Supernatural Because Redemptive
THE subject of miracle and the supernatural, to which I am to invite the reader's attention, is one which I make no apology for selecting as a field for fresh inquiry. It may easily be treated in such a way as to render it one of the most depressing and lifeless of topics, but that is because it is so often approached as a question concerning events of an unrepeatable past. In defiance of this long-standing Protestant tradition, it seems necessary to insist that such an attitude to miracle and the supernatural is a departure from the original and authentic Christian stand-point. Herrmann was guilty of no paradox or exaggeration when he wrote that what Jesus demanded of His followers, as practical demonstration of their discipleship, was never "that they should believe in miracles narrated of other people ; what He did expect of them was that they should experience miracles and should perform miracles."' We must cease to regard the New Testament miracles from the outside as mere events ; we must study them from within as human deeds of faith, deeds of that same Christian faith which we claim to share, and therefore deeds which, upon fit occasion, it may conceivably become our own duty to emulate. So conceived, even the most striking of Jesus' miracles may cease to burden our faith, and may once again become, instead, its inspiration. For we shall begin to regard them as towering summits of that mountain-range of Christian adventure and supernatural enablement which we know to be no mere airy mirage, because our own feet are planted upon its lower slopes and find them solid to our tread.
The fact that this point of view has become an unfamiliar side from which to approach the problem we have to study, should make us doubly careful how we pick our first steps. It is so easy to stray from the path. In particular, there is one false turning which we must carefully avoid. In the English language there are two terms which are commonly treated as practically synonymous, namely, "the miraculous" and "the supernatural." I do not object to this identification as a matter of linguistic usage. Nevertheless, the latter of these terms might easily become for us the stile admitting to Bypath Meadow and leading to Doubting Castle. This will be apt to happen if we allow ourselves to assume without inquiry that we know what is meant by the second component of the term "supernatural."
Too commonly it is quietly taken for granted that what makes an event "supernatural," in the religious sense of the term, is that it is superior or even contrary to " nature in that sense of the word "nature" which is customary in scientific or philosophical writings.' Now, whether it is indeed the case that " nature," in this sense of the term, is transcended or even contradicted by the " supernatural " is a question which we shall have subsequently to determine. But at any rate it is not transcendence or contradiction of "nature," so understood, that renders the miraculous " super-natural " in a religious sense of the term ; and if we allow ourselves to suppose otherwise, the penalty is likely to be that, without the compensation of getting any nearer a religious understanding of the supernatural, we shall find ourselves at war with science and philosophy.
In accordance with its etymology "the miraculous" designates a kind of fact which no one can directly experience without an overpowering religious emotion of awe and wonder. It is primarily in the sense of this wonderfulness that the miraculous is "supernatural." For what is wonderful is necessarily contrary, or at least superior, to what is "natural" in the sense of being familiar or commonplace. This very circumstance is of itself enough to suggest that the religiously "supernatural" cannot be simply the logical contradictory of the " natural" in the scientific sense of the term. For one cannot help observing how frequently, in the mind of to-day, the scientific or philosophic idea of " nature " is emotionally tinged with some of that awe and reverent wonder which distinguishes the religious experience of the " supernatural." Obviously, then, it will be for our inquiry the path of prudence to start from the positive element of meaning emphasized in the term " miraculous," rather than from the ambiguous negative element emphasized in the sister term "supernatural."
Now, beyond all doubt, the positive content of any religious experience of the miraculous or supernatural is that in it the man to whom the experience comes is conscious of meeting God, as it were, face to face. Merely to be mysterious, merely to go beyond, or even to contradict, our best understanding of physical or historical precedent, does not suffice to render an event miraculous or supernatural in a religious sense. In addition to this it is necessary that in the event God, whom faith believes to be always present, shall become self-evidently present.' In anything that deserves to be called experience of the supernatural or miraculous, we pass beyond mere belief to spiritual perception. But while the positive content of a religious experience of the supernatural is constituted by this direct perception of God as here and now present and active, the experience is not distinctively Christian unless the God of whom it yields us immediate apprehension is manifestly the same God whom we know in and through Jesus Christ, and so is none other than the Heavenly Father, the redeeming God, the conquering Foe of all that injuriously threatens and cramps us. The phenomena of primitive types of religion show that it is in no wise intrinsically impossible for an experience to be genuinely supernatural, in the positive sense here indicated, and yet to awaken only solemn awe or even craven terror. But it is characteristic of Christianity that the marvels in which God breaks His way into our circle of apprehension, with a self-evidence which at the time is irresistible, are wonders of grace. The miracles of which the Gospels tell are marvels in which God is found coming to supply man's wants, to support his weakness or to succour his distress. The inward experience of the super-natural, with the joy of which the whole New Testament rings, is an experience of release of a disburdened conscience, of reinforced energies, of clouds rolled away, of the impossible become possible. And both the outward and the inward, the physical miracles and the experience of the supernatural within, are included by New Testament thought under one compendious idea the idea of redemption from this world through the approach of the Kingdom of God.
