Alright, maybe not so new … and just maybe the oldest religion in the human story.
“Can a Secular Person be Religious?”
After following John Muir’s muddy and marvelous trails of thought for a few years, a friend who manages the Sierra Club John Muir Exhibit online suggested I read some John Burroughs. It wasn’t long before this new John was leading along fresh footpaths and footbridges. At this stage of life’s adventure, for me to discuss anything about Nature and “spirituality,” I turn to the “two Johnnies” before anyone else.
John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a schoolteacher from a family of farmers near the Hudson River in New York state. He worked at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War (where he met lifelong friend, Walt Whitman) before building a home he called “Riverby” in West Park by the Hudson. For the next 50 years or so, he wrote nearly 30 books and became one of the greatest writers of nature essays in American history.
His books carry titles including, “Wake-Robin,” “Birds and Poets,” “Field and Study,” “Ways of Nature,” “Signs and Seasons,” “Leaf and Tendril,” “Breath of Life.” He was best known for his natural history narratives and especially his love of birds. He shared that love with his close friend, Theodore Roosevelt (they camped in Yellowstone together in 1903).
In his later works, including “The Light of Day,” “Time and Change” and “Accepting the Universe,” Burroughs explored themes touching on Science, Philosophy and Religion. Raised, like his friend Muir, in a religious household, Burroughs knew early on that he was more interested in natural rather than supernatural lessons. In an essay he published in the North American Review (“Is Nature Without Design?,” May, 1919) he began with this blunt statement:
“What unthinking people call design in nature is simply the reflection of our inevitable anthropomorphism” (human form). We project our human traits on our world and think it’s all “designed” just for us. Leave it to arrogant humans to make all the world a mirror.
“We love to fancy that we see friendly hands and hear friendly voices in Nature. . .we have long been taught to believe that there is air because we have lungs, and water because we need it to drink, and light because we need it to see. . . . We see the gigantic outlines of our own forms, and mistake them for a veritable god. But as we ourselves are a part of Nature, so this humanizing tendency of ours is also a part of Nature.”
John Burroughs was no theologian, but in my mind he often makes more sense than theology. He thought that “God” could be another name for Nature with a human face. He knew that language is woefully inadequate in these matters but chose to use words such as “the Infinite,” “the Eternal,” “Creative Energy” and, ultimately, “Nature” with a capital “N.”
One of the greatest gifts of Burroughs’ naturalistic thought is his no nonsense (and common sense) rational definition of Religion itself. Here’s one way he describes our human propensity to believe:
“The term religion is an equivocal and much abused word, but I am convinced that no [person’s] life is complete without some sort of an emotional experience that may be called religious. Not necessarily so much a definite creed or belief as an attraction and aspiration toward the Infinite, or a feeling of awe and reverence inspired by the contemplation of this wonderful and mysterious universe, something to lift a [person] above purely selfish and material ends, and open [their] soul to influences from the highest heavens of thought.”
This is one of the best explanations of a “secular spirituality” I’ve ever read. It deserves more study.
He goes on to say, “Religion in some form is as natural to [humanity] as eating and sleeping. The mysteries of life and the wonder and terror of the world” bring us to awe, fear and even worship. As he sees it, we become superstitious when that “worship” draws us into the super-natural, above and beyond Nature. When finite humans attempt to define and confine the Infinite, we fall into contradictions and confusion.
One reason I’ve spent so much time with John Burroughs is my suspicion that he was exactly what we need to help us build the footbridges between the faithful and the faithless. His tidy definition of natural religion could work well for a common, constructive pathway into our future.
Then again, nothing’s very tidy in matters of belief.
Not long ago, standing inside Burroughs’ writing cabin in New York (he called it “Slabsides” for its rustic walls), I could see how the famous writer could feel so close to Nature there. While he wrote his essays, articles, letters and books, while he hosted Muir, Roosevelt, Ford, Edison and many student readers and admirers, Burroughs practiced his secular religion, contemplating the wonderful, mysterious universe at his doorstep.
It may be wise to explore Burroughs’ trail through the forests of faith, and beyond.
(originally written in 2017)