the lives made real
by its presence, and its gracious influence.
Those atoms and molecules which constituted
his/her physical frame…
Every one of them originated in the burst of heat and light
which created our galaxy millions of light years ago.

They persisted in bodies both animate and inanimate
that came into being on planet Earth,
and they reached their fulfillment in the generous life-form
and personality of this strong,
courageous, self-conscious human being, we called (N).

So reverently, lovingly, trustingly,
we commit his/her body to the elements/to the ground,
which is welcoming to us at the time of our death.
Ashes to ashes/Earth to earth, star dust to star dust.

In the cycle of life and death
the earth is replenished
and life is eternally renewed.

Another example, around the ‘Blessing of a Child’, comes from Unitarian, Mark Belletini (USA):

We bless this child with the elements of our common being,
with earth, air, fire and water.

(The liturgist lifts the child and plants her/his feet in a bowl of earth) With earth, which is as solid as your given frame, my child, we bless you. Take care of yourself as a body, be good to yourself,
for you are a good gift.

(The liturgist blows gently on the child’s head)
With air, which is as fluctuating as your given passion my child, we bless you. You will know sorrow and Joy, rage and contentment,
resentment and ecstasy.
Feel your passions my child, they are good gifts.

(The liturgist holds a flame aloft before the child’s eyes)
With fire, which is as illuminating as your given intelligence my child, we bless you. Reason with care, test the world,
think with care, for your mind is as good gift.

(The liturgist sprinkles water on the crown of the child’s head) With water, which is as clear as your spirit, my child, we bless you. Grow in conscience, be rooted in good stories,
grow spiritually, for spirit too is a good gift.

But beyond all the books written and scientific commentary offered, perhaps the greatest recent secular public ritual event was the end of November (2018) ’School Students Strike’ around Australia, inspired by the actions of Swedish student Greta Thunberg. Australian students were demanding politicians act on climate change and create a strong climate policy. Their taking to the

streets in thousands was noted by City evening television news service, newspapers, and radio commentators, not to mention the breath of social media. Their actions were made all the more powerful due to the mocking comments by some conservative politicians who suggested the ‘striking’ students were headed only for the dole queue. “We may not yet be able to vote,” some students claimed, “but we do have a voice.” And they displayed that voice in public ritual via protest on the streets.

Poetry and Songs

Humans are a symbolic species, unique in our capacity “to engage not just in communication but in language.” (Goodenough 1998:165) The poets, musicians, and lyricists among us must continue to collaborate on new, more explicitly ‘nature’ poems, reflections, songs, and hymns.

On poets… Crosby says he is particularly fond of the poems and other writings of the Bengali poet

© Rabindranath Tagore, many of which proclaim the wondrous mystery and bounty of nature. He offers an example from Tagore’s book, Fruit Gathering:

‘O the waves, the sky-devouring waves, glistening with light, dancing with life,
the waves of eddying joy, rushing for ever.
‘The stars rock upon them, thoughts of every tint
are cast up out of the deep and scattered on the beach of life.
‘Birth and death rise and fall with their rhythm,
and the sea-gull of my heart spreads its wings crying in delight.’” (Crosby 2014:152)

I would also add other poets… of the calibre of © Robert Weston and his beautiful “Out of the Stars…” (extract):

“Out of the stars in their flight,
out of the dust of eternity, here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling
through time and through space…”

And © Eric Williams’ “The Strength of the Earth is the Stones…” and any of the poems of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet © Mary Oliver, such as “Sleeping in the Forest” (extract):

“I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.…”

Or her poem “The Sun” (extract):

“Have you ever seen anything
in your life more wonderful
that the way the sun, every evening, relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon…”

Poets are able to give words ‘life’ as they express feelings and ideas through the intensity of distinctive styles and rhythms of language.

On lyricists… Limited attempts have been commenced within progressive Christianity. Both in New Zealand collections by Shirley Erena Murray, and William L Wallace, and by Australian progressive George Stuart. Plus there are several examples in the American Unitarian Universalist hymnbook Singing the Living Tradition. These efforts need to be built on and expanded.