It may be in only one passage (Heb. vi. 5) that miraculous gifts are directly called "the powers of the age to come," that is, of the apocalyptical Kingdom of God, but the conception permeates the Synoptic tradition. And with the more inward boons which awaken the Christian's amazed wonder and praise the case is similar. The first stage of Christian thinking explains to itself the experiences of forgiveness and regeneration by the reflection that in the death and resurrection of the Christ the Messianic era has dawned. Far be it from me to deny how transient a phenomenon was this almost purely Messianic phase of Christian thinking, whose echoes remain easily audible by the ordinary New Testament reader mainly in the early chapters of Acts. In the Messianic scheme there was really no room for a fact so contrary to expectation, and spiritually so pregnant, as the crucifixion of the Christ. Practically at once, therefore, we see early Christian reflection beginning to lay bare the spiritual kernel under the apocalyptical husk. But in the New Testament the kernel is only laid bare ; it is never wholly removed from the husk. And if, in our theology today, we proceed by merely wrenching apart, with rough hands, the kernel and the husk, we shall sacrifice some of the essential flavour of the spiritual kernel of New Testament Christianity. In fact, the metaphor of husk and kernel is here inadequate ; a better one is furnished by the analogy of foreground and background in a painting. Through-out the whole New Testament the spiritual is ever the absorbingly impressive foreground ; and yet always there is a background of apocalyptical conceptions, sometimes so vaguely limned that our modern eyes, even if they do not miss them altogether, have difficulty in apprehending their contribution to the picture. If our current Christianity is not to be false to its origins, it must take care to be spiritual in the New Testament sense. Its inward serenity must be the result not of indifference to external fetters, but of the breaking of those fetters. It must spring from something corresponding to the New Testament's joyful discovery that for the Christian all things are new, that he is raised to a plane of inexhaustible fresh possibilities, material as well as spiritual.
Now, if we may take it for granted, at least provisionally, that the case actually stands as I have here represented it ; if the God who, in Christian experience of the supernatural, becomes manifest with all the indubitableness of immediate perception is a redeeming God ; if, further, the most compendious way of summing up the positive features of Christian experience of the supernatural in terms of early Christian thought is to say that the Christian found that he was being redeemed from this world by the powers of the age to come ; and if, finally, it be granted that in this mode of conception there was something permanently valid, for which Christianity today must provide a new expression before it dare totally discard the old, then for our present inquiry important implications come to light at once. Instead of having to depend on etymological inferences, or even arbitrary assumptions, as to what should be understood by the " natural " with which the Christian "supernatural " stands in contrast, we begin to find a basis for well-grounded conclusions. We begin to comprehend why, in Christianity, the positively miraculous or wonderful must be also negatively supernatural. What Christian experience of the miraculous or supernatural consists of is something positive : it is acceptance with God ; it is liberty ; it is life on a plane of new possibilities. But in the apprehension of the man who is thus privileged the new experience always derives part of its significance from its contrast with the old. For, since his new status is one which requires to be continuously appropriated by ever fresh acts of faith, its superiority of privilege forces itself constantly upon his attention. The new liberty never ceases to be felt as the breaking of an old bondage, which had grown so habitual as to have become second nature, and into the grip of which it is but too easy to slip back. Here, then, is at least one sense in which, even if there be no other, the wonderful experience is necessarily felt as "supernatural " ; it is supernatural in the sense of being above and contrary to the familiar, to that which has been already explored and de-limited and found wanting.
