All Saints Benhilton

3rd September 2000

Nature and Supernature: Part Two


Last week we looked at the two incompatible systems of thought: Naturalism and Supernaturalism as they are called.

Naturalism is the belief that Nature, the sum-total of everything that exists, is one huge, interlocked system, permitting of no intervention from outside. Supernaturalism, on the other hand, is prepared to consider evidence that there exists something outside and independent of Nature which can, if appropriate, intervene in the way that Nature works.. The biggest difference between naturalism and Supernaturalism consists in the fact that, whereas Supernaturalists are quite prepared to admit that any particular instance of what they believe to be supernatural intervention may turn out in the end to have a perfectly natural explanation, the Naturalist, by contrast, is invariably bound by the belief that the Supernatural doesnít exist at all.

What is disturbing today is to discover how many churchgoers are, in practice, Naturalists. Itís disturbing, if theyíre right of course, because it means that the rest of us are wrong; but itís almost as disturbing if they are wrong, because it means that weíre dealing with people who are wasting their time coming to church at all. What on earth is the point of going to all the trouble and expense of publicly worshipping a Being who either doesnít exist or is, of necessity, completely indifferent to us and our interests?

Faced with this paradox thereís only one useful thing to do. Present the case for Supernaturalism as clearly as we can and highlight some of the consequences of being an out-and-out Naturalist.

So here is the case for Supernaturalism as Christians understand it. Letís begin with St John, the Beloved Disciple of Jesus and look at the opening words of his first letter:

He says:

"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which our hands have handled of the Word of lifeÖ we declare to you that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ"

You couldnít have a more full-blooded example of Supernaturalism than that. If we take those words in conjunction with the preface to St Johnís gospel, he tells us, his readers that

    1. The world was made by an intelligent being outside itself, namely God, for a definite purpose; and
    2. The same God consists of at least two Persons, whom St John calls Father and Son, and
    3. In the fullness of time, and in his, Johnís personal experience, the Son became part of that Creation in the Person of Jesus Christ ("whose best friend I was", John adds, almost as an afterthought).

Now this is not the moment to ask whether St Johnís beliefs are true or not. Thatís Fr Michaelís job during the fifty-odd Sundays of the year that heís with you. My task today is to show that Naturalism and Supernaturalism, beyond a certain point, part company with each other. You cannot be a Naturalist, believing in a totally closed system and at the same time kneel down in worship to the Creator of that system. The closed system precludes the very existence of a Creator, or at least of a Creator who can, or should, be worshipped in any meaningful way. For worship implies a living relationship with something or someone outside Nature; and the one thing that Naturalism cannot tolerate or even contemplate is the possibility of a living relationship between anything inside the closed system and anything, or anyone, outside it.

Last week remember, I stressed that Supernaturalists have to embrace Naturalism for all that itís worth to them. Most of our everyday lives has to be lived on the Natural plane if only because you and I are products of nature. Red paint and green paint will always make brown paint: no amount of faith in the supernatural is likely to result in their yielding purple.

Now let us look at the two fatal flaws in the Naturalistís position.

One flaw was admirably pointed out by J.B.S. Haldane a scientist, when he said:

"If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are trueÖ and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms"

Notice those words "beliefs", "reason" and "true". If "I believe" is only another way of saying "I feel" as the Naturalist is bound to suppose, then the likelihood of any two people believing the same thing is remote. But the Naturalist depends for his bread-and-butter on getting people to agree with him. He therefore is in the front-line of those who seeks to persuade people by reason to think as he does. By so doing, of course, he is conceding the very point that reason, or truth, must therfore be something which "stands outside" Nature, so to speak. Otherwise it would be no use appealing to it in our understanding of what Nature is.

Which, of course, at the same time blows the whole gaff on the idea of "moral relativism" which people talk about so much today. If Right and Wrong mean only "What I feel is right" or "What feels wrong to you" then thereís no reason for supposing that any sort of moral consensus is achievable in the natural world. One personís feelings are as good or bad as anotherís.

Fortunately for all of us, not least the Naturalist, a large body of moral consensus, recognized by most human beings, exists and has always existed for as far back as we can trace the history of the human race; for that the world has to thank Supernaturalists like you and me and our cave-dwelling, spirit-worshipping ancestors, who have doggedly gone on insisting in the reality of Right and Wrong, helping people, especially their own children, to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, true and false. In this task weíve been helped by the inherited common-sense of most ordinary people who can see, however dimly, that Naturalism, by itself, is simply not good enough.

So if the first flaw in Naturalism is the fact that truth and reason must lie beyond nature if they are to be of any use to us, the second and even more fatal flaw is shown up by the fact words like "ought" and "should" and notions like morality, justice and love, only make sense in a world where Supernaturalism is allowed to take her place alongside Naturalism.

Why? Because in the Natural world, words like good and bad can only mean "to the advantage, or in the interests of the person or object in question". Nature works by the process called Natural Selection, which knows nothing of unselfishness, altruism, sacrifice or kindness. Itís a case of "every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost"

Of course, itís precisely at this point that St John hits back with his double-whammy. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among usÖ full of grace and truth" he says. In other words, St John is telling us that at a certain time, in a certain place, the Supernatural, for a season, invaded Nature, the Creator became a Creature and lived the life of one who was and is morally perfect; a creature who was touched, listened and spoken to by his contemporaries, of whom John was but one.

And at that point the Supernaturalist rests his case. The event which we call the Incarnation was intended by the Creator from the very beginning to be the central act of the process of creation. He "through whom and for whom everything was made that was made" "became flesh and dwelt among us"

The Naturalist, if he were honest, would have to admit that thereís something uncannily neat about our case. It has a certain ring of truth about it. In practice, of course, most Naturalists arenít honest because they canít afford to be for reasons explained earlier. Faced with the words of St John they fly off at a tangent, pointing out how unfair the world is, how badly men, including Christians, treat one another, and how much pain and suffering there is in the world.

Well, of course, thatís true. It takes another giant step from accepting the mere existence of the Supernatural (which is as far as weíve got this morning) to believing that he is good, righteous or even benevolent towards us. If you want to know why Christians believe those things to be true then youíll either have to ask Fr Michael to tell you or wait till next year or whenever he sees fit to ask me back to All Saints Benhilton.

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