The Glass of Vision Lecture 2: The Supernatural and the Weird

Building on the argument of the last lecture, Farrer works to distinguish the truly supernatural from the merely strange, things that “make our flesh creep” as he puts it. There are a variety of curiosities that his age seemed to give more credibility to than seems warranted to us now. The number of research studies, for example, in the 1950s and 60s that dreamed of finding evidence for ESP or telepathy seems silly to us now. Farrer, as a child of the times, feels compelled to ask how we might explain something like the miracles of Jesus as somehow different from these psychic feats. At least he doesn’t directly challenge their reality in this lecture, and, in any case, thinking through these concerns is instructive. To do this he uses the same distinction as before–the difference between natural (or more precisely, preternatural) abilities and the movement of something above our human nature. Farrer begins by placing ‘the weird’ on the side of the natural.

Now psychical research may have left us less clear than we were as to the sideways and downward limits of our natural powers; but it has done nothing, so far as I can see, to raise or unfix the ceiling.

To illustrate, he asks us to imagine a cone which has a clearly defined apex, but where the bottom and side fade into shadow. Things like telepathy or clairvoyance (whether we find them to be real or imaginary) are, in fact, no more amazing than the normal, natural operations of minds which “touch each other without bodily intervention.” They might be a hidden part of the cone, but what is of importance is not the mechanics, but the meaning. What is the intention behind the contact? This is the central feature of demarcation. The weird, “loose”, experience does not have wit, inspiration, or intelligence. If anything, Farrer suggests, it may be a more primitive element of our nature rather than something above or beyond it.

Now those activities we might call want to call supernatural, as opposed to weird, run into the same type of paradox that we’ve met before. Are the miracles of Jesus a natural act (“below the ceiling”) or a supernatural one? Farrer asks us once again if we need to set up a mutually exclusive opposition. He states, “…it is by no means clear that the finite excludes the infinite in the sense in which one finite excludes another.” Of course, there must be some limit to this, otherwise absorption of the natural into the supernatural would result, so according to Farrer, there is …

“…a point beyond which infinite God could not divinize his creature without removing its distinct creaturely nature, and as it were merging it in himself: an act which would be exactly equivalent to its annihilation.

He seems to be agnostic about exactly where that point lies. What we do know is that the mystery of the supernatural must fit into the realm of the natural, that it will not appear as something “tacked on” to the natural. Recall the term ‘supernaturalized’ from the previous lecture. The Creator, who gave life initially, continues to create through and in the creature, or as he pithily states, “in the second cause the first cause operates.” This principle of double agency, for Farrer, stands behind many riddles of the faith from the Chalcedonian formula of God-man, to the efficacy of prayer. He goes so far as to state that “there is no issue that theologians discuss that is not conditioned by it.

**Update: For more on the Christological implications of this, listen to Rowan William’s Hulsean lectures of 2016 which began concurrently with these posts. Williams also comments on Farrer at the 2017 de Lubac lectures at St. Louis. I particularly liked his suggestion that “What God is doing is us.” as a summary of Farrer’s thrust throughout the Glass of Vision.**

One underlying question that I kept having was whether or not the terms ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ were needed. Perhaps they get in the way. ‘Supernatural’ is a term that has often implied a realm that overpowers the creaturely. Farrer seems to be groping for a way to keep the two orders separate, in keeping with a long tradition that has used the term ‘supernatural’, while also subverting the implication of coercion or force that tends to go with it. This is one of the reasons he uses the vocabulary of ‘supernaturalized’. The contemporary reader should also hear intimations of more recent discussions in this work such as the search for a scientifically valid point of contact between God and nature, or the meaning of intelligence and consciousness as a way into a religious view of the world.

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Anthony McCall, “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). The fifth minute. Photograph by Freddy Le Saux

In the next lecture, we turn to Farrer’s concept of divine revelation in scripture.

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