On the Portico to the World of the Bible

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"In the beginning, God..." Drawing near to the vast, unwieldy edifice which is the world of the Bible, we assume we enter here by way of the portico of the natural-supernatural distinction. We think we come here in order to find some happy harmony between them, perhaps discover too how the one may in some hitherto undiscovered way be reconciled with the other. Scientifically oriented, earthy and natural creatures that we are, we come to find some space in our world and in ourselves where ‘supernature’ may be at home, and we can then be whole.

But here again, and right from the start, the Christian faith upturns us. We discover that what we regard as natural (because regular and predictable) is not regular because it is natural but precisely because it is not. We learn that our experience of the dependable and the verifiable and the orderly in ‘nature’ do not take their soothing character from an impersonal mechanistic, 'natural' system, but from how God ordinarily works. He freely and deliberately brought all of creation into existence, and he freely and deliberately sustains that creation. And as he sustains what is according to an orderliness - in fact establishing the very idea of orderliness - he alone makes it possible for us to function, to read, to extrapolate, to infer, and ultimately to be. More than this, the ordinariness of God’s way of sustaining the cosmos further creates the possibility of exposing our numbness to the divine beauty at work in what is, our unthinking capitulations to calling disruption by the name of the way of nature. Only an upset, upturned faith, in which the definition of normal comes from outside us, can recognize the disorderliness of evil for what it is, as well as discerning his interruption of the ordinary in the form of the miraculous. Without his ordinary way of sustaining all things, the very language of disorder and of miracle is meaningless.

“Supernatural” is not, therefore, in the Christian’s world, truly “other than” natural, for even the “natural” is thoroughly “supernatural” in that it is what is only because of God’s incessant and personal activity in sustaining order. Whenever God acts in miracle, moreover, it is not in violation of nature, but in fulfillment of it: miracles are not erratically wonderful bolts of light from beyond the blue without context in God’s purposes or person, but moments in which the future, the glorious and perfected future, of “nature” is realized. In the Gospels Jesus exorcises demons not to violate nature but to liberate it; he does not calm the storm in order to turn it against itself but to bring it peace; and when he heals he reminds us why we seek health, not disease, as a cherished form of human flourishing.

Miracles are not supernatural in the modern sense of the word, that is, times God acts when he is otherwise inactive. The God of Christianity is incessantly active, and in the miracles of the Scriptures he brings the promised future of ‘nature’ into the present for a moment, in order to drive the whole of his handiwork further on to that end. God's stupendous actions tease the future into the present, and tease us out of our slumbers to remember that we long for it, for him. For outside the moments of miracle, it remains the exhaustively personal and constantly active God who sustains every strand in the visible and invisible fabric of his cosmos – nothing for a moment exists outside of the sustaining labors of the eternal Son – so that ‘nature’, properly understood, is no less than ‘supernature’ also fully ‘charged with the grandeur of God,’ as Hopkins says. In his incessant tease, his endless invitations to seek and find, his foretastes, we learn Omega is Alpha too. The end is given in the beginning, and pulls it along. Entering the portico, we must already cry the last cry, "come quickly!" A faithful reading of Scripture sings Maranatha from beginning to end, and again and again and again. Keeping this cluster of ideas firmly in place – nature, orderliness and disorderliness, and the flourishing of the future at times puncturing the present – is in fact the true portico to the world of the Bible.