There is, however, a second shade of negative meaning which now readily comes to light. The familiar bondage from which the Christian finds that he is being released is an experience which, although not by every one consciously realized, is too universally the lot of man to be grounded in conditions peculiar to the individual sufferer. Its root must therefore strike deep down into something in the cosmic order. Christianity, inasmuch as it breaks the enslaving power of this something in the nature of things, shows itself the latter's superior. It is "supernatural in the sense that it cancels a state of bondage which otherwise appears to be a normal resultant of the nature of things. If that to which the Christian supernatural is superior and contrary is not nature absolutely, but only a natural or familiar bondage, still the familiarity of that bondage is due to the nature of things and has behind it the working of the cosmic order.
Both these respects in which we have now realized that in Christianity the positively miraculous must be also negatively supernatural, are covered by a formula which might seem to provide a safe and hopeful point of departure for the journey of exploration on which we are entering. This formula is that Christianity is necessarily supernatural because, and in so far as, it is redemptive. Why, then, does the title which I have chosen for the present work go beyond this formula and read, " Redemption from this world" ? The phrase itself is suggested by an important article contributed by Kaftan, in July 19o8, to the Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche, in which he tells how the history of religion had opened his eyes to the fact that in Christianity, as in other religions of redemption, redemption from the world is the leading and fundamental fact. Religion consummates itself," he says, " when it develops into a longing of the soul for God, seeking life and blessedness not in anything whatever that God gives, but in God Himself. For the man who has this experience the world is no longer anything ; God is every-thing. Accordingly religion of this kind, spiritual religion, has its most characteristic distinguishing feature in this, that it exalts a man above the world, frees him, redeems him from it, and does so precisely through his oneness with God, his communion with Him. The name 'religions of redemption' is given [by Comparative Religion] to all those faiths in which this goal of all religion is recognized and striven after, whether it be reached or only sought. Hence, in its proper signification, redemption means," Kaftan continues, "redemption from the world," and he proceeds to raise the question how this primary meaning of redemption has come to be missed in Protestant doctrinal construction, although it can be shown to have been fundamental for New Testament thought. With the historical explanation of this doctrinal omission we need not here concern ourselves. It is the fact itself we have to note the fact that the redemptive aspect of Christianity is usually conceived today in a narrower way than it was in the primitive age. Too commonly redemption means for us only redemption from sin, or even only redemption from punishment, whereas by those who first experienced redemption through Christ it was conceived of as redemption from the many-sided tyranny of an evil world-order, of which guilt and moral impotence were only factors, although doubtless the most out-standing and momentous factors. Now, if it be true, as I have contended, that Christianity is supernatural because, and in so far as, it is redemptive, may not our modern tendency to minimize the place of the supernatural in Christianity be connected with this tendency to narrow our conception of the redemption which Christ offers and begins to make effectual here and now ? For example, may not the tendency to believe only in spiritual miracles be the result of believing in a present redemption from sin alone ? If questions like these are to be answered in the affirmative, as I think they must be, it will surely repay us if we proceed to open up our problem of the nature and range of the supernatural in Christianity by starting from the primitive apocalyptical way of conceiving redemption through Christ as release from the domination of nothing narrower than an evil world-order. Without admitting at first anything more than the prima facie likelihood that the apocalyptical forms of conception in which Christianity began by clothing itself expressed something of real spiritual value, let us examine the idea of a redemption from this world, and see how far it was ratified by Jesus Christ, and what, in so far as it was ratified, are its implications as to the place of the supernatural in Christianity.
Such, in brief forecast, is the line of attack upon the problem of the supernatural which is to be adopted in this volume. It may have the disadvantage of suggesting at the outset a more radical or absolute sense of the term "super-natural " than perhaps we can finally acquiesce in. For, if we conceive that from which the Christian is being redeemed or set free as nothing less than an entire world-order, this very obviously means that the redeeming operation of God is regarded not simply as counter-acting the evils of our ordinary experience, but as contravening its whole nature. Yet this possible disadvantage will be more than compensated if our chosen line of attack helps us to recover a vivid impression of the far-reaching sense in which Christianity is a religion of redemption.
