Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Supernatural

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.

Few 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 natural/supernatural world. 

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. [1] 

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 illiterate. [2]

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 of Nazareth.

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 reality.

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 supernatural world. 

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 analogy.

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 ground.

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 [3]. 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. [4]

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.
[1] Numa De Coulanges, The Ancient City, Dover Publications, NY, 2006
[2] Tony Windross, The Thoughtful Guide to Faith, O-Books, 2004
[3] See On Our Own But Not Alone
[4] The Great Questions of Life, Polebridge Press, 2005

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