|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
The idea that
a perfect reality lies beyond our imperfect world is as ancient as
humanity. In its Western forms it derives mainly from the Greek philosophy
epitomised by Plato. The Church took his thought up and still preaches a
dual nature. But there are severe problems in thinking this way, often
felt keenly by those who cannot regress to older thought patterns.
perhaps realise how central is the concept of the supernatural to the
Christian religion, to Islam and to many other religious systems.
Buddhists are among the few religious people who don't think in terms of a
supernatural realm underpinning normal perceptions. For the rest, take
away the idea of the supernatural and the entire edifice of traditional
Christianity (though not necessarily of Christianity itself) collapses.
In ages past - that is, up to
and including the Medieval period (and still to this day) - people did not
think in terms of a split between the natural and the supernatural at all.
That split has gradually come about as people begin to think
scientifically about nature, yet seek at the same time to preserve the
idea of a super-nature. In a sense, those who are able to do that have the
best of both worlds. They can be largely objective about things we can
see, touch, hear, smell and analyse. Yet at the same time they have the
resources, real or imagined, of a power beyond analysis.
In contrast, as far as we can
tell, what some now perceive as visible nature bordered by and impacted by
an invisible super-nature, was for most pre-modern people a single
reality. Spirits, humans, angels, demons and many other kinds of non-human
beings moved around in this reality. Some could be seen, some not. Spirits
and demons sometimes appeared as animals or humans or as apparitions.
Humans could cross over into the supernatural world, sometimes to return
and tell of its great wonders, and sometimes to stay for ever.
Most people of those times
thought that a few special people had the capacity to communicate with the
invisible powers who inhabited the world. These were looked to for
guidance about the will of the spirit-dimension - and particularly for
messages and commands from God, the transcendent power "above" this
One example about which we know a
good deal are the religious practices of the Roman Republic. We tend today
to suppose that hard-headed Romans paid lip service to the State-funded
religious apparatus of Roman society. Far from it. Daily rituals at home
preserved a vital link with the gods and preserved the happy state of the
ancestors. At a social level
There was not a single act of
public life in which the gods were not seen to take part. As he was
under the influence of the idea that they were by turns excellent
protectors or cruel enemies, man never dared to act without being sure
that they [the gods] were favourable.
Many today, especially in the
West, no longer think of reality in this way. They think in terms of that
which can be described, as something for which there is some sort of
evidence. Are there such beings as mermaids? No, unless one can be found,
observed by enough individuals to form a convincing consensus, and
described in the same terms as we describe each other.
One might be forgiven, therefore,
for thinking that in the contemporary Christian world the idea of the
supernatural is a carefully thought-out notion, supported by both argument
and evidence to make a convincing case. As far as I can tell, this is not
so. The supernatural is generally taken to be a given in Christian
theology. Why, for example, should Christians give the Bible pride of
place? Because it is the vehicle of God's revelation of truth the
humanity. That this revelation must have come from a supernatural
dimension is accepted without question.
Outside the hallowed halls of
Christian scholarship, however, the idea of the supernatural as the
all-pervading reality is gradually slipping from human consciousness.
Westerners are finding it more and more difficult to think in terms of the
supernatural. The idea is not congruent with the fundamentals of their
knowledge of the universe - and they are increasingly unable to preserve
the duality of mind which appears to allow many to move between a
scientific world-view and a religious world-view. In their opinion,
The whole area of ... the
supernatural is particularly favoured by those who can't, or won't,
engage in careful thinking, and who are both gullible and scientifically
So in what sense is the
supernatural central to the traditional formulations of Christian faith?
The answer lies with interpretations of the meaning of the person of Jesus
The claim for him is that he
lived as an ordinary human being, apparently indistinguishable from any
other man, apart perhaps from what are now called miracles but in his time
were "wonders" or "signs" such as were normally performed by holy people.
But, as if to belie appearances,
his conception was in fact extraordinary in that it occurred without the
sexual act. In short, the baby Jesus was somehow conceived by God acting
in the body of Jesus' mother from a supernatural reality "above" or
"outside" this physical world.
