DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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On Our Own But Not Alone
A sceptical look at the supernatural
by Michael Maasdorp
 

On 1 February, 2007, a health warning was sounded in Britain. The influenza virus H5N1 had been discovered in a flock of 160 000 turkeys. Over 2 000 had already died. As the killing squads moved in to cull the entire flock, people began asking questions. 

The virus had already killed some 160 people worldwide; might it not easily mutate into a form similar to that which killed so many millions in 1918 and 1919? A nervous public demanded reassurance that the virus was not present in turkey meat which had got into the food chain before the outbreak was discovered. 

The authorities could only protest that transmission to humans was highly unlikely. This was the best they could do, for they recognised a hard fact - that it is almost impossible to prove a negative. Even showing that the H5N1 virus did exist in a few sample turkeys took some 48 hours. Showing that it did not exist at any one time would have meant simultaneously testing every one of some 30 million turkeys in Britain - an impossible task. 

Similarly, it is impossible to show that the supernatural, a key component of the Christian religion, does not exist. For even if one was able to demonstrate conclusively that no human had ever yet experienced it, the possibility of someone stumbling across it tomorrow could not be precluded. Even if no scientist has so far found evidence for it, the open nature of science does not close off the possibility of a future discovery. So we must somehow show that the supernatural does exist if we want to take it into account in the grand scheme of things. 

I intend to argue here (very briefly and inadequately) that the possibility of traffic with the supernatural destroys the foundations of modern knowledge; and further that belief in the supernatural may stand in the way of salvation. This is not to say, I suggest, that ruling out the supernatural also rules out mystery in our lives. There is quite enough of that in the near-infinite reaches of space and the complex uncertainties of quantum mechanics. We may find that we are on our own in the universe as we struggle for maturity and also that we nevertheless do not stand alone in this vast system. 

It's important to remind ourselves in passing that the supernatural is an important aspect of traditional Christianity. Without traffic between humans and the divine dimension, revelation in its strict and usual sense falls away. And if revelation is struck off the roll of orthodoxy, then Christianity becomes a sociological phenomenon like any other. This is not to say that Christianity can't survive without the supernatural. But it is to say that its central paradigms must undergo profound revision if it is to be rationally convincing and practically fruitful in the future. In other words, we are here considering not a trivial but a profound matter, one which may one day lead Christians into completely new territory. 

If then we can't disprove the existence of the supernatural, can we infer it from nature or from human experience? 

I suggest that if a world-wide poll could somehow be taken of responses to the question, "Do you think that there is a supernatural reality other than the universe?" a significant majority would answer, Yes". But what the supernatural means differs significantly from person-to-person. Some think of it in terms of good and evil spirits invading the world from another dimension. For some, it is primarily a dimension to which dead people go when they die. Yet others understand it as a numinous, other-worldly experience such as described by Newberg and D'Aquili in Why God Won't Go Away (Ballantine, 2001). 

It's likely that there is no consensus about what the supernatural actually is. So we have to ask: "What sort of information do we have about it? What methods can we use to check that our information is accurate and reliable? That is, we acknowledge that we can only know the supernatural in terms of the natural and that we must therefore ask the same sort of questions about the super-natural as we ask about the natural. Note that we can"t visit a supernatural place, for it is by definition beyond us - it is super-natural. 

Before going on to briefly consider the feasibility of inferring a supernatural realm from nature, it's worth stepping back to consider briefly how we know things about nature. For if the methods we use to study nature can't in themselves detect the supernatural, we would be rather like a motor mechanic trying to diagnose human illness with a set of spanners. 

A first point is to recognise that there has been a radical change over the last few hundred years in the way people perceive reality. It's not that we would be entirely unable to understand a Roman citizen or even a Neolithic hunter-gatherer. But it is true that we now approach life from a very different frame of reference. Our unspoken assumptions about the world are as different from theirs as chalk is from cheese. 

