The Improvement Era, a publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Natural and Supernatural
By Fred James Pack, A.M., PH. D.
(This article was first printed in the Brigham Young College paper, the Crimson, but its merits deserve that it should have a wider circulation. — Editors.)
Belief in a divine power is entertained by all classes of people, civilized and uncivilized alike. Some center this belief in a personage of flesh, others in a personage of spirit, others in images of wood and stone, and still others in a mere influence or governing force. No matter what form this object of worship may assume, it is supposed to possess powers transcending those of man. Its laws and actions, in contradiction to all natural occurrences, are classified as the miraculous and supernatural. This belief in a two-fold system of laws is especially prevalent among Christians, by whom it is usually asserted that God manifests his power through direct intervention, which has the effect of temporarily suspending the processes of nature. Out of this belief the thought has grown that divine law not infrequently operates in direct opposition to natural law, and is, therefore, called the "supernatural." This distinction is plainly set forth in the following definitions taken from a standard authority:
"Natural— pertaining to all created things, material and spiritual, including all forms of being but the supernatural."
"Supernatural — that which exists or takes place through some agency above the forces of nature; being outside the range or operation of natural law."
No one thing has detracted more from belief in Deity than has this artificial and unwarranted classification. Christian civilization is today divided into two powerfully opposing factions, the supernaturalists and the naturalists. The one believes in an overruling and interposing being, while the other recognizes in nature adequate inspiration without the intervention of the supernatural. The one accounts for the creation of the universe as the result of divine edict; the other can see nothing but obedience to natural law. Thus the warfare between religion and science is being waged. Where will it end, and who will be the victor?
Many national disputes are brought about through the hastiness or unwisdom of some haughty monarch, and when the trouble is once well begun, retreat or concession is considered cowardly. It should be remembered that no greater act of virtue can be shown than to acknowledge fault in the midst of conflict. In the question at hand both factions have erred. There is and can be no line, or even zone, of division drawn between the natural and the so-termed supernatural. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always recognized this truth, and therefore has not been a party to the conflict. Its members are free to accept truth, no matter from what source that truth may come. This liberality contrasts boldly with the attitude of the denominational minister who is constantly warning his flock against science and scientific investigation. The man who is unwilling to compare his views with those of another should be considered ignorant or cowardly.
For some inexplicable reason, all unaccountable phenomena have been relegated to the realms of the supernatural. Strange it is that a thing should be considered above or beyond the natural just because it is not understood. By this method of reasoning, all miraculous occurrences are accepted as directly opposed to the laws of the universe. The position is certainly faulty and untenable. Laws should be classified as known and unknown and all as natural.
Other individuals are especially prone to disclaim belief in things not understood; and to this class belong many who consider themselves learned. This condition is usually associated with religious functions. Because the skeptic cannot comprehend the value of baptism, he discredits its efficacy. He repudiates the virtue of approaching Deity in prayer, because he has not learned its value. This is but a parallel case to that of the individual who did not believe that the distance from the earth to the sun could be determined. He was a mechanic, and could not measure distances except by means of the two-foot rule in his hip-pocket. When it is once generally recognized that religious and temporal affairs are governed by the self-same laws, the greater part of these inconsistencies will disappear.
Students, and even scholars, not infrequently brush common sense aside in their mad rush to conclusions. Because phenomena appear to take place in opposition to some generally accepted law. It is assumed that such is the case. It is recorded that the prophet Elisha caused an axe to swim. The religious man believes it, and makes explanation by assuming that God momentarily suspended the law of gravitation by throwing into action some supernatural law. The unbeliever discredits the story, because he does not see how such a thing could be possible. Both sides again are wrong. Many things once thought to be impossible are now occurring daily, and are recognized as perfectly natural. Suppose that one hundred years ago a man in New York had conversed with another in Chicago, nearly one thousand miles distant. Those who had witnessed the affair would have recognized in it the hand of the Divine, and, therefore, the supernatural. The skeptic would have discredited the story because he was not there. Then by what law or power was the axe caused to swim? No mortal knows, but this does not justify the statement that it was brought about by some law opposed to nature, or that it did not occur, simply because the reason is not apparent.
The individual who disclaims belief in a phenomenon the reasons for which he cannot explain, uses very poor logic. In the temporal affairs of life such things are encountered daily. The story is told of a manufacturer of silverware who intentionally dropped an elegant silver vase into a vessel of nitric acid. The owner was present and frantically protested as the acid rapidly ate into the coveted prize. A few minutes later and it had entirely disappeared into the transparent liquid. The manufacturer tried to comfort the owner by telling him that the vessel would be returned. It was retorted that he was crazy, but the work of restoration had already begun. A handful of salt thrown into the acid caused the liquid to become as white as milk, and soon a heavy substance settled to the bottom. This was immediately taken out and placed in an earthen dish subjected to high temperature. After a few moments it was transferred to a clay crucible and heated until it became molten. The manufacturer produced a mold into which he poured the liquid mass. After permitting it to cool for a short time, the mold was removed, and to the great delight and surprise of the owner, his highly-prized vase was returned to him.
