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Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion by Harry Emerson Fosdick


Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the most eminent and often controversial of the preachers of the first half of the twentieth century. Published by Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1961, copyright by Harry Emerson Fosdick. This material pepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 5: What about Supernaturalism?


Dear Mr. Brown:

I am finding this correspondence very interesting, because you certainly are asking me some decidedly important questions. In your recent letter you say that one of your professors has been attacking the idea of supernaturalism. You write that the professor is not an atheist, but that despite his theism he calls "supernatural" a "bad word," and you say that this has confused you. Well, some time ago a group of college students came out of a long bull session where they had discussed religion, and one of them summed up the result. "You always do get into trouble," he said, "when you try to think." Nevertheless, letís keep on trying!

Hoping not to shock you too much, I agree with your professor. "Supernatural," in my judgment, is just about the most unredeemable word in the religious vocabulary. It has a bad history, and the picture of Godís relationship with the world, which it conjures up in many minds, is one of the chief blockades to intelligent faith in God.

To be sure, some theologians still try to save the word from its old associations and to use it intelligently. Let me put the common-sense use of the word into an analogy. When snow falls it can be removed in various ways. The sunshine or the rain may melt it -- they would be natural causes. Or a man with a shovel may clear the walk and, as the sunshine and the rain represent natural causation, so his volitional activity represents supernatural causation. If, whenever personal will steps in to do something that nature by itself would not do, we call that supernatural, we obviously cannot get supernaturalism out of religion, because we cannot get it out of life. When, however, this analogy is applied to Godís relationship with the world, there are some dangerous consequences.

All too commonly today supernaturalism means splitting the universe in two -- on one side nature, run by natural laws, on the other side the supernatural that ever and again breaks into the natural, disturbs its regular procedures, and suspends its laws. Usually, in the natural order, iron sinks in water, but the supernatural, if it wishes, can intervene so that an axhead floats at the behest of a prophet. That is to say, supernaturalism to many people means that this cosmos is a kind of duplex apartment: downstairs the ordinary course of procedure goes on its customary way, but ever and again from upstairs something comes down to break up the ordinary procedure on the main floor. So God becomes indeed "The Man Upstairs." This, in a few rough strokes, is the supernaturalism I deplore.

Take a brief look at its history. In ancient times everything that happened was regarded as the result of personal causation. Either God or Satan, angels or demons, men or women, did everything that was done. Nobody had yet dreamed of what we call natural law, a vast system of law-abiding procedures by which we explain everything that happens in the universe. In the Bible there is no word that can be translated "nature," in the sense in which we constantly use that word, to mean a universal, law-abiding order. Of course, men had come to recognize the way some things usually happened -- as children know that stones thrown in the air customarily fall to the ground, so that they would be surprised if a stone failed to do that. But anything like the law of gravitation the ancients had never dreamed of. Miracles to them did not involve any broken laws, for there were no laws to break; miracles to them were simply happenings that were unusual, unfamiliar, surprising. So, if the sun stood still at Joshuaís order or a man walked on water, that was amazingly out of the ordinary, but it was not a violation of any natural law.

Turn from that world view to ours, and what a difference! First, in Greek philosophy a general idea of cosmic order was, developed, and then science came, making cosmic order a matter of specific laws, mathematically stated, controlling everything from molecules to stars. So the natural order grew and grew, extending its domain even into realms like psychology and sociology, until religion, often fighting fiercely against the advance of science and the expansion of the natural order, invented a new word, "supernatural." That word never had been needed before, but now religion thought it necessary. What happened, however, was that more and more, as the natural order expanded, the supernatural, as religion had conceived it, dwindled.

Consider thunderstorms, for example. Once everybody thought devils caused them. Martin Luther said that repeating the first chapter of Johnís Gospel was the best way he knew to frighten away the demons and stop the storm. About the time of Charlemagne, Christians began putting bells into church steeples to scare the devils out of the thunderclouds. All over Europe today you will find in the churches bells engraved -- as one in Basel, Switzerland, is engraved -- with mottoes like this: "Ad fugandos demones -- for frightening away the devils." That was honest-to-goodness supernaturalism.

