What's the Meaning of These Words?
supernatural, spiritual, metaphysical (and metaphysics), existential (and Existentialism)
ethereal, tautology, syncretism, tantra, teleology, theologoumenon.
Spiritual Resources > Spiritual Word Meanings > Supernatural and Spiritual
supernatural: beyond or above nature; that which is not from the observable, tangible or measurable universe, especially regarding divine things /beings /actions /realms. Related words are mystical and metaphysical. On the one hand, many think 'supernatural' simply means there's no known explanation for it -- yet. They use 'supernatural' the way some people speak of "the God of the Gaps", as a stopgap measure until somebody finds a reasonably-reasonable 'answer'. Others use 'supernatural' to describe just about anything that happens a little strangely. Some people are prone to superstition, syncretism, UFOs and lifestyle fictions (like in TV shows or movies), or need to have a handy place to fix the blame. Send in the supernatural, so they don't have to admit they don't know.
A common Christian view of the supernatural is that the material and supernatural realities are either fully continuous or have a bazillion contact points. The ancients described this combo as the 'seen and unseen'. God functions in both parts of this one reality. The Bible testifies about a God that is hidden from the created world, behind all that exists and every aspect of our lives. The 'supernatural' is the side of that reality where God is hiding. Because God actually walked the material realm as a material being (Jesus), our material side of reality is moved by, blessed by, and rescued by the Divine. Jesus proved we can no longer speak of the 'supernatural' as a separate realm. The supernatural is another side of the same world as the one which operates according to the rules of physical being. The supernatural doesn't show, because it's not there to be part of a show.
PS: the word 'world' is intentionally used here, not 'earth'. "Earth" is a planet in the solar system of the Sun. It is most important to us because, aside from a few recently-launched chunks of metal, it holds all we are and have ever (to our knowledge) been. "World" signifies the realm of whatever part of material existence we take part in. Our wee little space programs are the first step in expanding our awareness to the entire rest of material existence. If Christianity is right, there is another side or angle to that part of the material realm, too -- maybe several. But we actually have to go out there and live in it and feel its pull on us to know what it is. And it would still be known only to those who are paying attention and know what to look for. Just like on earth.
The Holy Spirit isn't all there is to the unseen. The Scriptures testify to the existence of other spirit-beings, such as angels and demons. They live in the unseen realms the ancients usually called 'heaven' and 'hell', which are more accurately described as being "in" or "out" of God's direct presence. Christianity does not demand belief in angels, demons, heaven or hell, especially not the way it's portrayed by popular culture. We could exchange comments endlessly about the many different interpretations of the Bible's portrayals of the supernatural. Yet, the Bible's authors are trying to describe the indescribable. At its core, Christianity is not really about the specific design of the cosmos. It is about a relationship with God, and about God re-creating a single world where the unseen is finally free to be seen for what it really is. (Poets and songwriters instinctively know this.) God gave the Bible's many authors these insights and experiences to reveal real things about the different angles of a reality that right now includes both the seen and unseen, both the so-called 'material' and 'supernatural' realms. Thus we had best pay attention.
"There is another world, / but it is in this one."
---- William Butler Yeats
You can also find 'supernatural' in the dictionary, through means which are not at all supernatural.
spiritual: regarding matters of the spirit(s) or related matters that are sacred.
More than ever before, 'spiritual' has become the word of choice for vague, foggy, and shrouded things with no rules, no substance, and really no definition. Anything that bears any amount of mystery is said to be 'spiritual'. Some people even place the paranormal in their minds where the spiritual needs to be. To them, ghosts and magic and ESP and vampires are somehow part of 'spirituality'. Web searches on 'spiritual' are noticeably less flaky but still cover a very wide range; the top ten include spiritual advisors, spiritual awakenings, poems, and healing. It's not just the world at large that loves using the term: many Christians speak way too glibly of spiritual gifts, 'spiritual' warfare, worship, 'spiritual' fruits, and disciplines.
