Supernatural, The

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SUPERNATURAL, THE . Mysterious occurrences and beings that habitually or occasionally impinge upon one's everyday experience are called "supernatural." It is commonly said that belief in the supernatural characterizes all religions and that belief in the supernatural wanes in modern societies.

Historical Development of the Notion

The term supernatural was given wide currency by Thomas Aquinas (12251274) and the Scholastics, but it had numerous antecedents in the idiom of the Hellenistic thinkers and church fathers. Neoplatonists in particular accumulated superlatives to speak of the realm of the divine: It was above the highest heaven, beyond the world, and even beyond being. Christians spoke of God as being above nature: He had not grown out of anything but was eternally self-subsistent. They also spoke of Christ as bringing to humankind benefits that were above nature, that is, benefits that were beyond what human beings could reach with their own powers. This link between grace and the supernatural became firmly entrenched in scholastic theology. Thomas taught that in the Fall humanity was hurt in its very nature (that is, weakened as a being) and lost its supernatural gifts, especially its access to the vision of God. God, according to Thomas, in his grace gratuitously heals the wounds (and thus restores to humans what naturally belongs to them) and reopens humanity's path to his supernatural end, thus restoring access to the added bliss of life with God. This theology expresses a constant theme in the Christian faith: The natural and the supernatural are at odds; the sacred and the profane are estranged. God, who is quite separate and distinct from the world, is not responsible for this state of affairs, and his intention is to rectify it. Nature and supernature will, in time, be reconciled.

The word supernatural, however, left the confines of the schools and began to lose its precise technical meaning. It became associated with the unusual, the marvelous, the surprising. Robert Lenoble (1968) has shown a continuity, from antiquity to the present day, in what he calls "marvel psychology." Popular thought makes rough distinctions between what is natural, what is artificial, and what is miraculous: Water flows down into valleys, human beings build dams, and the Virgin diverts floods from villages when dams break down. What characterizes common thinking about the subject is uncertainty about the precise borders between the natural, the artificial, and the miraculous. When the dam breaks down, does it do so by itself, through wear and tear, or because some man has put explosives in it or some woman has cast a spell upon it? And does the water spare the village because of its situationthe village is on high landor because of divine intervention? While medieval theologians had used the term supernatural to refer to the moral and spiritual dynamics of salvation, ordinary Christians came to call supernatural any extraordinary occurrence that could not be accounted for by the usual explanations at hand.

The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century radically transformed the idea of cognition. With the mechanistic revolution came, certainly for some human beings, a precise knowledge of the limits of the natural. "Natural" causes have come to explain increasing amounts of experience, and it is commonly assumed that in time, natural causes will be found for events that currently resist explanation. Nature is seen to be a rigid, coherent system that works like a clock, does not pursue moral ends, and is indifferent to human aspirations. Modern humans know how to build dams that are fail-safe; they know for sure that those dams cannot be destroyed by spells; and they do not count on the Virgin to intervene in the event of an accident. Nature, then, always works according to rigorous laws and, by definition, excludes the miraculous. (The older nature was malleable: It was quite willing to see Godwho ruled over itreorder its workings momentarily or locally to bring about a miracle for some special purpose.) At first, the new nature was deemed to magnify God even more than the older one: Its strict regularity and its order seemed to testify to the awesome grandeur of its creator. That it was not a model and had nothing to teach humanity was deemed at first only to serve the interests of the dialogue between man and God. René Descartes (15961650) taught that human beings and God are alike in that both are spirits. The human being, a finite spirit, cannot create ex nihilo, but like an engineer, can shape everything: The whole of nature is matter in his hands (Lenoble, 1968).

At the same time, however, for reasons that had to do with the aftereffects of the wars of religion, the rise of the modern state, and the new demands for social conformity, the Baroque taste spread in Christian lands. What was infinite, awesome, powerful, overwhelming, and stunning was considered to convey a sense of God. Religious architecture and furniture became calculatedly impressive; oratory became stately. Miracles as powerful disruptions of nature's laws appeared, then, necessary to the cause of religion. Many theologians thus taught that human beings must regard the supernatural as contrary to nature: God, they said, intervenes providentially, and occasionally suspends the course of nature; he also reveals supernatural truths that humans must obediently accept even though their truth is not manifest to one's unaided reason. Rare were the theological voices like that of William Law (16861761), who taught that "there is nothing that is supernatural but God alone." Since it was evident that nature would always be what Newton said it was, salvation tended to become less cosmic and more interior. Nature and grace remained isolated: Humans would enjoy redeemed existence only in heaven. Eighteenth-century philosophers such as Voltaire, Hume, and Gibbon, for their part, gave currency to the idea that the supernatural was a notion accepted only by the ignorant and the cred-ulous.

