Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (17): Preventing the supernatural

I've been putting off writing this post because I wanted to do some more research, but I think that's not the wisest course, and I don't want to let go of this sequence. So here is my take - in unresearched and unreferenced terms! - of what 'the supernatural' might mean. Click 'full post' for text.


There is a wonderful prayer in the BCP that begins: Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings.... This isn't asking God to stop us from doing something - it is asking God to 'go before us' and allow or enable things to happen by grace, because that is what the word 'prevent' meant at the time the BCP was written. It's a good example of a word that has changed its meaning over time. The trouble is, the same thing has happened to the word 'supernatural' - but fewer people are aware of this.

In the medieval period the word 'supernatural' had its sense within a particular anthropology, a particular understanding of what it meant to be human. The human being had certain natural qualities and capacities (eg of body and mind) and was created in the image of God. Consequently it found its fulfilment in a supernatural end, the beatific vision, and those things which prevented that supernatural end were sin. Sin prevents us from achieving our created end; grace enables us to achieve our created end. So: the word supernatural took its meaning from a particular way of talking about human nature and human behaviour; it was a way of describing the meaning and purpose of human life, and integrating that into a larger moral framework. So a supernatural miracle, one might say, was, eg, a charitable act. Our sinful nature would tend against doing good deeds; doing a good deed was a product of grace enabling us to act charitably and thereby fulfil the intentions that we were created for. Those who spent their lives caring for the poor and sick were living supernatural lives. Hence that BCP prayer, in its full form:
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings with Thy most gracious favour, and further us with Thy continual help; that in all our prayer and works begun, continued and ended in Thee, we may glorify Thy Holy Name, and finally by Thy mercy obtain everlasting life. Through Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who livest and reignest with Thee, in the Unity of the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Now the word supernatural as we use it commonly today means something completely different. That medieval construction has vanished, and in its place, I suggest, is something like this: the world is amenable to scientific investigation, principally through the understanding of the 'hard' physical sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. This is the natural world, what can be studied by the natural philosophers. That which is not amenable to scientific analysis is 'supernatural', it is beyond the natural. Dependent on the person doing the categorising, this can include: psychic phenomena like telekinesis or telepathy, the occult, various superstitions and, of course, religious beliefs of various sorts.

The underlying mental construct is that only that which can be measured independently of the person doing the measuring can count as 'real'. Only this can be 'objective' and safe for the realm of public knowledge. The alternative to this objectively real knowledge is the subjective realm, of feelings and intuitions and other sentimental woolliness.

Which flags up a rather crucial point: this underlying mental construct has itself been abandoned by the hard physical sciences. Reality doesn't fit into that 'subjective-objective' model. Unfortunately the cultural influence of that now-discarded image is still strong, and most references to 'supernatural' that I come across in my conversations with atheists presuppose this framework.

What this means is that, in almost all cases, the word 'supernatural' has no specific intellectual content, it merely functions as a sort of swear word or insult, along the lines of 'you're a moron for believing this'.

In other words, a mark of the division between the humourless and the sophisticated is whether the word 'supernatural' is given some definite and agreed meaning, which can serve to illuminate the matters under discussion. Personally I think that we need to take a holiday from the word completely, and maybe in a generation or two it can be rehabilitated.

UPDATE: in response to the early comments. The principal source for the medieval perspective is Henri de Lubac's 'Surnaturel' (see also here or here) which, I should point out, I have not read(!) However I've read a fair bit of work derived from it, and I think I've got the gist of his argument. (He's influenced the Radical Orthodox, for example. Milbank's 'The Suspended Middle' is on my bookshelf but not yet read - it was what I wanted to read prior to writing this post, but I felt a need to put something up rather than let the sequence grind to a complete halt.)

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