To Christians, 'spiritual' refers to that which causes this world of 'stuff' or material to come alive, to move, to change or resist change, or to take action (even when the action taken is to choose not to take action). The spiritual realm is supernatural, an aspect of what underlies all that happens in the material world, including ourselves, including everyone else around us. The 'material' world is where the spiritual realm applies itself. The stuffly world is the meat and life-blood of the spiritual, and the spiritual is the life-force and thrust of the realm of substance. Thus, the two worlds are different angles of the same reality, not different or separate realities. The Kingdom that Jesus spoke of works in the same way: it came 2000 years ago when Jesus was born, it is here now through those who follow Him, and is coming in the future in its full form. It is spiritual; it is lived in the material. And when it is completed, there will be no more mystery about how that can be.
One can be spiritual and not believe in Jesus as Christ. Such spirituality is to be treasured, and those who truly are spiritual are doing right by God. But it kind of misses the point: Christ was God's definitive act among humans. It's not that being spiritual does no good, it's a good beginning, it's just that without Christ, the 'spiritual' has an incomplete or misdirected core to it. Spirituality, as important as it is, is not the key matter at hand; following Christ is.
The Nicene Creed speaks of God the Father as "maker of all that is, seen and unseen". The unseen Spirit is the God of the unseen at work in the seen, causing change and giving direction within the realm of the seen, ever at work for the unseen world of the Kingdom. And in the end, the unseen and the seen will be brought together in a healed realm where the Spirit can at last be seen. Till then, it takes the eyes of faith to see the unseen. The creed's speaking of the unseen is not a 'God-of-the-gaps' thing; it is rather a statement that there is more to existence than we can sense, and that the same Lord who rules what we know also rules what we don't. Thus there's no need to fear the unknown. (You probably will anyway.)
You can also look up the meaning of 'spiritual' in the dictionary.
For the mystical side of it, look at Wikipedia, but keep in mind that if your spirituality is not well-grounded, mysticism can lead you away from the truth, instead of deeper into it.
metaphysical : that which is beyond (< Greek meta ) what can be grasped by the senses (the realm the Greeks called physikos). Related words are immaterial, asomatic, incorporeal, bodiless, and discarnate; those terms are sometimes associated with the metaphysics of fringe religious groups or cults.
The term 'metaphysical' originally comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for whom the metaphysical meant some form of theological philosophy. It means something else in today's world. The modern media often use 'metaphysical' to mean the same thing as 'spiritual' or even 'supernatural'. There's lots of overlap, but the words refer to different things. 'Spiritual' refers to the realm of spirits, especially one's own. The 'metaphysical' refers to that which underlies everything, of which spirits and the kingdom of God both belong, and how that realm works. Metaphysics is the study of such matters. Metaphysics is rooted in intangibles, that which can't be found by the physical senses, that which holds everything together like wood beams under a roof. In some ways, it is more like philosophy than religion. But 'metaphysical' hasn't (yet) suffered the same very self-ish turn 'spiritual' has.
Metaphysics deals with questions like, "what is real?", "what is important?" and "what is actually happening?" behind what we can sense. Metaphysics is about ultimate mysteries, and so when people talk about the metaphysical realm, they often end up talking in circles or (worse) out of both sides of their mouth. We can't help it, really; we've used up our ability to describe the awesome, mysterious happenings we're talking about. We're not clueless about the metaphysical, but we don't really know much about it. Since that's true, and since most everything can be explained (rightly or wrongly) without metaphysics, a growing part of the public simply discards any talk of anything metaphysical as something that doesn't exist.
For metaphysics to be meaningfully Christian, it has to deal with, and be expressed in terms of, the stuff of the world we sense and touch and feel. To use the traditional Christian term, metaphysics must be "incarnated". The root of all-that-is, namely God, came to breathe, eat, walk, hurt, and die in this world, as Jesus of Nazareth. This is how God operates. If we are to follow God, then when we speak of what underlies this world, we must take it through the same path, expressing the metaphysical, and living it out, in ways which matter for and have impact on the stuffly world we live in. If God does it that way, so must we, or we are not following the way of Christ.