One such ‘expansion’ can be found in the works of American contemporary composer and singer, Peter Mayer. ( Two such titles are “Church of the Earth” (album ‘Heaven Below’) and “Blue Boat Home” (album ‘Earth Town Square’)—a favourite with several RNA members. The first sings of the “hallowed ground” of the earth and of the “heaven we seek” that is “here at our feet.” The second, in congregational/community singing style, rejoices in the “blue boat” of earth plying the “ocean” of the “wide universe.” About this second Crosby notes:

“Its lyrics are sung to music composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard [‘Hyfrydol 87.87D]. This song brings to mind the famous photograph from space of the blue, cloud-shrouded earth…” (Crosby 2014:155)

Such songs by Mayer and others are in contrast to a well-known traditional hymn that suggests we are ‘pilgrims through this barren land’. Such words are demeaning of earth. Earth would surely respond: “If you read the landscape you will discover I am not ‘barren’ land [terra nullius] but an exciting ecosystem to be embraced and celebrated.” (Norman Habel 2009)

Being in the southern hemisphere makes all of the major traditional Lectionary festivals out of whack. There is a ritual discomfort when—shaped by northern season inspired theological imagery and then imported wholesale—Christmas ‘down under’ for instance, is experienced in real-world place-time in the midst of summer when the days are at their longest and usually hottest… and light is something we have in abundance!

So, while the carol about the good King Wenceslas “looking out… when the snow lay round about” may be one of the most popular carols in Britain, a more appropriate song in Australia would be Tim Minchin’s musical reflection on Christmas called “White Wine in the Sun”

“I really like Christmas… ’
Cause I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun…
Drinking white wine in the sun”


A challenge to artists of various genre is to create ritual/liturgical artworks and artefacts that examine the beauty and spiritual meaning that can come from an appreciation of the natural world. In the past I have been known to invite a potter to ‘throw a pot’ during a liturgy celebrating Spring. Or introduce liturgical dance and invite congregants to dance in the aisle!

Added to these, a progressive liturgy is an ideal place to introduce such ‘natural’ items as gum leaves, sprigs of lavender, stones, flower petals, fragrant oils, and sliced apple (with the invitation to both smell and taste). As one arts/theology PhD candidate has said of her own journey:

“when one speaks of the creative arts as a significant avenue to generate and contribute to theological knowledge and spiritual engagement, my experience is that it is still met with suspicion and mistrust. I believe that the arts are a symbol of embedded thought whereby humanity and divinity meet within temporal creation.” (Alexandra Banks)

Similar sentiments also express by one early American ‘liberal’ who said that while ritual and art have a common root, “protestantism has been chary of the arts and suspicious of the artist.” (Von Ogden Vogt 1921, 1927) Vogt continues:

“The artist is almost always a prophet of change, being dissatisfied with the world of ugly facts, loving the more romantic world that is potentially beautiful. It has been a matter of frequent observation among critics that great artists have oftentimes anticipated by the reach of heir imaginative intuitions, points of view later conceived or confirmed in science or politics.” (Vogt 1921:92)


Stories and storytelling are important. Stories have a mysterious power to move and even to transform hearts and minds. Humans need stories. Grand compelling stories. The prophetic voice of the ‘storyteller’ Thomas Berry is revealed in this quotation:

“…as we look up at the starry sky at night, and as, in the morning, we see the
landscape revealed as the sun dawns over the earth—these experiences reveal a physical world but also a more profound world that cannot be bought with money, cannot be manufactured with technology, cannot be listed on the stock market, cannot be made in the chemical laboratory, cannot be reproduced with all our genetic engineering, cannot be sent by e-mail. These experiences require only that we follow the deepest feelings of the human soul.” (Thomas Berry/Swimme & Tucker 2011)

A breadth of authors, poets, and storytellers need to be re/introduced into our rituals and liturgies. Sticking with only readings and reflections from the Bible is too narrow a canon. Or to put it in the positive: religious naturalists affirm the importance of multiple sources of wisdom—old and new— for religious moral life.


Religious Naturalists are not theists. They do not recognise any divine beings (gods or goddesses) neither do they pray nor give thanks to them. An option is mindfulness meditation or mindful reverence.

Mindfulness meditation—borrowed from Buddhism—is a growing popular practice involving a technique embedded in focusing in the present moment. As its proponents state, it can help facilitate ethical self-realisation, as well as unification of the self with nature. This awareness can allow the practitioner to notice things that they wouldn’t normally, and see the world through a naive lens or as if they are seeing everything for the first time.

Crosby adds:

“To meditate religiously is to reflect deeply and in a sustained fashion on some focus of concern, whether it be emptying the mind of distractions that bar the way to deeper awareness of a religious ultimate or strengthening and intensifying in some other directed way awareness of that ultimate.” (Crosby 2014)


I return to Crosby’s brown pelican16 in flight story… He sets out to explain some of the ways in which this natural event is religiously meaningful to him.

