In Religion in Chinese Society, from 1961, the scholar C.K. Yang does an admirable job of separating the idea of religion from Western preconceptions of what the term might mean based on our history of theistic Christianity, and particularly of strong church organizations overlaying relatively weak and fragmentary states — the opposite in many ways of what one found historically in China.
But there is another term that creeps in, particularly in his discussion of Confucius and whether the ancient sage could be considered “agnostic” in terms of beliefs in gods and spirits. That term is supernatural.
There are, of course, other troubling terms — “gods,” for one — but supernatural is a term that I have seen frequently in texts on religion, and it’s problematic for a number of reasons. At its core, it means above nature, which suggests phenomena that don’t follow any natural order. But historically the study of what we call supernatural phenomena — spirits, gods, magic — was not considered beyond the realm of the knowable. It was hard to know, and only wise scholars or profound mystics who devoted a great deal of study could truly understand these things, but that’s pretty much how we think about physics today. Do you really know what goes on inside your smartphone? Or inside a particle accelerator?
So when we talk about a Korean shaman who feels herself to be possessed by different spirits, and who dances and “plays well” with them, and prescribes the right sacrifices to keep them happy, are we really talking about something that, from the shaman’s perspective, transcends the laws of nature? Or are we talking about an extension of nature — of how the world works — that isn’t normally visible, but that is discernible with study and insight? And if the latter, is the term supernatural merely an imposition of a Western scientific episteme anachronistically and aculturally onto other worldviews?
To demonstrate the awkwardness of supernatural as a category, let’s think ourselves back into history, say, five hundred years. And now we will consider a series of beings in whose existence a Chinese scholar might believe, though he has never seen any of them: elephants, yetis, dragons, gods, the ghosts of ancestors, Heaven, giraffes, Indian people, qilin. Which of these is a belief in the supernatural? From the scholar’s perspective, every single item on the list can have manifest, measurable impacts on the visible, physical world. Some can’t be directly seen, but neither can radio waves, and they’re not supernatural in our thinking. They are a part of nature, amenable to study, manipulable by various means — like gods, spirits, etc.
As such, an enquiry into whether Confucius himself believed in the supernatural seems to me fundamentally misguided. One might enquire whether he believed in particular sorts of gods or spirits, and what his beliefs were about those beings. But the very idea of the supernatural depends on a modern distinction between a realm of superstition and falsehood and a realm of empirically measurable truth: science, in a word. (Ironically, many of the scholars who formulated this distinction would have found it absurdly superstitious to believe that a dead general could become an intercessionary god, yet believed profoundly in the redemptive power of the death and subsequent resurrection of a man who was born to a virgin mother and whose father was the God of Heaven. One man’s superstition is another man’s truth about the world.)
We might need a replacement term for the realm of spirits, or we might not. But it seems to me that supernatural is decidedly not the right word to use for scholars and practitioners who engage directly with that realm, based on knowledge, insight and experience.