In particular, our ancestors would have taken the supernatural for granted. Its existence would have been an assumption so basic that it would have been not only unquestioned but unnoticed. Just as the educated person today "knows" that the earth circles the sun, so the pre-modern "knew" that our world is next door to another. And just as none of us has personally observed the earth's orbit round the sun and yet nevertheless accepts it as "fact", so the pre-modern accepted the supernatural as "fact". Indeed, to the pre-modern, this next-door world would not have been super-natural, but natural. Traffic would have passed between two parts of the natural world - not between our universe and the "other-than", as we would most likely put it today [1]

A second point concerns how the supernatural relates to science. Some scientists maintain that looking for the supernatural is beyond the scope of the scientific method [2]. But that objection is valid only if the supernatural in no way impacts upon the natural. If, on the other hand, the supernatural does affect our lives, it becomes the proper study of science because its effects are then an aspect of the physical universe. The supernatural would be the direct cause of various events in the universe and its existence would then become a testable scientific hypothesis. But it seems that nobody has yet devised an experiment to successfully test the hypothesis that the "other-than" exists. Whatever the case, a physical universe intrinsically connected to a supernatural universe is a different place to a universe without such a connection. 

For example: Suppose DNA evidence was found which demonstrated that Jesus was supernaturally conceived [3]. This would clearly be of immense importance to those who claim his birth as an historical fact, since such things don't happen in the world as we now know it. Similarly, if the bones of Jesus were discovered somewhere in Palestine, it would be difficult to validly maintain the physical resurrection by supernatural powers of Jesus from the dead.

In short, if only a sliver of information could be shown indisputably to have come from a supernatural dimension, the world of science would change overnight.  However, until that happens we have to take it that what is meant by the term "supernatural" is "that which is utterly other-than the universe of which we are part". It cannot therefore be investigated in the ways we investigate and discuss the universe. I think this argument exposes the uncertain ground upon which those who hold on to the supernatural stand. It is difficult to avoid the inherent contradiction between their world view and the scientific world view they live by in their day-to-day lives. 

There remains one other possible source of knowledge of the supernatural - what we usually term "human experience". It's a truism that science can't embrace everything we think of as knowledge. There is little or no point, for example, in analysing the colours and perspective of the Mona Lisa painting and then claiming that this analysis is "the truth" about the work. Its value and meaning are essentially attributes given it by human observers. That those attributes are not scientific does not reduce their importance. 

So it may be that the supernatural can't be known except subjectively. However, we should also note that it is impossible to refute subjective knowledge. If you say that you have frequently met and talked to the Angel Gabriel, I can rebut you only in a limited sense. I can (in theory) show that nobody else on earth has had this pleasure. But I can't say that for that reason your experience is necessarily illusory. 

However, many millions do claim experience of the supernatural world. Who is to say that such a strong consensus is wrong? After all, even scientific findings have to be duplicated and then supported by the consensus (albeit provisional) of a sizeable majority of scientists. The upshot seems to be that it is impossible to refute the experience of so many. Yet there does seem to be an inherent difference between experience of the supernatural and scientific consensus. By analogy, this difference is something like the experience of breathing on one hand, and the scientific description of breathing on the other. A person may experience the supernatural (breathing) and yet be unable to describe and analyse it (the science of breathing).

If we can't show that the supernatural doesn't exist; and if subjective witness is fragile, always open to destruction by reason, then what is left for us to work with as we investigate the possibility that the supernatural is real and accessible? 

Perhaps those who don't have personal experience of the supernatural should infer its reality from those who do. This is a valid approach. Sub-atomic particles, for example, are "seen" only because they leave evidence of their passage on a photographic plate. We accept their existence because scientists say that's so. In other words, inference can be useful - even if it is not strict "proof". There is no intrinsic reason why anyone should not rest easy with a broad subjective consensus that the supernatural can be experienced. 

However, the modern mind inevitably still asks if supernatural contact with the natural does in fact leave traces in the universe from which we can infer its existence. Is it valid, for instance, to claim that holy writings like the Bible and the Koran derive from divine inspiration out of a supernatural realm? Or does the intrinsic nature of the universe forbid such traffic between dimensions or realms? 

