What We Believe and Why
Religion and the Supernatural
THE RT. REV. IRVING PEAKE JOHNSON, D. D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
Religion and the Supernatural
All men are apt to limit their universe to the horizon of their own experience. The man who has spent his life in a little valley reduces the whole world to the proportions of that valley, and is incredulous of all that lies beyond the mountains.
So human culture has its little valleys within which the individual wanders around in a vicious circle of limited experience.
There are scientists to whom the world is merely the result of chemical forces or material electrons. I have known eminent surgeons who constantly act as though human beings exist primarily that surgeons may have anatomical specimens for dissection.
There are business men to whom the world is purely a business proposition. Its waterfalls are reckoned by the dividends [1/2] they can produce, its winds are all trade-winds, its forests merely piles of lumber.
There are religious folk who see nothing but moral laws and pietistic emotions. Each lives in his own little valley, congratulating himself that it is the universe, and having a secret contempt for all that lies beyond.
So men reduce the creation to terms of human experience, as though man could account for that which he cannot define, and could adequately describe that which transcends all of his experience.
So men talk glibly of "matter" and of "spirit" when no man can tell us what matter is, nor how it differs essentially from spirit.
So men use electricity both to aid life and to destroy it, although man knows not what it is nor whence it comes.
After all, human action is determined by certain impulses or instincts with which man is endowed at birth, and this fundamental determination is limited by what [2/3] man has discovered in science or accepted in religion.
"In the beginning" I was a little babe and my soul was like the soil, capable of fertilizing certain seeds which might be implanted there. As a babe, I had an instinct for food. No nurse needed to inform me that I needed milk, nor did any scientist have to reveal its chemical properties. I was born with an appetite and the milk which my system needed was providentially provided.
I also had an intellect. No professor had to discover it for me. I asked "how?" and "why?" of my own volition and manifested intellectual curiosity, long before I entered school.
So also I knew the difference between right and wrong without a preacher to tell me that to disobey my mother was a sin. I manifested a criminal attitude toward my parents whenever I disobeyed them long before I knew any moral theology.
 I was born also with a capacity for religion and at a very early age believed that God was not an abstraction, but some one very near and dear to me with whom I had intimate converse that was very real to me.
As I grew older I brought this aptitude for science, morality and religion into a world in which men had accepted certain principles. "There were giants" in my youth, when I looked upon certain authorities as supermen, because the world so treated them.
My world has lost its supermen, but the giants are still there. Like giants, however, they are remarkable only in the valley where their reputation has been made. Other valleys have their giants, who boast great things, and are apt to meet their Davids with a sling, if they stroll outside the little valley which holds them in great respect.
So great psychologists are apt to be a joke to their own children and worthy divines, [4/5] like Samuel, unable to bring up their own sons.
In the valley of psychology and theology they are giants, but a little child may baffle them in the region of parental relations.
So we grow up in our little valleys and then go out on a journey through the world. If we are wise we learn that all wisdom is not confined to the walls which have hitherto hemmed us in. We find other men of equal strength and intelligence and character who have been reared in other valleys.
If we are insular in our nature, we trust in our own experience that we are wise and despise others.
If we are good travellers, we develop a cosmopolitan instinct and soon discover that equal wisdom has been imparted to those who live in separate valleys, that the Scientist and the Business Man and the Prophet are endowed by the Creator, each with Wisdom after his kind and that the Wisdom which each has developed has sprung out of an instinct with which he was born.
 In the realm of religion, the Hebrew and Christian prophets are dealing with a personal God, whereas Scientists are concerned with mechanical forces. Therefore they do not talk each other's language.
It is the function of the prophet to deal with moral purpose and in order to do this he must be concerned with the future.
The Supernatural is not that which is contrary to natural law but rather that which lies beyond human experience.
The great miracle to me is not that, standing on a street corner in New York, I look for the New Jerusalem. It is rather that, imagining myself as standing on the primordial rock of Manhattan, surrounded by an endless waste of water, I visualize New York with all of its various activities. If a prophet had stood there with a scientist in the Paleozoic Age and pictured New York as it is today, he would have been dealing with the supernatural. From whence did this city come? Was it from the rock or from the water?
 In other words, standing in New York today and looking backward over the ages to the primordial dawn, I may construct my zoology, biology and other sciences; but standing at the beginning of creation and looking forward to the present day one might have studied the moral purpose of all life. There is nothing in the rock and water even to suggest the mighty Saurians of the Mesozoic Age.
