Arkadian Anvil: Hammering out a Pagan Future

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Supernatural, not really…

The 'supernatural' is often considered the sine qua non of religion. Certainly the Gods and Spirits must be considered supernatural, yes? Well…not necessarily.

The way we have received the word 'supernatural' in western culture is as the class of all things that defy natural explanation. We apply it to the Gods as well as ghosts and psychic phenomenon. At a certain level it means ‘out of this world’, which points us back to the Greek origins of the word. But, we also need to look at the Latin to understand it, and have to turn to Thomas Aquinas for its meaning.

Michael York introduces his book “Pagan Theology” using Aquinas’ definition, referring to “what is thought to be privileged above the agency and laws of nature”.[p. 1] This becomes the start-point of York’s theology (as I thus far understand it), but it is also where we part.

What Aquinas was doing with his definition of the supernatural was finding a way of separating the Divine, in his case meaning Yahweh, called ‘God’, from the World. The ruler must be external and above the ruled, in other words, above the world, and then Aquinas built the logic and authority of his theology on this basis.

I have to firmly reject this approach to theology as destructive. It results in a frame that alienates the Divine from us, especially typified by theologian Rudolf Otto’s concept of the Divine as ‘wholly other’. This for me is one of the most blasphemous things that could ever be taught: that we somehow could be separated from the source of Being. Or in other language, that we could ever be parted from God/ess. We might feel that way at times, but neither do I see it as necessary or even possible, and I also find the idea to be cruel. In the very least it is cruel because it makes you dependent on something else, like the Christian understanding of the mediating role of the Priest, to work out your ‘salvation’. You can imagine the abuse of power that would come, and in fact came with this.

Super- (above) and -Natural (derived from natal=born) gives us 'above the born', or as the magickians these days say, the Bornless. That which is supernatural is neither born nor dies. The laws of physics fits in this category, co-existing with the universe, changing only as it does, but we usually attribute all things physical to nature, regardless of being 'born' or dying.

The Greek term from which we get supernatural is *hupo-physus* "hyper-physical". For Iamblichus and the Neoplatonists, as well as many others immersed in the ancient cosmology, the Gods, or more precisely the highest Gods dwell above the Cosmos which is itself restricted to the physical, i.e., that which has matter. Everything above this is free of matter, meaning located in time and space.

In the emanationist cosmology of the Neoplatonists, the High Gods emanate or project themselves out of their mind-only or *noetic* realm into the Cosmos or physical realm to manifest as the Celestial Gods (generally associated with the planets) and as the Terrestrial Gods, the ones who care for the physical realm and who we are most likely to meet in a numinous place (and to be distinguished from the Chthonic Gods, another problem entirely).

The issue here is that even though the Gods are ‘outside’ the physical realm, that is only because the physical is so small. The Gods are as it were bigger, and the physical in contained in them because it is dependent on Them. Without the provident causation that the Gods supply, the physical could not arise. They are the preconditions for the physical Universe, but entirely present to the physical, as its structures, its ‘laws’, its operational principals. In scientific language we call this physics, chemistry, and biology.

From a pantheistic perspective, there is no need to separate the Gods from the world. They may be beyond the physical in origin, they are rightly called Bornless, but they permeate the All and are part and parcel of the system of the All.

So rather than being alienated from the Gods, ghosts, and what ever 'para-' phenomena is under consideration, by recognizing that the super-natural simply means the non-physical, we don't have to place the Gods out of the world but rather see Them as integral to it. Or perhaps it is simply better to drop the category of the supernatural completely as a distinction appropriate to a culture that lives in alienation to its God, in other words, not we Pagans.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    Mr. Webster,

    I really liked your summation of the relationship of Platonism to the 'supernatural'. My wife (whose personal theology is essentially a fusion of Unitarianism and Spiritualism) and I were discussing why I felt the word 'supernatural' is really a misnomer, in the manner people often think of it.

    I'd always thought of the word, 'natural', in the popular sense of NOT made by humans. It never occurred to me to think of it as 'bornless', as its Latin roots indicate.

    So my thinking was, "How can ghosts, land spirits, and other daemons be considered SUPER-natural when they are actually a part of the spiritual order of Nature?" Being 'above' the physical realm hardly means they are unnatural.

    Thanks for another very thought-provoking post! Always worth reading.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    I meant to say, "It never occurred to me to think of 'supernatural' as being 'bornless', as its Latin roots indicate."

    Oops!

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    An interesting way of looking at the nature of gods. Gave me something to think about. Thanks.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Thursday, 06 March 2014

    I agree. Ecofeminist Christian Sallie McFague redefined supernatural as super-(bly) natural. As a Goddess feminist, I like you, find Otto's idea mis-guided. If the divine is "in" the world, it is not apart from or totally different from the world. Not a mystery, not a mysterium tremendum, the Source, not the Ending of the cycles of birth, death, and renewal. Lots more to say... Great post.

  • Diotima
    Diotima Thursday, 06 March 2014

    Well said, Sam. It would be interesting to dive a little further into the concept of "the All" -- the oneness of the non-physical and the physical. It's fun to speculate on what connects the physical and the non-physical, and it's hard to deny that consciousness must be a large part, if not the entirety of that weaving. But we can't even really agree on a good definition for consciousness, that one thing that neither science nor religion can deny is critical to the creation of physical reality. And it's not supernatural, but it may well be divine.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Saturday, 08 March 2014

    Blessings, Diotima,
    I do some work on the All on my other blog:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paganrestoration/2014/01/monist-how-are-you-using-the-word/
    And some of my older posts here touch upon the matter as well.
    Thanks for your comment,
    )O+
    sam

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Friday, 07 March 2014

    never been one to use the term supernatural. if it happens it's natural.
    anyway.
    why can't 'matter' or the physical be independent?
    why can't it possess it's own nature or qualities which can be shaped by, but also 'shape' the beings from, as you write the 'noetic realm'?


    Also as to the chthonic gods, in many cosmologies they are the first to manifest, they are usually the Old ones, who parent the cosmic gods of 'order', and are the 'terrestrial' or earthy powers, and only become 'infernal' or under world gods after they have been supplanted, as it were, by their offspring.

  • Richard Norris
    Richard Norris Friday, 07 March 2014

    Aquinas, of course, based much of his work off of Aristotle, who was previously considered a kind of Platonist. Aristotle suggested the idea of a Prime Mover, a being of pure Actuality, that was the source of all change in an effort to answer Parmenides on the illusion of change. This Prime Mover was solely responsible for the world, as it is the being that conserves the nature of all things and the way they change by the principles of act and potency. This makes the Prime Mover the greatest being, and largely theonly one deserving of worship, as it is the one that provides Nature its existence. It is from this philosophy, rather than theology, that notions like monotheism and natural law find their origional grounding here in the West. Aquinas got a hold of Aristotles wok and argued that a single, perfect unchanging being who due to natural law dissaproved of things like murder, lying, and non-procreative sex, essentialy fit the profile of the Christian God. There is an entire school of philosophy, actually called Scholasticism, that explores and propounds this philosophy today. I would like to see a rigourous and thourough response to this school of thought, but the only people who have critiqued it are the New Atheists who constantly straw-man their opposition. Does anyone know of any philosophers working on a polytheist metaphysics?

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Saturday, 08 March 2014

    Richard,
    Thank you for your comment.
    There are a number of us working out a philosophical basis for our Pagan ways. Posts here, and on my Pagan Restoration blog (www.patheos.com/blogs/paganrestoration/), are some of my efforts. But, I'm not alone.
    )O+
    sam

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