The Faith of the Naturist: John Burroughs’s Superb Century-Old Manifesto for Spirituality in the Age of Science


“Communing with God is communing with our own hearts, our own best selves, not with something foreign and accidental. Saints and devotees have gone into the wilderness to find God; of course they took God with them.”


“At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe,” William James wrote in the first years of the twentieth century as he considered the shifting place of spirituality in a science-illuminated world. “Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether?”

For those of us who stand with Simone de Beauvoir on the question of religion and take to poet Diane Ackerman’s answer to spirituality,there is hardly a lovelier gospel than “The Faith of a Naturalist” by John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — one of the dozen exquisite pieces in his 1920 collection Accepting the Universe: Essays in Naturalism (public library | public domain).

John Burroughs

Two generations after the young Emerson delivered his rousing Harvard Divinity School address about nature and its echo in human nature as the only true religion, which led Harvard to ban him from campus for thirty years, the elderly Burroughs — a self-anointed “naturist” by creed — writes:

To say that man* is as good as God would to most persons seem like blasphemy; but to say that man is as good as Nature would disturb no one. Man can be considered a part or phase of Nature and share in her flaws. However, what exactly is Nature? — and what or who is its author? It is true, isn’t it? This earth we know is just as good as the morning star or evening star. — just as much in the heavens, just as truly a celestial abode as it is? Venus is a crown jewel of the morning and night. Venus would appear to be a larger jewel than the earth. Although the heavens appear far away and are free of all dirt and impurities, we look up to them with our eyes as if to see the face of God. Science shows that there is no place on earth so conducive to human happiness and abode. We have no idea that this is the best heaven.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Burroughs’s contemporary Levi Walter Yaggy. This print is also available as a stationery card, a face mask and a printed version.

Nearly a century before NASA’s Kepler telescope discovered the first known potentially habitable world in another solar system, Burroughs posits that “innumerable other worlds exist in the abysses of space” and considers our conflicted fallibility, which is both part of our humanity and part of our divinity. He writes about his long-standing devotion to cosmic perspectives.

It is not until we treat man as a part of nature — as a product of the earth as literally as are the trees — that we can reconcile these contradictions. If we could build up a composite man out of all the peoples of the earth… he would represent fairly well the God in nature.

In a sentiment his twenty-first-century counterpart — the wildlife ecologist and ornithologist J. Drew Latham — would echo in his lyrical reflection on nature as worship, Burroughs adds:

Communicating with God means that we communicate with God with our hearts and best selves. Not with someone else or something random. The wilderness has been the home of saints and followers who sought God. They took God along with them and were able to hear God’s still small voice in silence. We are not cut off, we are not isolated points; the great currents flow through us and over us and around us, and unite us to the whole of nature… The language of devotion and religious conviction is only the language of soberness and truth written large and aflame with emotion.

Art by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Defining religion as “a spiritual flowering” that can bloom in any bosom, Burroughs writes:

A man is not saved by the truth of the things he believes, but by the truth of his belief — its sincerity, its harmony with his character… Religion is an emotion, an inspiration, a feeling of the Infinite, and may have its root in any creed or in no creed.

A generation after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Burroughs observes:

Scientists can do just fine with only the love of truth as their religion, since this indirectly represents a love of God. The astronomer, the geologist, the biologist, tracing the footsteps of the Creative Energy throughout the universe — what need has he of any formal, patent-right religion? Darwin, Tyndall, Lyell and other verifiers and seekers of natural truth were not the most religious of men. Any of these men would have gone to hell for the truth — not the truth of creeds and rituals, but the truth as it exists in the councils of the Eternal, and as it is written in the laws of matter and of life.

Echoing Thoreau’s declamation that “every walk is a sort of crusade,” he adds:

Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance… There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants. It is easy to find natural religion everywhere you go. It’s present; it’s here and now; it is everywhere. It is sung by the crickets, chanted by the birds, and proclaimed by the thunder. The streams also scream it. But the man who doesn’t care about it lives it. Its incense is rising from the plowed field, in the early morning wind, in the forest and in the spraying of the waves. It is written by the frosts in beautiful characters. The dews make it impearl, while the rainbow paints it onto the clouds. It is not an insurance policy underwritten by a bishop or a “priest; it is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth.

Double rainbow from Les phénomènes de la physique, 1868. This print is also available as a mask for the face.

An epoch before W.H. Auden — the son of a physicist and the survivor of two world wars — could write of “stars that do not give a damn” in one of his most devastatingly beautiful and humanistic poems, Burroughs considers what many call “Providence,” but we might equally call chance. Burroughs focuses on the sober transcendence and acceptance of an impartial universe instead of the self-delusional, narcissistic illusion of God granting partialities.

There is no one special Providence. The rain falls upon both the good and the bad, on the seas as well as the ground. Providence, which is all-encompassing and universal, makes life easy for us.

[…]

Life is here because it fits itself into the scheme of things… We find the world good to be in because we are adapted to it, and not it to us.

Plate taken from an original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Thomas Wright (1750). Available as a print or face mask as well as as stationery cards.

As every era takes its science for the beacon that signals the end of ignorance, Burroughs reflects on how the scientific revelations of his time — a time when we still scoffed at the existence of galaxies beyond our own, had no knowledge of DNA or tectonic plates or Pluto, and considered ourselves the only conscious animal — are breaking apart the old edicts of religion to release a deeper and truer spirituality within:

Today, we see God and Nature in a different light. We use science and emancipated humanity reason to view the issue. The old myths don’t matter. Nature is what we see, so we don’t need a God to intervene. The self-activity of the cosmos suffices… We accept the bounty of the rain, the sunshine, the soil, the changing seasons, and the vast armory of non-living forces, and from them equip or teach ourselves to escape, endure, modify, or ward off the destructive and non-human forces that beset our way. The Nature is all-powerful and unaffected by us. Our health and wellbeing are it’s blessings.

[…]

We have life on these terms… Rain brings the perils of rain, fire brings the perils of fire, power brings the perils of power… Unmixed good is a dream; unmixed happiness is a dream; perfection is a dream; heaven and hell are both dreams of our mixed and struggling lives.

Art by Burroughs’s contemporary Dorothy Lathrop, 1920s. This print is also available as stationery cards.

Here’s a belief that anyone of warmth or wakefulness can believe in:

The naturalist or naturist… sees the cosmic forces only; he sees nothing directly mindful of man, but man himself; he sees the intelligence and beneficence of the universe flowering in man; he sees life as a mysterious issue of the warring elements; he sees human consciousness and our sense of right and wrong, of truth and justice, as arising in the evolutionary sequence, and turning and sitting in judgment upon all things; he sees that there can be no life without pain and death; that there can be no harmony without discord; that opposites go hand in hand; that good and evil are inextricably mingled; that the sun and blue sky are still there behind the clouds, unmindful of them; that all is right with the world if we extend our vision deep enough; that the ways of Nature are the ways of God if we do not make God in our own image, and make our comfort and well-being the prime object of Nature… He that would save his life shall lose it — lose it in forgetting that the universe is not a close corporation, or a patented article, and that it exists for other ends than our own. He who is able to lose his life for the greater good of all will save it.


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