All Saints, Benhilton. Sunday 27th August 2000

Nature and Super Nature: Part One

Are you a Naturalist?

Or are you a Super-Naturalist?

Or perhaps you haven't the faintest idea what these words mean.

If you haven't, that’s significant in itself. Forty years ago most ordinary people would have known what these words meant. Furthermore, they would have had a pretty good idea of where they personally stood in relation to them.

Since then, however, a change has taken place. Instead of people being taught to use their minds to think about such basic questions as Life-Death-and-the-Meaning-of-it-All, they've been persuaded to apply their feelings to them instead.

The results have been twofold. For one thing it’s meant that people today are unsure what they believe about anything; and for another, because no two people have the same feelings about anything, the chances of reaching agreement or consensus are remote.

It also means that since our feelings are so much more easily manipulable than our thoughts, then those who stand to gain most from exploiting our feelings, politicians and their spin-doctors, the press and the media, have had an absolute field-day. If you can persuade people like us that a particular sound-byte or sales-spiel "feels good" then you're more than half way towards winning their vote or selling them your second-hand car.

That's why we shall use these two Sundays to apply our minds to the question: am I a Naturalist or a Super-Naturalist?

On our personal answer to this question depend not only the way we see the world, but also how we live our life, and perhaps most important of all how we face up to the fact that each one of us, sooner or later, is going to die. Death and Taxes are still the two certainties of life for Naturalist and Super-Naturalist alike. Depending on which camp we are in, the sensible way for a person to order his life will, in important respects, differ between them Naturalist and the Super-Naturalist.

First of all, let’s define the two different beliefs. The Naturalist believes that everything that exists, or happens, is part of one huge, interlocked system of cause and effect. That's not to say, of course, that we presently know all about everything, or even that we ever shall do so; but it's a school of thought which reckons that there is, and there can be, nothing outside Nature which might or could, so to speak, interfere with it from the outside.

That's not quite the same thing as saying there is no God. It would be possible for the Naturalist to believe that the whole of nature itself is God. That's called Pantheism, and a significant part of the Far Eastern world works on this belief.

Alternatively, it's possible to take the view that, although God may exist, he's totally unknowable to us, and even if he were knowable, it would make no difference to us in practice. That was the view of the great 19th century Naturalist Thomas Huxley and it is, incidentally, the correct meaning of the word "agnostic" – not the popular use where it’s applied to someone who "doesn't know" if there is a God or not, but the positive affirmation that God, if he exists, is in practice, unknowable to us and therefore the question whether he exists or not is of no interest or concern to us.

The Super-Naturalist on the other hand, whilst he agrees with the Naturalist over against the Pantheist, that God is wholly other than Nature and not a part of it, also believes that between supernatural and natural there is what we might call a vital or living relationship. In this sense Jews, Christians and Muslims are all Super-Naturalists, as indeed are the vast majority of people who have ever lived on earth. From the most primitive ancestor-worshipper to the most highly educated theologian there is this in common – that each believes that there is a vital link between a world which we know by first-hand practical experience – "the Natural" world – and a world which lies beyond our common experience, a world which we call the Supernatural.

Francis Thompson, the 19th century poet describes this Super-natural world rather well when he says:

O world invisible, we view thee;
O world intangible, we touch thee;
O world unknowable, we know thee;
Inappreprehensible, we clutch thee.

However we mustn't move too fast. The mere fact that most people are Super-Naturalists doesn't prove that Supernaturalism is right; still less does it suggest that they must necessarily believe in a God who bears any resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In the beliefs of Super-Naturalists there have been "gods many and lords many"

One other matter needs addressing at this stage:

The Naturalist, if he is to be true to his beliefs, must necessarily think that all evidence which points to anything Supernatural must be faulty. He cannot afford to admit even the possibility that one instance of it has ever happened. The Super-Naturalist, by contrast, can cheerfully admit that many instances of supposed "supernatural intervention" in the past have been mistaken. His case – that the Supernatural can, and perhaps does – intervene with the natural is not in any way spoilt if some such supposed "interventions" turn out on closer inspection to have been nothing of the kind, or that genuine supernatural interventions are extremely rare. Indeed, even the most ardent Super-Naturalist would not want to have it otherwise. A world that was being constantly and discernably subjected to intervention by a Supernatural Power, however benevolent towards us that Power might be, would be a world both difficult and unpleasant to live in. How could we know for example that each day is going to last exactly 24-hours if some supernatural Being was always interfering with, and adjusting, the speed at which the earth revolves on its axis?

Let’s look at it this way: for many purposes the Super-Naturalist has got to think and behave as if the Naturalist has got it right. For example, an art teacher, however devout a Super-Naturalist he may be, has got to tell his students that "red and green make brown"; he won't help them at all if he adds, at the end of each rule, a qualification like "unless, of course, God chooses to perform a miracle – in which case they might produce purple". For most purposes and for most of the time, the Super-Naturalist can afford to think along the same lines as the Naturalist.

However, the Naturalist cannot afford for one moment even to begin to contemplate that the Super-Naturalist is anything but a hundred per cent wrong a hundred per cent of the time.

Let me quickly summarize where we have got to. The Naturalist believes in a totally interlocked system; the Super-Naturalist agrees with him whilst at the same time believing in something separate from and additional to the Natural world, which occasionally, if infrequently, becomes involved with that world. However any Supermatiralist worth his salt is not going to be too disturbed to find that a particular instance of an event which appeared at first might be due to supernatural intervention (a miracle in other words), he discovers, after all, to have a natural explanation which explains satisfactorily why it happened as it did. So far from feeling disturbed by this discovery he will, If anything, find himself feeling rather relieved that this should be so.

Not so the Naturalist: he has to believe that the Supernatural is an illusion wherever and wherever he meets people who claim to have experienced it. Because his belief necessarily rules out the Supernatural he will go to any lengths to prove to himself that their claim is a false one. So it’s worth noticing how much more vulnerable a Naturalist’s beliefs are. One single miracle, anywhere, any time and his whole belief-system lies in ruins.

Next Sunday I shall try and explain why Supernaturalism is nearer the mark than Naturalism, and also what happens when a whole society, like our own, turns to Naturalism as its normal way of thinking. The consequences of its doing so are so dire that I believe nobody in their right minds would want to be a Naturalist unless the most compelling evidence forced him to believe that Naturalism, and Naturalism only, must be true.

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