Is there such a thing as the “supernatural”? I don’t mean to ask whether there is a being called “God” or if there are miracles. Even if God, miracles, and answered prayer are real, are they “supernatural”? What do we mean by that term?
Some people believe that the striking events recorded in scripture did actually happen, but that they were misdescribed by the clueless ancients as if they were supernatural, things that could never happen without divine magic. Such “Rationalists” have sought to re-explain these events in scientific terms unavailable to the ancients. A modern example would be members of UFO sects who believe, e.g., that Jesus’ miraculous conception was an artificial insemination engineered by space aliens. There would have been nothing miraculous about it. Extraordinary, yes. But the aliens are envisioned as flesh-and-blood individuals in possession of advanced technology. The scenario would be much like that hilarious scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when the time-travelling Dr. McCoy rescued Chekov from the barbaric ministrations of late twentieth-century medicine. McCoy’s techniques were perfectly ordinary and mundane in his own eyes but seemed miraculous to patients in the hospital whom he helped along the way. That’s the way it is with Flying Saucer Jesus. Pretty amazing, but not beyond the limits of what is possible in nature. We might not understand the science yet, but in principle we could one day. But this is not quite what I have in mind.
I am thinking of two ancient philosophers. I fear we have not caught up with them. Thales of ancient Ionia probably qualifies as both the first scientist and the first philosopher. He invented science when he asked how the rain comes to fall. Religion (or myth) says rain is what happens when Zeus says, “Forsooth, let’s have some rain here! Chop-chop!” Science, by contrast, tells us (or hopes to tell us) how it rains. Even if we still want to say it is the work of Father Zeus, there must be some way, some method, by which he does it, right? If his spoken word does the trick, how? Mustn’t we picture some chain of cause and effect? If we picture Circe casting a spell, mustn’t there be some way in which the spoken formula brings about the desired outcome? Doesn’t there have to be, say, some kind of property in the “magic words”? The syllables have to set loose some vibrations that have an impact on the recipient of the curse, right? Like the radio: the sounds reach your speakers through the medium of radio waves. They don’t just get there because somebody says they should.
If you are just thinking that God says it and it happens, you are talking cartoons. The Koran says, “He saith unto a thing, ‘Be!’ and it is.” But this presupposes that what is about to be created already exists to hear the divine command it must now obey. That paradox, I realize, is offered to us, not hidden from us readers. It is clever and happily displayed, but it still does not make any sense. And that’s fatal. That’s my point: it just doesn’t make any sense, even any theological sense.
A funny instance of this sort of cartoon supernaturalism is the gospel miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fish. As David Friedrich Strauss pointed out in his classic book The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, the story loses any possible plausibility as soon as we take a close look at it: what the heck are we supposed to envision Jesus doing? Does he take hold of both ends of a fish or a barley roll and then stretch it out like a sponge till it breaks, each half somehow the same size as the original? It is a cartoon, not a possible case of someone using a technique amenable to rational understanding if we only knew more about it.
By contrast, think of the (desperate) arguments offered by defenders of the (fake) Turin Shroud. At least they have one point in their favor: when they contend that the photo-negative image on the sheet was the result of some kind of radiation flash caused by the power of God resurrecting Jesus, they realize there would have to be some way God did it. Even if it was a miracle. right? These “sindonologists” are not trying to show what happened in lieu of a miracle, as Joe Nickel does when he demonstrates how some medieval painter could have faked the Shroud. No, they rightly understand that, if God reached down and miraculously resurrected Jesus, he must have used some means.
If there is a method, a way things happen, even in the unseen realm of the gods, then you are envisioning nature, albeit a larger frame of reference.
Epicurus (himself esteemed something of a god by the movement he started) taught that the gods in heaven possess material substance. They occupy space, have volume. Their bodies are made of stuff more rarified than ours. If you look at it this way, at least you know what you are talking about when you say the word “spirit.” Remember, both the Hebrew ruach and Greek pneuma, the biblical words translated “spirit,” mean “wind” or “breath,” implying a rarified material character—like air. And if that’s the case, we are again putting the gods on the side of nature.
In the same vein, some people like to say that “spirit” is another word for “energy.” Fine, but then it becomes perfectly clear that “spirit” in natural, not supernatural. You’re making it tantamount to electricity or nuclear power.
So what’s left on the other side? An abstraction that is timeless, located nowhere in particular, above acting, beyond linear thought, since “he” is perfect with nothing only potentially done and left to do, already knowing everything and not needing to pursue a sequence of thoughts. Pure abstraction. What’s the difference between that and nothing?
If the personal God of scripture exists as more than a literary cipher, he is to be conceived as a being, not as Being-itself. If he does things, he employs means. (That’s just part of what it means to do things!) He is not omniscient, though (presumably) he is wise. He does not know the future because it is not there to be known. Instead, it is just that he is so clever and so powerful that, once he determines that something shall happen, he needn’t worry that anyone will be able to gainsay him. Thus he does not foreknow the future; he just builds it.
Such a god is not much different from a space alien, is he? A superior being indeed, maybe even the supreme being, but that’s like saying that Superman is the greatest of the superheroes. The top dog. The top god. But that wouldn’t mean we ought to worship him as “God.” Even with Superman’s amazing powers, even with his tireless compassion toward us lesser mortals, it would be idolatry to worship him because, as Francis Schaeffer used to say of the Greek gods, Superman is not “big enough.” And neither is Jehovah. The biblical deity is more like Jack Kirby’s Galactus. (And that was intentional. Kirby said he meant for the Devourer of Worlds to be his analogue to God.)
Paul Tillich recognized that the God of the Bible was not adequate, so he formulated a more abstract God concept and wrote of the “God above God.” Tillich stood in a long tradition of philosophical theology, stretching back to the Stoics who redefined the embarrassingly anthropomorphic and anthropopathic Zeus of Homer and Hesiod as the all-permeating, impersonal Logos. And that is a jump from the concrete “living God” to a pure abstraction. You have to decide whether you can make any sense of Idealist metaphysics: does it make sense to regard abstractions like “Truth” or “Eternal Forms” as being as real or even more real than discrete objects? I cannot see how. (What, am I pretending to know better than Plato? Of course not! Compared to him, I’m an orangutan. But if Aristotle could disagree with him, I guess I can, too.)
To make this jump is indeed to jump outside of the natural. But is it to jump from the natural to the supernatural? No, because, whether you are talking about Zeus or Jehovah, you are talking, necessarily, about a discrete entity who pulls the strings, acts in our world (or is supposed to!). Nothing, I am suggesting, removes that being qualitatively from the same category we occupy: the “natural.” He would differ from us merely quantitatively, like Superman or Cthulhu or Erich von Dӓniken’s ancient astronauts. This would be true even if this god were your creator. You might fear this kind of a god, but it would be obsequiousness to worship him, merely degrading toadying.
I don’t see any reason to believe in such a “natural” god. And, as far as I can see, there’s no other kind. To deny that a “supernatural” God exists is a different kind of denial: it is not the fact that is missing, but the sense of it.
So says Zarathustra.