I find the argument for the latter option compelling. It seems to me that the possibility of inferring from nature to the supernatural is diminished - if not precluded - by three arguments. The first concerns how we humans perceive the natural order; the second points out how the modern discipline we call history is destroyed by supernatural intervention in our universe; and the third is a paradigm of reality which, if accepted, precludes the validity of science in a universe open to the supernatural. 

The Chimp Effect   Suppose you and I were chimpanzees. That is, we're animals which speak to each other in extremely attenuated language; we can't count up to ten; we use simple tools only with considerable difficulty; and we have only a tenuous idea of either past or future. The question arises: Do we know that the humans to whom we relate in our zoo are ... well, human? Or are humans inevitably to chimps only non-chimpanzees, just as monkeys or baboons are non-chimpanzees?

This is not a silly question. It relates to our probable incomprehension of things supernatural. If there is a super-natural dimension, might it not be that this dimension is as incomprehensible to us as we are to chimpanzees? And if it is not incomprehensible, then should we describe it as super-natural? For if it is natural (but somehow in another dimension), it should be open to description by us and ultimately to analysis by scientific methods and through technology. That is certainly what pre-moderns thought - witness their many and varied accounts of the supernatural.

To put it another way: Can I comprehend mathematics? It's true that I have learned to do certain basic calculations using numbers. I have some idea of statistics up to an introductory level. But beyond that - venturing into the realm of calculus and higher mathematics - I can only be described as non-mathematical. I not only know nothing about higher mathematics, but I am unable to do mathematics beyond high school level - as I have repeatedly demonstrated despite copious quantities of blood, sweat and tears. To the best in the mathematics field I am rather like a chimpanzee is to a human. 

So if we as humans were to encounter a sphere of being as much different from us as we differ from chimpanzees, or as incomprehensible as mathematics is to me, we would not recognise it except insofar as it was able to appear to us in human terms. Unless communication with us from the supernatural is in some sort of language (perhaps mathematical), and unless it is in a form humans can comprehend and relate to, we will not even know it is there. And if we did we could probably perceive only something impenetrably mysterious - rather as Ezekiel did (Ezekiel 1.4-28).

My point is this: Whatever the supernatural may be - if it is "there" at all - it is beyond our perception and comprehension. For if it is not totally "other", then we must perforce know it through our ordinary senses. Even then, we can know the supernatural only as a chimpanzee can "know" a human being. Unless whatever is supernatural is translated into human terms, it cannot be known by us. And if translated into human terms, how are we differentiate between it as super-natural, and it as natural? 

It seems that a supernatural domain may be proposed and believed in - that is, "believed" in the sense that non-scientists believe sub-atomic particles to be real. But it cannot be so proposed on the basis of any except natural evidence - for if it were not, the evidence would be quite literally beyond us. We must make do with data from the natural order as we try to understand ourselves and the universe as "everything that is". 

Seamless Cause and Effect   As they strove to comprehend the person of Jesus, the first Christians (like ourselves) had only their own cultures with which to make sense of him. Theirs was a universe much smaller than ours. Very few people knew anything much beyond their own neighbourhoods; even fewer had more than rumours of what lay beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. 

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that early Christians, scattered and unknown as they were for the first two centuries and more, used the paradigms of their age to think about the supernatural. It was part of the known world, an unquestioned part of normal life - rather as gravity is for us. We don't see gravity, but we know it's "there". 

Despite the pervasiveness of the supernatural outlook, Christians nevertheless insisted that Jesus was fully human, a real person who had lived and died just as we all do. Those who taught otherwise were heretics, to be opposed and refuted. 

Their insistence upon the objective reality of Jesus was not, however, an assertion of his historicity. The analytical discipline we now know as history had not yet been invented, for it derives its nature from the same criteria that so successfully inform science. The present books of the New Testament were officially approved by the Church not because they were good history but because they were good theology. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, was excluded from the Bible because it carried the stain of Gnosticism, not because some of its contents were perceived to be incredible. 

