Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Original Christian Concept of the Supernatural


For years I've been arguing that the modern world has hold of the wrong concept of the supernatural (SN). The concept of the supernatural that atheists love to mock and ridicule and that people think modern scinece disproves is the highjack version that came about in the enlightenment as a result of pressures from both philosophes and Calvinists. In this paper I more adequately explore the nature of the original Christian version of the Supernatural.

Secular thinking writes SN out of reality as primitive and superstition and unscientific. They justify this by pointing to the ability of science to amass a huge fortress of facts while no facts can be found that prove the existence of a Supernatural realm or any Supernatural events. Yet the problem is that the original concept of the SN was about a set of experiences that are empirical and that have easily documented to exist and to have effects that make them unique.

The supernatural is the tendency of divine encounter to raise human nature to a higher level (which means human consciousness). This means the scientific fortress of facts is a house cards because it’s self selected and ideological motivated. The object of opposition for this fortress of facts is a counterfeit and false premise. The actual supernatural is empirically documented to exist.

Therefore, secular skepticism is ideological and not scientific, it uses the mystique of science to interject its’ own metaphysical assumptions while triumphing over the assumption of a straw man argument. One of the major aspects of the atheist ideology, even though it plays off of historical developments stemming form Christian thought, is the distorted concept of the supernatural and the war atheist wage against what really amounts to a straw man. The new atheism makes “the supernatural” into a construct that bares the brunt of all their criticism about the unscientific and un-provable nature of religious belief. Atheists expositors have constructed their own ideas of what “supernatural” means and then use that to attack the concepts of religion which they fill into it. For a popular understanding of what supernatural is constructed into by atheists we can turn to Austin Cline, blogger and atheist talking head:

Belief in the supernatural, especially gods, is one of the most obvious characteristics of religion. It's so common, in fact, that some people mistake mere theism for religion itself, yet that is incorrect. Theism can occur outside of religion and some religions are atheistic. Despite this, supernatural beliefs are a common and fundamental aspect to most religions, while the existence of supernatural beings is almost never stipulated in non-religious belief systems.

According to supernaturalism, a supernatural order is the original and fundamental source of all that exists. It is this supernatural order which defines the limits of what may be known. Something that is supernatural is above, beyond, or transcendent to the natural world — it is not a part of or dependent upon nature or any natural laws. The supernatural is also commonly conceived of as being better, higher, or more pure than the mundane, natural world around us.[1]

No religions are atheistic. Calling Buddhism “atheistic” is a trick of atheist on message boards who try to bolster the numbers of atheist in the world. That is not reason to associate Buddhism with Dawkins and his cronies. He’s got the idea that Supernatural is an overlay or a superstructure which determines the nature of reality; he apparently sees it as a realm beyond. We will see that this is only half right. While Superanture is the ground and end of the natural, it is also I the natural it’s not necessarily only transcendent of it and it’s not a realm. It’s not a world beyond this world. Christianity has posited the idea of worlds beyond worlds that doesn’t make them the supernatural.

Richard Dawkins writes about quasi religious experiences of scientists and an extrovertive mystical experience of a Priest who was once one of his teachers, he then builds upon this in undertaking to explain the nature of religion:

Much unfortunate misunderstanding is caused by failure to distinguish what might be called Einsteinian religion from supernatural religion. The last words of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, "For then we should know the mind of God", are notoriously misunderstood. Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature clearly shows that she is just as much of an atheist as I am. Yet she goes to church regularly, and there are numerous passages in her book which seem to be almost begging to be taken out of context and used as ammunition for supernaturalist religion. The present Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, goes to church as an 'unbelieving Anglican', 'out of loyalty to the tribe'. He does not have any supernatural beliefs, but shares exactly the sense of wonder which the universe provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews, and observe Jewish rites, mostly out of loyalty to an ancient tradition but also because of a confusing (in my view) willingness to label as 'religion' the pantheistic sense of wonder which many of us share.[2]

