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On Excluding the Supernatural

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

T. R. Miles
Professor of Psychology, University College of North Wales, Bangor


Various attempts have been made in recent years to present Christianity in such a way that no use is made of the traditional dichotomy between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’. Braithwaite, Hare, and van Buren, for instance, appear to have no use for the dichotomy; and I think that, without too much distortion, one can say the same of Bultmann, Tillich, and Robinson. I am not, however, concerned in this paper with the work of any one thinker as such, but rather with a general climate of opinion. What I want to do is to examine the grounds on which it might be argued that belief in the supernatural is discredited. The issue seems to me of special importance at the present time, since, if these grounds are inadequate, programmes of reform under the general heading ‘Christianity without the supernatural’lose much of their point; if, on the other hand, the grounds are compelling, then reform of some kind is forced upon us whatever the accompanying difficulties.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1966

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Page 141 note 1 R. B. Braithwaite, An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief.

Page 141 note 2 Hare, R. M., ‘Theology and Falsification’. Published in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony, Flew and Alasdair, MacIntyre.Google Scholar

Page 141 note 3 P. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel.

Page 141 note 4 For instance, Bultmann, R., ‘New Testament and Mythology’, Chapter 1 of Kerygma and Myth, ed. Bartsch, H. W..Google Scholar

Page 141 note 5 For instance, P. Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations.

Page 141 note 6 John Robinson, Honest to God.

Page 143 note 1 Mark viii, 24.

Page 145 note 1 To avoid misunderstanding, since I think there has been confusion on this point, I should like to make clear that ‘legislating as to how we should talk’ is in many ways a misleading account of the philosopher's activity. Thus he is certainly not concerned with ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ words in Nancy Mitford's sense, e.g. whether one should say ‘greens’ or ‘vegetables’, nor is it his special job (though this may arise for him incidentally) to say whether an extended usage is or is not misleading or to encourage people to use words carefully. One of his tasks, however, as I see the matter, is to look at words in their ‘natural habitat’—the contexts in which they are ordinarily used—in order to recognise, and if necessary revise, the category-distinctions implicit in ordinary and technical discourse. Thus he has no interest in forbidding idioms such as ‘His mind was wandering’ nor in telling boxers or anaesthetists whether they may or may not use the word ‘conscious’; but he can legitimately be interested in the desirability or otherwise of the philosophically sophisticated category-division into ‘physical events’ and ‘events of consciousness’. As will be seen later, it is the problem of categorising events into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ with which this paper is mainly concerned.

Page 146 note 1 Lewis, C. S., Miracles, p. 15.Google Scholar

Page 146 note 2 John Robinson (Honest to God, p. 32) writes: ‘The whole world-view of the Bible … is unashamedly supernaturalistic.’ This seems to me a surprising statement, since the dichotomy into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ is surely not Biblical at all.

Page 146 note 3 Richard Robinson, Definition.

Page 148 note 1 I am grateful to Mr J. R. Lucas for considerable help with the following discussion, though he is in no way responsible for the conclusions which I draw.

Page 148 note 2 I am not, of course, referring here to what may happen—as the hymn says—‘on the resurrection morning’, but to what is agreed to happen to ordinary bodies in the ordinary way.

Page 149 note 1 See E. L. Mascall, The Secularisation of Christianity. Mascall, somewhat surprisingly, attributes to me the view that ‘all sentences involving reference to existence are meaningless’ (p. 19). My argument was in fact that philosophers have sometimes taken ‘exist’-sentences out of their ‘natural habitat’ and failed to give a use for them, and that it is this failure to give a use which constitutes the central difficulty for those who adopt the ‘extra entity’ view of God. The statement ‘supernatural agencies exist’ (or ‘do not exist’) seems to me in fact to be an example of precisely this mistake.

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