International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Sacred Depths of Nature

by Ursula Goodenough

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

Biology has often come into conflict with religion. Yet, the hand of God (as envisioned in religion) is nowhere more spectacular than in Life. The simplest organism leaves one gasping in wonder. This book enhances that experience.

After briefly reviewing the earth’s origin, The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough  guides us through an orchard of results and reflections. Goodenough articulates her covenant with Mystery. She uses pithy phrases like "Life has no choice but to evolve" [4]. She confesses that once she wallowed in poignant nihilism. She reminds us of "...all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty and ... ability to apprehend it,” and that “we are all… creatures who are alive today, equally old, or equally recent " [85]. This is a lofty thought and, for all its scientific factualness, it is enriching, not competing with the vision of formation by a Creator. The author writes; "death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love" [151]. Here as elsewhere, her language is simple and clear, uncluttered by abstruse jargon or pedantic verbosity, and her prose is lucid, at times poetic. There are short quotes from thinkers and scriptures at the close of many chapters. She quotes from the Psalms and Walt Whitman as well as lesser known authors.

While Goodenough admits her inability to resonate with some traditional beliefs. She shows how one can respond religiously to the facts of rigorous science.

One can undergo deep religious experience, even when anchored to science. When this scientific mind contemplates Nature, it is reminded of a Pawnee prayer; “remember, remember the sacredness of things” [86]. Traditional religions stress personal conduct in relation to others. Many of them express reverence for the powers and principles of Nature. In the face of the technological assault on the environment, there is a crying need for a planetary ethic. Goodenough states that her agenda “for this book is to outline the foundations for such a planetary ethic, an ethic that would make no claim to supplant existing traditions but would seek to coexist with them, informing our global concerns” [xv-xvii]. The concluding chapter of the book explores this idea further. There is no doubt that as we move forward, carrying the boons and burdens of the technological onslaught, we must enlarge our ethical visions in rapidly changing contexts. This can be effectively done with the help of the deep understanding that science offers, and the reverential humility toward the natural world that wisdom fosters.

Goodenough says this with a flourish, "I walk through the Missouri woods and the organisms are everywhere, seen and unseen, flying about or pushing through the soil or rummaging under the leaves, adapting and reproducing. I open my senses to them and we connect" [73-74]. This book accomplishes its goals with great charm and insight. Whether about meaning or sex, sexuality or death, Goodenough’s discussions are insightfully grounded on sound biology.