Or consider comets, once regarded as the special messengers of God. Increase Mather was a contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, but probably he never heard about the law of gravitation, and certainly he did not think the heavenly bodies were controlled by it. Once in Boston, when a comet hung over the city, Mather fairly paralyzed his congregation, crying, "The Lord hath fired his beacon in the heavens among the stars of God there; the fearful sight is not yet out of sight. The warning piece of heaven is going off." That is genuine supernaturalism.

I need not multiply instances. From that old bifurcated cosmos, split into an upstairs and a downstairs with the first occasionally invading the second, we have come into our modern world. It has been a staggering change. It still affects the thought and life of every one of us. In my time I have seen the change take place in Russia overnight. Only yesterday, when the peasants wanted fertile fields they called in the priests who sprinkled their farms with holy water. Now the peasants use scientific agriculture with rotation of crops.

By this time you may be saying, Why fuss about it; the change is all clear gain. Who wants to go back to the old supernaturalism? To which I answer, Nobody in his right senses does, but see what this change of world view has done to our idea of God! God as he was popularly imagined inhabited the supernatural. He made himself real to men by supernatural invasions of the world. When, therefore, the supernatural dwindled, God seemed to dwindle. As realm after realm was taken over by natural law, for many people God was escorted to the frontiers of the universe and bowed out. For many today the natural fills everything, is everything, explains everything. This consequence of the old supernaturalism is a major difficulty in many a modern manís thinking about God.

One climactic event in the story of supernaturalismís collapse was associated with Halleyís Comet. That comet was just about as important theologically as it was astronomically. For theology, clinging desperately to the supernatural as its only way of keeping God, had fought against one realm of law after another, even fighting the law of gravitation, until, beaten everywhere else, it was left with comets as about the only things that had not been captured by law. Then the specific date of another return of Halleyís Comet was predicted -- in 1758. So, that too was going to be made as law-abiding as the sun. Seldom has religious faith been so frightened. Some devout souls said that, if Halleyís Comet did return as predicted, they would have to give up faith in God. Well, the comet came back on schedule. After that the old style supernaturalism was in trouble. As for our modern thinking, this universe is certainly not split in two. If it is a materialistic system, then it is materialistic throughout. If it is a spiritual system, then it is spiritual throughout. One thing is sure: it is not a bifurcated cosmos with the natural downstairs and the supernatural upstairs.

No wonder that modern science has caused religious confusion! Many people, who do not understand what is the trouble, are upset -- every area of their religious thinking disturbed. Even you seem to feel that, if the supernatural goes, everything vital and valuable in religion goes too. Well, letís see!

For one thing, the collapse of the old supernaturalism certainly need not mean the loss of God. Many thought it did. As the reign of law extended its domain over one field after another --astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology --there was less and less room for supernatural intervention to operate in, so that, if God was located in the supernatural, he was being slowly crowded out. See! Supernaturalism is not the stronghold of religion. It nearly ruined religion.

Put over against each other two ways of conceiving God. God, said Paley, is like a watchmaker and the world is his watch. He made it and it mechanically runs on. Once in a while he tinkers with it, fixes it up, resets it to serve his special purposes, so that the strongest evidence of Christianityís truth is this divine intervention in miracles, but generally the watch runs mechanically by itself. God a tinkering watchmaker -- that is one view. And now turn to another view which Wordsworth expressed:

. . . I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Does anybody want to go back from that to the tinkering watchmaker? No! This is one world, Godís world throughout, whose law-abiding regularities, whose amazing artistries, whose evolution of ever higher structures, whose creation of personality, whose endless possibilities of spiritual growth and social progress indicate that it is a spiritual system. God is here, not an occasional invader of the world but its very soul, the basis of its life, its undergirding purpose, its indwelling friend, its eternal goal. That way of conceiving God saved my faith, after supernaturalism had well nigh ruined it.

