Friday, July 18, 2008

God is not supernatural

We don’t need proofs of divine reality because we all have an innate sense of it, atheists included. The work of mythologists supports the conclusion I reached from my own experience that God is the most natural reality, not some super-natural, extra-natural, un-natural, external-to-reality being we have to be told to believe in.

The Mystery deep within all reality does not belong to religion more than to the rest of life, and any claim by a religion that it possesses exclusive revelation of what we call God is absurd. It is religion’s preposterous claims plus its conflicts, craziness, and cruelties that disgust atheists. Understandable. But let’s not ignore the positive contributions of religion.

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicated a growing awareness by Americans that God is not a humanlike individual. This is a step toward realizing that the Holy Force is independent of religion. While 60% of respondents said they believe in a “personal God,” a surprisingly high 25% said they believe in an “impersonal force.” I welcome the shift to this more abstract idea of God and away from the Guys in the Sky. As it gains familiarity in public consciousness, I hope that a growing number of people will see how distorting and inappropriate is the steady drip of “He,” “Him,” and “His.”

The poll by the Pew Forum confirmed the importance of faith to Americans, but it also showed dogmatism waning. 70% of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination, including majorities among Protestants and Catholics, said they agreed that "many religions can lead to eternal life."

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune saw the poll results as proof that “the Humble Majority” agree “that no single religion or philosophical system has a monopoly on the Absolute Truth.” He believes, “Humility is the appropriate response to the vastness of the universe and the wonders and horrors of life on Earth.”

7 comments:

Florian said...

At first I took for granted that, since you, Jeanette, believe in God, you also believe that God is somehow supernatural. Gradually it became more clear that you do not really believe that; hence your unorthodox notions of God.

"We don't need proofs of divine reality because we all have an innate sense of it," says Jeanette. But, in my opinion, that would be somewhat like saying, "We don't need to know that the sun, through thermonuclear fusion, really is able to produce light and heat, because we can all clearly see that the sun is indeed producing lots of light and heat." Of course, my point is that a readily available sensation is not a substitute for knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge in the case of my sun analogy. Though everyone may have an innate sense of God, that doesn't prevent people from developing conflicting theories about God. THAT is why we need the proofs of God, to help us avoid developing some of the erroneous notions of God that are now floating around, especially in the blogs on this website.

One example of theoretical conflict revolves around the assertion in the title of this blog post: "God is not supernatural". Whether we believe this assertion is true or not is something important to both Jeanette and I, because it likely determines whether or not people develop erroneous notions about God.

Yet, I don't think we can adequately answer the question of whether or not the assertion is true until we settle on a meaning for the word "supernatural".
Jeanette introduces the word along with the other words unnatural, extranatural, and external-to-reality (though that's not a word). But all of these words mean something a little different.

Unnatural should have the most clear meaning. It means "not natural". Extra-natural literally means "outside of nature", and that could also be taken to mean "not natural" by some. External to reality means being outside of reality. Perhaps Jeanette again means "outside of nature", for, to me, "outside of reality" means "not real". But I am going to assume that we all agree that God is somehow real.

Now, the term supernatural literally means "over and above nature". This is not necessarily interchangeable with the other terms. I, for one, wouldn't say that the supernatural is unnatural. Nor is it extranatural. It is not outside of nature in the sense of being disconnected from nature, for then we couldn't pray or get in contact in any way with God or any other supernatural helpers. Though not outside, the supernatural is beyond nature. It could seem very natural to us, but it is also more than just natural.

The supernatural and the natural are not the same, yet they aren't so contrasting. I mean that they don't have to oppose each other; they can work together. A well-known dictum of classical theology says that "Grace (a supernatural reality) does not violate nature; it perfects nature."

I think we have to say that God is supernatural. God must be beyond the natural since God existed "before" the natural world was created by God, and "before" nature existed. It follows, then, that God is not bound by nature's laws, which are "contained" in the natural world created by God and therefore subject to God. One might question whether God really is such a creator. Well, that's where the proofs of God come in to support that idea.

I am going to guess that Jeanette rejects the word "supernatural" as an adjective for God precisely because it leads to this notion of a God that is not subject to nature's laws, instead of vice-versa. But why should we reject that notion? Jeanette cannot come up with a good reason to reject it. I think she rejects it because she just doesn't like it.

She doesn't like it because then God and perhaps other supernatural beings have the power to produce nature miracles; and then people will feel justified in literally believing in things which Jeanette wants to relegate to myth. But, if we have evidence that nature miracles happen, then people are completely justified in literally believing in such events.

