And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.  And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:  that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

-1 Corinthians 2:1-5

The “Protestantisation” of the Roman Catholic Church

A few days ago I was discussing an article about how the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the Global South is “protestantising”. However this is only in the sense that it is shifting away from the Counter-Reformation Tridentine arrangement which is distinctly institutional, rational, and modernistic, not that it is really moving towards the Magisterial or Reformational form of Protestantism. It is in fact reverting back to a more “medieval” charismatic/Pentecostal form of religiosity which many in the West would deem to be “superstitious”. Historians of medieval and Reformation culture have noted that contemporary Pentecostalism bears all the marks of medieval Catholic culture where every event is imbued with spiritual agency and where mechanical ritual actions would yield tangible results like cures or material success.

Western Washington Catholic Charismatic Renewal at St. Matthew Church in Seattle, Washington Saturday March 15, 2014. (PHOTO by Stephen Brashear)
Western Washington Catholic Charismatic Renewal at St. Matthew Church in Seattle, Washington Saturday March 15, 2014. (PHOTO by Stephen Brashear)

Then one of the most astonishing comments comes from a traditional catholic who says that this merely tells him that South Americans are more prone to heresy.

I’m like, wut? Believing in the living force of spiritual beings and that they have tangible effects upon reality is heresy?

I am reminded once again to the extent to which even the most fervent ranters against “modernism” has been so thoroughly “modernised” themselves. I think I can safely boast that I have one of the most arid and rationalistic approach to philosophy and theology to the point of robotic. However even I can see that the pentecostals and charismatics may have an important point about living spiritual agency having tangible real world effects. That arch advocates of “traditional” religion should denounce as heresy what would be plain common sense to the average medieval concerning the lived effects of spiritual forces is simply astounding.

The Vulgar Tangibility of the Supernatural

I was reflecting on this strange paradox when I came across this post by a (former) Mexican Roman Catholic who provided the insight and the words I needed to understand this paradox.

The author of the post in question was just reflecting on the attitude of certain Roman Catholics against “nominal” Roman Catholics who were, and are, leaving the Roman Church because they lack some “interior life” (read: they lack a “rich” inner spiritual life, etc) to be militant or committed enough. However this sort of rich inner spiritual life was not the sort of faith he was raised in and he quotes a very insightful passage from Maya Deren about what it means to be a believer in the past:

The man of such a culture must be, necessarily, a pragmatist. His immediate needs are too persistent, too pressing, and too critical, to permit the luxury of idealism or mysticism, and they must be answered rather than escaped from. He has neither time, energy, nor means for inconsequential activity. His religious system must do more than give him moral sustenance; it must do more than rationalize his instinct for survival when survival is no longer a “reasonable” activity. It must do more than provide a reason for living; it must provide the means for living. It must serves the organism as well as the psyche. It must serve as a practical methodology not as an irrational hope. In consequence, the Haitian thinks of his religion in working terms. To ask him whether he “believes” in Voudoun is to pose a meaningless, irrelevant question. He answers, “I serve the loa”, and, more than likely, he will say, “I serve so-and-so, giving even to general divine power a specialized focus.

-from Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti


The author continues helpfully:

This is not merely the Voudoun attitude towards the divine, but the “folk Catholic” or traditional attitude. People pray to saints because the saints are useful, not to get “closer to Jesus”. In other words, there are no mystics in the ghetto, at least not what we think of as “mystics”. People participated in Catholicism because it could sync with their daily lives, and it offered real life solutions to their problems. To get that now, you have to be Latino and go to the botanica, because that type of pragmatism is frowned upon ever since people like Komonchak have taken over the Church. They would rather have mystics rather than ordinary people, and even Benedict XVI wants to “downsize” the Church for that reason.

What are we to make of the idea that religion “must do more than provide a reason for living; it must provide the means for living”? Or the idea that “People pray to saints because the saints are useful, not to get “closer to Jesus””? I shall call this the thesis of the vulgar tangibility of the supernatural. The supernatural is tangibly vulgar because it ties religious practices and rituals to tangible results. Sprinkling holy water on cows ensures their good health, invoking a saint secures a job or a contract, holding Mass upholds the wheels of the Cosmos, guaranteeing a good harvest.


The supernatural is contrasted with the spiritual in that the supernatural is visible and tangible in its results to the point of materially vulgar. When Jesus performed his miraculous feats, people did actually acquire the ability to walk and see, he really did feed thousands of people with tangible bread and fishes. And of course he rose from an all too bloody execution.


The spiritual on the other hand is essentially a posture of retreat and resignation. Despairing of willingness/ability of the divine/religious to make a tangible difference to our space-time continuum, they instead turn inward and formulate “spiritual” techniques to move their mental furniture around in aid of some cathartic end. The spiritual is essentially invisible, it makes no difference whatsoever to one’s external circumstances nor does it practices yield tangible results. Ironically the enemy of the supernatural is not in fact the material but the spiritual. The supernatural should be understood more along the lines of the “hyper natural” or the realm of nature particularly intensified or tangibly coordinated in a miraculous fashion at a particular moment. The spiritual bears more gnostic connotations in its indifference to the realm of nature altogether, content with rearranging its own mental furniture.