It is astonishing how frequently today one meets with Christians who feel their faith shaken by the evils and disasters which they see around them, or by which they are personally beset. The faith that can be shaken in this way may be genuinely a religious faith, but certainly it is not specifically Christian. It would almost seem as if these troubled souls had supposed that Christianity might be summed up in the comfortable conviction : " God's in His heaven ; all's right with the world." So, when they discover how manifestly all is not right with the world, it is only natural for doubts to assail them about the reality or the loving-kindness of God. But the true nature of Christianity is something very different. The essence of a characteristically Christian optimism would be much less inadequately expressed by saying : " God has come to earth, for there's something far wrong with the world." Nothing in the authentic Gospel of Christianity requires us to turn a blind eye upon the darker facts of life ; indeed, the case is quite the contrary. Not the possibility of grave evils and disasters, but their impossibility that is what would confute our Christian creed ; their actual abundance is rather a confirmation of its truth than a difficulty in its way. If space permitted, it would not be difficult to develop this assertion historically, metaphysically and psychologically.
The assertion can be argued for historically. For Christianity is wrongly named unless it was, and ever remains, good news about a Christ or Messiah, One Divinely commissioned to be a creative Renovator of all things ; and how could this be possible unless not our souls only, but the very fabric of our common experience were so seamed and marred as to cry aloud for renovation ? The assertion in question might be made good also on metaphysical grounds. It would be difficult indeed to regard the Christ of whom the Gospel tells as veritably God the Son, veritably a particularizing, under conditions of space and time, of an eternal redemptive reality in the God-head, unless the evil forces which this Christ was commissioned to rob of their victory were more than the temporary misfortune of a particular historical epoch unless they were, instead, precisely what indeed they appear to be, namely, tendencies to evil which must persist as logically inevitable constituents of any world in which spiritual values are coming to fruition. Finally to turn from metaphysics to the homelier levels of psychology are there any other terms on which a complete Incarnation could be at all psychologically conceivable ? Is it not the challenge of a ' great task that calls forth in a man all the greatness of which he may be capable ? And to call forth in the Man Christ Jesus all the riches of the Godhead bodily, was there not needed the challenge of a transcendent task the task of rescuing our world as a whole from an imminent finality of disaster ? Incarnation and Redemption are central tenets of the Christian creed, and they are not confuted but confirmed by the dread facts of pain and loss and ugliness and sin.
It is because Christianity is a religion of redemption from this world that it can look dark facts honestly in the face and yet remain optimistic. Because it knows that the invincible God is actively their enemy, it can frankly recognize their actuality and their ugliness without loss of hope or courage. It has the burning passion of apocalypse without its pessimism. It has its passion, for it is alive to the pity and terror of daily facts which cry aloud for a world-redeemer, a Christ. But it has not its pessimism, for it knows that the Christ has come and is ever with us. It does not, in despair of the present, dwell among dreams of another age of magical renovation ; for already, amid the practical actualities of to-day, it beholds redemption puissantly at work. In and upon the unredeemed or natural world it finds the supernatural already operative, a supernatural which is sufficiently akin to the natural to be able to lay hold of it with the wrestler's grip, and yet which, being at strife with the natural, is contrary to it, and being victorious, is manifestly superior to the natural.
To understand this warfare of kinsmen between supernatural and natural is exactly our problem. We must neither stress the affinity of natural and supernatural to the obscuring of their conflict, nor stress the conflict to the obscuring of all affinity. Now if, as I have proposed, we begin our study of Christianity as redemptive and therefore super-natural by considering it in its primitive and more definitely apocalyptical form, this means that we are dealing with a type of Christian faith which is more alive to the conflict than to the kinship between supernatural and natural. It was of the essence of the apocalyptic hope of Israel that it looked for the achievement of God's redemptive purpose not through an immanent historical process, but through an impending irruption of the Creator's transcendent might. Herein it went beyond prophetic Messianism. The latter, indeed, had always conceived of God as One of whose power and grace the course of this world was not yet an adequate expression, One whose Kingdom was in some measure still to come, One whose resources the visible universe did not exhaust. And in its pictures of the coming Messianic era it was ready at times to use imagery transcending the analogies of experience. But this imagery was at first poetry rather than fairy-tale ; and accordingly we are at liberty, so far as prophetic Messianism is concerned, to regard the coming Divine reign which was to bring redemption to Israel simply as the "more" in God which had not yet come to historical expression, the unexhausted reserve of that store of power and grace of which all God's dealings with His people had been a partial spending, instead of as the cataclysmic irruption of something radically incommensurable with the past. But, as prophetic developed into apocalyptical Messianism, poetry began to give place definitely to fairy-tale.