It was, without doubt, the identical one that he had seen eaten by the acid a few moments before. Had his eyes deceived him? Could he explain the process by which the apparent miracle had been wrought? Should he then deny that it had been done? Common sense would insist that he believe, even though he be ignorant of the ultimate causes.
By what reason, therefore, can the existence of Deity be denied, although he be known only through his works? Or shall the doctrine of the resurrection be repudiated, and the work of this manufacturer accepted, when the ultimate reasons in either case are not at hand? It is strangest of all that the divine hand should not be recognized in processes which permit of at least partial explanation.
His power is seen at once in the raising of the dead, — the reasons are inexplicable. The healing of a knife wound in the hand is attributed to nature alone, — the process is partially understood. The physiologist states that as soon as the accident occurs, the blood hastens to the wound and deposits there a semi-transparent fluid called serum. This substance acts as a cementing or knitting agent, and if uninterrupted will soon reunite the afflicted parts. It is a regrettable condition that even many of the professed believers in the Supreme see nothing in this process to indicate the handiwork of Deity. For them he must perform miracles; if he wishes to be recognized.
It is high time that all of God's laws are recognized as natural. He made "heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is;" and therefore the laws that govern these things must be recognized as pertaining to him. Natural laws are God's laws. He not infrequently operates by means of the simplest of these earthly forces. An illustration: A widowed mother found it necessary to rent some of her already crowded rooms. She was extremely poor: it was winter time, and her children were poorly clad. She had taught them belief in God and in his willingness to answer prayer. John, a six year old son, was barefoot. He decided to lay the matter before the Lord. His prayer was short and concise, but earnest. He wanted some boots, — red-topped boots, number nine — that was all. Now how should this prayer be answered? Should the Creator descend from his heavenly abode and place the boots at the boy's bedside, or should he inspire some earthly individual to do this for him? The latter course was adopted. The men who rented the widow's rooms were separated from the boy by only a board partition, and the prayer was overheard. They themselves were not staunch believers in the efficacy of prayer, but they considered that it would be unfortunate for the boy to be disappointed. They purchased the boots and placed them where they would be found the next morning. Then the Lord answered the prayer of the believing boy. "Ah," says the skeptic, ''but God had nothing to do with this; it was the result of the men's generosity, nothing more!" This thought is erroneous and has grown out of the thought that Deity works by supernatural means. When God's most miraculous works are understood, they will not appear unnatural, or to operate to the extinction of the forces now discernible.
The teachings of many religious sects would make it appear that the creation of the universe came about through an edict of the divine will, which may have been diametrically opposed to all natural laws. It is further believed that all material things were formed from a state of nothingness; that is, that they were actually created from nothing. This position is contrary to both science and revelation. The conservation of energy is an established law of nature, energy cannot be destroyed or created. It was revealed to Joseph Smith, that "This earth was organized or formed out of other planets, which were broken up and remodeled and made into the one on which we live. “ The elements are eternal. That which has a beginning will surely have an end.” “Every principle proceeding from God is eternal.” “In the translation 'without form and void' should read 'empty and desolate.' The word created should be 'formed' or 'organized.' "
With this view of the subject, it is not difficult to understand that God's laws are of universal application. By them the planets are controlled, as well as the simplest organism of his entire creation. Many individuals expect Deity to show his power by means of the miraculous; otherwise they refuse to recognize him. It is recorded that Naaman, the Syrian leper, went to Samaria to be healed by the Prophet Elisha. He was promised that if he would wash seven times in the river Jordan, his leprosy should be removed. This very simple requirement angered Naaman, and he went away murmuring, "I thought, he will surely come out to meet me, and stand, and call in the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them and be clean?" Naaman was reminded by one of his servants that if Elisha had commanded him to do some great thing he would have willingly complied, and that the real virtue of the prophet's requirement lay in its simplicity. Through the entreaties of this servant, Naaman finally returned, and after bathing seven times was healed.
While Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus to perform a mission of persecution, he was stricken down by Divine presence and reprimanded for his wickedness. "What wilt thou have me do?" was Saul's earnest appeal. Here comes the test: Will God show his miraculous power still further by instructing this man in his numerous duties, or will he now reveal one of the various methods by which he operates? "Arise, and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do," was his only reply. A properly commissioned servant was then instructed, through a vision, to visit Saul and teach him his duties. The Supreme Being not infrequently manifests his will through influences or agencies with which we are as yet not acquainted. But this does not argue that these processes are impossible of comprehension. Man's superiority over the animal creation lies in the fact that he is capable of endless progression, which may terminate in perfection. Death and the grave do not retard his advancement. He lives on through eternity. With this apparent barrier removed, and with endless time before him, his possibilities are unlimited. Jesus undoubtedly had this principle in mind when he instructed his disciples to be perfect even as God himself is perfect.
The great discoveries of modern civilization are only steps toward the unfolding of the infinite. Our possibilities are limited only by our ability to utilize the forces which God has placed around us. Our methods of controlling these forces are constantly improving, in fact so rapidly that we are almost surprising ourselves. Consider the process of transmitting messages. Only a few decades ago, it required weeks and months to carry news from New York to San Francisco. Later it became possible through the invention of the telegraph to do this in a fraction of a second. But even this great advancement soon proved cumbersome. Only one message at a time could be transmitted on a single wire. As the service increased, it became necessary to install an almost endless number of these carrying agents. The multiplex system of telegraphy was soon invented by means of which a great many messages can be sent in either direction, on a single wire at the same time. And still this is not enough; the wires are being dispensed with, and we now speak through the air. Why, then should God be denied the ability to speak from the heavens? We have learned these great things in an infinitesimal part of the eternity through which Deity has existed.
It should hardly be necessary to state that there are many ways of accomplishing the same result, and further, that the means thus employed are not antagonistic. The advancement of civilization depends upon the introduction of superior methods and processes. An illustration: A few decades ago the ordinary household bluing was manufactured from the mineral Lapis Lazuli. This was obtained by the usual methods of mining, and after being subjected to long and expensive treatment was reduced to the product in question. A research chemist later discovered that by combining certain substances in the laboratory he could produce the same article at a very small fraction of the cost by the other method. Both processes are perfectly natural, and do not conflict in the slightest degree. One is incomparably superior to the other, but it does not operate to the extinction of its inferior. Sugar is now made from both cane and beets; the products from which are almost identical. Chemistry would do away with the present laborious methods of manufacture by combining the elements in the laboratory. Four pounds of the substance termed saccharine is as sweet as one ton of ordinary sugar. Were it not for the laws prohibiting its manufacture on a commercial scale, this compound would likely become the universal sweetener, in the course of a very few years.
When viewed from this standpoint, it is not unreasonable to consider that Jesus may have fed the multitude by calling together the various elements of which bread is composed. No one is justified in concluding that he performed this miracle by some law superior to or above the natural. The same reasoning will hold true of the making of the wine at Cana. The method by which this was accomplished belongs to the great class of the unknown.
The unending strife between science and religion is very largely the result of this artificial classification of God's laws into the natural and the supernatural. Christians should see to it that this generally accepted division is obliterated, and that the natural is divided into the known and the unknown. The term supernatural should become obsolete at once. As individuals and communities advance, the known laws become more numerous at the expense of the unknown. Retrogression reverses the process, and stagnation destroys it.
The position of the Latter-day Saint in this matter is impregnable. He recognizes in Deity all that is good, perfect and ennobling: the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Savior, Lord and King, with powers unlimited. He is not a God of confusion. His superiority lies in the fact that he has mastered all.
It is a lamentable condition that many professed Christians are absolutely ignorant of even the fundamental principles of the elementary sciences. When such individuals are pressed into discussion involving some scientific deduction, they swelter under the argument, and usually conclude by disclaiming belief in the Bible or nature's record. A skeptic recently stated in the presence of the writer that the order of the creation as recorded in Genesis is erroneous, in placing the appearance of the sun on the fourth day, and the various forms of plant life on the day previous. As proof of this assertion it was pointed out that the sun's rays are indispensable to vegetable life. One member of the party, a professed believer in the Holy Record, accepted the argument as incontrovertible, and immediately volunteered the opinion that the chronological statements of the Bible must not be taken literally. As a matter of fact, the skeptic's argument was fallacious and the conclusion untenable. Paleontological evidence has shown that primitive plants were not accustomed to the direct rays of the sun, but rather to diffused light. Correct scientific deductions, and the revealed word of God, do not and cannot differ. Disagreements are the result of ignorance.
It has been prophesied by Brigham Young that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should become the educational ensign of the entire world. From its inception the Church has encouraged its members to become conversant with all the branches of education. Its aim is upward and onward. It believes in progression and courts investigation. No warfare exists between "Mormonism" and true science.
Geological Department, Brigham Young College, Logan.