Assent to What Is, Creation of What Might Be
In her classic book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, Ursula Goodenough writes:
As a religious naturalist I say “What Is, Is” with the same bowing of the head, the same bending of the knee. Which then allows me to say “Blessed Be To What Is” with thanksgiving. To give assent is to understand, incorporate, and then let go. With the letting go comes that deep sigh we call relief, and relief allows the joy-of-being-alive-at-all to come tumbling forth again.
Here Dr. Goodenough is briefly addressing a core existential challenge: to come to grips with reality. As one who looks to science as the primary instrument for understanding reality (or at least how it works), it can be daunting to accept that we humans (and myself in particular) have no real importance in the Grand Scheme of Things. The universe does not care about us. As absolutely amazing as life is, especially the emergence of self-awareness, life itself has no Ultimate Purpose. There is no Plan for us—there is absolutely nothing that we have to Learn or Accomplish, no preordained Destiny to fulfill.
Yes, acknowledging all that is a serious downer, no doubt about it. It very much goes counter to the human need to feel special, valuable, and safe.
But Goodenough provides one possible way out from the despair and nihilism that reality can impose: what she calls assent. Rather than responding with disappointment or resentment to a world that refuses to conform with our more childish desires or soothe our existential anxieties, we can choose to acquiesce—to say “What Is, Is.”
I recognize the huge challenge of this orientation. For Goodenough, assent is the key to relief and joy. While assent might be necessary, I’m not sure it is sufficient, at least not for everyone. I agree that gratitude for “What Is” is very important (at a basic level, be thankful that there is something instead of nothing, because the latter could have happened just as easily as the former). But I maintain that, in general, humans have not developed into beings that tend to be satisfied with acceptance for what is (and in all fairness, I’m not at all certain that Goodenough would disagree with me here). It’s certainly possible to achieve this state, of course—one could even claim that this is the basis of Buddhist practice.
I hypothesize that joy comes about as a result of meaning and fulfillment. From a naturalist orientation, I would agree that both initially require assent to the general conditions of reality. This means giving up cherished stories and paranormal assumptions about the workings of the world. No small thing, that. It is akin to what addicts describe when they try to quit their drug of choice—initially, the world seems flat and bland without the high. Similarly, life without the magic and miracles might seem the same. But in both cases, it is possible to eventually see the world as it really is—a vibrant, unpredictable, beautiful, thrilling, magnificent place. And that we are beings with the astounding ability to influence ourselves and our environment to conform with our imagination.
A naturalist spirituality emerges out of this relationship between imagination and reality. Or said another way, to say “What Is, Is” and “What might be, might be”—the alliance between assent and creativity. And the creation of what might be—the ability to imagine and then to act to make a vision manifest—is what makes fulfillment and meaning possible.
This is also a part of the Sacred River—the ongoing dance between imagination and manifestation. This is not a mechanical process, but an emergent flow of being, of human life. We are not static, but careen down the channel of change. True, our brains thankfully provide an illusion of stability, but from moment to moment we oscillate between potential and discharge. And we can influence that! We can have a hand in the creation of ourselves and in the way we relate to Nature. And that makes us Gods.