Faith & Thought

The Relation Between the ‘Natural’ and ‘Supernatural’

For many years I had difficulty distinguishing what Catholics referred to as the “natural’ order” and the “supernatural order.” 

I could not figure out how they were related and what was proper to each. I remember that as a seminarian I wondered if sanctifying grace could exert a direct influence on a neurosis, a relatively minor emotional problem such as anxiety or some depression. For example, if a person was exceptionally anxious, I wondered if the reception of the Eucharist might directly heal that neurosis. 

That was only one of several questions about the relationship between the “natural” and “supernatural” orders. For example, I wondered if I had to somehow justify my interest in film, theatre and literature. Weren’t they part of the “natural order” and relatively unimportant? Did I have to try to somehow supernaturalize all sorts of activities that did not seem to be religious and so were relatively without value? If film and literature were in the “natural order,” did I have to make some intention or prayer to move them into the “supernatural order”? Was the prayer, the Morning Offering, necessary to somehow elevate acts in the “natural order” into the “supernatural order”? 

When, a few years ago, my friend theologian Michael Himes informed me that if by the natural order I meant some world in which the Risen Christ is not present, there is no such place, many of my questions disappeared. There is only the order within which we are saved and redeemed by Christ. With that instruction from Michael, along with Pope Francis’ insistence that God is part of everyone’s life, I found it quite easy to give up my efforts to live in two different worlds. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, grace is everywhere. 

In his wonderful book, “Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service” (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), p.103, in commenting on God as agape, as pure self gift, Himes wrote the following: 

“So grace is everywhere. This claim has very important consequences. Often we speak of the sacred as though it was a quite separate realm from the secular. What I am suggesting is that there is no secular realm, if by ‘secular’ we mean ‘ungraced’ or ‘unrelated’ to the agape of God. There may be many aspects of life about which we do not customarily use religious or theological language to talk about our experience, but that does not mean that those realms of experience are ungraced.” 

I have heard that during the COVID pandemic, anxiety and depression have increased a great deal among teenagers. This semester at St. John’s University I am teaching two sections of Introduction to the Philosophy of Person. Both are honors sections. Both are philosophy courses. Neither is a theology or psychology course. I have no intention of turning the courses into counseling sessions in order to help any student battle anxiety or depression. I have never needed some special motivation to justify teaching philosophy to college students. I believe deeply that teaching students philosophy is very important. However, I suspect the increase in anxiety and depression among college-age students might be offering me a new appreciation of what I am trying to do when I teach the philosophy of the human person. 

There are three philosophical truths that I try very hard to communicate to students. One truth is that every person needs to be loved. There is no possible substitute for being loved. I have heard that babies who are not loved die. All their physical needs might be taken care of, but if they are not loved they die. 

Equally important is the second truth, which is that every person is called to be a lover. In a spite of the many false messages about the human person that society presents to us, every person is called to be a lover. Loving is perhaps the secret to human happiness. We are called to live as gifts to others. If someone accepts these two truths, it is a short step toward accepting that we are unconditionally loved by God. If God’s love is unconditional, then we do not have to win it, earn it or merit it. No matter what horrible actions we might perform, what sins we might commit, God will never stop loving us. If students accept these three truths, I think a giant step could be taken in terms of self-acceptance and a sense of vocation. 

A philosophy of person which emphasizes the mystery of love could help people see how marvelous it is to be a human person, someone who is called to be a lover, someone who has an absolutely unique gift to others, a gift that no other person can offer. What is the gift? Himself or herself. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.