Today we apply far more stringent criteria to the Bible. The first question a modern asks when confronted by an event outside 21st-century normality is, "Did this really happen?" The text, alternative sources, and archaeological evidence - indeed, anything which can usefully be brought to bear - are all "tortured" before a verdict is passed. And even then, only when a substantial majority of torturers (otherwise known as Bible scholars) forms a consensus is it safe to talk of a biblical event as good history. Fundamental to the consensus, however, is the agreement that if new evidence becomes available, what is now regarded as good history may change. 

Underpinning history is a vital truth which is usually debated only by experts in the subject, but which is nevertheless pivotal for our discussion of the supernatural. It is that history is a seamless web of events. An "event" is our invention, made so that we can better understand the seamless flow. And when we say that one event is "caused" by another, we are breaking up a seamless flow of events into an artificial pattern only in order to better understand "what really happened". In truth, since the birth of time there has only been a flow of "happening". "Cause" and "effect" are human constructions, conveniences to help us understand of the seamless flow of space/time. 

And so we patch together a rough pattern which we call the "History of Jesus". Any such patchwork is not only incomplete, but is also an interpretation. A new patch may radically change that interpretation. Like the findings of science, all history is provisional, not permanent or absolute. Interpretations come and go and contradictory interpretations exist side-by-side.

This seamless flow of events is, perhaps somewhat to our chagrin, far too complex and shifting ever to be entirely contained in any human version of "what really happened". But our constructions presume it is there. And if at any point the seamless flow of "events" is interrupted by a "cause" external to the universe, then the continuity of space/time itself is irredeemably broken. History begins again at the point of interruption. The cause external to the universe is, in effect, a new "first cause" without which the seamless flow of events would otherwise have continued along its previous wandering path, determined only by the relative cause and effect components of which it is comprised. 

Traditional Christianity is clear about one thing - that Jesus was pivotal in the history of humanity. His life was an immensely powerful cause in the seamless web of this world's existence. Jesus is indisputably an appropriate subject for the human discipline we call "history. But we cannot have a history of Jesus if causes external to the universe are constantly intruding upon the seamless web. If they do so intrude we can't attribute any part of history to Jesus, for we can't then separate a Jesus-cause from a supernatural-cause which may have intervened in the organic, seamless web of space/time.

In short, to admit traffic between the natural and the supernatural is to destroy history as a necessary basis for the Christian faith. If not that, then we must admit that Christianity pivots not on the person of Jesus, but upon supernatural interventions (of which, according to traditional doctrine, Jesus is himself one). The inveterate cynic might, with some justice, insist that Christianity pivots on the invention over the centuries of myths and superstitions by people who stood to gain power over others. 

General Systems Theory   We are slowly beginning to define our existence in terms of a new paradigm which dates back to biological models of the mid-1920s [4]. Since then the universe has been increasingly perceived as a seamless complex system comprised of a near-infinite number of highly complex sub-systems. These sub-systems stretch from unimaginably tiny sub-atomic particles comprising invisible strings of energy (whatever that is), up to the living cell and so on up to our planet and beyond. It is a paradigm which, although not yet widely used, promises to alter dramatically the way we think about our world. 

A topical subject is a good instance of this paradigm. As the debate about climate change heats up, it is fascinating to note how more and more people are beginning to grasp the notion of a complex system. One group trumpets global warming; another quickly points out conflicting data. Both are constantly blown this way and that by the extreme complexity of the global system they are trying to understand. 

Behind all parties in the climate change debate, however, lies an unspoken understanding - that no aspect of our planet's life stands alone. Everything, including ourselves, is part of an intricate whole. We separate the parts of the seamless whole one from another only as a matter of convenience. This earth of ours has its "parts" or sub-systems only insofar as they exist in a seamless, entire system - which we call "the universe". 

Every sub-system attempts to maintain a balance within the larger system or environment of which it is part. As its environment shifts, so sub-systems compensate. Only if its compensating mechanisms fail - say through some massive change - does a sub-system break down. If enough sub-systems in an environment fail, the environment (itself a sub-system) may collapse. We assume, for example, that our planet is resilient enough to cope with the large changes humans have introduced into it. If it isn't, we can perhaps look forward to being eliminated from the system we call Earth, much as our bodies (each in turn a sub-system of the planet) attack and eliminate invading viruses. 

