Oman, John Wood (1860–1939)

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John Wood Oman, the philosopher of religion and theologian, was a Scotsman from the Orkney Islands. After being educated at Edinburgh and Heidelberg universities and serving for seventeen years in a rural pastorate in Northumberland, he taught for twenty-eight years at Westminster College, Cambridge, the seminary of the English Presbyterian Church. The chief influence on his developing thought was that of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose Reden Oman translated into English.

In the massive The Natural and the Supernatural (1931) Oman portrays the root of religion as man's immediate sense of the Supernatural. The primary religious awareness is not inferential but is, in words that Oman used to describe the similar conception of Schleiermacher, "intuition of reality, an intercourse between a universe, present always in all its meaning, and a spirit, responding with all its understanding" (p. 36). By the Supernatural, Oman does not mean the mysterious, the uncanny, or the miraculous but a larger environment than physical nature, "a special kind of environment, which has its own particular sanctions" (p. 23), through commerce with which man receives his characteristically human degree of independence within his natural environment.

The Supernatural is variously conceived in different types of religion, as is the character of the redemption that the supernatural makes possible. In primitive religion redemption is found by seeking the Supernatural in nature as an animistic force indefinitely many and yet vaguely one. In polytheism the Supernatural consists of individual spirits that rule different parts of nature, and redemption means the managing of nature through its many divine masters. Cosmic pantheism accepts nature in its wholeness as the Supernatural, while the acosmic mysticism of India wholly excludes nature from the Supernatural, as illusion. Religions of the ceremonial-legal type, such as priestly Judaism and Islam, divide the Natural into a sacred realm and a secular realm, cultivating the sacred or religious while leaving the secular outside the sphere of redemption. Finally, for the prophetic monotheism of the Hebrew prophets and of Christianity redemption is reconciliation to the Natural by finding within it the purpose of the one personal Supernatural. To be reconciled to God is to accept all the experiences of one's life as of God's appointing, and one's duties as divine commands. Thus, prophetic religion is intensely practical and this-worldly. Speaking of its Old Testament representatives, Oman says, "What determines their faith is not a theory of the Supernatural, but an attitude towards the Natural, as a sphere in which a victory of deeper meaning than the visible and of more abiding purpose than the fleeting can be won" (p. 448).

Oman emphasizes that knowledge of our environment, whether the natural or the Supernatural, does not consist in the mere registering of "impacts" but always consists in a perception of "meaning." In order to become aware of our environment, we must rightly interpret its impingements upon us. "Thus knowledge is not knowledge as an effect of an unknown external cause, but is knowledge as we so interpret that our meaning is the actual meaning of our environment" (p. 175). In this interpretative process, the mind exercises a degree of freedom. That degree is established by the individual frontiers of each mind, which are largely controlled from within and across which the meaning of the environment can pass only as a meaning recognized by the individual.

The Supernatural presents itself to the human mind with the quality of the sacred or of absolute worth. To be aware of the Supernatural is to recognize some sacred value that lays an absolute claim upon us, even if in the early stages of man's dealings with the Supernatural this is only an irrational taboo. Religion is "essentially a dealing with an unseen environment of absolute worth, which demands worship" (p. 23). This recognition of and allegiance to the sacred frees man from the dominance of his physical surroundings: "He obtained firm footing to deal with his environment the moment he regarded anything as sacred, because he could say 'No' and was no longer its mere creature" (p. 85).

While man's sense of the Supernatural gives him a fixed point amid the evanescent and a degree of freedom in relation to the natural, he can gain this only by exercise of his own freedom. For "The peculiarity of the supernatural environment is that we cannot enter it except as we see and choose it as our own" (p. 309).

Oman makes no use of the attempted logical coercion of the traditional theistic proofs. He does not try to establish the truth of religion independently of religious experience. Rather he starts from the fact of the religious man's awareness of a larger supernatural environment, in terms of which he lives, and argues that this awareness has no greater need or possibility of philosophical justification than has our awareness of the natural environment. "Among Western thinkers from [René] Descartes onwards, attempts have been made to prove the existence of a material world by other evidence than the way it environs us, but the result was no more reassuring for the reality of the natural world than for the reality of the supernatural" (p. 51).

The same basic standpoint is evident in Oman's contributions to doctrinal theology, especially his Grace and Personality (1919). Oman was the first of a series of twentieth-century Christian thinkerssuch as Karl Heim, Emil Brunner, H. H. Farmer, and John Macmurrayto treat as a normative principle of his theology the insight that God is the supremely personal reality, that his dealings with men take place in the personal realm, and that the great central Christian termsrevelation, faith, grace, sin, reconciliationare to be understood as part of the language of personal relationship and are perverted when construed in nonpersonal ways. Oman taught that religious truths are not infallibilities declared authoritatively from heaven but claim acceptance only because they irresistibly impress our minds as true, and that God seeks our trust only by showing himself to be trustworthy.

There are in Oman's works the elements of a religious philosophy that might well appeal to many today because it is consistently empiricist, being based upon what is given in human experience. However, it is often expressed in Oman's pages on a higher level of generality, and with less detailed precision, than has become customary since he wrote, and there is therefore scope for the development of these same themes in more contemporary terms.

See also Brunner, Emil; Descartes, René; Heim, Karl; Religion, Naturalistic Reconstructions of; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst.


works by oman

Vision and Authority. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902; 2nd ed., 1928.

The Problem of Faith and Freedom in the Last Two Centuries. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906.

The Church and the Divine Order. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911.

The War and Its Issues. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1916.

Grace and Personality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1919; 4th ed., 1931.

The Paradox of the World: Sermons. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1921.

The Book of Revelation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1923.

The Office of the Ministry. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1928.

The Text of Revelation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1928.

The Natural and the Supernatural. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1931.

Concerning the Ministry. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1936.

Honest Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1941.

A Dialogue with God. London: James Clarke, 1951. Sermons.

works on oman

Bevons, Stephen. John Oman and His Doctrine of God. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Healey, F. G. Religion and Reality: The Theology of John Oman. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1965.

Hood, Adam. Baillie, Oman, and Macmurray: Experience and Religious Belief. Burlington: Ashgate, 2003.

Langford, Thomas. In Search of Foundations: English Theology 19001920. Nashville: Abington Press, 1969.

Langford, Thomas. "The Theological Methodology of John Oman and H. H. Farmer." Religious Studies 1 (1965): 229240.

Tennant, F. R. "John Wood Oman, 18601939." Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (1939): 333338.

John Hick (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

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Oman, John Wood (1860–1939)

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