Jesus died like anyone else. But
his death was somehow reversed and he came alive again. He was met by
those who had known him previously, ate meals with them, and then
disappeared back into the supernatural world. However, he remains in
contact with vast numbers of people from his supernatural dimension. It's
possible, so it is said, for humans to communicate from "within" the
universe to Jesus in the supernatural dimension "outside" the universe.
Since the person of Jesus is the
foundation of Christianity, and since traditional doctrines assume the
above account (or at least something very close to it), traditional
Christianity would theoretically fall apart without the supernatural.
It is notoriously difficult to
demonstrate the negative of anything. How is it possible to demonstrate
that there are not a hundred, four-winged butterflies somewhere in
the Amazon forest? How is it possible to demonstrate that there isn't
such a thing as the supernatural? In other words, the burden of
demonstrating that the supernatural exists lies with those who affirm its
Most supernaturalists today
would, I suppose, say that the supernatural is that reality which lies
beyond the natural world or outside the physical universe in what we would
call another "dimension". The supernatural world is meta-physical - that
is, it's higher, larger and greater than the universe.
A majority today thinks that the
universe is uniformly physical in the sense that everything we know
derives from what we call "matter". Matter is the substrate of all living
things. It is formed of particles which are difficult to describe and
observe. But despite the ambiguities of quantum physics and the complexity
of philosophical argument about "what is real", we all live our lives on
the assumption and in mutual agreement that the physical is real.
The supernatural is that which is
beyond our physical space/time continuum. In some sense it "contains" the
universe. Traditional theology - and much philosophy, going back to Plato
and the ancient Greek thinkers - asserts that the supernatural is the
natural environment of God, angels and other good spiritual beings. It
is also inhabited by the opposite of these beings, by Satan and his
demons. The one lot are in "heaven" and the other in "hell", but both
inhabit a supernatural realm.
There are many other schemes or
descriptions of the supernatural. Some are sophisticated and detailed.
Others are more "primitive" in the sense that they are thought to relate
more directly to a specific way of life in a particular place such as an
island in the Pacific ocean or a place in the African jungle.
Spiritualists assert that the dead, having gone into a supernatural place,
can communicate with the living in the natural universe.
A question to be asked is, "How
do we get information about the supernatural?" A traditional answer, used
by that great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, is that we extrapolate
from the known world. In other words, the supernatural is known by
analogy, by reasoning from this world into the other. We can study the
qualities of our natural world and from them infer what supernatural
reality is like.
Inference could, I suppose, get
lucky and come up with qualities shared by the two realities. But if
anyone makes an assertion about such a correspondence, how is another
person to verify it? If two people make contrary assertions about the
nature of the supernatural - one may say that in heaven people can fly,
another may say that they walk as we do - how am I to decide who is
correct? In short, there appears to be no evidence for the supernatural.
But what about "messages" and
apparitions from the other world? Don't people from time-to-time receive
information about the supernatural?
History is full of those who have
claimed to have talked to God, seen and talked to angels, heard the voice
of a dead loved one. Are they all wrong or misguided or just plain
mad? Not necessarily so. Enough people claim to have experienced the
supernatural to make it a distinct possibility. But just as many, if not
more, have not. The case is open until some way can be found of testing
the existence of the supernatural. By that I mean, a way of discovering
facts about the supernatural which can be verified to the satisfaction of
those who are presently sceptical about its existence.
Meanwhile, the way we now
perceive the universe makes it unlikely that we can do more than imagine a
The reason is that the universe
is almost certainly (note that much if not all our knowledge is "almost
certainly") a bounded system. It began with an event we call the "Big
Bang". The Big Bang was the start of physical space/time (following Albert
Einstein, a single dimension). In other words, from an infinitely
small so-called "singularity" (read "nothing") came space/time. It follows
that there can be no space/time other than the universe we know, that the
universe has a boundary but no outside (a space/time word). And if there
is no outside, there is no point of talking about "inside" the universe.
Einstein and others have shown
conclusively that we don't live "in" space and "through" time but that we
are entities occupying space/time. Change the one and you change the
other. This in turn means that when the universe began some 13.7 billion
years ago (approximately) space/time itself also began. The word "before"
can't be used about the universe since our space/time has a beginning.
