I have become increasingly convinced that the tenability of religious valuing today depends, in part, on its capacity to move beyond deficient models of nature that have dominated mainstream thought until quite recently.

Carol Wayne White

Nature is not simply an organic body like a clock, which has no vital principle of motion in it; but it is a living body which has life and perception, which are much more exalted than a mere mechanism or a mechanistic motion.

Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

These words of 17th-century English philosopher Anne Conway are no less striking for their content as for the gender of their author. Conway debated philosophy and religion with the great thinkers of her day, and she wrote about the nature and inner workings of the physical world during a time when women were not supposed to discuss, and certainly not write about, such matters. Unfortunately, Conway's ideas have been virtually erased from Western intellectual history, and she is better known for her lifelong headaches that exhausted the resources of seventeenth-century medicine than for her contributions to early modern natural philosophy.

Carol Wayne White, professor of religion, thinks Conway's ideas still reverberate today, and is helping to re-introduce her to contemporary readers. White's book, The Legacy of Anne Conway (1631-1679): Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism, examines Conway's philosophic, scientific, and theological convictions that informed her views on nature. For instance, while accepting Descartes' empirical approach to understanding the mechanical aspects of nature, Conway emphatically questioned his insistence on an irresolvable dualism between the mental and the physical, and his characterization of matter as inert and dead.

As a philosopher of religion, White describes herself as a religious naturalist. "I have become increasingly convinced that the tenability of religious valuing today depends, in part, on its capacity to move beyond deficient models of nature that have dominated mainstream thought until quite recently," she says. She was curious about Conway's mystical approach to understanding nature as well as her intriguing role as a female philosopher at a time when most women didn't dare to explore such ideas openly.

White and her students examine different theories regarding the God-hypothesis and the ideas associated with "nature" in her course "God, Nature and Knowledge." They also study the different roles that science and religion play in guiding modern thought, and engage diverse theories that contribute to influential Western views of human origins, of human "nature," and of perceived differences between humans and other sentient beings.

White is currently writing a book that examines the ideas of religious naturalism in relation to African-American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, and James Baldwin. "This current book is my attempt to identify a value-based conception of the divine within African-American intellectual thought, which I believe has helped shaped the political, aesthetic, and ethical aspirations of African-American culture," White says. "The term 'god' or the 'divine' is such a major tenet of African-American religiosity, and I am interested in understanding and reconceiving it within a humanistic and naturalistic framework."

Posted Aug. 31, 2009

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