Celebrating the Worldview that Embraces the Natural World in Its Finite, Imperfect Glory

What’s so great about the natural world? It’s violent, I’m told. It’s cruel. Its driving force, evolution, gives no quarter to the small and weak. Unlike in the celestial realm, all things must end in the natural world. And they do.

How could anything so harsh—so finite—stand as adequate basis for anyone’s values or worldview? As a source of inspiration? As a foundation on which an ethical and spiritual life can be built?

You tend to get these rhetorical questions when you start speaking and writing about the meaningfulness of the universe and life on earth in religiously mixed company, as I’ve been doing. When you declare that the natural world offers all that humans could ever need for meaning, purpose, and a beautiful life.

As put to me by the writers I’ve read and people I’ve had conversations with lately, traditional religion offers much more than the nontheistic, naturalist understanding of life. Don’t people need something more than the cold, indifferent universe, as it’s invariably described—more than the “accident” of life evolving therein—to explain existence and give us the security and belonging we crave? To offer a hope that death is not the end?

Secular humanists might admit that, yes, the natural world is imperfect. It does not promise the love of a divine father or eternal bliss in an afterlife. But, hey, at least the naturalist worldview is accurate, we might counter. At least it’s real. And it’s all we’ve got. Stiff upper lip and all that.

But I contend the natural world is not something we merely settle for and make the most of. When it comes to the makings of a meaningful life, the natural world offers a richness and depth that are worthy of celebration. As biological creatures with a secular, humanist perspective, it’s all we would ever want.

‘Red in tooth’

The shots are both centuries old and very new when it comes to Western culture’s criticisms of nature and a worldview drawn from it. Invariably, religion is offered as superior.

Going back a couple of centuries, there’s Tennyson and his famous depiction of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” This blood-soaked natural world is contrasted with a God the poet associates with love. In this poem, In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson grieves the death of a friend, finally drawing comfort from the assurance that he will be reunited with him in heaven—succor, the poet knows, that red-toothed nature could never provide.

For Hobbes, it is humanity’s natural state—our nature—to be forever at war. If not constrained by deities, laws, and social norms, human life devolves into a “war of all men against all men.” No surprise to hear this from the man who famously described temporal life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In this picture, nature is not something to be embraced. It’s something to run from as fast as we can (when we’re not busy exploiting it as grist for the industrialization that commenced a century after Hobbes).

To cite an example from the present time, nature is the theme of the Spring 2024 issue of a Christian journal I browse from time to time. Plough is a literate, intelligent publication that usually represents Christianity at its thoughtful best. I could scarcely believe my eyes while reading the magazine’s critique of the naturalist or “pagan” worldview and finding the writer associate it with the Nazis.

I’m serious—Nazis.

“The sacredness of nature,” Peter Mommsen observes, “was used to justify the least tender and sacred behavior ever known. … Not that the Nazis’ conclusions are inevitable, as we can see from the variety of modern paganisms, most of them simply seeking oneness with nature’s harmony. But nature is also harsh and brutal.” Mommsen adds that an ideology based on the ultimacy of nature “opens itself to embracing the dark side of its law.”

“The Nazis focused on certain scientific facts that a green paganism would prefer not to see,” Mommsen continues. “The main lesson they drew from nature was one of systematic cruelty: the domination of the weak by the strong, the elimination of the unfit, the merciless competition for survival.”

After my recent essay extoling the story of the universe as a source for meaning and values, I received pushback from some teenagers in a church apologetics class in Seattle—friendly pushback, I hasten to add. Their teacher has been my amiable interlocutor for years, and he shared my essay with his class of young Christians to spark discussion, after which he sent me their comments and questions.

One kid clearly didn’t buy my reverence for the Earth and the life that has evolved on it—my charge to live in a way that is worthy of this inheritance. Why, he asked, “should we strive to be worthy of something that made us by chance or accident?”

What caused the Big Bang, another kid wanted to know? Why does existence even exist? The naturalist worldview was found wanting in these ways and more.