The Spiritual as a Substitute for the Supernatural

From the categories outlined here we can get a better sense of why seemingly traditional religionists possess such an inexplicable contempt for Pentecostals and charismatics. It should be clear from here that traditional religionists tend to focus upon the serene purity of the “spiritual” away from filthy material concerns, while the pre-modern charismatic believes in actual supernatural forces making tangible differences in our empirical circumstance through prayer, ritual and invocation.


As I have already noted in my previous posts discussing the nature of medieval religious practice (here and here), religion was a vital living force in pre-modern societies because religion was in fact the practical substitute for technology and science. People were not more profoundly mystical or spiritual in the medieval times, they just did not have access to more reliable means of securing their material goods and resorted to rituals and invocations to get cured or a job.

A “rich” interior or mystical life is the privilege of the materially secure and well off. Only when you’re sufficiently secured against material disasters would you have the luxury of indulging in the spiritual life qua spiritual life. Most other people have too many needs to meet and too few means to do so to be able to waste time on such a thing. A saint’s value is not because of their inherent spirituality or virtue but in their efficacy in securing material goods.

Jesús Malverde, a folk Mexican saint also known as the “generous bandit”, “angel of the poor”, or the “narco-saint”, who supposedly stole from the rich and gave it to the poor. Mostly venerated by Mexicans especially those heavily involved in the drug trade but not officially sanctioned by the Roman Church.

If today traditionalists rage furiously against “modernism” and our contemporary confidence in technology and science at securing our material goods, that’s only because science and technology has quite literally stolen their business. However, and this is an important point, the traditionalists themselves are not exactly eager to return back to a pre-modern form of religious life. Ever since the Counter-Reformation they have already adapted to the decline of the supernatural with intensified Tridentine “inner spirituality”. They view the Pentecostal with a combination of horror and contempt for daring to contaminate religion with all too tangible concerns and from detracting from the “profundity”, and dare one even say, “purity” of the inner spiritual life. But naturally this “inner spiritual life” screens its more fundamental motivations, a despair of the supernatural and a gnostic contempt for its tangibility.

The Challenge of the Supernatural

To speak of the supernatural today is to risk the contempt of one’s more “respectable” or “reasonable” peers. Ironically it is not only the atheists or the sceptic which casts its aspersions upon those who claim to continue to believe in the vulgar tangibility of the supernatural, they are joined also by traditional religionists as well, unusual bed fellows indeed.

The contempt however is partially rooted in fear. The tangibility of the supernatural means that one’s religious claims or beliefs could make an actual difference in our common empirical world. Like seismic ripples, if the divine has truly intervened to bring about a tangible result at a certain space-time location, we who live in its vicinity would be tangibly affected and it would undoubtedly make a claim upon our religious adherence. Nobody has ever been executed for reaching serene enlightenment in the privacy of his own mind, but for healing the sick and multiplying bread, the most famous man in history has been executed by the imperial powers at the instigation of the religious authorities as a threat to civic stability. Since then miracles has constantly menaced both political and, ironically, religious authorities. From the Jansenists to Medjugorje to the Pentecostals today, the supernatural in contrast to the spiritual poses a challenge to us for its all too real and tangible claims upon our allegiance, both material and ideological.


This is what gives supernatural phenomena like ghosts, poltergeists, demonic possession its uncanny edge. They are empirically discernible and has all too frightening tangible effects upon us. Nobody is intimidated by some random monk’s ecstatic experiences in the corner of his cell. But we sure are terrified if we see objects mysteriously flying about.

Conclusion: Naturalising Grace

Where does this leave us today? For those of us who take seriously the religious life, we must find unsatisfactory both the “spiritualist” whose religion is purely a matter of rearranging some mental furniture and the Pentecostal who glibly attributes divine agency and intention to every religious claim, act or event, rendering us vulnerable to the claims of charlatans who would use such beliefs for unscrupulous material ends. If the former gives in too much to the secularists and humanists who would banish divine agency from the world and turn religion into a purely human ornament, the latter would completely collapse the proper distinction between the agency of man and the agency of God by uncritically identifying every human religious act as a divine act.

To that end we need to fundamentally rethink how we approach two central concepts to the Christian religion. The concept of grace or divine action and the concept of the miraculous. I have outlined in a scattered collection of posts about the need to recover some idea of “Pelagian Grace“, in contrast to Augustine’s “Spiritual grace”, whereby the divine action is identified with the providential configurations or empirical factors or events securing some temporal or spiritual good. When empirical events converge in concert with some religious act to accomplish some tangible result, whether it is of conversion or getting a job, the supernatural, in all its vulgar tangibility retains its pride of place in the world.

We however would need to combine this with some objective and non-circular criteria for method for scrutinising the miraculous. Ever since the Reformation British Christian Enlightenment thinkers have been engaging the question as to whether it is the miraculous which authenticates the religious or does the religious authenticate the miraculous. We dare not take the latter option lest we subsume the miraculous, and thereby the miraculous, to some religious ideology. However we cannot also take the former at face value otherwise we will be at the mercy of every contradictory miraculous testimony justifying a cacophony of religious claims. The British thinkers have very carefully, and ingeniously, formulated a system which can avoid the errors of the two extreme with a high view of natural theology and natural religions which can give us substantive theological content for scrutinising the miraculous without circularity.

Would these two rather “naturalistic” projects lead to fruitful results? I am confident they would for fundamentally I am of the very firm conviction that the supernatural is not the negation of natural but its intensification, and if we follow nature, we would not stray from the divine behind nature.

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