Why the supernatural?

One common idea about religion is that religious worldviews are ones in which we endorse the existence of the supernatural—phenomena capable of affecting the world around us to alter the course of natural events: for example, divinities, spirits, or apersonal animistic forces. What, though, is the supernatural?

The concept of the supernatural involves more than just a distinction between this world—the one all around us—and another. By that we could mean any number of things, and some of them clearly aren’t contenders. In making such a distinction, we could mean something as innocuous as the difference between Earth and Mars. Or “world” can signify a network of concerns and endeavors—the business world, for example, or the art world, the world of the student or farmer. But clearly, one need not endorse the existence of the supernatural in order to believe in other worlds in these senses, and think that they sometimes impinge upon ours.

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Spinoza and Humility before God

Humility tends to draw suspicious looks. If all it comes to is avoiding arrogance, then of course we’ll cheer it on. But anything more, and something unsavory can seem afoot. The humble concede, submit, and obey. We’re humble, yes, when absolutely necessary—to dot our moral i’s and cross our political t’s. But those who talk about making humility a fundamental life aspiration can seem as if they’ve gone too far: as if what they aspire to is groveling, and thus are on a path to self-destruction, resignation, or worse, to the betrayal of others out of slavish fear. Indeed, so much of our history has been spent trying to extract ourselves from under various boots that the aspiration to humility can thus seem positively reactionary: as if those who have it long for the ‘good old days’ when we were content to be trampled by oppressive power.

Such skepticism about humility as a positive value tends to make for a humility that’s reluctant. If an excess of humility walks us over a cliff, we must, then, only be humble with care, not letting our humility interfere with furthering our own interests, or standing in brave solidarity with others. Is the skeptic right, though? Is humility a dangerous proposition?

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Why isn’t God a stupid weakling?

The notion of a personal God has made it possible to envision the human relation to God as one of love. This is one of the notion’s most important roles in traditional religion—not merely in abstract theology, but in the lived experience of a great many religious people. The notion that they enjoy a love relationship with God serves as both hermeneutic aid and source of solace for them. That is, through it, they can imagine their relation to God in terms taken from their lives with other people. And, in conceiving of that relation as the central pillar around which the rest of their life turns, they can extend these terms to aid them in understanding the fundamental stakes of that life. They see every bit of it in terms of things like devotion, obligation, trust, caretaking, faithfulness, and the like. In doing so, they find of the kind of solace they find in their love relationships with other people—except that, because of God’s place as the greatest among all persons and all love objects, it strikes them as being of incomparably greater significance: at its best, the fullness of a life led in all its respects as an expression of love.

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