The Glass of Vision Lecture 1: The Supernatural and the Natural

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In 1948, a little-remembered scholar in the Anglican tradition, Austin Farrer, gave a lecture entitled “The Glass of Vision“. You can find a copy of it courtesy of a scan by a library in Kansas here. The list of Bampton lecturers that include my subject are full of forgotten folk, but you may have seen, like I have, an occassional reference to some of his phrases or ideas punctuating a paragraph of more recent theology or biblical studies. Observant readers of C.S. Lewis may even recall that the foreword to Reflections on the Psalms is dedicated to him. Unfortunately, few of his works stay in print and this contributes to his unfamiliarity to the church as a whole.

However that may be, those familiar with Austin Farrer’s work universally declare this particular lecture to be representative of his best and most interesting thought. I will be mostly summarizing, but partly interacting with the lectures as I read them for the first time myself, but first, some background.

As a child, Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was a part of the Baptist tradition in England. His father was a Baptist minister and it was only later that he became an Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) while attending university. His early formation in the Baptist tradition is referred to as “a personalism which might satisfy the most ardent of Dr. Buber’s disciples” in this first lecture. Eventually he became a priest. Today he is remembered, by those who do, as one of the more creative minds the Anglican tradition produced in the 20th century and also as being in the company of the group of Oxford Christians, such as Dorthy Sayers and T.S. Eliot, who were not Inklings.

Ahead of his time, Farrer, was already combining various fields of study together in order to think more deeply about problems in theology. From the first lines of the preface we read:

The lectures which follow are no more than a modest attempt to state what I do, in fact, think about the relation borne to one another by three things- the sense of metaphysical philosophy, the sense of scriptural revelation, and the sense of poetry. Scsripture and metaphysics are equally my study, and poetry is my pleasure. These three things rubbing against one another in my mind, seem to kindle one another, and so I am moved to ask how this happens.

In this first of eight lecture, he sets up a problem for us. In part, the problem is driven by his self-defined ‘personalist’ upbringing. Accordingly, this caused him to expect to be able to converse with God “as one man faces another across a table, except that God was invisible and indefinitely great.” This is a state of mind, perhaps induced by childhood itself though often aided by sloppy language, that many readers will have passed through. Interestingly, Farrer credits his reading of Spinoza for the change of view, although he also makes it clear that, as an adult reader, he sees the problems that Spinoza’s pantheism creates. In some ways the current lecture could be read as Farrer exploring a middle way between his Baptist childhood’s flat reading of scripture and Spinoza’s “God, or call it Nature” conflation.

If neither of these are the case, how then do we describe our ‘relationship’ (I’m always reminded of how even this term is metaphorical) to God? Farrer here goes back to the time-worn definitions of first and second causes provided by Aristotle to set up an interesting dialectic between ‘natural reason’ and supernatural revelation’. Of course, these terms carry a certain amount of baggage. He further explains that “…we ought to throw the emphasis on the adjectives rather than upon the nouns. We have not to distinguish between God’s action and ours, but between two phases of God’s action- his supernatural action and his action by way of nature.” This creates more than a simple hierarchy with two mostly independent spheres of operation. Natural theology (he uses the broader term “rational theology”) and supernatural revelation are the ways that we perceive the action of God.  To us they appear separate, even contradictory. Farrer gives us these two principles, for example:

  1. If we believe in God at all, it is absurd and impious to imagine that we can find him out by our own reason, without his first being active in revealing himself to us. Therefore, all discovery of him is this self-manifestation, and all rational theology is revealed theology.
  2. If God does reveal himself to us, we cannot acknowledge or master what he reveals without the use of our reason. Therefore all his self-mainfestation is also our discovery of him, and all revealed theology is rational theology.

The second of these points will not be lost on the postmodern reader. We are quite accustomed to understanding all of our experiences and thoughts as filtered or interpreted by our presuppositions and culture. The idea that God is a first cause acting through secondary causes, however, is one that many in our contemporary situation have less experience with or may have even abandoned. For the sake of understanding what Farrer is up to, let us assume his Christian use of Aristotle and notice how he begins to solve the apparent contradiction.

In this view, “…nothing is supernatural to God…“, but from our perspective, if the realm of the supernatural is confined to a single First Cause, then it is left outside of and unrelated to our experience. Instead, for Farrer, “When the supernatural occurs, something in the existing world is supernaturalized..[my emphasis].” To illustrate this point, he uses an analogy from the world of fairy tales. In fairy tales, if a character does something on their own that is not within their power (nature), we would conclude “that we had defined his nature too narrowly, not that he had exceeded it. The idea of the supernatural is of a finite agent exceeding his natural power by higher assistance.

The problem’s solution should be clearer now. Every time the supernatural (that which is outside of, or beyond, nature) occurs, it must appear in a different medium, the natural. If this were not so, we would not be cognizant of it by definition. However, we can also fail to be aware of the presence of the supernatural simply because we are looking at the supernatural clothed, as it were, in the natural. While Farrer superficially appears to be distinguishing between ‘nature’ and ‘supernature’, he is actually bringing them into a tighter relationship given his starting point.

I’m reminded here of Edwin Abbot’s story Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. If you translate a world with multiple dimensions into one with fewer, what would geometric shapes look like in each world? Something would get lost, but would there also be hints that an object was more than what it appeared to be? I’ve yet to read the rest of Farrer’s lectures. Perhaps the similarity to Abbott breaks down in the idea that existing objects in our world are, in his words, ‘super-naturalized’ (i.e. become more than they were capable on the principles of the natural world), while in Abbott’s thought experiment figures from another dimension are still themselves but only appear differently.

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