Anyone who knows me knows that my theological reflections have much to owe from NT Wright.1 I have been profoundly influenced by his hermeneutical and philosophy engagement with an epistemology of love. I recognize the shadow of an Epicureanism in the Western intellectual life due to his commentary on the matter, even as I would emphasize Stoicism a bit more than he does.
One area that I have had to do some real thinking is when it comes to the way he responds to the Epicurean split by being averse to certain ideas such as the miracles as abnormal manifestations of God’s power and the supernatural, etc. In Who Was Jesus?, written in 1992, Wright says,
This does not mean that the resurrection throws open the door, after all, to a miscellaneous ‘appeal to the supernatural’. I hold to what I said above. ‘Natural’ and ‘supernatural’, in the way those categories are regularly used today, are thoroughly misleading words. The resurrection throws open the door to a different belief, which looks like this. (1) The creator of the world, who never abandoned his world, called Israel to be the spearhead of his redeeming purposes for it. (2) This God has now, in Jesus, drawn together the threads of Israel’s long destiny, in order to deal with evil in the world and to begin, dramatically, the creation of a new world. This new world is not superimposed upon the old one, but grows out of its very womb in a great act of new creation, like the oak from the acorn.
The resurrection thus challenges all views of the world, and of history, that insist on reducing everything to materialistic analysis. (It also challenges all views which reduce everything to pagan superstition or magic.) In this light, and in this light alone, we can approach the question of the conception of Jesus with some hope, not necessarily of understanding it, but of sketching out the area within which true understanding may perhaps be found. I stress, this is not an argument designed to convince sceptics on their own materialist ground. That is impossible. It is an argument which depends on the worldview created by, and around, the resurrection of Jesus—which, I have suggested, is something that has to be taken seriously by all historians of the first century.2
Put differently, it might be appropriate to describes Wright’s argument as boiling down to the premise that we should be thinking about new creation is changing things such that what might have been the abnormal at one point is no longer abnormal, that there is a fundamental change in the scope of all creation when Jesus was raised from the dead. To think about natural and supernatural in light of the new creation being inaugurated in the resurrection is to essentially posit a static universe with the mostly absentee landlord God who occasionally comes by for a visit to pop his head in to say hello and make sure everything is nice and tidy.
Such a transformation of reality can not be possibly understood with the metaphysical assumptions of modern materialism, as the idea that the nature of creation is changing would present some uncertainty to some of the undergirding assumptions of science since its ascendancy with Newton: that the fundamental makeup of the universe is static and unchanging such that we can develop and discern timeless, regular laws about all that exists. Perhaps in practice this is incredibly messy and untenable, but science has long worked under this basic assumption that given enough information, time, and brain power, one could discern the immutable laws of reality, replacing the immutable God with the immutable universe. Not without any reasonable warrants for such a conclusion, however, because there are many, many, many things that stay the same the more things changes. When we adopt the atomic paradigm of the philosopher Democritus, who influences Epicurus, that suggests the world can be broken down and analyzed in terms of its smaller parts, we do see great regularity within these smaller points such that they can be represented with mathematical precision.
It is important to note, however, that undergirding this sense of atomism isn’t an intrinsic sense of the world as it really is, but certain assumptions about the relationship between those things that change and those things that stay the same and how to go about orchestrating our understanding of the two. The presocratic philosopher Parmenides suggested that all change was illusion by arguing change would require something to come from nothing. Atomist such as Leucippus and then Democritus offered another perspective: one can account for the changing and unchanging nature of the world by suggesting that the smallest parts what exists, that is “atoms,” are unchanging, even as the configuration of these “atoms” in larger blocks do regularly change. Even as they reject Parmenidies ultimately conclusions, their analysis is still trapped by the need to assume immutability is the default nature of the world.
While what we told call “atoms” do not have the property of invariability, the basic assumption that the universe is fundamentally the same throughout time in virtue of the regular behavior of the smallest known particles permeates the modern sense of time and change. Even as this analytic framework has proved immensely useful in addressing many strictly empirical questions, there is still the tendency to get cause up in the ever present Parmenidean assumption that our reality as a whole is fundamentally unchanging in its most fundamental sense, whatever that is, and our perceptions of change are more superficial and primarily owing to our ignorance.
While most scientists would recognize that their scientific methodology does not deny that changes do occur, to suggest that reality is not fundamentally unchanging, but rather it is that which is changing is more fundamental, would wreck some havoc with scientific methodology, placing its conclusions under a persistent yet not necessarily boisterous ‘skepticism’ that would render the necessary assumption of continuity for scientific knowledge in question. The point being is that beyond just the Epicurean worldview; most any sense of atomism that thinks the world can be made sense of by understanding its smallest, individual and immutable parts would find the idea of God’s inauguration of new creation as a threat to these implicit, undergirding assumptions, even if one could still otherwise affirm the overall validity and truthfulness of scientific theories and knowledge built upon this bottom-up understanding from the parts to the whole.
