The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough

The Sacred Depths of Nature
Ursula Goodenough
Oxford University Press, 1998
174 pages

Reviewed by Ser

I was quite excited by the premise of this book, so I believe I gave it more of a chance than I normally would. The goal of The Sacred Depths of Nature is to unite the two fronts of science and religion… not an easy task. The author is a biology professor with a lifelong interest in religion, and pulls experiences from both aspects of her life as she progresses through the book.

The basic format of each chapter is to present a scientific topic (such as DNA, reproduction, mutation), explain it, and then close with a reflection on how this topic can be seen from a spiritual point of view. This seems to be an excellent way to discuss the many topics, some of which the reader may never have heard of. However, each section is so… science-y. There is a lot of (in my opinion) dry explanation using terminology that would be more familiar to the scientific community, rather than someone more familiar with the religious or spiritual. I feel that the final part, “Emergent Religious Principles”, is where the real value of the book is for me, as it goes beyond the scientific explanations and discusses topics such as gratitude in everyday life, and shows how to apply this scientific understanding to our daily experiences.

There are a number of places in the text (most noticeably large captions of images) that simply stop in mid-sentence, never to be picked up or continued elsewhere in the book. I feel these should have been captured by the editor before publishing.

I was also a bit disappointed in the chapter on the big D – death. The author pays a lot of attention to most of the topics in this book, but I feel the death chapter was sort of lacking. While death can be a simple subject, death is something much meditated upon by religions across the globe. She simply ended the chapter with the statement, “My somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death”. I feel there was a lot more she could have touched on, more she could have expanded on to share with the reader how she is able to overcome her fears of the unknown. If your audience often asks the same question or gets stuck on the same topic, that might be a good indicator of a chapter you should spend more of your energies on as well.

I did appreciate the author’s attempt to unify the two seemingly opposite fronts, and I appreciated some of the metaphors (such as a Mozart sonata standing for reductionism). I personally don’t agree that life, when reduced to it’s component molecules, can’t possibly have more to it – a soul, an essence, what have you. I also disagree with her view that animals cannot feel “unique, special human emotions” such as love. However, I enjoyed appreciated this view from another’s eyes.

Two and a half pawprints out of five.

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