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What is the nature of nature?

Kenneth Patton, Henry David Thoreau, and James Luther Adams on 'nature.'
By Myriam Renaud
Summer 2013 5.15.13

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silhouette looking beyond the water at sunset

Lighthouse Point Sunset time - Collingwood, Ontario (July 5th, 2008) (©iStockphoto.com/zorani)

If you were asked to award top prize in the Odes to Nature category to Kenneth L. Patton or to Henry David Thoreau, you might hesitate. Patton (1911–1994), a Unitarian Universalist minister who served the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, is known for this hymn:

We are the earth upright and proud;
in us the earth is knowing.
Its winds are music in our mouths,
In us its rivers flowing.

Patton used we to designate all of the world’s religions and cultures. At its core, he wrote in his book A Religion for One World, religion is an expression of humanity’s “impassioned affirmation of life”—we deeply love “the stars when we get a chance to see them clearly, bright clouds on a summer afternoon, the animations of a child, a drink of cold water.”

However, Patton believed that when we sing of our love for nature, we are more fundamentally celebrating human life. We are lifting our voices to the stuff from which “life evolves and is sustained.” We may “have sympathy for other forms of life,” but this sympathy “begins with, and circles back” upon our situation. Patton was convinced that nature provides no clues as to the meaning or purpose of our lives. It is we who project our own needs and emotions onto nature and then read those needs and emotions back again.

Über-individualist Thoreau (1817–1862), who had little use for institutional religion, wrote in his poem “Nature”:

O Nature!
I do not aspire

To be the highest in thy choir,—
To be a meteor in thy sky,

Or comet that may range on high;

Only a zephyr that may blow
Among the reeds by the river low . . .

Unlike Patton, Thoreau deemed us capable of exploring the details of nature without projecting ourselves upon it. These details, for Thoreau, are not metaphorical. They hold great significance in and of themselves.

Humans belong to the whole, he wrote in his journal, and are never apart from nature. Still, we can, with enough attentiveness, discern its sacred meanings—sacred because the physical world is the realm of spirit, the place where God can be found. There is no beyond—nature is neither a gateway to a higher spiritual realm nor a system of coded revelations from God. The physical world is rich with value. It contains truth. For this reason, seeds are more precious than diamonds—diamonds sparkle but seeds contain the principle of life.

James Luther Adams (1901–1994), a UU minister and ethics professor, would have rejected both Thoreau’s and Patton’s points of view for moral reasons.

Nature, Adams insisted, offers no guidance about what is valuable for human life. It cannot help those of us who want to live a life attuned to universal moral demands.

In his lecture “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern,” Adams argued against attempts “to understand man primarily as related to and embedded in nature.” Why? Because in his view “nature has no culture.” In nature, ideas come into conflict and bonding occurs, only because of instinct. God, on the other hand, transcends nature and is thus capable of calling us into relations of mutuality. Even though, in our freedom, we can resist this call, God succeeds where nature fails, since the demand for mutuality, if it is to be moral and universal, must cut across culture and across our “natural instincts and tendencies.”


Who among Patton, Thoreau, or Adams do you think has the most compelling take on nature? Share your opinion with a comment below.

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 64–65). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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