Traditional Christianity can itself be perceived as a sub-system of the greater conceptual system we call "religion. Many today question the ability of the Church to adapt to the conceptual earthquakes which the modern age has visited upon its teachings. It not unnaturally strives to preserve its internal stability (the technical term is homeostasis) by maintaining its perception of the supernatural as it has been for millennia. But if the supernatural as a pivotal sub-system of Christianity turns out to be an unworkable hypothesis, the overarching traditional system may implode just as the human body-system collapses when terminally damaged. 

If data or activity flow from the supernatural into the natural, then the total system we call the universe must be changed each time that happens. The entire system must perforce adapt. And if the universe as a total seamless system is constantly changing and adapting to invasion by the super-natural, then history is not the only conceptual category which bites the dust. Science itself, as well as the myriad other disciplines which attach to it, ceases to have basic internal consistency and order. Nothing can be predicted or confirmed because the supernatural constantly intervenes - unless, of course, what we call supernatural is in fact natural. 

It is, of course, possible that the supernatural intervenes secretly, in ways we are unable to detect or understand. But if that's the case, history nevertheless remains subject to a fresh start every time the supernatural (secretly) does something. That is, we only think we're doing history. What's really happening is that history is being done by supernatural means, not by people and natural events.

A universe open to invasion by the supernatural collapses another necessary pillar of Christian doctrine. The limited free will humans have within a system is utterly destroyed when the universe as the overarching system is constantly being altered by incursions of the supernatural. Free will assumes that we can make choices which impact upon and change our environment; and Christian love (Latin: caritas: Greek: agape) assumes that we must be able to calculate and discern which are loving actions and which are not. If invisible irruptions by the supernatural into our universe happen, then we can't be sure that what we choose to do has in fact caused anything. And if that is true then the ancients were correct - we are indeed at the mercy of elemental powers beyond our ken and power. Paul of Tarsus for one thought that Jesus had signaled the end of this servitude [5]

Having dealt with the supernatural as an aspect of the physical universe, I now turn to it as an influence which negatively affects the potential gift of personal and hence social salvation. If the drift of my argument is somewhere near correct, salvation is in fact freely available to everyone as part of the natural order of things

The Church at large claims special access to salvation through Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation is a metaphor, invented by early Christians to help make sense of the crucifixion of Jesus. It was derived from a first-century society in which there was a high risk of suffering and death - a risk higher than most people, even in Africa, face today. To be saved in some way from daily terrors and dangers was something all must have longed for. A person or religion which offered to save people from dread uncertainty, or which offered to mitigate the effects of nature's demands, stood a good chance of gaining considerable power and influence.

"Salvation" remains a viable metaphor. For even though human beings today generally enjoy a more secure life than ever before, there are still risks and dangers galore. Nevertheless, it is a term which has lost its punch. It has been abused and over-used to the point where it is little more compelling than a "whiter-than-white" advertisement for soap powder. 

What happens if we replace "salvation" with "maturity". The latter term captures everything we need to understand about the role of Jesus in our lives. To cut to the chase: the attributes alluded to (but not fully explained) by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, are roughly what is meant by true maturity. In the briefest possible summary, maturity is the attainment by a person of his or her full potential as a unique human being. 

Each of us is limited in the scope and content of our individual potentials by at least two factors: [1] our genetic inheritance and [2] our upbringing and broader socialisation. The first is not only a given base potential but also a range of possibilities. A person may be born with the genetic potential to be a great mathematician - and yet never be introduced to the subject. Similarly, genetic potential for athleticism may be only partially developed as a person grows up. The second factor depends upon how parents and others, who may themselves be far from mature, inculcate the elements of society into the biologically immature. 

The Christian claims that without love (agape), any and all models of maturity are incomplete. That's a large subject in itself. I want here to introduce two other aspects of salvation/maturity. 

