Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 1


I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. I wrote about it again here and here.

What I like about the painting is the way it celebrates the commonplace, especially the way it illuminates simple material things -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin. We see these things as they are, but also -- though the artist's genius -- as part of a transforming radiance that shines in even the most ordinary things, what in one of those earlier posts I called "the isness of things that overflows our knowing."

Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details -- a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.

Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting -- the re-enchantment of the everyday.

And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum -- the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery -- in every aspect of the natural world.

I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.

Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."

Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."

For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question -- by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.