“Big Miracle and Religious Naturalism: Rescuing Myriad Nature from Popular Fantasies of Nature Rescue."

Carol W. White, Bucknell University


“Big Miracle” is a film in which humans surmount greed and self-interest to save at-risk nature. It appears that the “miracle” depicted in the film is that so many people with widely divergent interests come together to save whales trapped in the ice near the Alaskan coast. But a deeper implication is that these immense creatures -- and perhaps endangered nature itself -- have the power to unite fractious humanity. But what vision of nature constitutes this “miracle”? I contend that despite its feel-good quality, the film presents a problematic treatment of nature that re-inscribes popular attitudes toward myriad nature, which, paradoxically, contribute to the degradation of the more-than-human worlds that constitute our being here. In particular, the film reinforces the idea that it is humans’ distinct difference from nature that enables us to save it.

In identifying and assessing some of the troubling implication of such a view, I raise the following question: What expanded views of nature would help ground human action and ethical reflections in the present, and in the future? In my view, religious naturalism offers a set of theoretical insights that help reframe humans as natural processes in relationship with other forms of nature. It encourages us to reflect meaningfully on the emergence of matter (and especially life) from the Big Bang forward, promoting an understanding of myriad nature as complex processes of becoming, which blur the arbitrary ontological line that human animals have erected between other species, natural processes and us. As a capacious ecological religious worldview, religious naturalism also encourages individuals and communities to view themselves as pulsating nature aware of itself. Accordingly, this form of religious naturalism functions as a fundamental orientation in life, and its practice is inspired by an aesthetic ethical vision that acknowledges the inherent worth of everything alive and all sentient entities.

Drawing on these theoretical insights, and aided by the creative expression of a variety of poets and literary figures, I advance a model of religious naturalism that offers a deeper level of ethical engagement, which opposes the facile ethics we see depicted in the film. This type of religious reflection encourages critical questioning of our values, behaviors, and resource uses as we conceive and enact our relationality with the more-than-human world. The result may be a type of planetary ethics -- as coined by Ursula Goodenough -- where the vital forces of love, or of élan vital, promotes an understanding of, and commitment to, the importance of valuing and preserving ecosystems (whether understood as organisms, individuals, populations, communities, and their interactions). Rather than seeing evolution as the meta-narrative of an increasing capacity of human nature to manipulate other forms of nature, or the progressive development of increased specialization, we now emphasize the successive emergence of new forms of opportunity, or the continual diversification of new modes of being, or new patterns of harmonious coexistence among myriad nature. The model of religious naturalism I espouse, then, is one of current attempts to assess, even celebrate, the fullness (the “More”) of life as we reflect on processional nature, challenging the ideological dualisms that deny our radical and mutual relatedness as natural entities.