There isn't anything very spiritual in a crocodile, but it is an advance on sea water. It is a long cry from the Saurian to the Caveman, and he may not be much to boast of in a spiritual sense, but to the Saurian he is a supernatural being. It is a far cry from the Caveman to the despotisms of Babylon and Egypt, but it is a growth in moral purpose. It is a far cry from those tyrannies to our modern democracies, but still looking at it from before, it is an advance.
It must be a very far cry from our democracies to the Kingdom of Heaven, but if [7/8] there is to be advance and progress, it must be through processes that are beyond our present experience; it must be through that which to us is supernatural.
If it be true that birds were evolved from reptiles, it is also true that the way in which reptiles became birds was by acquiring new qualities which were not those which made them good reptiles, but rather those qualities which transcended their previous experience.
In a sense we are now in the reptilian stage of moral progress. We have the imagination of a butterfly with the body of a caterpillar. Any impartial observer of human conduct for the past ten years would be impressed with the reptilian character of the human race.
We are suspicious of that which is strange, we hiss at one another, do battle with one other, kill one another for inadequate reasons.
Morally and spiritually, we are in the creeping and crawling stage. We shall not [8/9] soar and fly until we have acquired new faculties.
In the scientific phase of human progress, man walks by observation and analysis and logic, but in the change that awaits us, the most superficial Saurian ought to see that we need faith and hope and love in order to attain moral progress.
The Kingdom of Heaven never has come and never will come by observation. But faith is essentially a belief in the supernatural, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and it is not the same kind of evidence as that of scientific knowledge, nor is the substance which is sought one that can be attained by chemical formulae or logical syllogisms. It deals with faith and hope and love, which are entirely different things.
We must believe in the supernatural or remain static in the natural. "We are saved by hope," says St. Paul, but he continues, "Hope that is seen is not hope. If we hope [9/10] for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it."
Love is the more excellent way, the greatest thing in the world, the crowning attribute of human potentiality.
It is for this reason that religion must deal with that which is to us, supernatural, as no moral progress has ever been attained without acquiring other qualities than those of past experience.
What then is the true test of the supernatural? What is the supreme test of a religious system?
Christ tells us, when He speaks of a religious system, (or "The Way" as He calls it) and warns us to beware of false prophets for we shall know them by their fruits. "Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?"
The test of spiritual values is not the same as that of scientific data.
 In the case of the latter, we are dealing with facts observed and mathematical formulae which are mechanically exact.
The test of spiritual values is in the effect upon human lives in terms of love, joy, peace, as well as in social relations. A religious system that does not produce the qualities in men which make for righteousness may be acceptable to men's intellects, but it does not accord with the purpose which religion must serve, which is to produce righteousness.
Just as men have come to their theories about electricity after they have used it to lighten their abodes, so the theory about religion must succeed the practice of it.
And as between practice and theory, the former must take precedence over the latter. And what is the test of Christianity?
It is in the fact that historic Christianity has provided the motivation for lifting the savage out of his ignorance and the sinner [11/12] out of his vice: it is in the fact that it has provided for human need, wherever human need has complied with its conditions.
People resist the religion of the supernatural because they do not understand it, but it is the religion of the supernatural alone which has done the work for which religion exists.
Life isn't merely the discovery of that which has happened. Such a life might have an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe and yet be utterly lacking in those moral and spiritual qualities which give life an adequate purpose. Life is an adventure of faith.
So man makes his friends, marries his wife, enters upon his vocation.
A man must decide first that God's purpose in the universe is not yet completed and then he must strive by faith to round out the great adventure. Having done this, he looks about for leadership and finds it in the Master. Having accepted Christ as [12/13] his Master, man can do naught else but follow His vision. And He leads us beyond the grave into regions where we have no data for scientific observation. We must take Him on faith or not at all.
We may use our reason in determining what He was and what He said and what He commanded us to do.
We can foreshadow what He declares by what we know of the life that He has already created.
We know that in biology there are three elementary principles or laws:
1. The law of birth by which life enters the world unconscious of itself.
2. The law of nourishment by which the life thus given is sustained, in co-operation with the gifts of God. Man lives by the sweat of his brow and on the seeds which God's bounty has provided.
3. The law of adaptation by which life adjusts itself to its environment and so lives and perpetuates itself.
 Birth is God's gift.