In making these statements Dawkins pays no heed to the work of Ralph Hood Jr. or to any of the empirical scientific studies that have been done on religious experience. He’s created a phony distinction works along the lines of his likes and dislikes in juxtaposing two different kinds of religious experience; something he calls “Einstein religion” vs what he calls “supernatural.” He has no data and no empirical basis in study of religious experience stet up this dichotomy. It’s clear constructed based upon his scientific heroes’ vs his religious foils. Why shouldn’t we think of this “Einstein religion” type of experience as another sort of supernatural experience? There’s good reason or doing that since it’s a well known form of mystical experience called “extrovertive.” We can see that his fist example is that of someone who became a priest so it does lead to religious belief. That he can produce a variety of people who don’t accept organized religion and who had these kinds of experiences he takes to be proof that it’s not supernatural but that’s clearly just because the uses the term as a catch phrase for the organized religion he doesn’t like.

Atheists segregate reality into realms of natural and supernatural. They so construct the situation so as to screen out any sort of evidence for supernatural on the basis that such evidence would have to be supernatural. Popd cast: “Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling discuss whether there can ever be evidence for the supernatural in an unmoderated, unrehearsed armchair discussion. The event was sponsored by the British Humanist Association, and organized as a part of Oxford Think Week by the Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (OxASH) in conjunction with Oxford Humanists, Oxford Skeptics in the Pub and Oxford Sea of Faith.”[3] The major idea expressed is that any evidence supernatural must be natural therefore can’t really be of any value. The point being that no evidence for supernatural could ever exist because it would have to be supernatural but it can’t be so because we have no evidence to prove that it exists. The assumption here is that supernatural is an unwelcome visitor crashing into a party given by nature at which it’s not welcome. In reality, however, the experiences of which Dawkins writes so fondly,a strange love for nature growing though a child’s fascination with bugs in the grass, is actually a certain type of supernatural.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes about the dichotomy between natural and supernatural and how unnecessary it is. He quotes a question ask him form the general public, a question that shows the extent to which supernature has been discredited and slandered:

The supernatural seems irrational, superstitious, archaic and primitive. So far, the natural world has provided explanations for the previously mysterious unknown: social psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, mathematics, biology, medicine, physics, astronomy, geology and history have aided humanity and preserved our mental and physical health and extended our lives.

So why do we refer to G-d to as a supernatural being? Where is the evidence that the supernatural exists, or has any bearing on our lives? Does the word "supernatural" even mean anything, other than "I don't understand this (yet)"?[4]

Here we see several of these misconceptions about the supernatural, not only because it’s linked to superstition, which it clearly has nothing to do with, but also the idea that God is “a supernatural being” (whatever that is) and that there’s no evidence for it, when in reality the evidence everywhere, in the previous article Dawkins gives us a bunch of it, even though he thinks it’s disproving supernatrue. The questioner puts this dichotomy in terms of the known (nature) and the unknown (supernature). The Rabbi’s answer takes off along these very lines; known and unknown. “Superntural” he deduces is based upon whatever doesn’t’ fit the categories of knowledge listed; all of course are scientific categories. That’s the only form of knowledge that atheists will think about or accept. Everything must be scientific or it doesn’t exist. Dawkins concept of a rational form of religion is a scientific (“Einstein”) religion.

The Original Concept of Supernature

All of these objections assume a certain version of the supernatural. The supernatural has become a catch-all for anything non materialistic or naturalistic that scientistic types want to snub without really having to disprove it. Supernatural today means anything from ghosts, Bigfoot, UFO to psychic powers, and angels and demons and God in heaven. Not so with the original concept. In the early centuries of Christian philosophy the original Greek fathers thought of God as transcendent but they did not necessarily conceive of that as “supernatural.” The Supernatural was something very different then than it is now. This is important because that original meaning, which Christian spiritually was predicated upon, is empirically probable and completely naturalistic and can be shown to be real by simple scientific means. We have to understand the original concept, there are two thinkers who tried to restore the concept to it’s original form and we need to listen to what they tried to say. The first one was Matthias Joseph Scheeben (born, 1 March, 1835; died at Cologne, 21 July, 1888.) His major work was Nature and Grace.[5] Scheeben was a mystic who contemplated and studied divine grace and hypostatic union. He was also of greatly accomplished academically and was a fine scholarly of scholastic theology. He studied at the Gregorian University at Rome and taught dogmatic theology at the Episcopal seminary

