Christians believe in a Triune God who created the cosmos, and who stands in some way outside of it, or beyond it. To call God ‘holy’ is to acknowledge that God is completely ‘other’ than anything else. He is not simply separated from created things by degree but in kind. The Creator is not on the same spectrum as the creation; He is on His own spectrum. This is all summed up in the Hebrew and Christian confession that God is ‘holy‘.

But to confess this ‘otherness‘ of God is not to speak of God as ‘supernatural‘. {TWEET THIS} Webster’s defines the supernatural in two ways: ‘of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil’; or, ‘as departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature, or attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit).’ So, yes, in one sense God is supernatural; His existence is ‘beyond the visible order of the observable universe’. But the language of ‘natural‘ and ‘supernatural‘ leans on a framework which divides the ‘natural‘ world from the ‘supernatural‘ world, a view which emerged during the Enlightenment, particularly when Sir Isaac Newton, outlined his mathematical principles of natural philosophy out of the conviction that there is a deep created order to the world, and to name these laws was to glorify God.

Ironically, these principles were used to effectively relegate God ‘upstairs’ and humans ‘downstairs’. Deism, the formal name for this view, accepted that the order in creation owed its origins to a creator, but that like any good invention, it did not require its inventor to keep running. Deism eventually led to post-Enlightenment rationalism, which rejected miracles both in Scripture and in contemporary life. After all, why would a God make rules only to suspend them whenever He liked? Why set the world up like a great clock only to move the hands at a whim? And if interventions were needed to correct the mechanism, how good was its design to begin with? (Voltaire, Spinoza and Hume are examples of a few philosophers whose skepticism led to a ‘de-miraclizing’ of the New Testament.) In one sense, it was Newton’s faith-driven science that led to the rejection of faith in the West.

What we are left with now are the remnants of warring worldviews– one which claims the belief in a supernatural, and one which argues against it on the basis of scientific discovery. It seems we are at an impasse. But I suggest it’s time to re-examine the very framework which divides reality in ‘natural’ and a ‘supernatural’ one.

Listen to how the Hebrew poets and prophets talked about the relationship between God and His world:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2)

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:5)

And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)

God is holy AND His glory fills the earth! The Enlightenment taught us to see the world (and the phenomena in it) as either natural or supernatural. The Hebrews saw God as above and beyond His creation, and yet somehow also within it.

As it turns out, not only is this view of the world better theologically, it actually coheres with science, but a more a more up-to-date science. My supervisor, David Wilkinson, is a brilliant and Godly man who earned a double PhD in Astrophysics and Systematic Theology. A recent article captures his thoughts on miracles and science from his book on prayer:

Quantum theory tells us that the small-scale structure of the world is, in the words of Christian physicist John Polkinghorne, “radically random”: “By that he means it is unpredictable and nothing like a mechanical clock,” says Wilkinson. “It is a world that is unpicturable, uncertain, and in which the cause of events cannot be fully specified.”

So, suggests Wilkinson, there’s plenty of room for God to act, because the system isn’t closed at all. He can “push” electrons here and there and alter the course of events in the world without breaking any of the laws of nature. The problem is that too many theologians simply don’t know enough about physics and are stuck with out-of-date science. Quantum theory doesn’t answer all our questions, Wilkinson says cautiously, but it “may be one dimension of how God works in the world”.

Miracles are not God over-riding the laws of the universe, but rather God working within His world. {TWEET THIS}

Such a framework also challenges us to take a closer look at how the Holy Spirit works. If we view the Spirit’s work as over-riding the ‘natural’, then we will bristle at ‘natural’ explanations of ‘spiritual encounters’. This is where the subject comes closer to home for me and my research on how hope is experienced in congregational worship.

For example, the discovery that oxytocin—the chemical associated with the feeling of well-being—is released in the brain in group singing can be used as a ‘natural’ explanation for why we feel better after a time of ‘congregational worship’. An atheist may say there’s nothing ‘supernatural’ going on; it’s just chemicals in the brain. Christians who would argue it’s the ‘presence of God’ and therefore can’t have anything to do with chemicals in the brain are left to either deny the science or ignore it. And, worse, folks who can’t ignore the science are left to believe that faith is inherently contradictory to science.