The far-reaching impact of the Baroque on sensibilities may be observed in the novel, a literary form whose real development began in the eighteenth century. The supernatural, the Gothic, and the fantastic were predominant themes in early examples of this mass-appeal genre. Suspense, terror, and pleasure were sustained by stories of desolate houses, mysterious dogs, vampires, murderous plants, doomed infants, premature burials, and preternaturally lascivious monks. An abundance of torture, carnality, magic, and solitary horror placed the protagonist and the reader in a world totally unlike the safe everyday middle-class world, and kept them thrilled, constantly on the verge of terrifying doom or unspeakable bliss. There was also a constant epistemological suspense, a specifically modern feature in fantastic tales: Were the events or apparitions caused supernaturally, or were they in reality some clever manipulation of appearances? The protagonist's and the reader's senses of reality were kept constantly off balance, precisely at a time when science and society worked together to give them a world as safe as possible (Penzoldt, 1952). The entry of the supernatural into literature raised interesting questions: Did readers who enjoyed these novels believe in the existence of supernatural beings and the possibility of supernatural occurrences? One might agree that people believe anything while they are reading it, but what happens to their belief when they are not reading but instead dealing and coping with their everyday world?

Application of the Notion to the Study of Religious and Cultural Systems

Among scholars of the nineteenth century it came to be commonly admitted that belief in what Herbert Spencer has called "the supernatural genesis of phenomena" characterized religious people. All religions were said to feature belief in supernatural beings. Émile Durkheim (18581917) noted that religion thrives on the sense of things surpassing human knowledge, and he quoted Spencer's reference to the omnipresence of something inscrutable. But Durkheim also stressed that the idea of the supernatural appeared only very late in religious evolution, and that many Christians were confident that God and nature were as one, or that dogma and reason fully agreed. The idea that belief in the supernatural was characteristic of religion remained, however, firmly entrenched. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939) in his early influential work argued that the primitive mind believed in "mystical," not "physical," influences, whereas practically all contemporaries recognize a clear line of demarcation between the supernatural (rejected by all except the credulous) and the data furnished by everyday ordinary sense experience and the broad light of day. R. R. Marret (18661943) confirmed that the notion gives a good minimal definition of religion. He classified the supernatural according to negative modes (taboo) and positive modes (mana). The sense of the supernatural, Marret stressed, is an existential and affective reality, a response to the extranormal and the uncanny, and is thus not related to a reasoned theory of nature. "Power belongeth unto God," and the sense of the supernatural is the sense of the nearly overwhelming presence of great power. Paul Radin (18831959) argued against Lévy-Bruhl and spoke of the supernatural as arising against a background of inevitable fears (stemming from economic and psychic insecurity) that he found to be present in all human beings, primitive and modern. He saw in the modern West a decline in religion and in recourse to supernatural beings for help, because other means of emphasizing and maintaining life values were available and on the ascendant. Revision of the initial positivist separation between credulous and rational people reached a climax with Lévy-Bruhl's famous reversal, recorded in his Notebooks (posthumously published in 1949): "Primitives reject contradiction, just as we do, when they perceive it." Lévy-Bruhl developed comparative epistemology, according to whose tenets anthropologists were to compare modes of thought, psychic capacities, and mental categories without assuming at the outset that they themselves were in possession of a language that could adequately give an account of everything other minds did (Needham, 1972).

While this should be admitted, scholars today should still try to speak adequately of the varieties of admittedly extreme and nonverifiable languages people have recourse to when they express their reaction to situations that have powerful impact on them but remain opaque in their meaning, or desperately baffling in their consequence. Light can be derived from recent developments in anthropology that have profited from comparative studies in mythology, literature, and folklore. In all cultures stories abound, ranging from myths to folk legends, that tell the adventures of heroes in a world or worlds teeming with supernatural beings and awe-inspiring circumstances.

