Religious naturalism is the idea that the sacred is found in nature. (Where else would you expect to find it?) It embraces reality and finds inspiration in it.
Many people's lives and work could be cited to illustrate natural piety, or religious naturalism. Among them is Ralph Ellison, who became famous as author of the National Book Award winning novel Invisible Man in 1953. Though most easily seen as a narrative about race relations and identity in the United States, it is also "a book about the human race stumbling down the path to identity." I offer Ellison's work, and commentary about his work and life, as an example of piety.
- Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library, 1995).
- Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Knopf, 2007).
- Beth Eddy, The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (Princeton University Press, 2003).
- Ralph Ellison
Ellison was influenced by Kenneth Burke, who wrote about human motives in an attempt to understand the human condition.
- Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Prentice Hall, 1945).
- Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Prentice Hall, 1950).
- Kenneth Burke, Essays Toward a Symbolic of Motives, 1950-55 (Parlor Press, 2006).
Technical and Analytical Readings
Here are works more formally on the subject of religious naturalism.
- Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press, 1998).
- Jerome A. Stone, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (State University of New York Press, 2008).
- Gordon Kaufman, In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1995).
- Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2009).
- Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
- Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison, The Etiquette of Freedom (Counterpoint, 2010).
- Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (Counterpoint, 2010).
- Arthur Dobrin, Spelling God with Two O's (Columbia Pub. Co., 1993).
- Aleksey Savrasov, Summer Landscape with Pine Trees near the River (1878)
- Aleksey Savrasov, On the Volga (1875)
- Aleksey Savrasov, Rainbow (1875)
- Aleksey Savrasov, Spring Day (1873)
- Aleksey Savrasov, Autumn (1871)
- Aleksey Savrasov, After a Thunderstorm (c. 1875)
- Aleksey Savrosov, Winter Night (1869)
- Aleksey Savrasov, Summer Landscape (1860s)
- Aleksey Savrasov, Type in the Swiss Alps (1862)
- Gary Snyder, The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations (Counterpoint, 1999).
- Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974).
- Gary Snyder, Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (Counterpoint, 2009).
- Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint, 2008).
- Gary Snyder, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (Pantheon, 1993).
- Gary Snyder, The Back Country (New Directions, 1971).
- Gary Snyder
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Like many works of music, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 (1919), illustrates several human values. An everyday event – a flock of swans flying overhead – inspired him to compose it. His response to seeing them fly is reminiscent of Einstein’s observation that everything can be seen as a miracle. Sibelius had been struggling with the symphonic idea itself. “Sibelius was notoriously obsessed with what he called the 'profound logic' of the symphony and the way motifs could evolve organically to form their structure. In 1914 he wrote, 'I should like to compare the symphony to a river. It is born from various rivulets that seek each other, and in this way the river proceeds wide and powerful toward the sea.'” This symphony can be heard to illustrate inspiration and miracles but its center of gravity rests in Sibelius’ response to seeing the birds fly, and in the theme he composed to represent their flight. “On April 21, 1915, Sibelius wrote in his diary, 'Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!'” He was responding to nature as Einstein did, with a sense of reverence, or natural piety. That is where a hearing of this theme can put you, and keep you for quite some time. For many listeners, it is unforgettable. Top performances were conducted by Kajanus in 1932, Rodzinski in 1941, Ormandy in 1954, Collins in 1955, Karajan in 1965 ***, Barbirolli in 1966, Davis in 1974, Rattle in 1983, Berglund in 1988, Vänskä in 1996 and Mäkelä in 2021. Here are live performances conducted by Bernstein, Saraste and Wolf.
Olivier Messiaen, Des canyons aux étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) (1972) (approx. 90-100 minutes): “. . . Messiaen found the divine presence everywhere in nature, most especially in the songs of birds. All of his compositions reflect the deeply held religious faith that he constantly refreshed in his observations of nature.” “. . . Messiaen transformed his tour of Bryce Canyon and two other monuments of the American West — Cedar Breaks and Zion Park — into sacred music filled with birdsong, sensuous melodies and divine breath.” He wrote: “. . . it is above all a religious work, a work of praise and contemplation. It is also a geological and astronomical work. The sound-colors include all the hues of the rainbow and revolve around the blue of the Stellar’s Jay and the red of Bryce Canyon. The majority of the birds are from Utah and the Hawaiian Islands. Heaven is symbolized by Zion Park and the star Aldebaran.” Excellent performances are by Salonen in 1989, de Leeuw in 1993, Chung in 2001, and Gilbert in 2016.