You can also see 'metaphysical' in the dictionary.
Tautological and circular thinking [ < Greek tautologos (redundant, repeated without need, done or said again and again, over and over) < to- + auto- + logos ('the same word').]
When philosophers and theologians get to do enough thinking or talking, they eventually run themselves in a circle. This doesn't usually mean that's the way it really is, it just means that either (a) they've tripped over a paradox; or (b) words and thoughts have just simply run their course on the matter. They've bumped their brains on the ceiling of a mystery, but don't want to admit it, so they keep talking. In those situations, it's like an animal chasing its own tail. When two different things are described as being the same, or when reason runs itself into a circle, they repeatedly fall into tautologies. Either they've 'proven' the equality of unequal things, or they're doing the philosophical equivalent of dividing by zero. One can only climb out of this rut by getting practical - when thoughts are stuck, do. (This bears repeating: if your thinking is repetitive, do; if your doing gets repetitive, think.)
For instance, some liturgical specialists have talked so thickly about how the Spirit makes us do what we do in worship that they forget there's actual people in worship. They are a very, very small step from the circular idea of Christ the puppeteer making worshippers tell Him how great He is: God praising Godself. Or, take Meister Eckhart, the spiritual philosopher, who stated that God is enjoying the Godself in all things. A god like that is a self-obsessed, vain and egotistical character, who probably thinks this song is about him. The Bible bears witness to a very different God: a suffering servant, a bestower of blessings, the Other-For-Others who sent the stern 'tough love' words of the Prophets, a God who in all things is enjoying those who are other. God does not love just whatever of God is in you. God loves whatever of you that's in you, the stuff that makes you you and not God or anyone else. You are the one who worships, you are the doer. God is loving, and often but not always 'enjoying', all things and all creatures both for what they are and for what they can become. God makes every moment, every person, but not necessarily every idea, different. Our redundant tautologies have room in real life because God left room for it.
You can also check for 'tautology' the dictionary - repeat as often as you like, though you only need to do it once.
ethereal [ < Greek aithêr (upper air) ] lacking in material/stuff; outer-space-ish; otherworldly; lacking in definition or form. 'Ether' was how ancients described the lack of air in the highest level of the atmosphere. The thinnest-air analogy is taken from what they discovered at mountaintops - they (rightly) held there to be even less air far above the mountains.
Making something seem ethereal is a wonderful effect in music or drama. Electronic keyboards, medieval organs, and ancient wind instruments, effectively convey an ethereal feeling. Christians recognize and value the ethereal, but treasure and value far more when a spirituality that is otherwise ethereal takes form in the material world we live in -- when it is 'incarnated'.
You can also check 'ethereal' in the dictionary.
syncretism: The blending of one religion/philosophy/worldview with others. The concept seems honest enough: adding in the ideas you deem are the best from other religions. But to add such mysteries together well, it takes someOne a whole lot bigger than you. It doesn't fit. Syncretisms are as if someone takes a pile of weakly- or un-related religious and philosophical ideas, stories, and symbols, then dumps all of them together into a sink, adds water, and stirs. The result is about as spiritually enlightening as drinking dish water.
There are things to learn from other faiths - matters of practice and culture, or disciplines, or concepts Christianity has overlooked. Christianity has borrowed heavily from other faiths on such matters, more than just about any major religion, throughout its history. Our missionaries, who led the way for bringing people to Christ, also led the way in adapting not just the existing culture, but also spiritual practices and philosophy, to the Christian faith. In the past we took in holy sites, holidays, prayer beads, parts of Greek philosophy, and Christmas trees; today, many Christians are taking in yoga and tai chi. In each case, it becomes Christian when (and only when) we re-interpret the practices according to gospel truth, or flip it to make the truth about Christ stand out all the more. But it's not the same as bringing out the blender to create a new syncretism. The practice is accepted only because it is first re-fashioned by the gospel we hold to be true. In syncretism, it is simply swallowed as-is, with little effect from the gospel. There is a reality that lies behind Christianity, namely, Christ. To fudge on Jesus is to be false about God. This makes syncretism rather seriously wrong.