The first is to propose that maturity/salvation, regardless of age, may not be attainable without a degree of personal integration - that is, integrity is a largely harmonious pattern of personal characteristics, motives and actions. Thus a person who "thinks in two spheres" [6] lacks integrity, is not integrated. For example, if I on one hand ruthlessly exploit consumers to maximise my personal wealth, and on the other salve an uneasy conscience by giving generously to the poor, I can hardly be called integrated. Similarly, if I send a letter bomb on Saturday and go to confession on Sunday, I can't be called a person of integrity. 

The supernatural is a concept which poisons the spring of personal integration at its very source, for it requires that this life, this universe, is broken into two parts. The natural requires a certain range of responses to reach maturity. The supernatural - about which we apparently can know nothing - requires - what? The person who lives a life of "two spheres" is always looking over his or her shoulder, always taking into account what might be waiting "on the other side", always referring "in faith" to messages which purport to come from - where? composed by - whom? 

The full integration of the human person depends, I suggest, upon a full-face, nothing spared, relationship with nature in all its complexity and glory. We all differ both in our potentials and our circumstances. Maturity/salvation is available in unique form to each and every one of us, but only if we don't think in "two spheres", one the Monday natural and the other the Sunday supernatural - that is, if we are not to be dis-integrated. 

The intrusion of the supernatural into the natural carries with it another short circuit in the system of which we are part, and in which we are called to strive for maturity. For if there is another dimension which is better, more solid [7], more reliable, more pure than our natural universe, more authoritative than anything we have here, then we must surely follow its dictates rather than the dictates of the natural order. (The world now has an example of the former in the the Muslim extremists operating with great cruelty and ruthlessness in the Middle East and parts of Africa.)

In the past, the vast bulk of humanity defined its salvation/maturity as submission to higher supernatural powers. One has only to look at traditional Christian teaching and spirituality to discover a strain of exactly that sort of approach to salvation. The supernatural fitted this paradigm perfectly. It provided a source of absolute supremacy to which even the strongest and most gifted had, in theory at least, to submit. 

The modern age has adopted a different paradigm. In an increasing number of cultures it is now not submission to a higher power which drives people, but the need for autonomy or self-actualisation [8]. At the apex of the pyramid of human salvation is a maturity derived from pursuing maximum potential in both the personal and the social aspects of our lives. 

The supernatural as a better, more perfect existence therefore removes or at least severely restricts our autonomy. True autonomy requires free choice - and what choice do we really have in our imperfect condition if one set of options comes from a higher, purer, more certain order of things? Without autonomy we are no longer truly grounded in the universe as it is. In this case, the temptation is to regard this world as merely a passing, impermanent, vale of tears, to be lived in and then abandoned, hopefully for a better heavenly life. 

To sum up: The nature of the universe, and therefore of our world as one of its sub-systems, is such that it cannot bear the notion of the supernatural. Not only that, but the many analytical disciplines upon which modernity depends are destroyed by contact with the supernatural. In particular, the basis of traditional Christianity, the person of  Jesus as history, is lost along with history itself and each person is free to instead invent his or her own designer-Christ. 

Furthermore, if the supernatural exists, it must be beyond our comprehension. If it is not, then there is no reason to differentiate between it and the natural. And if the supernatural intrudes into the universe, free will and its outcome, autonomy, are destroyed. 

This understanding of life doesn't, however, necessarily also destroy mystery and wonder. True autonomy is simultaneously self-possession and the giving up of self, just as being of the world is also to be immersed in something far greater than the mere natural. The system as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. If we can't get final answers from the "outside which is other-than, it doesn't mean we can't commit to other-than answers. We may be on our own, but we are not alone.
__________________________________________________
[1] This summarises a more complex argument, put well by Dennis Nineham in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, SPCK, 1978
[2] S J Gould quoted by Richard Dawkins in Why There is Almost Certainly No God
[3] This example is borrowed from Richard Dawkins
[4] Ludwig von Bertalanffy was, as far as I know, the first to attempt true systems thinking
[5] See Galatians 4.9ff
[6] A phrase used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, Fontana, 1959
[7] C S Lewis's heaven is literally more solid than hell in The Great Divorce, Centenary Press, 1945
[8] The latter term was used by Abraham Maslow

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