Neither pointless nor cruel

To be candid, there have been moments when the natural world has seemed pointless and uninspiring to me, too.

In the cursory view, animals seem to spend most of their brief lives moving about looking for something to eat and trying to avoid becoming that something to eat for another animal. Their only purpose seems to be prolonging their own life and, through reproduction, the life of their species. For most humans, most of the time, it might seem somewhat similar—illness and aging doing the work of the animal predators we no longer have to worry about for the most part.

Cue up that Eighties rock song by the Godfathers: “Birth, Work, School, Death.” From this perspective, it’s no wonder many people long for something more.

The problem isn’t the natural world coming up short. The problem—one that’s finally beginning to abate in Western culture—is our failure to see the grandeur under our collective nose.

Thinkers like Brian Swimme, Ursula Goodenough, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim—and before them the ever-influential Thomas Berry—have shown different ways of understanding the story of the universe and meanings of the natural world.

One of the lessons you derive from their work: Nature is not cruel. To see it that way, and to wave that as proof of the inferiority of naturalism (as I’ve seen and heard religion apologists do), to see it as the stuff of Nazi ideology, is to see it wrong. A wolfpack that kills and consumes a weaker member of a herd is not being cruel. To be cruel is to intentionally inflict pain and suffering. Predators aren’t killing for the sake of killing or because they get off on another animal’s pain. They are killing to eat, to live.

Through the “Journey of the Universe” online course I recently completed, I’ve come to see predation in a different light. The contest between predator and prey brings forth the excellence of the eagle—its keen eyesight, it’s astonishing speed and skill at flying—and the quickness and agility of the rabbit. If nascent animal species didn’t have to work at getting food and staying alive, they would not have evolved the mind-boggling diversity of forms and wily behaviors that abound in nature. To quote the course material, “Predator-prey relationships can be creative moments of reciprocity and coevolution.”

Something similar is true of human evolution. If proto-people had enjoyed a safe, permanent habitat and something akin to Grubhub to meet their food needs at no charge, if they had not been forced to work and innovate and adapt, they would not have become so damn clever and resourceful. They would not have evolved large brains and the amazing capacities made possible by them: not just the ability to secure food and shelter but to create art, music, literature, philosophy, technology.

Despite the ubiquity of the phrase, the natural world does not revolve around “survival of the fittest” or the supremacy of the strongest. As Goodenough points out in The Sacred Depths of Nature, the more accurate read is that when it comes to evolution and biological life, it’s not about survival of the fittest. It’s about the emergence and flourishing of life forms that are most creative and resourceful at filling nature’s innumerable niches.

One word: ants.

Moreover, human beings have methods for allowing the less “strong” to survive and reproduce: medical technologies of seemingly every sort combined with evolving social norms that insist on inclusion for those with different abilities. Even if you could convince me that ruthlessness is nature’s way, I’d say it’s not humanity’s way on the whole.

But the truth is, care abounds in the natural world. Given animals’ obvious capacities for nurturing their young, given research on the behavior of a subset of humans not yet molded by social conditioning—babies and toddlers—altruism can be said to be “natural.”

It’s true that the world and universe have a violent streak. Earth’s tectonic plates grind against each other relentlessly. Stars explode, destroying not only themselves but all matter in striking distance. Science tells us our sun will explode one day, too. Bye bye, planet Earth.

But the way the universe works, destruction is not the end of the story. Destruction creates. The violence of plate tectonics birthed majestic mountains. The debris from exploding stars littered the young Earth with the ingredients of life, forming everything we know and cherish. Including our species.

Big questions

To some religionists, naturalism is found wanting for its supposed inability to answer the big questions. Some of naturalism’s critics will concede the Big Bang happened. (Some won’t.) But why, they ask? What caused it? What was there before the Big Bang, and what was the source of all that incredibly dense matter that supposedly burst forth all of a sudden? Why are there consistent rules and forces—gravity, for example—rather than chaos?

The conditions on Earth being so rare, so unlikely, so perfect for life—there had to be a creator god, didn’t there?

