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Does the Distinction Between the Natural and the Supernatural Exist in All Cultures? Essay Example

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A significant issue within the academic literature of cultural anthropology concerns whether all cultures without exception can be thought to have a concept of the supernatural. According to the nature of the debate, it becomes clear that the crux of the dispute revolves around how the concept of the supernatural itself is defined. Some cultural anthropologists, such as one Roger Ivar Lohmann, defend a view that every culture does in fact possess such a concept of supernatural, “although it is expressed differently in each society.” (310) In other words, Lohmann employs a fairly inflated definition of supernatural, which allows him to assimilate all cultures into this definition. In contrast, the Lutherna theologian and anthropologist Frederick P. Lampe suggests that supernatural is problematic as a term because it is an overloaded concept: the very notion of supernatural already implies that the culture, by believing in the supernatural, believes in something false. Hence, to say that every culture is supernatural would be to suggest that every culture also has absurd or inane or irrational beliefs. When looking at the question from the perspective of both readings, however, it would seem that there does exist a concept of the supernatural in all cultures: this is because, if we hold to a broad enough view of the term, such as Lohmann suggests, while also adhering to Lampe’s definition, then saying that every culture possesses a concept of the supernatural means that every culture possesses irrational aspects of its world-view. This seems entirely plausible, since an entirely rational culture is an illusion: there are moments of irrationality and gaps in the understanding of every culture: the supernatural in this sense is the concept which fills in these gaps.

In order to develop this thesis, let us briefly summarize both Lohmann and Lampe’s definitions, in order to show how they are not so incompatible and furthermore demonstrate that the supernatural can be said to exist in all cultures. For Lohmann, the supernatural “can be viewed as a universal assumption among humans, or as the unique spiritual reality of a given culture.” What this means, for Lohmann, is essentially that the supernatural is the “cultural model of the physically real.” (310) The supernatural is therefore how cultures explain reality. However, what is problematic about this definition is that cultures may explain reality in terms of rational structures, such as in the West, and therefore not be viewed as merely cultural practices, but an objective view of the world.

This is why Lampe’s definition may provide a surprising aid to the argument that the supernatural exists everywhere, even though he opposes this same thesis. Namely, Lampe rejects the supernatural because the category “perpetuates the positivist tendencies of the Enlightenment.” (324) In other words, supernatural becomes a synonym for irrationality. To call a culture supernatural in certain aspects, therefore, is to call a culture irrational and thus for Lampe is a chauvinistic and “logocentric” view of reality.

However, it is precisely according to this same definition that we can understand why the supernatural exists in all cultures, and therefore, why Lohmann is correct: this is because all cultures do not fully rely upon elements of reason, or other scientific discourses and methods that are common to the Western Enlightenment tradition. Even the West with its commitment to such “positivism” maintains non-positivistic discourses and concepts within its existential horizon. Therefore, it is precisely in this sense that the West also possesses an element of the supernatural. Furthermore, all cultures contain this same supernatural quality precisely because there are phenomena that cannot be explained rationally. Therefore, there is a common ground between the two positions, and this common ground exists through a surprising combination of the pro and contra positions regarding the supernatural.

Works Cited

Lampe, Frederick P. “Creating a Second-Storey Woman: Introduced Delineation

Between Natural and Supernatual in Melanesia.” pp. 318-324.

Lohman, Roger Ivar. “The Supernatural is Everywhere: Defining Qualities of Religion

in Melanesia and Beyond.” pp. 310-317

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