It is a reminder that the self, the pelican, and all other living beings, human and nonhuman, share in a universe that has enabled us to come into being and to live in accordance with the distinctive traits and capabilities nature has conferred on our respective species.

“The pelican is my fellow creature, and I have both the privilege and responsibility of respecting and reverencing its life and the environmental conditions essential to its life”.

Second, the pelican’s effortless flight is a telling token of the remarkable fecundity of nature and of the marvel of its multifarious, intricately inter-dependent creations and manifestations. It brings into vivid awareness the evolutionary processes that have formed this universe over billions of years. It is a symbol of the wondrous complexity of the material processes that make life and consciousness possible.

Third, the pelican’s flight speaks of the exuberance and joy of life. It is an image of hope, aspiration, and freedom. It shows that we do not live by bread alone but by grateful celebration of the gift of life and all that it makes possible. And it reminds us that the free play of imagination has given rise to many of our most impressive cultural, theoretical, and technological achievements as human beings.

But… and yes, there is at least one major ‘but’. The pelican’s flight also symbolises a darker, more precarious side of life in general. And especially of nonhuman life forms that can be adversely affected by the choices, actions, and enterprises of human beings and human institutions. Feelings of sadness and regret can be stirred up as well as engendering a mood of apprehension for the future of nonhuman life forms on earth whose continuing well-being is critically dependent on the attitudes and actions of human beings.

“But none of these statements or others,” writes Crosby, echoing Meland of nearly 90 years ago, “can do justice to the firsthand experience itself and all that it meant to me at that time and continues to mean. The experience and what occasioned it are a powerful evocation, expression, and refining of my faith as a religious naturalist, and the meanings, associations, and ramifications of that faith outstrip verbal descriptions.” (Crosby 2014:7)

Hosanna! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. (Goodenough 1998:169) A Newer Testament. The gospel of the natural present moment. Indeed, a ‘natural spirituality’… released from the captivity of ‘religion’—as an expression of our awe of nature, of our attraction to the mystery of existence, and to something intangible. In a time of ecological vulnerability and dislocation of the social fabric, contemporary religious naturalism’s conceptions of and attitudes toward nature and religiosity have much to commend it. Especially its willingness to entertain radically new approaches, “and explore trackless places and experiences” (Michael Hogue) as it engages with some of the most pressing religious and moral issues of our times.

Returning to Donald Crosby:

“Religious symbols that speak to the whole person and not just to the discursive mind are vitally needed for a rich and full life and an adequate vision of life.” (Crosby 2014)



1 Others have challenged this understanding because the image of a web is too meagre and simple for the reality. A web is flat and finished ‘and has the mortal frailty of the individual spider’. And although elastic it has insufficient depth.

2 “…the dichotomy of natural/supernatural has now become obsolete. So far as I can ascertain we owe the use of the term supernatural to Aquinas as he tried to reconcile Christian thought with the rediscovered thought of Aristotle. In any case we now find ourselves in a world where nature reigns supreme. There is no supernatural sphere”. (Lloyd Geering, Personal correspondence, 25/8/2016); Also Karl Peters, “Evolutionary Naturalism”

3 Stone. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans”, 431. Lynn White: “To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.” (White. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”)

4 LcChapelle. “Ritual is Essential”

5 Craddock. Overhearing…, 135

6 “… logical arguments will not persuade anyone who looks at nature and sees objects and mere resources. When perception is sufficiently changed, respectful types of conduct seem natural.” (Stone. “Broadening Care…” quoting John Rodman

7 Both Karl Peters and Arthur Peacocke have shaped a ‘naturalistic Christian faith’

8 “True [northern hemisphere] spring—warm reliable spring doesn’t come [on March 21 or 22] until later. This is the cross quarter day – May 1 – which Europe celebrated with maypoles, gathering flowers, and fertility rites. May became the month of Mary after the Christian church took over and May crownings and processions were devoted to Mary instead of the old ‘earth goddess’.” (LaChapelle 1984)

9 “Underneath the surface of the various layers of Christianity lurk the remnants of religion that focused on nature. For example… we still name the days of the week after the ancient Germanic gods—Sunday for the sun-god, Monday for the moon-god, Wednesday for Woden, and Saturday for Saturn. These relics remain in spite of the efforts of priests to eliminate everything that smacked of superstitious paganism” (Lloyd Geering 2005)

10 The Mass follows the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality: The Via Positiva or celebration of existence (Thomas Aquinas says this is the first dimension to Worship: To say Thank You for Creation); the Via Negativa or sorrow for sins; the Via Creativa, the blessing of wine and bread as the food of the Cosmic Christ; and the Sending Off which is the Via Transformativa

