G. P. Grant

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)






"Nature and Surpernature" is the fundamental concept of John Oman's philosophy of religion. That philosophy, found in his book "The natural and the Supernatural" should be read within the context of his "theologia crucis", which is given in his earlier theological writings. Oman's faith is that Our Lord on the Cross reveals the Father as Love, who demands from men that they take up their crosses in forgiveness. The Father's Love and man's freedom to partake of it are tho essence of Christianity. All else is but relative and changing.

In so embarking on a philosophy of religion that is regulated by faith, Oman is attempting to reconcile the challenge of the Gospel with its rationality. His certainty that its truth is not dependent on the approval of metaphysicians is combined with his consciousness that it is his duty to explain to the world in reasonable terms the character of that Gospel. For there to be purpose in discussing his philosophy of religion, tentative agreement must be given to the possibility of such an undertaking against those who believe in the corruption of all "unredeemed" judgement, and against those who believe that the philosophy of religion should be based not on faith but on "natural evidence". In saying this it may be regretted that Oman does not make more explicit in "The Natural and the Supernatural" its dependence upon faith. Consequently it would not be difficult to overemphasise his debt to and connections with the traditions of European secular rationalism.

As a preliminary to the account of Oman's philosophy of religion, the bare course of his life and writings between 1860-1939 is described in relation to his involvement in the traditions of modern Europe. Without suggesting determinism about a man of Oman's originality, he may be seen more clearly in the light of the contrast between the Biblical faith of his Orkney childhood and the secular philosophy current in his day. Though he scorns the scholarly reference, his immense reading in the field of post-Kantian liberal theology may be seen in his debts to Lotze's realism, Schleiermacher's theology of feeling and Ritschl's Christocentric scorn of metaphysics. Oman's reaction against Hegelian speculation may be the better understood when it is remembered that he was a practising minister till his forty-seventh year. The change in his writings from the simple Gospel, addressed to those within the Church, to the philosophy of religion addressed to the world may be partly explained by his experience in Cambridge, where he spent the last third of his life. In this atmosphere he saw how deep was the necessity for a metaphysics which would show to men dominated by their visions of the world as "things" or "life" or even "spirit" how the most real and important world was that of "persons". By his response to the European catastrophe of 1914 the practical substance of his ethics is clarified.

Oman's metaphysics is approached by describing his account of how the supernatural makes its appearance to consciousness. Tho fitness of this approach may be justified by Oman's belief that speculation must always necessarily proceed from an already held hierarchy of values. He does not believe it possible to assume only the self-evident. He lays down that men know the supernatural environment as meaning and that that meaning depends on the unique character of the feeling it evokes, which he calls "the sense of tho holy"; and on the absolute value men find in it, which he calls "the judgment of the sacred". The immediate conviction of a special kind of objective reality inseparable from this valuation he calls "the supernatural". Oman does not analyse or describe the far reaching assumptions underlying these seemingly simple terms which he uses in his own particular way. The advantage of this failure to analyse his terms is that he takes the reader straight into his brilliant use of them; the disadvantage is the resultant ambiguity in his groundwork, some of which is later clarified but much of which is not.

With these terms Oman embarks on a profound discussion of the relation of religious dependence to moral independence, or what he calls in his theology the problem of grace and personality. The sense of the holy, given with and through our contemplation of the natural, is the pioneer in presenting men with absolute values. Only, however, as the will responds to those insights by freely employing them in the natural, does our sense of the holy chance from awe to reverence. He describes the interdependence of the two relations to the supernatural, action and contemplation. Rightness in action is described as "faithfulness", true contemplation as "sincerity of feeling". After disposing of the naturalist and Hegelian accounts of tho moral judgment, the relation of the holy to the sacred is illuminated by a comparison with the Kantian account of the moral judgement. Kant's brilliant understanding of the categorical quality of ideal values does not save his ethics from legalism, consequent on his account of personality simply as an autonomy of volition and not also an autonomy of insight. Its weakness as criticism lies in its obscurity about the relation of ideal to natural values, as compared with the clarity of Kant's imperious duty.

Oman's account of the appearance of the natural to consciousness centres on his description of "awareness" and "apprehension". Through these faculties we are given nature as it is in itself, as compared with "comprehension" and "explanation" which allow us to deal with nature for our own purposes. The rationalist epistemologies of nature fail to do justice to those elements of knowing in which children and poets excel. By sensitiveness of awareness we are given the natural in its dependance upon the holy; in sincerity of apprehension there flash up those ideal values by which we may deal with the natural. Nature is then the symbolism through which God speaks to us and by which we reply to Him. Its very mystery however must tell us that it is more than that. It is regretted that Oman's radically personalist conception of nature is not made sufficiently explicit in "The Natural and the Supernatural", but must be implied from his other work and from the writings of his pupil Professor H. H. Farmer.