There is no "before" the space/time continuum we call the universe. No
language or concept that we can imagine applies "before" the universe. And
because the universe is expanding, what is "outside" must once have been
"before." Neither, by this definition, can be known by humans or by any
living being in the universe.
But there's a more serious
objection, not to the existence of a supernatural "place" (to use that
word we must have a space/time continuum), but to communication of
information between the supernatural and ourselves. Remember, without such
communication we can know nothing about the supernatural except perhaps by
New information results in
change. The connection is inevitable. The entire world changes
infinitesimally every time we formulate a new piece of knowledge. History
is a panoramic, generalised view of how the world of human perceptions and
affairs has changed in the past. In order to understand the past at least
one assumption is necessary. It is the assumption that, even if we can't
put all the pieces together every time, everything that happens is
related in a causative way to what has gone before. An airliner was
deliberately crashed into the World Trade Centre because ... and we go on
to propose the causes of that effect.
Christians claim that theirs is a
way of life originating in historical events, based upon the life and
death of a real person who really lived just as we do. The rub is this: if
we allow information or intervention comes from the supernatural into the
natural, then the seamless web of historical cause and effect is sundered
each time that happens. The historical Jesus is destroyed if any
information concerning him derives from the supernatural.
For if God caused the conception
of Jesus from "outside" nature, then this was an event not caused by any
other event in the universe. In other words, we can only use the
analytical discipline we call history from that point onwards, since we
cannot be sure that any event after the conception was caused by any event
which came before it. The necessary chain of natural cause and effect in
the life of Jesus is disrupted every time the supernatural intervenes.
Similarly, if God communicates
with people "on earth" today, the course of history is irrevocably changed
each time God does so because it is an event which is by definition not
caused by any other event in the universe. If God communicates with a
billion Christians today, then God is effectively running much of human
history from the supernatural dimension in which God lives.
If this is true, we need to know
the difference between God-events and non-God-events in order to study
history. And we must recall that Christians need the idea of history in
order to be Christian because we have faith in a real, historical person.
This in turn requires us also to be able to describe the difference
between a God-event and a non-God-event. To do this we need criteria on
which to base our description.
The World Trade Centre in New
York was destroyed by terrorists. Was this a God-event or not? Did God
communicate with these men? They claim to be doing what God wants
them to do. If they are correct in their claim, what are the
characteristics of the event which distinguish it from a purely
human-motivated one? Why is it that nobody has been able to explain
exactly when, where and how God communicated with these men. For if that
could be done, Westerners who have been horrified by the act would have to
concede that it was God's will that the Twin Towers were brought to the
Unless we can be sure about the
criteria which distinguish a God-event from a non-God-event, I don't think
it's a satisfactory answer to claim that God communicates secretly from
the supernatural dimension. In fact, if we have no way of distinguishing a
God event from a non-God-event, we don't even know that God has
communicated at all.
There is so far no way of telling
if we do receive information from another dimension. It seems we don't
know the difference between a natural cause and a supernatural cause. Do
do so would require that we describe similarities and differences. I know
of nobody who can so describe God-events and demonstrate them in
the sense that they can present evidence which can be verified by those
(like me) who do not experience the supernatural or, if they do, are
unaware of it.
One of the hidden difficulties
which presents itself is that if the idea of the supernatural is done away
with then we should perhaps entertain the possibility that we're on our
own in the universe .
It's an illusion to think that behind all the muddle and mess of life is a
clean, ordered, perfect, supernatural existence waiting for us after death
and accessible to us in the meantime. Don Cupitt says we have to give up
... the idea that some
objective and independent touchstone of reality can be found. There
isn't [one] ... we are on our own. There is no referee. We don't
actually need one. We must, and we can, content ourselves with the world
we have. 
Of course, none of the above
demonstrates that the supernatural does not exist. Perhaps I'm the
only person in the universe who has no experience of it. In which case, I
presume that the evidence for it (as something I can't or won't
experience) will shortly be in my hands.
 Numa De Coulanges, The
Ancient City, Dover Publications, NY, 2006
 Tony Windross, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith, O-Books, 2004
 See On Our Own But Not Alone
 The Great Questions of Life, Polebridge Press, 2005