She also doesn't like it because then there is the possibility of supernatural revelation in addition to natural revelation. The term "natural revelation" is used by theologians to describe what Paul was taking about when he said, "[God's] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be perceived in what he has made." (Romans 1:20) So, as Jeanette is trying to say, it is very "natural" for humans to experience or perceive God. Yet, that does not prove that God does not communicate to humanity in supernatural ways as well. Indeed, the whole Judeo-Christian tradition is based on the belief that certain historical events were essentially supernatural revelations of God. I don't know how Jeanette or anyone would go about proving that they were not. In fact, Jeanette doesn't bother to prove it, but just dismisses it as "preposterous" or "absurd". (To me, that negates any of Jeanette's claims to being a Christian.)

Perhaps, what Jeanette is actually referring to as absurd is the claim that God would make some special, exclusive revelation only to a limited group of people (a "chosen" people). According to liberal religious dogma, God is good, so God wouldn't discriminate (which is one of the most evil deeds according to the liberal moral code), so God wouldn't make a revelation just to one group of people but not another.

A few things need to be pointed out here. First, God is Mystery, so how do we really know anyway what God would and would not do? Second, I and other Christians believe that God does fully want to reveal himself to all, but has in fact has only made different limiting degrees of revelation to different people(s). It is a fact that some people are holier than others, and so some people are somehow more "in touch" with God than others. So, therefore, God may well have revealed himself to some more than others. For example, the Christian revelation was given to the apostles but not to others, for reasons that God only knows. Finally, just because a revelation was made only to a limited number of people, does not mean that revelation is not ultimately intended for all of humanity. Obviously, even if the Christian revelation, by definition, was only given to the apostles, still the apostles would have told you that their mission was to spread that revelation (the Good News) all over the world.

Why doesn't God just zap the gospel into everyone's head, so that all humanity automatically knows it? I don't know. Why doesn't God zap sufficient grace into everyone right now so that nobody sins anymore? Isn't God all-powerful? Of course, nothing is going to stop God from working in the way he wants and revealing himself in the way he wants, and in his own time.

I also want to comment on this notion of God as an "impersonal force". But perhaps I will do that in a later post.

Jeanette said...

May enlightened peace come to you, Florian.

Florian said...

Jeanette could be more careful about how she throws words around; but given that she is speaking to a lay audience in these blogs anyway, that may be pardonable.

Nevertheless, there are pitfalls to being careless with our words. In my last comment I showed how Jeanette was wrongly conflating the term "supernatural" with terms like "unnatural" and "extra-natural". In this comment, I will discuss the personality of God, and how Jeanette has conflated terms again.

I've made comments before about Jeanette's term "humanlike individual". She says God is not a humanlike individual, and starting from that premise she advances the hypothesis that God is not somebody who is a person, and is in fact not a somebody or a something at all. That requires some elaboration, though. For we can't conflate the notion of "humanlike individual" with that of "someone who is a person". They are distinct notions, and one does not automatically follow from the other.

If God is not humanlike, can't we still say God is divine-like? A divine person may not actually be a human person, (such as the Father or Holy Spirit, who did not incarnate and take on a human nature), but isn't such a divine person still a person?

And what about the individualism of God? In our society, "individualism" is a term which conjures up notions like freedom and independence from others. Yet not one of the divine persons can operate independently of the others, since their wills and their very being are so united into the one divine entity we call God. So, in a way, the notion of American individualism is quite foreign to the persons of the Trinity.

Therefore, I find much truth in Jeanette's assertion that God is not a humanlike individual. But I don't think it follows, then, that God is not some person. The 25% who said they believe in an impersonal force are probably virtual or practical atheists, and that 25% number is not so surprisingly high in our increasingly secular culture. If we think about it though, the "impersonal force" image for God doesn't make that much sense.

What is an "impersonal force"? A simply example would be some inanimate massive object hitting you. Perhaps in some analogous way, God, the Holy Force, struck up the universe with a big bang a long time ago, far far away? Is the Holy Force, like "the Force" in Star Wars? Can we think of ourselves as living in a Star Wars universe? Of course, Star Wars was just a movie. So, I think a lot of people might scoff at this term "Holy Force".

