What Does “Supernatural” Mean? Can a Person Be Christian and NOT Believe in It?

What Does “Supernatural” Mean? Can a Person Be Christian and NOT Believe in It? December 19, 2012

What Does “Supernatural” Mean? Can a Person Be Christian and NOT Believe in It?

Augustine said it about “time”: When you don’t ask me, I know what it is, but as soon as you ask me, I don’t know. When you don’t ask me what “supernatural” means I know; as soon as you ask me, I don’t know. At least I find it difficult to define—in a way that will draw wide agreement among philosophers and theologians, anyway.

I’m writing a book in which the concept of “supernatural” plays a role. (It’s a theology book, not fiction per se. Of course, some people will say all theology is fiction, but it’s not intended to be and I don’t think it is.) Someone who read the manuscript challenged what I say about “the supernatural.”

It seems to me that belief in “the supernatural” is an essential part of traditional, classical Christianity (and I mean that normatively and not only historically). That is to say, denying the reality of the supernatural is tantamount to giving up Christianity. However, of course, many people who believe they are Christians deny the supernatural.  Why? What exactly are they denying? Are they all denying the same thing? Or does “the supernatural” have multiple meanings, like so many other seemingly necessary words?

One problem, of course, is folk language. In folk language, in America, at least, “supernatural” often means belief in: angels that protect people, demons that harass people, “crystal power,” ESP, reincarnation, “faith healing,” etc., etc. It’s linked in most people’s minds with the New Age movement and the Charismatic movement (especially as “seen” on TV).

Setting that aside, what does “supernatural” mean in terms of traditional Christian theology? What does it mean to philosophers (insofar as they ever use it)? Does it mean something different to, say, Catholics, than to Protestants?

An issue to consider here is what “the supernatural” has to do with “miracles.” While all miracles would seem to be examples of the supernatural, the latter category includes more than miracles in most traditional theology. For example, especially in Catholic theology “supernatural” includes everything of grace. Grace is by definition “supernatural” because it is “beyond nature” and cannot be compelled by nature. Yet, it does not necessarily cancel out or completely contradict nature. For most Protestants, I assume, “supernatural” does cancel out and contradict “nature.” That’s the old “nature/grace” issue between Catholic and Protestant theology.

Here’s the specific issue I face. A reader of my manuscript suggests that Karl Barth did NOT believe in the “supernatural.” And yet, he agrees that Barth believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb. What can he mean? I’ve tried to tease that out without success so far. (Obviously this person, who I respect, believes one CAN deny the “supernatural” and be an orthodox Christian in at least a broad sense.)

I think there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the concept “the supernatural” in contemporary theology. Maybe there always has been a great deal of confusion surrounding it and modernity/postmodernity/hypermodernity is just exacerbating it.

If it is true that Barth denied the supernatural, he must have meant by “supernatural” something other than what I mean by it and, I think, what most Christian theologians have traditionally meant by it.

Is the problem something like the one surrounding “miracle” in which popular opinion thinks of it as a “violation of a law of nature” as if God broke into nature from somewhere else and disrupted it by “breaking” the laws he created and by which he normally governs the world of nature? Hardly any theologian I know has ever thought of “miracle” that way. As far back as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid and nineteenth century theologian Horace Bushnell Christian thinkers have been trying to correct such vulgar notions of “miracle.” C. S. Lewis corrected them in his book Miracles. God must not be thought as “outside” of the world of nature so that it operates autonomously and independently so that the laws of nature are rigid rules that he has to “break” in order to act in unusual, special ways. Rather, the laws of nature are to be thought of as regularities of God’s providential, sustaining work of continuous creation  and God can suspend them or use them differently in which case “miracle” is what results.

But we don’t throw out the word “miracle” or belief in them just because people vulgarize the idea. Is that what’s happening with “supernatural?” Is the concept beyond redemption because of its vulgarization in popular culture?