But a brief bit of theological reflection on how the Spirit works can help. The hermeneutical key to understanding the Spirit’s operation in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost. On this day, the Spirit enabled speech in various cultural languages so that people heard Christ being proclaimed in their own tongue. The Holy Spirit does not over-ride cultural norms; He inhabits them. {TWEET THIS}

In the above example of worship and oxytocin, why would the discovery that the brain gets a buzz from group singing automatically disprove the belief that the Spirit is at work in congregational worship? The two things would be mutually exclusive in Newton’s universe, but not in Polkinghorne’s. If there were a God who created us, desires relationship with us, and instructed us to gather to sing to Him, why wouldn’t He also have made our brains to respond to this with a chemical that reinforces this behavior and aids in our obedience? In other words, why can’t the Spirit work within the way we are made?

One more example connected to my research…

Congregational worship is, in a very real sense, a communal ritual. There are defined ways of acting and responding, whether the ‘script‘ is formal or informal. This serves not only to help everyone know how to participate, but also to reinforce the particular identity of that congregation. When sociologists/social anthropologists use the lens of ritual to study congregational worship, they discover things such as the realization that the qualities of an ‘emotionally expressive‘ service (like those in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches) have features that are just as defined as those in ‘non-emotionally expressive‘ services (like those in many liturgical churches). Pentecostals and Charismatics have been, in my limited experience, uneasy with the suggestion that there is a script or pattern or ritual in their worship. If it’s the ‘anointing‘, it must be spontaneous or unique. But I suggest this is because we think the two things are antithetical: either the Spirit is working through the ‘anointing’, or we are responding to cultural norms and communal scripts. But just as miracles are instances of God working within His world, why can’t these experiences in worship be examples of the Spirit inhabiting our cultural and communal selves?

As long as we insist on seeing the world as split between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, we will see the Holy Spirit as opposed to the ‘laws of science’ or ‘patterns of human behavior’.

I think instead of speaking of the ‘supernatural’, it’s time we recover the ancient confession that the holy God is filling His world with His glory. We are the people who believe in the incarnation– a God who became flesh. We affirm a story of the Holy Spirit filling people by inhabiting their ‘language’ and culture not by over-riding it.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty. May the whole earth be filled with His glory.

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5 thoughts on “Why Christians Shouldn’t Speak of the ‘Supernatural’

  1. I enjoyed this post. One small quibble about Newton … he actually was criticized by mechanistic philosophers/scientists for proposing actions at a distance (gravity) without any discernable cause. In that sense, his discoveries went against the idea of a clockwork universe and suggested the active working of God in the physical laws.

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  2. Wonderful perspective. When I think of the Incarnation though it’s harder to make that leap…the Virgin birth seems more “supernatural” than just moving electrons in a certain way. Does that still work within this perspective?

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  3. My simple (?) biblical+scientific view: God is of a higher dimension than creation, just as we are of a higher dimension than a plane, a line or a point. (See “Flatland”.) Thus, simply by operating in His extra dimensions, he easily does whatever He likes in our three or four dimensions. This is all completely in accord with scripture, and with science.

    One nice illustration: a (formerly atheist) relativistic astrophysicist, trained at Cal Tech (and now at UT Austin I believe) asked a simple question that changed her life: “If we take everything we know about the cosmos and relativity into account, how old is the universe, to an outside observer? (Like God)”

    Simplified Answer: take the best “our perspective” age, of about 15 Billion years… and the time dilation due to expansion of time/space of about a trillion to one, and the known gravitational effects… and you get approximately six and a half days. I.e., to God it’s about a week old. To us, billions of years. And it gets better but I won’t give it all away. This one is at http://www.sixdayscience.com https://sixdayscience.com/six-days-2/ (click on the “view this on scribd” to see the presentation.)

    😀

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