It would indeed be quite unfair to regard the development which took place as in every respect — a change for the worse. Certainly some of the contributory factors were of a regrettable type. Jewish apocalyptic was unfortunately not content to be indebted to Persian inspiration merely for the cosmical scale of its philosophy of history, but borrowed in part from that source a dualistic tendency as well.' Moreover, this dualism was doubtless reinforced by a pessimism inevitably born of the futile endeavour to retain the nationalistic colouring of Israel's religious hope in spite of the way in which world-history seemed to have resolved itself into a succession of universal heathen empires with the children of the promise for their plaything. Nevertheless this was not the whole story ; for the radical supernaturalism which apocalyptic substituted for the poetry of prophecy was, in an honourable degree, the expression of a heightened idealism and an intensified moral passion. It was faith's believing protest that not this or that feature merely of the course of things, but the whole order of human experience, in what appeared to be its constitutive fabric, was not good enough to be the worthy expression of God as He had spiritually revealed Himself to Israel.
Even for the grotesqueness of the imaginative constructions through which this protest uttered itself a good apology may be made. We may do more than point, with Dr. Shailer Mathews,5 to the naturalness with which the idol-hating Jew, who would hardly dare allow himself even to look at a Greek god or goddess, might prefer to seek the models for his ventures in word-painting among the uncouth monsters of Egyptian and Assyrian art. This may well be an important part of the reason for the partiality of apocalyptic for the grotesque, but may there not be some-thing more? In this partiality for the grotesque, is there not a subtle logic that deserves respect? Apocalyptic is an attempt to express the inexpressible.6 Sadly convinced that, under the conditions of experience as hitherto known, no possible manifestation of God can be adequate to His real majesty and goodness, apocalyptical faith of necessity postulates the advent of some-thing essentially transcending all known experimental conditions. And, being picture-thinking, apocalyptic has no available tool other than the sensuous imagination to use in construing this transcendent future.' But imagination can derive its materials only from past experience. How, then, shall it construe that for which there can be no experimental -analogy ? Within the limits of picture-thinking there is only one way. Imagination must still take its materials from experience, but must combine them in a manner that contradicts experience. The result is absurdity, but in the absurdity there is an intelligible logic. Artistic inexperience and the influence of Egyptian and Assyrian models may be responsible for the uncouthness of the apocalyptic symbolism ; but with a seriousness born of logical necessity the apocalyptic mind was bent on the incongruous, bent on fairy-tale.
Further, behind the message which the incongruous symbolism was meant to utter there was, as already remarked, a moral passion which exacts respect. Whether visions were, in the main, the real source of apocalyptic or, for the most part, only its literary form, in either case its psychical presupposition was an impassioned moral conviction that since the existent world-order was utterly unworthy of God, His tolerance of it must be on the very eve of exhaustion. Full soon must He rend the heavens and come down. Close at hand must be the day when, instead of holding Himself inscrutably in restraint, and leaving demon-agencies so strangely free a field for playing with the destinies of nations, He would worthily release the pent-up fulness of His might in the service of His goodness and to vindicate His righteousness.
The faith which expresses itself in apocalyptical convictions of this kind easily wins our moral sympathy. It is apt to seem more uncompromising in its hatred of wrong than a faith which tries to solve the problem of evil by a philosophical theodicy. In theodicy faith allies itself with reason ; in apocalypse, with imagination. Theodicy is faith schooling itself to what may sometimes become an immoral placidity by subtle excuses for God's tolerance of evil ; 8 apocalypse is faith solacing its impatience with vivid pictures of His intolerance. Yet while rendering apocalyptic its due meed of appreciation, we cannot forget that it regarded itself not as purely imaginative art, but as prediction. It was not mere picturing but picture-thinking, philosophy of history of a rudimentary kind. And, judged in that aspect, it has small claims to consideration. Its outstanding defect is not the extravagance but the half-heartedness of its moral logic. For it is not difficult to show that whereas its premises pointed to a conclusion of a disconcertingly practical character, what apocalyptic actually inferred from those premises was only a weakened and more comfortably theoretical form of this conclusion.