The lack of tidy answers becomes Exhibit A in the case against the naturalist worldview. Unfairly so.

It causes me zero pain to concede there’s a limit to human knowledge. There are things we don’t know, can’t know. We can speculate all we want about a more-than-physical purpose or divinity in the universe, about the ultimate why’s and how’s. No one can prove their answers. What matters is that the universe exists. That we exist. That the whole thing is amazing when you look at it right.

It’s striking to me that the secular, naturalist worldview bears a burden of proof that theistic religion seems to have escaped for the longest time.

Why is it such a failing that we can’t say what caused the Big Bang or why gravity exists? Theists should be asked why God exists. Why God has these and those characteristics and intentions. And how they know. The game of “why, why, why, how, how, how” can unspool forever whether your worldview is theistic or naturalistic.

Better off finite

Is it such a failing that naturalism cannot free us from finitude?

On this score, the humanist community owes a debt to the contemporary philosopher Martin Hägglund. In his book This Life, Hägglund has articulated, better than any thinker I’ve encountered, why finitude is not only real but preferable.

Eternity? As Hägglund writes, eternal life is not only wishful thinking but vastly over-rated—nothing we would really want if we honestly examined the age-old wish to live forever.

And examine it he does, showing that finitude is more than an accurate, realistic way to understand life, more than a hard reality we force ourselves to face with brave eyes and gritted teeth. It is, as Hägglund elucidates, the way we would really want life to be if we had a say in its design.

The fact of our impending death imbues our lives with meaning and urgency. Were life not finite, there would be nothing at stake in our strivings and projects, in the choices we make—nothing that mattered in the moments that make up our lives.

Can you imagine the complacency that would set in if we lived forever, if it were no longer true that “you only live once” and that our lives will end after a number of decades that we can probably count on two hands?

That trip you’ve always wanted to take to the Himalayas. The overtures you’ve been intending to send to your estranged best friend or sibling. The intention to start giving of yourself to volunteering or activism. There’s already a human tendency to put them off, to wait for a more favorable time. I contend our already-abundant ability to procrastinate would likewise become infinite if we knew we would live forever.

The Life Blasé: If we screw up, no worries. We get a second chance, a third, a fourth, a millionth, a trillionth, and still more after that.

As Hägglund writes:

Life must be inherently finite. The purposive activity of self-maintenance presupposes that the life of the living being depends on the activity, which is to say that the living being would disintegrate and die if it were not maintaining itself. Without this prospect of death, the purpose of self-maintenance would be unintelligible. Living activity is intelligible only for someone or something that has to keep itself alive in relation to an immanent possibility of death. If life could not be lost, there would be no vital interest in the activity of self-maintenance.

Maria Popova puts a bow on Hägglund’s intellectualizing in a meditation on magnolias published this past April. “Today,” she writes, “for a precious week in spring, (the magnolias) bloom to remind us that life is livable, then die to remind us that it must be lived.”

As with our individual lives, so with our species. If humanity doesn’t kill itself off in the relatively near term, the death of the sun or, ultimately, the drifting-apart of the universe will end us. Popova puts it in perspective with her poignant poem Endling—that curious word “endling” referring to the last living member of a species on the brink of extinction.

“In time, all the energy of the cosmos will dissipate until none is left to succor life as the universe goes on expanding into eternity,” Popova writes. “Somewhere along the way, there will have been a creature to think the last thought and feel the last feeling and sing the last song of life.

“And it will have been beautiful, this brief movement of being in the silent symphony of forever.”

The prospect of its ultimate end frames the fragile beauty of human life. It illuminates life’s preciousness, the tragedy of what would be lost to existence if it didn’t have this curious species called homo sapiens gazing at it, studying it, marveling at it. There is great motivation in the possibility of its end—a summons to protect life with the commitment and urgency it deserves, sharpened by the truth that all could be lost.

No apologies need be made for the natural world and the worldview arising from it. Its meanings are profound, all the more so because they’re grounded in the real. There is no other way we would want life to be.