Such a framework also challenges us to take a closer look at how the Holy Spirit works. If we view the Spirit’s work as over-riding the “natural,” then we will bristle at “natural” explanations of “spiritual encounters.” This is where the subject comes closer to home for me and my research on how hope is experienced in congregational worship.
For example, the discovery that oxytocin—the chemical associated with the feeling of well-being—is released in the brain in group singing can be used as a “natural” explanation for why we feel better after a time of “congregational worship.” An atheist may say there’s nothing “supernatural” going on; it’s just chemicals in the brain. Christians who would argue it’s the “presence of God” and therefore can’t have anything to do with chemicals in the brain are left to either deny the science or ignore it. And, worse, folks who can’t ignore the science are left to believe that faith is inherently contradictory to science.
But a brief bit of theological reflection on how the Spirit works can help. The hermeneutical key to understanding the Spirit’s operation in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost. On this day, the Spirit enabled speech in various cultural languages so that people heard Christ being proclaimed in their own tongue. The Holy Spirit does not over-ride cultural norms; He inhabits them.
In the above example of worship and oxytocin, why would the discovery that the brain gets a buzz from group singing automatically disprove the belief that the Spirit is at work in congregational worship? The two things would be mutually exclusive in Newton’s universe, but not in Polkinghorne’s. If there were a God who created us, desires relationship with us and instructed us to gather to sing to Him, why wouldn’t He also have made our brains to respond to this with a chemical that reinforces this behavior and aids in our obedience? In other words, why can’t the Spirit work within the way we are made?
Supernatural God: One more example
Congregational worship is, in a very real sense, a communal ritual. There are defined ways of acting and responding, whether the ‘script‘ is formal or informal. This serves not only to help everyone know how to participate, but also to reinforce the particular identity of that congregation. When sociologists/social anthropologists use the lens of ritual to study congregational worship, they discover things such as the realization that the qualities of an “emotionally expressive” service (like those in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches) have features that are just as defined as those in “non-emotionally expressive” services (like those in many liturgical churches). Pentecostals and Charismatics have been, in my limited experience, uneasy with the suggestion that there is a script or pattern or ritual in their worship. If it’s the “anointing,” it must be spontaneous or unique. But I suggest this is because we think the two things are antithetical: either the Spirit is working through the “anointing,” or we are responding to cultural norms and communal scripts. But just as miracles are instances of God working within His world, why can’t these experiences in worship be examples of the Spirit inhabiting our cultural and communal selves?
As long as we insist on seeing the world as split between the “natural” and the “supernatural,” we will see the Holy Spirit as opposed to the “laws of science“ or “patterns of human behavior.“
I think instead of speaking of a supernatural God it’s time we recover the ancient confession that the holy God is filling His world with His glory. We are the people who believe in the incarnation—a God who became flesh. We affirm a story of the Holy Spirit filling people by inhabiting their ‘language’ and culture, not by over-riding it.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty. May the whole earth be filled with His glory.
This article about a supernatural God originally appeared here, and is used by permission.