Stephan Micus “is a genuine music hermit, he composes on his own, records on his own, and plays on his own an infinity of instruments: ranging from sho (the Japanese mouth organ) to ki un ki (the wind instrument used by the Udegeys Siberian tribe), from bodhran (the shamanic Irish drum) to bolombatto (the typical harp from Western Africa), just to mention a few. And always on his own, he records all the voices featured on his records: by using the most advanced multi-track recording techniques to create harmonizations that possess the intact perfume of magic.” His musical output is best grouped in three categories: reverence, living in flow and enlightenment. Most of his albums are best “seen” as expressions of the first value, reverence, a/k/a natural piety. In these albums, Micus contemplates nature, including human nature.”
- “Winter’s End” (2021): “”Like many Micus albums, Winter’s End has an epic arc to its structure. Thus, ‘Autumn Hymn’ and ‘Winter Hymn’ bookend the program, and songs two and 11, ‘Walking in Snow’ and ‘Walking in Sand,’ both contain an exquisite sense of space punctuated by a solitary 12-string guitar. Between those walks are a ‘Baobab Dance’ of four kalimbas, chikulo, and sinding (a Gambian harp); the ‘Southern Stars’ of four charangos (a Peruvian stringed instrument), five suling (a Balinese flute), a sinding, and two Egyptian nay flutes; and other impressionistic destinations and activities.
- “White Night” (2019): our lives in context, with track titles including “The Bridge”, “The River”, “Fireflies” and “The Moon”. “From one gate to the other, we embrace the world in the span of 50 minutes, starting the cycle anew. Along the way, we stop to view “The Moon,” wherein a role that might normally have been filled by lone shakuhachi finds a multivalent replacement in the double-reed duduk. Like the nay that appears alongside the Ghanaian dondon (or talking drum) in “Black Hill,” it is a thought made incarnate by contact of skin and breath. Fitting, then, that Micus’s last name should be an anagram of “Music,” as his very being is synonymous with that most connective force.”
- “Inland Sea” (2017) is a landscape portrait, like “White Night”. “While the album's title can refer to possible hospitable climates and civilization, the sparse music nonetheless is much more suggestive of something vast and desolate.” “Micus choruses his voice fifteen times over, and to it adds three genbri, a three-stringed bass instrument from Morocco. Treading the same soil packed by the feet of ‘Dancing Clouds’ (plucked nyckelharpa, 6 percussive nyckelharpa, 3 bowed nyckelharpa, steel string guitar, genbri, bass zither) and laid to rest by “For Shirin and Khosru” (2 bass zithers, 2 nyckelharpa, 3 steel string guitars, genbri), it treats melodic resolution as the caress of a loving parent who dispels fears of darkness. Thus we are protected, hoped for, and fortified to face new days, bringing our own children to the well of mortality, that they might also see the reflections of all who came before them.”
- “Panagia” (2013): the title refers to Christ’s mother in Christian mythology. The album is a reverential treatment of that which gives life. “If pressed for a comparison, I would say that Panagia resembles Japanese classical gagaku in its arrangement and color, even if it is devoid of gagaku’s exclusivity. Rather, it makes of this big blue ball a royal court where we live not as servants but as purveyors of destiny. Its play of light on reflective surfaces makes it one of the best-recorded albums in the Micus catalogue. It is the meta-statement of a meta-statement, an expression of Gaia through cycles of human thought.”
- “Snow” (2008) is another musical landscape painting. “Two doussn’gouni (a West African harp that Micus debuted on Desert Poems), along with various gongs and cymbals, give the duduk a gentle berth for travel. Guided by breath, not oar, its intense presence rides toward frosty shores, singing of the ice as gateway and kissing the land with its solemnity.”
- “Desert Poems” (2001): “Seemingly enamored with the same consuming silence of the desert that captured the heart of writer Paul Bowles, Micus translates the hidden energies of landscape into a form that escapes all measure of mortal grasp.”
