A Fairly Short Primer on Antisupernaturalism and Why It’s Inadvisable

At the beginning of my first semester at seminary, I was assigned to write a ‘theological integration’ paper for my Systematic Theology class. I chose ‘demonology’ as a topic to write about, primarily because I don’t care about demonology.

Because I’m a fairly by-the-numbers Protestant, and Protestants don’t care about demonology, because Protestants don’t care about the supernatural. Which is an overgeneralization, but all statements are, all the time.

And we really, really don’t. There are some outliers, mostly Pentecostal in orientation, who devote extended attention to the question of the supernatural, of spectral assailants and unholy ghosts – entities that St. Paul generally refers to as ‘principalities and powers’. Generally, though, even when their work is stellar (and it often is), it goes largely unnoticed by the broader Protestant community.

There are good reasons for this. We (allegedly) dislike speculation. We are (allegedly) devoted to speaking boldly where the Bible is clear and keeping quiet where it isn’t. We (allegedly) prefer to keep the gospel front and center in our preaching and discipleship and peripheral curiosities in the background.

Indeed, prospects of retrieving ancient emphases on the ‘principalities and powers’ has been marred by associations with the less-than-careful approaches of thinkers like C. Peter Wagner. His work is undeniably illuminating, but has often been guilty swallowing the bones along with the meat. Premodern notions of ‘territorial spirits’ and so forth have been devoured uncritically, luring intelligent and devout believers into varying degrees of baseless superstition.

“The devil made me do it” is a familiar mantra for those living in the post-Christian West. For those whose religious devotion outruns their familiarity with theology, such claims were, perhaps, the most natural way to understand their continued struggle with sin after experiencing salvation. It’s plenty natural to be ambivalent about integrating ancient demonologies into a contemporary theological framework.

Our grandparents insist that there is already a “responsibility crisis” of sorts in modern-day America, and not only in the youth culture. The notion that each individual is responsible for her own actions is eroding, we are told, and one may suspect that adding in the notion that demonic entities exist who are capable of significantly influencing our thoughts and actions can only compound this.

Of course, the notion that human wrongdoing can be chalked up to demonic co-opting is only rarely entertained in extrabiblical Jewish literature, and never in the scriptures themselves. With the noteworthy exception of the demons that are subdued by Jesus during the itinerant portions of His ministry, we are never given the impression that demons can be responsible for human behavior.

Neither does the notion gain serious traction among orthodox believers in the Patristic period, insofar as can be verified, or even among the medieval Scholastics, whose tendency toward eisegetical flamboyances was one catalyst for the eventual break from the established Church in the Reformation. “The devil made me do it” is a backwater theological error with no substantive connection to the historic Christian emphasis on dethroning the principalities and powers. But the threat of lapsing into such obscurantism is there, and so Protestants remain (allegedly) cautious about giving sustained attention to the supernatural elements of scripture.

There is, of course, another reason. Martin Luther had no qualms about acknowledging the role of the devil in kneecapping the world, but Harry Emerson Fosdick certainly did. What changed?

As the “New Atheists” like to remind us, we are not many centuries removed from the days when cases of what are now known to have been treatable mental illnesses were treated as devilry. Schizophrenics were tortured inadvertently and locked away, often after being put through arduous ceremonies to exorcise the demons believed to control of them. It would not be unreasonable to want to do away with the notion of malicious spiritual entities all together, gravitating instead toward more quantifiable disciplines like the social sciences as the chief lenses through which we examine societal issues.

The West did not abandon belief in devilry because the supernatural was proven to be superstitious, nor even because satisfying explanations were provided for the phenomena that used to be attributed to Beliar. Instead, it has long been assumed that human religion was subject to an evolutionary process by which it gradually became more sophisticated. Animistic religion was, perhaps, its irreducible form, and there wasn’t much to it. Slowly, these religions would mutate and take new shapes, each more vibrant than the last. Eventually, the pantheon of human religious experience grew so variegated that it could hardly be cataloged. The underlying assumption, of course, being that we have now seen the birth pangs of a new religious epoch – namely, secularism. The functions that religion once served are now usurped by more capable tools, most notably the sciences.

In his unfortunately-titled volume, Man’s Rise to Civilization, Peter Farb examines the variegated native tribes that spread out across the Americas as a launching pad to test hypotheses about evolutionary trajectory of early human societies. He notes what ought to be surprising: native tribes whose religion was basically animistic harbor a rich complexity that the wealthy, educated, and white conquerors who gave us the earliest accounts of their lifestyle were incapable of detecting.

Western academia has conditioned itself to look for certain elements, to attribute ‘high culture’ to certain factors, most of which are notably missing in what were ultimately deemed the “least developed” tribes. As such, they were mistakenly deemed “primitive.” They were not. What we presumed to be barbarism was simply unfamiliar, including their religious expression. Animistic, polytheistic, pantheistic religion, etc. were hardly undeveloped, or simple, or primitive.

They were, instead, ceremonially and intellectually rigorous, even inductive in character. The specters presumed to haunt their prairies were not simply products of an overactive and under-stimulated shared imagination, Farb suggests. Even if they were not real, such beliefs were the product of careful investigations by critically adept investigators. He goes as far as to suggest that animism and its distant cousins are approximately as complex as monotheism – and approximately as complex as secularism.

At risk of sounding relativistic to a fault, he points out that much of what one presumes to be “common sense” in a secular society deconstructs to little more than “inherited ritual.” The sciences have illuminated our understanding of the natural world in certain respects. But alongside such ‘objective’ illuminations, we are prone to invent mythologies, incorporating demonstrated facts with baseless but deeply held cultural sentiments. These mythologies become ingrained over generations, sometimes long after being debunked. In this respect, the “secular city” is not unlike every other culture that has ever existed. Human culture has always been incalculably complex, gloriously nuanced, remarkably civilized. Our confidence regarding the non-existence of angels and demons rests not on scientific advancements, but uncritical presumptions of superiority to cultures that we have deemed primitive. It may be too inflammatory to say that antisupernaturalism is simply embodied colonialism, but it’s only half wrong.

In the absence of any falsifiable method to prove or disprove the existence of such supernatural forces as are chronicled in the Christian scriptures, or the Upanishads, or Qu’ran, or native American lore, religious people are left to do the inductive work of searching their respective traditions to understand how such entities have been characterized by their communities through the ages. For those connected at the bone to the Christian community, the scriptures are the primary source by which one comes to terms with the nature of the “principalities and powers.”


Recommended Reading:

Harvey Cox: The secular city: secularization and urbanization in theological perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Peter Farb: Man’s Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. 1st ed. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1968.

John Shelby Spong: Why Christianity must change or die: a bishop speaks to believers in exile. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1999.

[Each of these books are problematic, but helpful. Farb is an interesting source – he swallows up much of what is wrong with contemporary Western antisupernaturalism, generally falling back on the wrongheaded consensus of the post-Kantian elite, but manages to step out, ever so slightly, as the result of his extensive studies in Native cultures. Looking closely at the seemingly otherworldly lifestyle of the many-splendored and endlessly diverse Native cultures that spread across the Americas aeons before Columbus, he unmasks the irredeemably reductive and untenable caricatures of “premodern” cosmogonies – and the “mythologized” understanding of the natural world that comes with them.

Spong, on the other hand, represents the worst of contemporary antisupernatural hermeneutics, regularly returning to this as a rationalization for discarding what is less-than-palatable in the scriptures. Whether the Canaanite conquest, Covenant exclusivism, or his pet issue, sexual ethics, such infractions are chalked up to ancient Israel having been in one or the other transitionary stages in the process of religious evolution.]


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