To be sure, God is before, behind, above the law-abiding natural procedures which our science tries to understand, but when you wish to express that truth, donít use the word "supernatural" -- that brings back the old picture of a split universe; use the word "transcendent." A transcendent God, yes! and an immanent God too --

Earthís crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.

Those two words are the best we have to express the truth.

Of course I am not supposing for a moment that, by what I have been saying, I have answered all the questions with which modern science confronts religious faith. That this one world is Godís world is more than some folk can believe. They gratefully accept this law-abiding cosmos and stop there. Sometimes they almost seem to be saying that scientific laws explain the universe. But after all, these laws are simply our human statements of the way the universe habitually acts. They are, as it were, the grammatical rules we have drawn up from observing the regular procedures of the world. Consider, for example, Shakespeareís Romeo and Juliet. What a marvelous upthrust of creative genius it is! Nevertheless, grammatical rules are there and they can be set down in order. But grammatical rules do not explain Romeo and Juliet. They do not touch the hem of its explanation, nor do they set limits to the possible creativity of the genius that produced it. No more do our natural laws either explain or limit the creative processes of this living universe and its God.

Suppose someone should say to Shakespeare, You must not break the grammatical rules. Would that bother Shakespeare? Why should he want to break the grammatical rules? He can write Hamletís soliloquy, Portiaís plea for mercy, the love scene on Julietís balcony, without breaking any rules. The rules neither explain nor confine him; they express him. So this is a live universe, marvelously creative beyond our power to think, and all our scientific laws are but the grammatical rules, so far noted, according to which it expresses itself. As for me that last "it" is unsatisfactory; there is personal mind behind this amazing process and personal purpose through it.

Note another change that has been brought about by modern scienceís new world view. Under the old supernaturalism religion was regarded as a way of getting special favors from on high. People stood in the natural and cried upstairs to the supernatural for something to be sent down to them. Many Christians still hold that picture of the world -- or, shall we say that they half hold it, thinking and acting one way in the world and in another way when they come to church? They pray for rain but, like a shrewd Maine farmer, they do not think rain likely with that west wind blowing. They pray against plague and pestilence, but they are glad that they have quarantines, sanitation, and inoculation to depend upon. Like Russian peasants they find rotation of crops and proper fertilization of the soil more effective than holy water, although they dislike giving up holy water. They still stand in the natural, feeling rather silly when they cry upstairs to the supernatural. What is really silly is that whole picture of a bifurcated cosmos. This is one world, a spiritual system throughout, where we never get what we want until we fulfill the conditions for getting it. If we want physical results we must fulfill physical conditions. If we want spiritual results, we must fulfill spiritual conditions. That is the real world we live in and it is both stern and magnificent.

As I see it, such modern-minded Christianity says to a man, Go out into this law-abiding world, Godís world, his ways of working woven into its very texture, and fulfill the conditions of high living. If you want health, fulfill the conditions of health, physical, mental, spiritual. If you want integrity and beauty of character, fulfill the conditions. Sow faith in God and reap courage. Sow prayer, openhearted responsiveness to the Eternal, and reap peace and power. Sow worship, the uplift of the heart toward the Highest, and reap a sustaining sense of his presence. Sow friendliness and reap friendship. Sow unselfishness and reap an enlarged life. Sow goodwill and reap a better world for our children to be born in. That seems to me to be vital religion. From inner communion with God to outgoing devotion to his kingdom, nothing that our fathers at their best found spiritually valuable has been lost out of it. This new world view does not make religion impossible; it makes impossible any kind of religion except the highest.

At any rate, I do not want my God to be anything like "The Man Upstairs." The story runs that an applicant for a position at a customs office once tried a civil service examination, in which he faced this question: "How far is the sun from the earth?" He answered, "I do not know how far the sun is from the earth, but it is far enough so that it will not interfere with the proper performance of my duties at the customs office." One need not look long to find people with a similar attitude toward God -- far back, far up, far off. No!

Thou Life within my life, than self more near,
Thou veiled Presence, infinitely clear,
From all illusive shows of sense I flee,
To find my center and my rest in Thee.

Cordially yours,

 

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