teleology [ < Greek teleios (complete, finished)]. When looking at something's 'teleology', we're trying to find out what leads it to wherever it goes to when it's completed. It can be thought of as its purpose, its destination, or result. When Jesus said on the cross, "it is finished" (Greek tetelesthai), it was 'teleological' -- this moment was the purpose of his life, his culmination, what a life such as his led to, and also (what would ordinarily be called) its end or completion, in death. Christians believe the teleological surprise, that the end isn't the end, that there was and is more to come afterward. Christians believe that time as we know it has a teleology, an end or purpose, namely to bring us back into the arms of the One beyond time, the One who is never finished yet always complete, the One who will complete us. Everything Christians do in faith is done to further that purpose.
You can also check for 'teleology' in the dictionary.
existential [ Latin existere (to step forth, to show itself) < ex- (out) + sistere (to stand)] adj. Having to do with existence itself, and/or dealing with or relating to it. Based on how existence is experienced. Also: relating to or derived from the key tenets of Existentialism. One who holds to an existential philospohy is an Existentialist.
When cars are crash-tested in laboratory conditions, it's scientific and academic. When you're on the streets in a car as it hits another car, it's existential. Religious philosophy tries to deal with the world as it exists, but the question then is, what is existence really made of, and how do we experience it? If there is an 'underlying' aspect to existence, can we relate to it, and how? (Relating to the material-ness of existence is easy; we're doing it all the time, and you're doing it right now.) God chose to be with us as a stand-alone human being, which of course does not stand alone but walks among other beings just as we do, with experiences unique to His being not much different than each of us has unique experiences.
Existentialism is a family of philosophies that see the individual self, and that self's experiences and uniqueness, as the way to understand (or, at least, address) the nature of human existence. One kind of existentialism is Absurdism, where life is seen as essentially insane, and the emphasis is on the self's uniqueness to the point of isolation -- so special or unusual that social interaction can itself be an absurd ruse. Less-absurdist existentialisms stress not only personal freedom, but also with it the full responsibilities and consequences of those free choices. In Christian thought, if your relationship with the God of Life breaks down to the point where in essence there is no relationship, then you no longer exist, or at best, exist in a sort of solitary confinement known as hell. (Or, in neo-orthodox language, God is "the ground of our being", so apart from God there really is no being, or at best, being entirely uses itself up.) Existentialist philosopies have had some influence in modern Christian quarters, though Absurdism has not.
(At this point, Lou Costello correctly names all the players on the baseball team, and then yells out loud that he has no idea what he just said.)
You can also check the dictionary for 'existential'.
A theologoumenon [ < Greek ] is an informed, valid theological opinion that is not a matter of doctrine or dogma but is shaped by them. It's often used about arguments in a theological dispute where both sides are orthodox in belief. We know enough for God to save us, but we don't even come close to knowing everything, and we can't satisfy our curiosity about every matter. However, hard thinking does lead down a certain set of paths instead of others; each of those are theologoumenon. For instance, Scripture does not teach us when Christ will return, so all theories on that subject are at best theologoumena, at usual useless drivel, and at worst deliberate lies.
This word is not one that would or should be used by anyone outside of a seminary. For the rest of us, the word leaves us confused and the point gets lost in the mists. Or maybe someone's trying to hide something.
You can also check other sources for the meaning of theologoumenon, but you won't find it in most dictionaries. That's how jargon-ish the word is -- it's not really an English word at all, but a pure lift from Greek. So please use your own native language instead, and do so simply.
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|ver.: 13 November 2014|
Supernatural and Tautology. Copyright © 1996 - 2014 by Robert Longman.