What do I mean by “supernatural?” Here is what I mean by it: the realm of activity of unseen agents unknowable by science because it is “above” nature. (By “above” I do not mean literally, spatially above; I mean transcends, goes beyond.) Add to that that supernatural events, “miracles,” are ones that are in principle unable to be explained by science or predicted by the scientist, even one who has all the information possible about the context and applicable natural laws.

What is an example of such a supernatural cause and event? Again, back to the resurrection of Jesus. By my definition of supernatural, the resurrection of Jesus, if it was something more than a “restitution of faith” in the hearts and minds of the disciples, was supernatural. What would be a better word for it than that and/or “miracle?” Or is “miracle” separable from “supernatural?” Is it possible to believe in a miracle but not in the supernatural?

Back to my original question and issue. Am I not right to say that traditional, classical, orthodox Christianity, in the broadest sense, has always included and still includes belief in the supernatural (so defined)?

One suggestion given to me for why Barth did not believe in the supernatural even though he believed in the resurrection of Jesus (in time and space) is that he did not like the idea of a dualist worldview of “nature” and “supernatural.” Well, neither did Hans Urs von Balthasar who wrote much about (and against) the idea of “pure nature”—nature without grace, without the presence of the transcendent. But he also spoke passionately and warmly about the supernatural. Does “supernatural” necessarily imply dualism? I certainly don’t mean it dualistically. Duality, yes. Dualism, no. There are two realms of reality—nature and supernatural—but they are not set over against one another dualistically.

Perhaps that’s why the reader of my manuscript objects to my insistence that belief in the supernatural is an essential part of traditional, classical Christianity. He thinks, perhaps, that “supernatural” is necessarily dualistic. What about “miracle,” then? Is that not dualistic? Isn’t the bodily resurrection of Jesus dualistic in the same sense—that it cannot be explained by nature? No, there is a way to conceive of supernatural and miracle that is not dualistic. But they do necessarily imply a duality in reality. Surely that’s part and parcel of traditional Christianity.

IF we toss out “supernatural” as a bad category, for whatever reason, how, then, are we to describe events such as the resurrection? Alvin Plantinga calls them “special acts of God.” That seems a little vague and broad to me. That is, surely something can be a “special act of God” without being miraculous. If God speaks to me by way of guidance, isn’t that a “special act of God?” I think so. But it isn’t in the same category as, say, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Saying that “belief in special acts of God” is an essential part of traditional, classical Christianity sounds completely different from saying that “belief in the supernatural” is an essential part of traditional, classical Christianity. Hardly anyone would deny the former; many deny the latter (especially insofar as “traditional, classical Christianity is meant prescriptively and not only descriptively).

For example, I’m sure that Rudolf Bultmann would have affirmed that the cross was a “special act of God,” but he did not believe in miracles or what I am calling the supernatural.

I want to hold onto the language of the supernatural; like so many useful terms it remains important and helpful and even irreplaceable (in my opinion) even if it is widely vulgarized. What good theological term isn’t widely vulgarized? Shall we toss out traditional concepts and terms in theology as soon as we judge they have been vulgarized? Well, there would go “Trinity,” “worship,” “born again,” “election,” “freedom,” etc., etc. Almost every theological term I can think of has been so vulgarized as to almost useless without cautious, careful definition.

And I want to hold to my belief that authentic Christianity includes belief in the supernatural (as I have defined or described it) such that a person who denies it, that is, denies miracles, is seriously distorting, truncating, if not rejecting, authentic Christianity.

In my opinion, you cannot believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, including the empty tomb, and deny the supernatural (as I have defined it). Similarly, you cannot deny the resurrection and believe in the supernatural if you are a Christian, at least not consistently. To me, the resurrection of Jesus, not resuscitation of a corpse but transformation to a new form of life that involves transformation of his body, is essential to authentic Christianity. Therefore, so is the supernatural, rightly understood, and miracles, rightly understood.

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