at Cologne. Scheeben was the chief defender of the faith against rationalism in the nineteenth century.

In the summer of 1888, Scheeben died in Cologne, having spent most of his fifty-three years teaching dogmatics and moral theology in the archdiocesan seminary there. He was Germany's most persuasive defender of Vatican Fs decision on papal infallibility and an impassioned advocate of religious freedom in the Kulturkampf, Bismarck's determined but finally unsuccessful effort to subject the Catholic Church to the control of his new German state. He was also the author of three major dogmatic works: Nature and Grace (1861), The Mysteries of Christianity (1865), and the massive Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics, left unfinished at his death.

The generations that followed Scheeben regarded him as one of the greatest minds of modern Catholic theology. His books were repeatedly republished in Germany up into the 1960s and translated into other European languages, including English (the Dogmatics, alas, only in highly truncated form). Since the Second Vatican Council, though, he has mostly been neglected by theological teachers and students who have wrongly imagined the nineteenth-century Catholic tradition to be a period of antimodern darkness.

The Catholic world of a hundred or more years ago was quite right, I think, to see the Cologne seminary professor as perhaps the finest modern Catholic dogmatic theologian. His writings not only yield rare insight into the mysteries of Christian faith, they draw the attentive reader ever more deeply into the mysteries themselves. Scheeben is more important now than he has ever been. He can teach a theological generation that has sold its inestimable birthright how to restore and renew dogmatic theology.[6]

The other thinker is Eugene R. Fairweather (2 November 1920-) was Anglican scholar and translator of Church fathers from Ottowa. MA in Philosophy form University of Toronto (1943) Ordained priest in 1944 and became tutor at Trinity college Toronto same year. He studied theology at Union theological seminary and earned his Th.D. in 1949. He had an honorary doctorate from McGill University. At the time he wrote his article “Christianity and the Supernatural” he was editor of the Canadian Journal of Theology and professor of dogmatic theology and ethics at Trinity College, Toronto.[7] Fairweather quotes Scheeben and bases part of his view upon Scheeben’s.

Fairweather’s view of the supernatural is contrary to the notion of two opossing realms, or a dualism. He uses the phrase “two-sidedness,” there is a “two-sidedness” about reality but it’s not a real dualism. The Supernatural is that which is above the natural in a certain sense but it is also working in the natural. There are supernatural effects which in the natural realm and make up part of human life. Essentially we can that “the supernatural” (supernature) is an ontology. Fiarweather doesn’t use that term but that’s essentially what he’s describing. Ontology is a philological description of reality. Supernature describes reality in that it is the ground and end of the natural. What that means is unpacked by Fairweather to mean that it is an ordered relation of means to immediate ends with respect to their final ends. “The Essential structure of the Christian faith has a real two-sidedness about it, which may at first lead the unwary into a dualism and then encourage the attempt to resolve the dualism by an exclusive emphasis upon one or the other [side] of the severed element of completely Christianity.”[8] He explains the ordered relation several times through paring off opposites or supposed opposites: human/divine; immanent/transcendent; realm of Grace/realm of nature. All of these he refers to as “ordered relations.”[9] If this was Derrida we would call them binary oppositions. In calling them “ordered” he is surely saying one is ‘above’ the other in some sense. They are not necessary oppositions because that’s his whole point, not a true dualism.