Nature and supernature, so related and distinguished, cannot be conceived apart from one another. Equally they can only be conceivod in relation to Oman's concept of man. With these three terms and their relationship Oman passes beyond monism and dualism to give his account of "prophetic monotheism". Monism, according to Oman, whether religious or philosophical, is motivated by the attempt to avoid the conflicts of the world by sinking back into the undifferentiated sense of the holy. Thus the natural and persons are submerged in the supernatural. No proper place is allowed for the suffering and striving of tho world. Such theology must either disregard it or despair about it. On the other hand, dualist solutions, whether explicitly as in Persia or incipiently in the philosophy of Kant, conceive personality as the performance of atomic acts of freedom detached from man's insight into the supernatural and his consciousness of the natural. So the supernatural is conceived as a Judge meting out rewards or punishments. Morality becomes a legalism without trust, not the glorious liberty of the children of God. In tho interplay of theory and practice the world becomes less and less conceived as all God's.

The prophets, particularly Hosea, first strove to overcome that dualism. They found that revelation through the natural and reconciliation to the natural were reciprocal. Thus they came more and more to understand that forgiveness in which the world could all be dealt with as the Father's. Our Lord's Life and Death finally reveals that prophetic monothoism in all its fullness. Our Lord's forgiveness of those who tortured and degraded Him roveals that God's Nature cannot be less glorious than that vision. Men can in that light find joy in the world by the knowledge that all can be redeemed. Dualism remains for all men a standing problem but it need never be accepted as a solution. The conclusion Of Oman's metaphysic is just the simple Gospel of the Father's Love and His children's freedom.

To understand what Oman means by tho supernatural the attempt must be made to fathom what he makes of the concept "history". This question cannot be answered in terms of his classification of religions in "The Natural and the Supernatural", for that is in essence the arrangement of historical phenomena in the light of an already held metaphysics, not a theology of history. It can be answered only in terms of the Christology found elsewhere. Oman will not define the Being of Christ beyond St.Paul's phrase: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself". Simply because of the Passion, to which the Resurrection adds nothing essential, men can know the Mind of God and, therefore, trust that all history is to good purpose and will have a final glorious consummation. But no particular doctrinal statements about these matters is of the essence of the Gospel. Such a quietist trust is not ahistoric in any Greek sense, but it cannot affirm any scheme of history. Oman is here unclear about the relation between the consummation on the Cross and the doctrine of progress, acceptance of which seems often to be implied in his writings.

A practical theologian can fairly be judged by his theology of politics. Though Oman writes on no subject more voluminously than on the Church, his politics are not concrete. In his doctrine of the Church there is a practical contradiction between his assertion that the Church should be the fellowship of the saints, leaving all issues of power with God, and the belief that the religious life should be just the ordinary life well lived. This is partly determined by his interpretation of the relation between the thought of the Reformers and the men of the Rennaissance and Aufklärung. Oman seems to underestimate the value and necessity of tradition. What he means by denial and possession of the natural is also complicated by his contradictory statements about the possibility of creative politics for the Christian. In 1914 his liberalism triumphed over his quietism. Despite his criticism of Kant's failure to take account of the varieties of function, Oman gives no principles under which men can attempt to reconcile their vocations with the demands of the Kingdom of God, except his "logique du coeur". Particularly in a practical theologian who is not greatly concerned with speculative cosmology, a failure of analysis at this point is to be regretted.

Oman's philosophy of religion is not, in the late Professor Laird's phrase, open to audit by reason alone. Men do not know the Truth only by clearheadedness but also by sincerity of feeling and faithfulness in action. It is possible to say of Oman: here are failures of analysis, here exasperating silences, here opaqueness of style and a simple vocabulary covering obscurities. One must either accept or reject his central faith. From that acceptance or rejection one must consider the possibility of such a Christian philosophy of religion, dependent on faith yet appealing to the image of God in all men. Must a challenging and a rational Gospel be ever in complete contradiction? As that question is answered in the negative, Oman's philosophy of religion is judged a remarkable attempt to make visible the world of persons in Christian terms and in relation to other worlds. It meets the cry of men bewildered by their period. With a sensitivity that is strong and an individuality concerned with essentials, he holds consistently together his faith in the Majesty of God's Love and in the dignity of a man to know that Love in autonomy of action and contemplation.

McMaster University Library

Files over 3MB may be slow to open. For best results, right-click and select "save as..."