11 Fox claims we should fall in love at least three times each day with something like a galaxy, a tree, our cat, or a song. Sanguin. Darwin, Divinity…, 24


13 Produced by Columban JPIC Office, Britain with Australian additions by the Columban Mission Institute, Centre for Peace, Ecology and Justice, Strathfield, NSW. eMail: Phone: 02 93528021 Website:

14 Tacey. Re-Enchantment, 96. See also LaChapelle. “Ritual is Essential”… “Most native societies around the world had three common characteristics: they had an intimate, conscious relationship with their place; they were stable ‘sustainable’ cultures, often lasting for thousands of years; and they had a rich ceremonial and ritual life” See also “What Winter Solstice Rituals Tell Us About Indigenous People” (on American Native ritual), by Rosalyn R. LaPier

15 Peters. “Humanity in Nature”, 483-84

16 The Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is predominantly a white bird with black wings and a pink bill. It has been recorded as having the longest bill of any living bird.


Babin, P. The New Era in Religious Communication. (Translated by David Smith). Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1991

Belletini, M. “Blessing of a Child” in Roberts, E. & E. Amidon. Life Prayers from Around the World. 365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey. New York. HarperCollins, 1996. Crosby, D. More Than Discourse. Symbolic Expressions of Naturalistic Faith. Albany. SUNY Press, 2014

Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013 Geering, L. G. The Greening of Christianity. Wellington. St Andrew’s Trust, 2005

Gleiser, M. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected. A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. Lebanon NH: ForeEdge, 2016

Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

Habel, N. C. An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2009

Hogue, M. S. “Religion Without God: The Way of Religious Naturalism”, in The Fourth R 27, 3, (May-June 2014), 3-6, 15-16

Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Northcote. Morning Star Publishing, 2016

Johnson, C. V. “Relating Liturgical Time to ‘Place-time’: The Spatiotemporal Dislocation of the Liturgical Year in Australia” in S. Burns & A. Monro. (Ed) Christian Worship in Australis: Inculturating the Liturgical Tradition. Strathfield. St Pauls Publications, 2009

Kaplan, M. M. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. New York. Reconstructionist Press, 1962. (Quotation cited in D. Solomon. “A Jewish Perspective on Religious Naturalism” in D. A. Crosby & J. A. Stone (Ed). The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism. London. Routledge Press, 2018 LaChapelle, D. “Ritual is Essential” in In Context, ‘Art and Ceremony in Sustainable Culture’, 5, (Spring 1984), 39

LaPier, R. R. “What Winter Solstice Rituals Tell Us About Indigenous People” in The Conversation, 13 December 2018

Meland, B. E. “The Worship Mood” in Religious Education 26, 8, (October 1931), 661-665 Nickerson, B. Celebrate the Sun. New York. J. B. Lippincott Co., 1969

Peacocke, A. All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Philip Clayton. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2007

Peters, K. E. “A Christian Religious Naturalism” in D. A. Crosby & J. A. Stone (Ed). The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism. London. Routledge Press, 2018
————-, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002
————-, “Humanity in Nature: Conserving Yet Creating” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 24, 4, (December 1989), 469-485
————-, “Evolutionary Naturalism: Survival as a Value” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 15, 2, (June 1980), 213-222

Robinson, J. A. T. Honest to God. London. SCM Press, 1965

Sanguin, B. Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of The Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity. Kelowna. Copper House/Wood Lake Publishing, 2007

Steinhart, E. “Practices in Religious Naturalism” in D. A. Crosby & J. A. Stone (Ed). The Routledge Handbook of Religious Naturalism. London. Routledge Press, 2018

Stone, J. A. “Is Nature Enough? Yes” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 38, 4, (December 2003), 783-800

Tacey, D. ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality. Pymble. HarperCollins, 2000

Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home: Progresive Christianity at the Grass Roots. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2006
————-, “Ritual Theory Applied to 21st Century Christian Worship Practices”. A paper from the Westar Literacy & Liturgy Seminar, (Spring 2006). In private circulation

Vogt, V. O. Art and Religion. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1921
————-, Modern Worship. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1927

White, S. J. Christian Worship and Technological Change. Nashville. Abingdon Press, 1994

And Some Storybooks for Adults:

Bach, R. Jonathan Livingston Seagull. A Story. London. Turnstone Press, 1970

Kavanaugh, J. Celebrate the Sun. [Harry Langendorf Pelican]. Los Angeles. Nash Publishing, 1973 Paulus, P. Hope for the Flowers. A Tale… New York. Paulist Press, 1972

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