Supernature is working in nature. It’s not breaking in unwelcome but is drawing the workings of nature to a higher level. Fairweather describes it as the “ground and end of nature.” In other words is the basis upon which nature comes to be and the goal toward which nature moves. Now it’s true that science removes the teleological from nature it doesn’t see it as moving toward a goal but that’s because it can’t consider anything beyond its own domain. Science is supposed to be empirical consideration of the natural realm and is supposed to keep its nose out of the business of commentary on metaphysics. Of course modern science does the opposite it become a form of metaphysics by infusing itself with philosophical assumptions and then declaring there is nothing beyond the natural/material realm. That is to say, when it is dominated by secularist concerns that are the direction science is put in by ideological interests. Be that as it may, theological we can take a broader view and we see a goal oriented aspect to the natural. Supernatural effects draw the natural toward supernature. That is to say human nature responds to the calling of God in elevating humans to a higher level of consciousness. Another example of the ground and end of nature that Fairweather doesn’t give, but I like to use, is Martin Luther King’s statement about the arch of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Nothing in nature bends toward justice, if by “nature” we mean rocks and trees but there more to the natural realm than just those aspects that science studies. Humans are part of the realm of the natural and it’s part of our social world that we understand concepts of justice. Due to our own purposive nature we bend the arch of the moral universe toward justice.

The term Supernatural (SN) comes to us from Aquinas.[10] He gets it from John Scotus Erigena and Burgundio of Pisa, who in turn take it from Pseudo-Dionysius and John of Damascus.[11] The latter used the adverbial form Supernaturaliter. This is coming from the Greek hyperphuos.[12] “From an early period the concept of ‘that which is above nature’ had been seized upon by Christian Theologians as an appropriate means of stating the core of the gospel, so far example, Origen tells how God raises man above human nature…and makes him change into a better and divine nature.”[13] John Chrysostom speaks of speaks of humans having received grace “health beauty honor and dignities far exceeding our nature.”[14] “In the West the most concise expression of the idea is to be found in the Leonine prayer ‘grant us to be partakers of his divinity who deigned to become partakers of our humanity.’”[15] “In these and a multitude of patristic texts the essential point is just this, that God, who is essentially superntrual perfects with a perfection beyond creaturely comprehension. Nevertheless elevates human creatures to a true participation in divine life an indwelling of God in man and man in God.”[16] The important point here is that human nature is being raised to the higher level of divine. We can see this manifests itself through the experience commonly known as “mystical.” That I will take up shortly, First, let’s turn to Scheeben to document further that is the nature of the supernatural. Supernatural is the power of God to raise us to this higher level.

Scheeben deals with the distinction between natural and supernatural faith. Throughout his writings we see this typified in terms of the tendency of the power of God to elevate humanity to a higher spiritual level. This means consciousness as well as habit. He speaks of “supernatural effects,” the effect that the pull of the supernatural has upon the natural. This is why it’s valid to think of the supernatural as an ontology, it’s a description of reality, or what is. Empirically that description tends toward the realization of human consciousness reaching to a higher level as a result of certain kinds of experiences. Scheeben expresses this in terms of “higher nature.” Super nature is the higher nature to which human nature is being elevated.

If the lower nature is raised in all of these respects to the level of a higher nature, and especially if this nature modifies the lower nature so deeply and affects it so powerfully that the limits of possibility are reached; if God, purest light and mightiest fire, wishes through to permeate his creature with his energy, to flood it with brightness and warmth to transform it into his own splendor, to make the creature like the father of spirits and impart to it the fullness of his own divine life, if I say, the entire being of the soul is altered in the deepest recesses and in all its ramifications to the very last, not by annihilation, but by exaltation and transfiguration. Then we can affirm that a new higher nature has come to the lower nature, because it has been granted a participation in the essence of him to whom the higher nature properly belongs.[17]