Therefore, to divide up the natural and the supernatural would actually entail us dividing our understandings of events in the world to by made sense by one of two ways of thinking. The natural is to be understood by the bottom-up, parts-into-the-whole mode of analysis, which requires direct and regular observation and precise measurement of the parts to understand how everything fits together. Then, the supernatural entails a suspension of this bottom-up thinking to see the top-down analysis where God as a being who has intention and purpose does something dramatic in the world that are understood as miraculous events as a whole (what happens does not naturally emerge from the smaller parts doing what they do). More than just the Epicurean division of heaven and earth, there is the actual division of how we think about the world and how we think about God.
But, what if our thinking abut God and nature is more an epistemic matter rather than truly a matter of *clearly definable* metaphysical distinctions between nature and God.3 What if “nature” is more so a designation of a specific type of information we use to make sense of the world that the scientific method and other similar methods of knowledge construction are reliable for? On the same token, what is “supernatural” refers more so to those tremendous events that we can not readily make sense of through a scientific or scientific-like epistemology that promote a strong sense of God, or on some occasions the demonic, having their hand involved in it? In other words, what if the metaphysical ideas latent in our understanding of the natural and the supernatural are more so simply deeply assumed paradigms that influence how we come to generate knowledge and understanding about these specific type of events?
If that is the case, then we are left not really be able to draw a strict boundary between the “natural” and the “supernatural” in terms of the reality of these things, but only in terms of how we approach them for knowledge. If then, it is the case that God can be involved in the “natural” then we are left with an interesting question: how can be identify God’s actions in the world around us? Should we just start arbitrary saying “This is God’s healing here” and “this is a small miracle there?” Certainly, if our only goal is gratitude to God, we can do this, but if we want to recognize that there is something profoundly different about the ‘miracle’ of the resurrection that is not the case about some of the more mundane events we praise God for, how can we bring together these epistemic conceptions of the natural and the supernatural?
I would put forward there is a category we can refer to as the supramundane, in which what has happened is understandable in some manner from a scientific point of view, while at the same time believing and recognizing a degree of uniqueness in the event attributable to God. These things operate somewhere between the thresholds of the blurry line between those things understandable by science and those things that have the marks of also being understandable by faith in God.4
If there are events that can be legitimately understood as the supramundane, then we have a way of making sense of Wright’s understanding of the new creation and the changing of the way things are in the resurrection and not accepting the Epicurean metaphysics. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has launched a new trajectory in history in which the supramundane is become more regular, to the point that the supramundane is becoming more possible and, as a consequence of its increasing possibility and even accomplishment by human ingenuity, it seen more as mundane and natural. None of these supramundane events are blocked off from some degree of scientific observation and understanding, at least in theory.
Put differently, the resurrection of Jesus Christ has enabled humanity to engage in a new possibilities and transformations previously impossible. The metaphysics behind this possibility don’t have to be clearly articulated for it to be a useful framework to consider how earth and the natural converges with heaven and the supernatural. If we have (a) good warrants for the usefulness of scientific understanding and (b) good warrants to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and (c) do not wish to succumb to an Epicurean dualism, then the concept of the supramundane as something that passes the threshold of the natural but yet is in some degree comprehensible in terms of our ‘natural’ epistemology can hold these three together.
This isn’t a biblical way of analyzing the matter at hand. However, the Biblical worldview on its own terms does not have the cognitive resources to provide a robust account for the great usefulness of scientific knowledge, even if it doesn’t automatically rule it out either. The idea of modern science neither inherently fits nor conflicts with the Biblical worldview. The concept of supramundanity can help to bridge the implicit worldviews of the OT and the NT with the usefulness of science. At the same time, the concept also has a potential useful for recognizing something important within the Gospels and Jesus. The miracles that Jesus performed, the various healings, exorcisms, etc. can be understood as supramundane events that were intending to point towards the sign of signs and miracles of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as they all bear the hallmarks of God’s direct activity, even as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a unique event in itself (even the resurrection of Lazarus was not of the same manner). Other miracles are not intended to simply be signs of the “supernatural” and of God but that they are rather foretastes of God’s dramatic inaugurations of His Kingdom, both in terms of the supramundanity of Jesus’ powerful signs as foretastes of the resurrection and the supramundanity of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a foretaste of the fully inaugurated kingdom of God.
- This is not a subtle disregard of his Biblical Scholarship and work as a historian. I have immense respect for his work in those areas and have been influenced by my engagement with NT Wright the biblical scholar and NT Wright the historian, but it is NT Wright the theologian that has had the most significant intellectual impact on me, whereas I am bit more independent when it comes to Biblical scholarship and history.
- N. T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 82.
- To be clear, I am not suggesting that God and nature are one or the same and that any sense of a matter of illusion. That would be pantheism or panentheism. Rather, I am simply articulating the idea that we can not precisely draw the line as to the differences between God and nature, even as we can clearly believe and understand, like Elijah, that God is not in the wind, the fire, or the earthquake. We can still, at the same time, recognize the historical and immediate causal dependency of these things on God that relates our faith in God with our perception and knowledge of the world in some yet to be reliably and rationally explained and articulated. In other words, I am making an argument for the insufficiency of metaphysical knowledge such that they should not be brought to strongly bear on understanding the relationship of God and His wondrous deeds that we is often labeled as “supernatural” to the regularly observed order of nature.
- To be clear, this is not simply a god-of-the-gaps argument where things that we can not explain are attributed to God. Rather, my argument for the supramundane suggests there are some positive reasons to believe in God’s more direct action in the matter.”