- “The Garden of Mirrors” (1997): “Just as one look at the many instruments Stephan Micus plays is sure to impress, so too does one experience of what he produces with them dispel arbitrary interest in those means. Music flows from his fingertips in such an organic way that the source catches light in all of us.”
- “To the Evening Child” (1992): “This music sounds in those hushed spaces where the universe inhales, the sound that keeps all celestial bodies spinning.”
- “The Music of Stones” (1989): “The shakuhachi . . . becomes a woodland creature who knows the trees well enough to skip through the branches blindfolded.”
- “Ocean” (1986): “Micus lets unfold a territory so personal that it becomes selfless, somehow unmarked the human elements of its creation. In his playing, names, labels, and covers, even personages and politics, cease to matter. The only restriction is its very lack. Such music goes beyond the pathos of meditational action, looking into the soul of stillness, where only music can express that which all the languages of the world, lost and extant alike, never could. Their cage is not one that surrounds us but one we surround with the promise of creation, waiting with closed eyes and open hearts.”
- “East of the Night” (1985)
- “Listen to the Rain” (1983): a physical and spiritual landscape
- “Behind Eleven Deserts” (1978)
Heard as unaccompanied soloists (or accompanied by tabla only), the Iranian classical masters, performing traditional works, express the deep commitment, carried into action, which comprises the heart of piety.
- Mohammad Mousavi, nay
- Siamak Nasr and other setar masters
- Daryush Safvat Mahur and other setar masters
- Masters of santur
- Vusal Iskender in concert
- Harjinder Pal Singh, santur master
- Hossein Farjami, “The Art of Santoor from Iran”
- Faramarz Payvar, santur master
- Jalil Shahnaz, nay master
- John Luther Adams, “Houses of the Wind” (2022): “The album is based on a 10-and-a-half-minute recording of an aeolian harp—a string instrument that’s played by the wind—that Adams made in Alaska in 1989. He’s explored the sound of the instrument before on pieces like The Wind in High Places, in which a string quartet emulates the air-driven device. But here, Adams works with the ethereal instrument itself, creating pieces that teeter between serenity, mourning, and hope.”
- Komorous, Serenade for Strings (1982)
- Copland, Quiet City (1940) – reverence for people
- Raga Chayanat usually performed in late evening, is described as a passionate, red-eyed warrior (performances by Gupta, Rajan and Ghulam Ali Khan).
- Whitacre, a capella choral works, 1991-2001
- Dahl, Hymn
- Xioagang Ye, Mount E’mei, Op. 74, inspired by a mountain in the Sichuan province, which is revered in Buddhist culture, and by folk music from that region
- Ye, Lamura Cuo, Op. 69b, a work for violin and orchestra inspired by a lake in Tibet
- Ye, The Silence of Mount Minshan, Op. 73, for string orchestra, inspired by another mountain in Sichuan
- Augusta Read Thomas, Resounding Earth (2012): “Written in 2012, Resounding Earth is scored for nearly three hundred unique bells and other resonant metal objects. The composition of the work, and the selection of the specific bells used in the recording, was completed in close collaboration between Thomas and Third Coast Percussion.”
Many overtly Christian works capture the spirit of reverence in the music:
- Grechaninov, Passion Week, Op. 58
- Sacred music of Jacobus Vaet (1529-1567), including many short pieces and also: Missa pro defunctis (Requiem); Missa Quodlibetica; Missa Ego Flos Campi.
- Ran Blake, “Sonic Temples”
- Inkuyo, “Art from Sacred Landscapes”
- Lillian Fuchs, “Johann Sebastian Bach, 6 Suites, BWV 1007-1012”, played on viola
- Klaus Wiese, “In High Places”, with Al Gromer Khan
- Miloš Karadaglić, “The Moon & The Forest”: an album of new works for guitar and orchestra, exuding reverence for nature
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
[William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up”]
Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love—or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of stars shining so
quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best—mechanics,
Or among the savans—or to the soirée—or to the opera.
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring—yet each distinct and in its place.
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.
To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships,
with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
[Walt Whitman, “Miracles”]
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Karl Jenkins, Benedictus, from “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace”, performed by the cellist Hauser