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The Supernatural/Natural Divide: Reflections on Urbana – Part 2

While noting in my previous blog post a seeming increased disinterest in global missions, I also named some of the positives of Urbana: ethnic, gender, and even ecumenical diversity; broad envisioning of mission activities and expressions; and gathering, challenging, and discipling students. It really is, in my view, an overwhelmingly positive movement for the church and particularly for university students. Still, there are two negatives that I would like to name: the assumption of a two-tiered supernature/nature cosmos and the framing of disciples as “world-changers.” I’ll start with the first in this blog post.

Considering the diversity of speakers and participants at Urbana, I wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalizations. However, one phrase that I heard repeatedly was “supernatural.” Although I heard it from different people in different occasions at the conference, I can reference various sermons from the evening plenary by Bishop Claude Alexander. He uses it in reference to Pentecost and the disciples’ ability to speak in tongues and of God’s empowerment so as to fulfill God’s purpose (see evening plenary 1 minute 10). Alexander explains that the disciples were given a “supernatural ability,” that “God super-met our natural.”

There certainly is an important aspect in distinguishing the Creator (though I wouldn’t call it “supernatural”) from creation (the natural), of receiving from God power to transcend inhibitions, fears, and opposition, and to accomplish what we in ourselves are unable to. That said, the characterization of cosmos in terms of supernatural/natural realms that are disconnected may cohere with the western worldview, but it is at odds with the Christian view.

This view of the supernatural/natural divide is not particular to Intervarsity or Urbana. It is normative in much of western Christianity. It is actually promoted by certain Thomist schools and part of much of Protestant of theology, which holds strongly to a division between (supernatural) grace and nature. Some Protestant missiologists (like Paul Hiebert) have responded to this dichotomy by identifying the “excluded middle” in the western worldview, that sees God and spirits above and humans, creatures, and the earth below, but miss the middle, which most cultures see as the sphere of shamans, priests, and spirits. However, missiologists tend to look at this anthropologically, asking how humans understand the cosmos. For the early church and its theology, it was not just a matter of how a particular culture understands the cosmos but about what is true about the cosmos, reality, and metaphysics. While the discussion can quickly become philosophical and abstract, let me try and describe the dualism and then state as simply as I can what is at stake and why we should resist this supernatural/natural dichotomy.

Eminent theologians like John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, and John Behr have long criticized the supernatural/natural dualism, but Hans Boersma clarified the issues for me. In his book Heavenly Participation, he shows how the early church held a participatory ontology in which all of creation is distinguished from the divine Trinity but exists in, through, and toward the Triune God. The church moved from this metaphysic of ontological participation to one of nominalism and voluntarism in the late Middle Ages. While some discern the seeds for a supernatural/natural dichotomy in Augustine’s thought on predestination (Hart) or in Aquinas, Boersma focuses on Duns Scotus and William of Ockham who moved from the equivocity of being (humans correlate to God by analogy) to univocity (God is one being among beings), from realism (the earthly realities correspond to their heavenly Source and Sustainer) to nominalism (each individual being exists in and of itself) and to voluntarism (in which God’s action is a decision of the will rather than an expression of the Good). While discussions about metaphysics are abstract, they have concrete repercussions. Let me just list some of the consequences of the supernatural/natural dichotomy:

  • God and the world are separated (leading to Deism and a distant God). God must come down from heaven. God must intervene in the world. This is in contrast to a participatory ontology in which the world exists in and through God. Whereas the participatory ontology asserts that God’s engagement with creation (i.e., through the incarnation) is a revelation and affirmation of God’s intention, presence, and purpose rather than a supernatural/miraculous intervention.
  • God is a being among beings rather than the source of all being. The difference between God and other beings is God’s power (to create, to will as God wills). Rather than holding an analogy of being (analogia entis) in which power is the ability for God to exercise love, truth, and goodness, power is the dominant attribute of God and is exercised arbitrarily and capriciously.
  • The salvific value of humans, creatures, and non-creaturely creation is based on God’s will and not on their existential participation in God (in whom we live, move, and have our being). This means that creation holds extrinsic value but not intrinsic value.
  • Individual humans no longer exist or participate ontologically in the universal species of humanity but only in their particularity. Thus, we understand salvation as individual rather than corporate and common to all of humanity. This means that there is no ontological investment of one in the salvation of another.
  • Because there is no common humanity but only individual humans, there is no ontological sharing of humanity and the ontological connection between, say, the rich and the poor or the Jew and gentile, is broken, leaving only genetic or relational connections.
  • The detachment of humanity from ontological participation in God leads to the possibility of seeing them as deprived and then maltreating them.
  • If grace is not foundational for being, there has to be a secondary cause (like works, merit, predestination, etc.), which leads to a view of human existence based on merit or God’s arbitrary judgement.
  • By conceiving of humans as separate from God rather than existing through God and becoming partakers in the nature of God, access to God can be controlled by the powerful rather than given to all, especially the most vulnerable.
  • We lose the metaphysical basis for affirming the Church Creeds (which assume the participatory ontological ideas about being, substance, sharing), and we recite them only in an act of tradition or fideism.
  • God and matter are viewed as separate. The created world is “naturalized” and made distinct from God. Creation loses the notion of being a sacrament and is disenchanted (Weber). Matter is no longer enchanted or imbibed with God’s spirit. If nature is just matter and needs the supernatural, then caring for creation is based on human choice and done in relation to human consequence rather than God’s purpose. Thus, the treatment or stewardship of matter belongs to the realm of human action and ethics rather than responsibility to God and God’s authority. (Much too could be said about time, which Charles Taylor responds to in The Secular Age.)
  • Viewing matter as “natural” limits our ability to name and engage powers and principalities (are they natural or supernatural?) or interpret the works of the Spirit (are healings, speaking in tongues, fruit of the Spirit natural or supernatural?)
  • Human beings are individualized, and the will (and power) becomes a determinative feature of the individual. In terms of mission, this means that a Christian understands this call individualistically and needs to willingly (voluntarily) respond. This can be contrasted to a Christian community’s discernment, sending, supporting, and receiving of those given to God’s mission.
  • The response to mission and to those in poverty is through the act of a person’s will and their power, rather than it being a responsibility due to the reality that we share in a common humanity.

When the metaphysics of the early church are recovered and the natural/supernatural dichotomy rejected, we can affirm:

  • The interaction between supernatural and natural (divine-human, heaven-earth) is natural.
  • “The sole sufficient natural end of all spiritual creatures is the supernatural, and grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends” (Hart).
  • God, in the Son, becomes human (the supernatural for the natural).
  • Humans are created for participation in divinity (the natural for the supernatural).
  • Mission is participation in what God is doing in the world (“natural”, created, matter) through the Body of Christ by the Spirit.

About Fragments & Reflections

David Chronic


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