What Do I Mean by the “Supernatural?”
My new book The Essentials of Christian Thought mentions throughout the necessity of the dimension of the “supernatural” for Christianity. To my way of thinking, a Christianity without the supernatural is not authentic. The book is an exposition of what I call “narrative biblical metaphysics”—an attempted archaeology of the Bible’s implicit perspective on reality. I acknowledge, of course, that the Bible is not a book of philosophy or even theology; it is a narrative, a “theodrama,” a great story about God and us (humans). But the story implies a metaphysical vision of reality without stating it in the form of a philosophy. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that while Buddhism is a metaphysic searching for a religion, Christianity is a religion searching for a metaphysic. If not he, his followers (“process theologians”) have attempted to use his process metaphysic to give Christianity what Whitehead thought was lacking.
My argument, in Essentials of Christian Thought, is that Whitehead was wrong. Yes, of course Christianity has always learned some things from pagan and secular metaphysics—to fill in the “gaps,” so to speak. But embedded within the biblical story is an implicit metaphysic that should not be replaced with another one. And that has always been a problem for Christian thought—people replacing the implicit biblical metaphysic with some version of Platonism (e.g., “middle” or “neo-“ Platonism) or Aristotelianism or Hegel’s panentheism or Whitehead’s process philosophy.
One anecdote I tell in the book comes from an experience I had about fifteen years ago. I went to hear a well-known and influential Christian minister and theologian speak. I don’t remember the advertised topic, but his talk was about “Buddhist Christianity.” He said that, as a Christian, he had found in a particular form of Japanese Buddhism what is missing in Christianity—a life and world philosophy. He articulated a blatantly syncretistic version of Christianity that I did not recognize as Christian at all. The lecture hall was filled with eager young Christian students hoping, I’m sure, to be enlightened and inspired by this “Buddhist Christian.” I was shocked and left the event dismayed.
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One element of the “narrative biblical metaphysic” that I believe many, perhaps most modern American Christians have great difficulty with is the supernatural. In The Essentials of Christian Thought I do not shy away from it and even aver that it is essential to the Christian story and its underlying metaphysical vision of reality. I acknowledge in the book, of course, that the word “supernatural” is controversial and causes much confusion because popular culture—at least in America—has distorted and misused it to the point of making it almost useless—for Christian philosophy and theology.
Go to almost any secular bookstore and you will find a section labeled either “metaphysical” or “supernatural.” Both tend to mean “esoteric” and/or “occult.” Americans have come to identify the word “supernatural” with anything occult, esoteric, mystical and most of it has little if anything to do with Christianity. Somehow we have handed over the word “supernatural” to things like the so-called New Age Movement or perhaps some versions of Christianity that specialize in manufactured miracles (e.g., “leg lengthening” or routine “exorcisms” even of born-again Christians who struggle with some besetting sin or psychological problem).
In The Essentials of Christian Thought I define “supernatural” differently. But this is nothing new; theology almost always uses words differently than they are used in popular culture and even in churches (where popular culture has largely determined the meanings).
Here is the definition I borrow from Cambridge University philosophical theologian John Oman (d. 1939): “The Supernatural means the world which manifests more than natural values, the world which has values which stir the sense of the holy and demand to be esteemed as sacred.” Oman added that the supernatural is “the higher environment” that provokes a sense of sacredness in all people, “the holy” that grounds “All absoluteness, without which truth is mere useful information, morals mere expedient actions, beauty mere pleasing of the senses.” For Oman all this “is from the Supernatural.” (The Natural and the Supernatural, p. 71)
In my opinion, following philosophers and theologians such as Thomas Reid and Horace Bushnell but also C. S. Lewis, the “supernatural” is not over against nature but intermingled with it. It is to nature what the mind is to the brain and the will is to the physical body. These are only analogies, of course, but they point to a dimension of reality that is not reducible to the natural and the material.
With Bushnell I believe, and argue, that every act of genuine free will is supernatural insofar as it is not caused or controlled by laws of nature alone. Denial of anything supernatural—“above nature”—leads inevitably to determinism unless one simply chooses to believe in some kind of spontaneity within nature which is not the same as genuine free will. With the disappearance of genuine free will goes real responsibility and even evil itself.
None of this directly addresses the questions of a “supernatural world of spiritual beings” or miracles, but it opens the door to answering them in a certain way—as possible and even real.
In sum, then, I could say that the word “supernatural” is, at least, a necessary way of naming a reality that is “more” than the closed causal nexus of nature, “more” than what science studies, “more” than what we observe—even if we do observe its effects (which I think we do in every act of genuine responsible free will).
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