The shortcoming of the impersonal force image is that, to most of us, something impersonal is something inanimate. A rock is inanimate. To be sure, the Old Testament uses this image of rock for God, and the New Testament transfers it to Peter, but that's just one of many images, and it is a poor image at that. For a rock is lifeless. That doesn't have power to create the universe and to create life, much less intelligent and spiritual life, i.e. PERSONS. If we have personality, then the best explanation for that is that it is because our ultimate cause is a person as well. Certainly, being all-powerful, God at least should be able to be a person.

Even more importantly, God is "the Mystery deep within all reality," as Jeanette says. But once we concede that God is some unfathomable mystery, it becomes difficult to make, with confidence, statements about what God is and about what God is not. Yet, Jeanette is making such a statement in the title of her blog: "God is not supernatural." So how are we so sure?

Jeanette likes to think of God as transcending dualities. In her book she writes,"the Sacred is beyond any ideas... beyond male and female, beyond existence and non-existence... beyond personal and impersonal..." I have some issues with these statements. We have to be careful about transcending dualities. Being beyond male and female makes some sense. Such a being can be neuter. But what is beyond existence and non-existence? Something either exists, or it does not. As long as it is true to say "X exists", then it exists. If X is "beyond" existence, I would say it still exists. Once it is no longer true to say "X exists," then X does not exist. That is actually what we mean by the statement "X does not exist." So we see from this line of reasoning that, actually, X, whatever X may be, either exists or does not exist.

So what about being beyond the personal and the impersonal? Ultimately, I think this is like existence/non-existence. It's going to be one or the other. Even if we try to transcend this duality, and not stop at this image of a personal God, we still have to go beyond the idea of an impersonal force as well. So, on Jeanette's own principal of transcending dualities, we cannot properly say that God is an impersonal force either. Indeed, it strikes one as even more improper than the idea of a personal God. First of all, as we said, an impersonal force won't create a universe. Second, the idea of a person is much more compatible with mystery and expansiveness (attributes of God), just as human persons are much more wonderful, mysterious, and lovable than the inanimate objects around us. The notion of person is more readily expandable to include mysterious, divine person-hood, whatever that really is, as well as mere angelic and human person-hood. Third, and finally, God has already revealed himself in history in a personal way. So we know for sure that God is not simply an impersonal force, that is, if we believe in Judeo-Christianity.

Similar to being beyond the personal and the impersonal, why can't we say God is beyond the natural and the unnatural? I think we can. God transcends these categories. God is beyond, or over and above, the natural/unnatural duality. But to be "over and above" nature is exactly what "supernatural" means (but that's not exactly what "unnatural" means). Again, on the principle of transcending dualities, the proper thing to say is that God IS supernatural.

"I welcome the shift to this more abstract idea of God and away from the Guys in the Sky," says Jeanette. This is a deflating sentence. It is the tendency of our overly logical and mathematized modern world to idolize the abstract. God is certainly not abstract. God is concrete; the most concretely real thing there is. Abstractions, by definition, draw out only a slice of the reality of concrete things. It's worse in the case of God, since our abstractions of Him capture only an infinitesmally small slice of the divine, or in other words, practically nothing. No, God wants to enter into a real, living concrete relationship with us that lasts forever. God doesn't want to forever be thought of as an abstraction.

And so, despite how childish it may seem or may be, the big guy in the sky, or in heaven, is a much more adequate image for God than the abstract, impersonal force.

Jeanette said...

Such tortured tries to nail down Infinity! Such laborious efforts to prescribe belief! One laborious argument after another in Florian’s comments!

You’re welcome to your beliefs, Florian. I’ll continue liberating those who feel confined in the box of shoulds. However we imagine Invisible Reality, what matters is that we realize our images are not facts.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed "God is not supernatural" since I experience the naturalness of the Presence that is always there without my bidding, sometimes nudging me to be aware of it; but I am more and more accustomed to consulting and discussing mindfully the ordinary as well as the more important with this always-there entity. I reverse the consecration prayer at Mass by saying, "in ME, through ME, and with ME." - Thanks for allowing my view. Connie

Florian said...

God is not supernatural? God is confined to the natural? Nope. Sorry. That's too confining. Now YOU, Jeanette, are trying to limit infinity. Notice how one cannot consistently apply this idea of "God is not limited to... "

Jeanette said...

I like to quote an Eastern sage who said that, the minute we express something, we are distorting. That applies to any statement about what God is or isn't.

"God is not supernatural" corrects an exaggerated gap between natural and supernatural in the common perception--I'm obviously exaggerating in the opposite direction--and Florian predictably has found some distortion in this statement. The point would be well-taken if it weren't so obviously a matter of trying to best me.