He seeks in one point of his work to resolve a fine point of difficulty between the Thomist-Molinist dicthotomy. Scheeben didn’t like dichotomies and thus seeks a third way. His solution is to see the natural as a mirror of the divine. The dichotomy deals with predestination, grace and free will. That’s not the issue I don’t want to get off into that. For Scheeben the authority of God is the sole formal object of faith. Thus faith is divine both in its source and object.[18] According to this position faith is neither the result of rational self interest nor a consequence of the human spirit. We must not mistake the manifestation in experience for the motive of faith. Faith is the result of obedience to the drawing power and call of God.[19] Nature (Greek Physis, Latin natura) is the realm of life from life, according to Scheeben. Super nature is the overarching principle toward which nature strives

The whole point is that the life of the children of God is directed to such specific objects and ends as cannot be striven for or attained, at least in a way that corresponds to their loftiness, except by acts of a supernatural perfection, that is, of a perfection unattainable by nature, —in other words, by acts which are kindred and similar to the proper life of God in its loftiness.[20]

We can see in his answers to the Thoamsit/Molinist issue the basis of the claim that Super nature is the power of God to rise us to a higher level. This is how Schebeen construed it. In summarizing Murry speaks of “power which flow from the new nature,”

that is his starting point(16). One conclusion follows immediately: the new powers which flow from the new nature must themselves be “an image of the divine vital powers”(17), i.e. the specific perfection of the divine vital powers must reflect itself in their working. That is Scheeben’s “Grundanschauung”, on which rests all his theorizing about supernatural acts. In a word, to the divinization of man’s nature corresponds a divinization of his activity(18). And Scheeben is occupied wholly in drawing out the nature of this divinization and its consequences. The immediate consequence, in which I am here interested, is that man’s divinized activity must be directed to objects of the specifically divine order. The essence of Scheeben’s thought is revealed in this sufficiently characteristic passage:[21]

The passage in Scheeben to which he refers:

If we have truly become partakers in the divine nature, and by this supernature have become most intimately akin to the divine nature.... then we are taken up into the sphere of its life; then the Godhead itself in its immediacy and in its own proper essence as it is in itself becomes the object of our activity. Then we shall know God Himself, illuminated by His light, without the mirror of creatures; then we shall love God immediately in Himself, no longer as the Creator of our nature, but as One Who communicates His own nature to us, —penetrated as we are by His fire, and made akin to Him in His divine eminence . . . In a word, if we become partakers of the divine nature, our life and our activity must be specifically similar to the divine. To this end it must’ have the same specific, formal, characteristic object as the divine activity has.[22]

Murryay summarizes again:

This one passage, out of many(20), is sufficient to show how the theory of the supernatural object enters into Scheeben’s system, namely as a consequence of (or if you wish, as a postulate for the completion of) his favorite parallelism between the divine life of God Himself and the life of grace in His creature(21). That parallelism suggests the formula that man’s supernatural activity is “an image of the divine activity”, and this formula in turn commands on the one hand the introduction of a supernatural object (i.e. “God as He is in Himself”), and on the other hand dictates the consistent use of the term “immediate” to characterize the nature of the union with God that is effected by supernatural knowledge and love(22). In this last detail, — that supernatural activity unites the soul immediately to God, — Scheeben’s theory culminates. The idea appealed immensely to him, though practically speaking it merely means that “God as He is in Himself” is the immediate object of supernatural activity. Its contrary is that natural activity effects no immediate union with God, since it reaches God only through the medium of creatures, and not “as He is in Himself”[23]

In all of these descriptions we see one standard concept: that supernature is a life, an experience, an inner relation between the divine and human nature. He says supernture is that which we partake of divine life. Human nature is elevated to the higher level by super nature and this primarily the way Scheeben speaks of supernature. This is what super nature is, the power of God to elevate to a higher level. There is an indication form what is said that “the supernatural” is a level of being above he realm of the natural. That must be the case because the power of God to elevate would surely be centered upon a higher level than then natural. That doesn’t mean that we are free to associate the supernatural with psychic powers and ghosts and unexplained phenomena and anything “x-files” like. The sense that the supernatural is above the nature is an implication of the ontology; the ground and end of the natural would sure be on some higher level in a sense. The more important aspect that all of these writers speak of is “participation” in divine life. Shceeben speaks directly of super nature just that, the divine life in which we are elevated to participate in.

