I believe in the “supernatural”. I put “supernatural” in quotes because what I believe in in terms of the supernatural is something beyond our current understanding of the universe. There are certain things in science which we haven’t yet figured out, such as how to unify the theories of general and special relativity (roughly gravity with subatomic physics) or the cause of the rate of expansion of the universe (which we believe has to do with dark matter and energy, but we don’t know precisely what these are). When I talk about the “supernatural” being beyond what we know, I’m not talking about these kinds of things. I don’t have in mind the questions which science knows it doesn’t know. When I talk about the “supernatural”, I’m talking about those things which are, to the best of my knowledge, completely off the map of science. The reason I use quotes is because we may eventually discover that what we think of as “supernatural” is actually a part of our natural world after all. No one at the time of early Christianity thought of the soul/spirit as immaterial. They believed it to be a real substance, only one which couldn’t be seen or felt the way many objects are, similar to air.
Too many people have had experiences that are inexplicable by our otherwise “normal” understanding of the world. People claim all kinds of supernatural, divine experiences. People have received words of knowledge, have witnessed miraculous healings, and received divine favor. I’ve even heard stories of food multiplying and a person resurrected from the dead. Beyond these more religious kind of experiences, many people have encountered ghosts or sensed if not seen deceased loved ones. Others have had experiences of UFOs or abductions. No doubt some of these are hoaxes, others hallucinations, and others some kind of natural phenomenon experienced in an unusual way. So are all these to be believed? Certainly not. But are all of the experiences to be dismissed? I think not. There are many very credible stories. Even the U.S. government has recently acknowledged unidentified aerial phenomena (though this doesn’t necessarily mean alien spacecraft). So I believe there is something beyond our present natural understanding of the world.
It seems to me that frequently only two possibilities have been offered in regards to the supernatural. First, there are those who have denied the supernatural altogether, holding that the only things which are real are those which we can observe, study, and prove. The other choice is to believe in the God and supernatural realm of one’s religion. But what if these aren’t the only two options? This question occurred to me the other day. Is it possible that there is a supernatural, but that the supernatural isn’t like God/gods as religion has believed?
Let me talk about Christianity specifically (since this is what I know best and is the most common religion of those I know personally). The Bible is the Christian scripture. Do you believe that God effectively possessed the authors of the Bible? I’ve never heard anyone say this. Yet many Christians hold that the Bible is the inerrant/infallible word of God. How is this possible if God didn’t possess the authors? I suppose one can say that the human element is simply in the language used. So for example, an author may organize his writing based on his education and he may choose words based on his dialect. That’s possible. But I’ve long thought the idea of infallibility is nonsensical. I hate to admit the following because this didn’t sit well with me for so long. But the further along I go, the more I see the human element in the old testament. Let’s say that the people of the old testament had a real, authentic, honest encounter with the divine. If they didn’t know how else to describe it, doesn’t make sense that they would anthropomorphize the supernatural into God? Why do I bring this up? Because the question of whether the supernatural could be different than what Christianity has understood seems to go against the Bible.
Now let’s talk about Jesus. He is, of course, the keystone to Christianity. As I understand it, all experts believe that there was a real Jesus. He was a first century Jewish teacher who had a group of followers, who massively challenged the status quo of Judaism, and who was killed. Again, according to my understanding, few if any experts hold that his followers knowingly fabricated a story about his resurrection and teachings in order to start a new religion or new sect of Judaism. His followers sincerely believed in what they shared. And of course one of the key beliefs they claimed was Jesus’ resurrection. I stated at the outset that I believe in the supernatural. So for now, let’s say that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Paul and the apostles understood this to be proof of Jesus’ teachings and his divinity. This makes sense, but does this prove everything that Christianity currently believes?
C.S. Lewis famously postulated that there were only three options for understanding Jesus: lair, lunatic, or Lord. This seems logical, but is it correct? I don’t believe Jesus was a liar. I don’t think he could have started a movement if he was an intentional con artist. Plus, there’s no reason to believe he would have died for a known lie. Perhaps then Jesus was one of these brilliant but semi-crazy types of people. Maybe he was extremely charismatic and awed people with his enigmatic teaching. This scenario seems more plausible, yet I’m not so sure. Is this the only option we are left with, that of believing Jesus to be the Lord, or in other words, the divine “Son of God”?
There has been a fair amount of talk in recent years about being more like the new testament church or the church in the book of Acts. There are of course numerous denominations now days. So I think it’s safe to say that most Christians would say that some other Christians have got it wrong. Let me ask, at what point in time did Christians get it right? When and what group correctly understood Jesus? The Bible? In the gospels, it’s clear that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus, at least not until his resurrection. Even then, they asked if he was going to then restore the kingdom of Israel. So when did they correctly understand Jesus? Was it at Pentecost? Was it Paul when he wrote his letters? Was it when the his followers wrote the gospels? Furthermore, is the new testament perfect or was it written by imperfect people whose own understanding influenced its writing?
Is it possible that Jesus even misunderstood some things himself? Before you stone me, remember that Jesus himself said that not even the son knows when “the end of the age” will be (Matthew 24:36). Is it possible that he thought certain things would take place in a time or manner different from what they did?
More likely however, have we misunderstood Jesus? We now have nearly two millennia of religion behind Jesus with a whole ton of theology and dogma, et cetra built up around him and God. Consider this: how often does Jesus encourage those he is teaching to have a personal relationship with himself? How often does anywhere in the Bible teach this? Do you know that Jesus went around preaching the “gospel”? But what he preached was not, “believe in my death and resurrection so you can go to heaven when you die.” What did he teach? Again, is it possible we’ve misunderstood Jesus? Even if you take the new testament as infallible, our interpretations aren’t necessarily infallible. Jesus says many things which aren’t entirely clear and at times can seem contradictory. And when you take the new testament as a whole, this is no less true. Now I’m not saying that the Bible (or language) has no meaning and could mean anything. But that said, the meaning isn’t as concrete as many Christians want to believe it is.
So… is it possible that Jesus was a real, sincere teacher who was inspired, even divinely so, who even resurrected from the dead in some way, but isn’t a part of a God trinity as we’ve thought, and that there isn’t even a God in this sense? I’m not saying this is true, this is just a thought experiment.
One of if not the biggest challenge with Christianity has to do with prayer, suffering, and evil. I’ve gone into this in greater depth elsewhere, but we usually define God as the being with unlimited power. According to Christianity, God is supposed to be perfectly good. If God has the power and is good, why is there still horrendous evil in the world? In addition to this, Jesus taught us to pray for what we need and that God would provide. Why are there so many people who don’t have there prayers answered? Why are there so many people without adequate provision? To be clear, theologians have attempted a number of different ways to answer these questions. Some of their explanations could potentially be true though others are actually harmful (such as “you didn’t have enough faith”). Nevertheless, these explanations aren’t entirely satisfying, at least not to me.
I hate to lose the idea of a personal, loving God. But the theory of the existence of a supernatural realm and/or force which is impersonal and non-conscious could explain some things. Perhaps things such as prayer and faith do influence this supernatural in some way. But because we don’t understand it, this could explain the unpredictability of prayer, healings, and other miracles. People have long imagined supernatural reasons for natural phenomenon. Now we understand the physics and biology, et cetra behind much of the natural world. What if what we now consider “supernatural” is like this? Could there be a type of supernatural which doesn’t work like how we’ve understood God? This could explain why God seems so hard to know despite the Christian teaching that he wants a relationship with us. And as mentioned, it also helps explain the unpredictability as well as dissolves the problem of the existence of evil if there is an all powerful and all good being.