What were the apocalyptical premises? In effect they were : (I) that God is omnipotent and righteous ; and (2) that the world had come to a pass which He ought not to tolerate, and which man could not rectify without supernatural assistance. Now, from these premises the true inference surely is not that God will intervene soon, but that He is ready to intervene now, that He is ready forthwith to grant those who trust Him miraculous aid in establishing whatever better world-order He may have in view. But, for two reasons, this is a disconcerting inference. In the first place, it is much easier to accept a theoretical belief in future miracles than to stake everything on their occurrence here and now. And, in the second place, when men make practical test of God's willingness to intervene, it quickly becomes painfully evident that what He will supernaturally further is not men's programme of reform, but His own. Thus the true inference from the apocalyptical premises was one that demanded both practical belief in the miraculous there and then and also a complete surrender of self-will. Political Messianism was ready for the practical belief, but not for the surrender of self-will ; it was for a realization of the Jewish idea of what the world ought to be that it dared to expect supernatural assistance there and then. From the failures of political Messianisrn apocalyptic refused to draw the true moral. It refused to make the surrender of self-will. It refused to abandon the nationalistic colouring of its religious hope. It preferred to tamper with the logic of its own moral reasoning. From its conviction that God ought not to tolerate the existing state of the world, it preferred to argue, not that He was willing to intervene there and then to establish whatever world-order He thought best, but that He intended to intervene soon to establish the world-order which the Jewish mind thought best. By this great refusal apocalyptic faith condemned itself definitely to mere fairy-tale, to belief in a coming magic which it carefully secluded from the test of present hard fact. That is why we must say that the out-standing fault of Jewish apocalyptical reasoning was not extravagance but half-heartedness.
In place of the great refusal by which apocalyptic bartered away its soul to preserve its nationalism, Christianity substituted the grand acceptance. I t made the surrender of self-will, and obtained in reward the supernatural here and now.9 It took over the supernaturalism of apocalypse, but for it this supernaturalism was not mere theory ; it was also practice. And the result was some measure of change in the conception of the natural. For the supernatural cannot be seen actually at work without there arriving, sooner or later, a realization that what can work upon the natural, to supplement and transmute it, cannot be its simple contradictory, but that the natural must have some kind of affinity with the supernatural. Our task in this volume is to seek an understanding of the trans-formation, within Christianity, of the radical supernaturalism of apocalypse. And by way of anticipation it may be well here to indicate the general nature of the conclusion at which we may expect to arrive.
Christianity essentially is, and must remain, a religion of redemption from the world, and, moreover, of a redemption which we begin to experience here and now. But the world from which it offers this present redemption is neither nature, in any absolute sense, nor yet exactly " the present age " of apocalyptical conception. In Christianity the redemption of which we already have experience is from the world of the worldly-wise into the world of the childlike
it is from the world of the delimited and manage-able into a world of inexhaustible possibilities, a world in which many terrible things and all good things are possible ; it is from a world of prose into a world of poetry. But never is it redemption from the world of fact into a world of fairy-tale. When the poetry of prophetic Messianism developed into the fairy-tale of apocalypse, with its fatally rigid division of this world from the next, God brought it back to poetry again, but to a poetry lived and acted. He brought it back to lived and acted poetry, first of all in the herald-consciousness of John the Baptist, and then perfectly in the miracle-working of Jesus Christ. I cannot better express my conception of the new world into which the Christian should find himself here and now redeemed than in the words of a beautiful quotation I have met with from a writer with whose work I have no other acquaintance. "There is a kingdom into which none enter but children, in which the children play with infinite forces, where the child's little finger becomes stronger than the giant world ; a wide kingdom where the world exists only by sufferance ; to which the world's laws and developments are for ever subjected ; in which the world lies like a foolish, wilful dream in the solid truth of the day." A description such as this may read like poetry rather than solid fact ; but it is a poetry which Jesus lived and acted out.
( Originally Published 1922 )
Redemption From This World:
Supernatural Because Redemptive
"the Time Is Fulfilled"
The Dawning Of "the Last Days"
Supernatural And Natural
The Miraculous As The Preternatural
The Miraculous As The Act Of God
On The King's Business