The important aspect of all of this in relation to science is that super nature is not some juxtaposed belief in the unseen that has no analogy in the empirical. The experience of being raised to a higher level through contact with the divine life is clearly empirical. It may be a matter of interpretation as to the cause of the effects, but the effects of what is called “religious experience” are certainly empirical. It’s not hard to link those experiences with the divine; the content of them is that of God and the divine relation to the world. This is what most of those who experiences these things think they experienced.

[1] Austin Cline, “Religion is Belief in Supernatural Beings—How Religions Involve Theism.”; Agnostiicsm/Atheism, blog URL viisted 1/23/2012

[2] Richard Dawkins, “Einsteinian or Supernatural” The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, 5/15/2006. on line source URL: visited 1/23/2012.

[3] James O’Malley, The Pod Delusion “Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling Discuss Evidence for the Supernatural This week At Oxford. 2/23/2011.URL visited 1/23/2012

[4] a reader writing to Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, “What is the Supernatural?” Essentials. Blog URL: visited 1/23/2012

[5] Matthias Joseph Scheeben, Nature and Grace, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009 (paperback) originally unpublished 1856.

[7] Editor’s introduction to Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural,” in New Theology no.1. New York: Macmillian, Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman ed. 1964. 235-256.

[8] Ibid. 237

[9] ibid

[10] Fairweather,ibid, 239

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

Pseudo-Dionysius Ep 4, ad Caium (PG 3:1072)

[13] Fairweather, ibid (239).

[14] ibid

[15] Fairweather quoting Leonine prayer, ibid.

[16] ibid

[17] Maithias Jospeh Scheeben quoted in Fairweather (239-240). Fairwether fn Scheeben the version he uses. M.J. Scheeben, Nature and Grace, St. Lewis: Herder, 1954, 30.

[18] Avery Dulles, S.J. An Assurance of Things Hoped for: A Theology of Christian Faith. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 90.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Scheeben, quoted in Works by John Courtney Murray Chapter II “Natural and supernatural Faith.” Website, Woodstock Theological Center Library. P100 URL: visited August 14, 2012

Mathias Joseph Scheeben on faith, Doctoral Dissertation of John Courtney Murry

Woodstock Theological Center Library.

This volume in the Toronto Studies in Theology reproduces the doctoral dissertation John Courtney Murray, S.J. (1904-1967) completed in the spring of 1937 at the Gregorian University in Rome. From then until now, the Gregorian University archives contained the original typescript of “Matthias Joseph Scheeben’s Doctrine on Supernatural, Divine Faith: A Critical Exposition”. A carbon-copy was incorporated into the Murray Archives housed by the Woodstock Theological Library in the Special Collections Room of the Joseph Mark Lauinger Library at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. John Courtney Murray eventually published the third chapter, modified and disengaged from its original context (1). The complete, original text is published here for the first time.


[21] John Courtney Murray summarizing Scheeben, ibid.

[22] Scheeben quoted in Muarry, ibdid, p101

[23] Murray, ibid.


Kristen said...

Fascinating. Where do miracles fit into this picture? We usually think of them as "supernatural."

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Scheeben calls them "supernatural effects" or effects of supernature. Since super nature is the ground and end of nature, its the goal nature aspires to, then it can draw nature to the higher level and the effect can be (at times) the binding of the natural to supernatural.

Kristen said...

Thanks, that makes sense. The idea of drawing nature up to a higher capacity goes along with most of the types of miracles that Jesus is described as doing-- turning water into wine is, as has been pointed out, an acceleration of a natural process, as are the healings Jesus did.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

good observations