Things in Heaven and Earth: Exploring the Supernatural, Harold Fickett, ed., Paraclete, 1998, 230 pages, $14.
We are now living through a third Great Awakening. It is, of course, a far cry from anything Jonathan Edwards could have imagined. The television show, Brimstone, depicts a damned soul released from Hell with the mission of spiritual bounty hunter; every bookstore has its own section for Wiccans; elementary-school students are expelled for casting spells. Such cultural phenomena are sure signs of a spiritual awakening—but an awakening to what? In any event, interest in the supernatural, whether angelic or demonic, whether grounded in traditional religious faith or the newest Barnes and Noble guru, is now the American obsession.
For the Christian seeking to win hearts for Christ, the resurgence of the supernatural is certainly a tremendous opportunity. The craving for mystery, meaning, and the transcendent is a rare gift in the 20th century, but in our market-driven service society, the truer forms of that craving have been translated into a demand for the god of me, myself, and I. In the church of spiritual consumerism, sham spiritualists of all kinds pose as prophets and angels, serving psychological cravings more than true spiritual yearnings. If Christ doesn’t sell, Joseph Campbell will.
But a welcome arrival to this scene is Things in Heaven and Earth: Exploring the Supernatural. The editor, Harold Fickett, has compiled 14 essays that will satisfy, but not corrupt, their consumers.
What makes this book unique among its innumerable look-alikes is its combination of creativity and personal insight on the one hand, and a firm grounding in Christian tradition on the other. Though not all the authors are Roman Catholic (with one writer, who associates Medieval Christendom’s teaching on Hell with “sadism,” perhaps a bit hostile to Catholicism), they are all devout and traditional Christians. Whether writing about the gift of supernatural prescience, the relationship between philosophy and spirituality, the miraculous life of St. Francis, or childhood memories of God, they evince an adroitness with both the word and the Word.
The compilation as a whole manages to strike a good balance between the extremes of dry intellectualism and gnostic flights of fancy, a quality often lacking in books of this genre. The philosophical and scientific speculations of Paul Vitz, Deal Hudson, and Phillip Johnson are paired with the intimate reflections on spiritual palpables by Madeline L’Engle, Ron Austin, and Susan Bergman, and these are complemented by informative hagiographical narratives by A.G. Harmon, Erin McGraw, and Ron Hansen; mystical poetry by Lucy Shaw; scriptural exegesis by Paul Mariani; and soul-wrenching introspection by David Borofka and Larry Woiwode.
The writers avoid falling to the temptation of dressing up Christian spirituality in neopagan garb to make it acceptable to contemporary sensibilities. They do not pander to appetites demanding self-esteem fixes and spiritual intoxication. Most spiritual writers today either portray the supernatural as somehow opposed to the natural—as if, to appear authentic, spiritual writers should remove reason to its “proper,” mundane place; or, for fear of imitating such gnostic excesses, they abstract and hyperrationalize what should be intimate and existential.
Following the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, where grace perfects, not destroys, nature, these writers, in the editor’s words,
serve as guides to the places the natural and supernatural cross. They also comment on the forces that attract and repel these worlds, how they are glimpsed together and broken apart.
The best way to characterize the thrust of this book is to contrast it with the spiritually maudlin and therapeutic Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue, which has piqued, but not satiated, the appetites of many God-starved consumers. Things in Heaven and Earth falls in the same category as Augustine’s Confessions.
If there is one fault in this collection of essays, it is that it is not the product of experts on supernatural experience or the spiritual life. Experts on these things, of course, are extremely rare—as rare as saints. What these writers lack in divinity, however, they make up for in humanity, evincing a rare expertise in authenticity, depth, humility, style, and sobriety.
Lucy Shaw, in her contribution, “Living in the Gap,” poetically describes the “amphibious” nature of man’s encounter with the supernatural:
in two worlds, caught between
upper and under, never home.
Restless: skin withering for wet,
and the nether ooze,
or nostrils aching to fill
with free air her bubble lungs,
heart thumping, tympanum
throat pulsing to flood
the darkening sky with loud
Man is an amphibian, as C. S. Lewis also wrote, part earth, part heaven. The authors of Things in Heaven and Earth teach us what it is to be truly human: to have our two feet on the earth but our hearts in heaven.
This article first appeared in the May 1999 edition of Crisis Magazine.