Consider the example of the Odyssey, a fairly typical tale. (Supernatural occurrences there, however, are among the milder ones, and the range of unusual creatures is somewhat narrow: There is a shortage of evil spirits and demons such as abound in other types of literature.) In his travels Odysseus has to deal with (1) the remote but supreme authority of the king of the gods; (2) the support or enmity of powerful gods who have influence at court (Athena); (3) the support or enmity of powerful gods who rule in some corner of the world (Poseidon); (4) minor gods or goddesses (Calypso, who enjoys a perpetual vacation at her seashore home); (5) human beings with magical powers (Circe); (6) monstrous beings with terrifying powers (the Sirens); (7) powerful giants (the Cyclops); and (8) very unusual human beings (the lotus-eaters, who are more strange than ordinary foreigners). The hero himself is endowed with exceptional powers of endurance and prowess at the bow; he performs an extraordinary feat (he returns from Hades) and thus represents here the ninth type of being. Other heroes in such tales can fly, change their size, and so on. All nine types of beings may be called supernatural or said to have supernatural traits, although all may also be characterized by terms other than supernatural. Only the first three are the object of religious devotion or have cults. The fourth type, while divine, may be outside the religious world. Sirens and witches have powers ordinary human beings do not have, while giants (like dwarfs) have only their unusual size in their favor.

There is thus a whole range of modes of being and modes of power, finely shaded, for all these beings, and a whole range of appropriate human responses to them. The hero is the person best equipped to survive in this perilous world, who possesses an appropriately wide range of skills and attitudes. Senior gods are to be honored with sacrifices and piety. Sirens are simply to be avoided. One can do business with the Cyclops, but the game is dangerous. Transactions with Calypso and Circe are profitable and agreeable, provided the hero keeps them at arm's length or has some special protection. There is also a whole range of modes of belief, and only one part of it is appropriately labeled religious belief. The hero does not believe in Zeus in the same way that he believes in the Sirens. And it should not be immediately clear to us what it means to attribute belief to the bards who recite such tales and to the audiences that hear them. Whether a man believes in Zeus may be tested: Does he perform the appropriate ritual, and does he exhibit the appropriate attitudes? But how can one verify behaviorally a belief in sirens? How often are human beings confronted with apparently beautiful women half visible above reefs? Needham (1972) has successfully argued that statements of belief are the only available evidence of the phenomenon. Both theologians and anthropologists, he maintains, have taken too much for granted and have been too quick to specify what beliefs other people have and what difference these beliefs make.

Belief in anything, including supernatural beings, is thus a very elusive phenomenon. The Dorze of Ethiopia say that the leopard became a Christian and so eats no meat on the fast days of the Coptic church. Nevertheless, they watch their cattle just as carefully on those days. And they are baffled when the anthropologist professes to see a contradiction in this. So what does go on in their minds when they say the leopard fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays? Among contemporaries, not everyone who reads horoscopes will profess belief in them, and among those who do profess such a belief, how many are actually to be found making a decision on a primarily astrological basis? It would be safer to characterize religion by attitudinal factors and ritual practice rather than by belief. And any statement of belief should be taken with a grain of salt. People like, for adaptive or escapist purposes, to tell and hear stories that provide a map clarifying the configuration of forces in the world, that show modes of coping with those forces, and that do not demand any firm commitment to belief and ensuring action. Children everywhere acquire their bearing in reality from fairy tales. What beliefs they fleetingly entertain or settle on matter less than the inferences they learn to draw about possible realities. The highly imaginative stories of primitives abound in wit and irony and cannot be pinned down with the psychology of belief common among sober scientists (whose thinking often reflects the easy and moralistic recourse to expressions of belief characteristic of early modern theologians).

Systematic Considerations

The human being has in its favor a quick mobile mind, but it is frail and its body is destined to contract disease and, ultimately, to die. Men and women are thus constantly the potential victims of aleatory events that can be painful to them. Fearful of impending disasters, they seek the protection of stronger human beings. As infants and children they start life with such protection. Later they attach themselves to strong persons whom they count on to be successful and wise so that they themselves can live in a secure world, one without interstices from which unpredictable attacks might come. When successful, these strong ones ward off actual dangers. When unsuccessful, as they inevitably will be, the strong ones, if wise, will be an authority providing cognitive and affective reassurance: Yes, loss and pain have occurred, but they are on the right path; it was inevitable, some good may come of it, and, in any case, there is lasting value in the new attitude gained and the new turn taken (Sennett, 1980). Priests, who are typical examples of strong ones, are also thinkers. They teach survival skills and provide ritual and verbal comfort when these skills fail, as necessarily they must. Strong ones are therefore in touch with suitable explanations that ideally can help in those boundary situations that occur when one's ordinary world falls apart.