Nourishment is God's gift plus man's labor.
Adaptation is man's effort to grow and to bring forth fruit.
It is strange that Christ should have indicated these processes in our heavenward journey.
Birth.—"Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again, for except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." Surely man would never have invented the method by which he is born into this world, but there is no other way of beginning human life. I will agree that man would never have invented Holy Baptism as the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven. We know only that the Master said that this was the way, and that the Christians who came fresh from his instructions so interpreted His words. I accept Holy Baptism on the Master's assurance that this is the [14/15] way, and I know no other and I do not believe that anybody else does.
Nourishment.—Again the Master said, "The Bread of God is He that came down from Heaven, and giveth life unto the world." "I am that Bread of Life." "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." I am not surprised that "many went back and walked no more with Him," but I am surprised that He did not call them back and explain if they had misunderstood Him. I am like the disciple who said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."
And so when later on He said, "Take, eat, this is my body," I am forced to believe that in the Lord's Supper my soul is fed by the Body and Blood of Christ as my body is by the Bread and Wine. To me the one is no more miraculous than the other.
 It is no more amazing that I may inherit eternal life by feeding on Him in this sacrament than it is amazing that the food which Shakespeare ate could produce, by some mysterious process, the plays of Hamlet and Macbeth.
It is the strange alchemy of nature, beyond human understanding, that bread and potatoes can produce a sonnet or a play.
It is not a matter of scientific explanation but merely of human experience. It is outside the realm of scientific analysis but it follows the experience of the race.
So Christ seems to have followed the law of Birth and Nourishment in the processes of eternal life. Not that the process of nourishment is a mechanical one, any more than the process in a Shakespeare was merely mechanical.
We have to bring to the Lord's Supper our own penitence and our own effort for righteousness in order to secure the blessing of His heavenly food.
 Adaptation.—And now follows the law of Adaptation. It is not enough to be born and to be fed; we must adapt ourselves to our environment if we would survive. The Master says, "Verily, I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." And so we grow in grace because we have the faith of children, the teachableness of children, the adaptability of children. It is all a childlike process rather than an academic theory. We are surrounded by influences that will destroy our faith and hope and love, and God has given us instruments called sacraments, that are supernatural to us, to aid us in overcoming. We live only if we battle with our temptations in such ways as He indicated by His teaching and by His life.
"If any man will be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me." There is no other way in which I can traverse a wild and unknown wilderness except to follow the guide who knows "the way," for [17/18] to be a guide he must know that which transcends my experience.
"I am the way," and we either follow our guide or we don't; but if we follow, it must be whole-heartedly or we shall perish in the wilderness.
If a scientist could have lived before life began on the cooling earth, his scientific experience could not have dealt with the biology that followed such beginnings of life.
He would have known the laws of gases, liquids and solids but not the laws of birth, nourishment and adaptation, for they would have transcended his experience.
To such a being, possessed of scientific knowledge, the whole of life as now known would have been supernatural.
It would not have been opposed to science. It would have transcended the powers of observation. So a new heaven and a new earth such as is described by Jesus is not opposed to [18/19] science. It transcends man's power of observation. It is supernatural but not impossible to God's further creative power, unless God's power has been exhausted.
The Supernatural is not contrary to the facts of science, for it lies beyond the ken of human experience, and in that realm we must "walk by faith and not by sight."
And faith is confidence in our guide; it is not confidence in ourselves, for we are but children in the way that lies before us.
"I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord" because I believe He knows more about the purpose of our lives than all the wise men who have speculated on the subject from the days of Aristotle to those of Herbert Spencer; and having accepted Him for my guide I am willing to follow Him in that realm where human experience is inadequate and where I believe that He knows the way as He has assured us that He does. I am not a believer in the application of scientific philosophy to a realm [19/20] of action in which I do not believe there are sufficient scientific data upon which to base any principles that are capable of motivating human action. If I must put His Word against theories based on scientific philosophy, I prefer to accept His Word.
I prefer a lighting system that has enlightened the souls of men to a mere theory of light that has never converted a savage or illumined the way of a penitent sinner.
If Christ's Gospel be condemned because it is supernatural, it may yet be accepted because it is the only practical way that has been found to make saints out of sinners and to give hope to those in dark despair.
God has not completed His creation until He has satisfied the aspirations of men who seek righteousness and He has satisfied those aspirations in souls that have found Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth and the life.