Strong ones, in turn, feel themselves in touch with a strength or with other real and enduring strong ones who are beyond society, beyond this world, be they spirits, gods, God, history, or "the way things are." The label "supernatural" is appropriately attached to that strength or those preeminently strong beings that are not within the daily and social range of interaction. The authority of the social strong ones is thus always transitory and relative, more or less plausible. The limits to their authority stem from one's own willingness or ability to trust them; but one's trust rests on one's sense of their reliability: Are they in touch with the enduring strength so that they can help one to keep in touch with it, or do they devour one's trust for their own petty human benefit?

The modern concept of nature and natural causes firmly supports a reality principle: When physically sick (or, today, even when anxious) people mainly turn to scientific medicine. Fear of and belief in supernatural agencies do not color in any significant way their sense of what is feasible in their embodied condition. But people hold on to some nonscientific health lore passed on through oral, unofficial channels, and nostalgically transmit recipes for more natural care of the human body and its ailments. Alternative "soft" medicines prosper. In matters of wealth, prestige, and happiness there is no scientific establishment that rules over one's expectations; unproved arts and pleasurable illusions abound. The reality principles that set limits to one's desires are socially determined: Rules are prescribed according to what is socially admitted, rewarded, or punished.

Human beings want both to be believed and to be understood, but usually not at the same time and not by the same people. Individuals want their words and their symbols (1) to be believed and accepted and (2) to create reality, a safe common reality that is not limited to the individual alone. Thus, individuals want to be supported and upheld, but they also want to be understood. They want to share something of their complex and problematic rapport by means of their words and symbols. Thus individuals want the liveliness of their consciousness to be acknowledged. When they want to be believed, they construct presumably strong structures (which are cemented by or rest upon strong ones) that they then deconstruct in the process of understanding. The characteristic feature of modern society is not fewer beliefs in supernatural beings but the variety of strong ones turned to and included in one's world for different purposes and at different times, and the variety of the structures of plausibility that buttress them.

Thus, somewhat polytheistically, in matters of health people turn to state-supported hospitals and the health-food stores of the counterculture; they believe in public schools and in private ones; they read mainstream literature and avant-garde poems; they watch television and go to art films; they attend institutionalized churches and buy books about spirituality in the free market of ideas. Alternative modes of knowledge prosper in the margins left by the dominant scientific or nonscientific modes. The symbolization of humanity's relation to the ultimate conditions of its existence is no longer the monopoly of any group explicitly labeled "religious." And, heroic or not, humans, like the hero of many folk tales, have no permanent master to guide their steps through all the perils of life. Everyone must encounter directly the Circes and Poseidons of this world. At different times they turn to different masters for help and protection. But in the present libertarian society the quality of their services is uncertain, and, in any case, the good ones can help only as long as one asks them to.

See Also

Holy, Idea of the; Sacred and the Profane, The; Transcendence and Immanence.


Bellah, Robert N. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World. New York, 1970. A collection of articles by a leading sociologist of religion. Especially noteworthy are those on religious evolution, on belief, and on symbolic realism.

Douglas, Mary, and Aaron Wildavsky. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technological and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley, 1982. The illustrations are drawn from a specific contemporary issue, but the essay shows well how culture achieves some protection against danger.

Lenoble, Robert. Esquisse d'une histoire de l'idée de nature. Paris, 1968. The classic history of the ideas entertained about nature.

Lubac, Henri de. Surnaturel: Études historiques. Paris, 1946. Essays on the idea of the supernatural in Christian theology.

Needham, Rodney. Belief, Language, and Experience. Oxford, 1972. A brilliant introduction to problems in comparative epistemology.

Penzoldt, Peter. The Supernatural in Fiction. 1952; New York, 1965. An excellent account of the supernatural novel.

Sennett, Richard. Authority. New York, 1980. The best analysis of authority as bond in modern society.

Turner, Victor. "An Ndembu Doctor in Practice." In Magic, Faith and Healing, edited by Ari Kiev. New York, 1964. A classic account of a supernatural healing practice.

Waardenburg, Jacques. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods and Theories of Research, vol. 1, Introduction and Anthology. Paris, 1973. The classic anthology of the major statements by the founders of the modern study of religion, including Spencer, Durkheim, Lévy-Bruhl, Marret, and Radin.

New Sources

Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago, 1995.

Berger, Peter. A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. New York, 1990.

Edmundson, Mark. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic. Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

Karlsen, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Early New England. New York, 1987.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. New York, 1989.

Lehmann, Arthur, and James Meyers, comp. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropologic Study of the Supernatural. New York, 1989.

Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Schmidt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages : The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago, 1998.

Michel Despland (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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