I CAN conceive that it may be felt that the considerations we have so far advanced, even when all possible weight has been allowed to them, do not remove the main difficulty presented to a philosophical mind by the historical religions. It may be conceded that if there is a God who discloses Himself to man, it is only reasonable to expect that the disclosure will have a wealth of character harmonising with, but going far beyond, anything we could discover by mere general analysis of the implications of the bare reality of a natural or a moral order, and that this is enough to justify the great positive religions in attaching importance to some credenda of an historical kind. The trouble, it will be said, is that, in point of fact, they are found to insist upon historical credenda of a very special and questionable sort. They propound for our belief assertions about alleged facts which are avowedly miraculous, events which are surprising, and all the more surprising to us the more fully we become acquainted with the general pattern of experienced fact. A miracle is, ex vi termini, a break in the order of “customary experience,” even if it is not, as it is sometimes called, a violation of a “uniform law of nature,” or an event without a “natural” cause; such an event is perhaps intrinsically impossible, and it is, at any rate, a kind of event which we learn to think steadily more improbable, as we learn more and more from science and history of the actual course of nature and human behaviour, and of the psychological conditions which explain the rise of ungrounded beliefs in such events. But the positive religions are so bound up with this belief in miracles that it cannot be eliminated from them without fundamentally altering their character. A God who does not reveal Himself by miracles is not the God of any of these religions. There is therefore an element of falsehood in them all, against which philosophy is bound in honour to take up an attitude of permanent protest. A religion for the truth–loving man must be a religion without miracles, and it is only by disingenuous sophistry that any of the great historical religions can be identified with non–miraculous religion. The philosopher must, therefore, in loyalty to truth, reject them all on principle.
This familiar objection to what is loosely called the miraculous element in the positive religions may take any one of three distinct forms. (1) There is the old “high priori” contention, now for the most part relegated to the polemics of the uneducated or half–educated, that a miracle is intrinsically impossible because its occurrence would be a violation of the principle on which all distinction between truth and falsehood rests, the principle that the world is intelligible. (2) There is the contention, familiar to the readers of Matthew Arnold and Huxley, that though the question of the possibility of miracles is merely idle, increasing acquaintance with the facts of natural science has shown, as Arnold puts it, that miracles do not happen, or, as Huxley suggests, that the testimony to any miracle in which the followers of a religion have believed proves, on examination, to be insufficient as testimony.1 (3) Finally, there is what is probably felt by our contemporaries to be the gravest objection of all, that which Dr. Bevan has called the anthropological objection.2 This has been pithily condensed into a single sentence by Sir R. Burton, who remarks that Hume disbelieved in miracles because he had never come across one, but if he had lived in the East, he would have come across so many that he would have been even more incredulous.3 Or, to adopt the less epigrammatic but more careful statement of Dr. Bevan, the anthropologist finds himself constantly dealing in his work with miraculous stories which have a marked prima facie resemblance to those found in the traditions of the great positive religions. He sets them all aside, because his particular studies have made it so plain to him that they arise from an ignorance and an illusion characteristic of mankind all over the globe at a certain level of intellectual development. Why should an exception be made for the particular stories which have been attached to the names of the great figures of the world–religions? If the Christian dismisses a thousand stories of a virginal birth, why should he deal differently with the thousand and first because it is told of Christ, or the Jew discriminate between two such similar stories as that of the disappearance of Romulus in the thunderstorm and that of the translation of Elijah in the tempest?
This, as I should agree with Burton and Dr. Bevan, is the one and the very formidable line of argument which impresses us all at the present day. Whatever our agreements or disagreements with Kant, there is one lesson which we have all learned from the Critique of Pure Reason, that logic, functioning in vacuo, can tell us nothing of the course of events. No assertion about the actual course of events can be shown to be unreasonable, apart from an appeal to specific experiences, unless it is found on analysis to be internally self–contradictory, and then only, if we accept the Law of Contradiction, as a real Irrationalist in metaphysics would not, as an ontological truth. Even the more moderate–sounding assertions of Arnold and Huxley are of a kind which produces no confident conviction. It is not quite clear what Arnold meant by his dictum that miracles “do not happen.” If he meant only that they do not commonly happen, the remark is true, indeed truistic, but irrelevant; we should not call an event of a kind we see occurring every day a “miracle.” If he meant that they never happen in our own age, this is a statement of fact which would be traversed by a greater number of intelligent persons than is often supposed, and ought not to be made without some attempt at justification. If he meant, as he may have done, that our knowledge of physical science, though not our knowledge of metaphysics, enables us to exclude certain types of event confidently and finally from the pattern of the real world, the argument has already lost its force as we have become increasingly alive to the abstractive and artificial character of all physical hypotheses.4 But if he only meant that European societies in the sixties and seventies of the last century were generally incredulous of the miraculous, he was actually alleging the mere prevalence of a habit of mind as its own justification. Probably the most charitable interpretation would be that he really intended to be stating the anthropological objection in untechnical language. Similarly, when Huxley5 insinuates that though on good and sufficient testimony we ought to be ready to believe the most astounding statements about the course of events, there never has actually been good and sufficient testimony to any of the events which the theologians of the various faiths have claimed as miracles, he seems to fall into a manifest confusion of thought. If credibility is wholly a matter of external testimony, as it should be if the rest of Huxley’s theory is sound, there is better testimony for some “miracles” than there is for many non–miraculous events which are commonly accepted as historical. There is, e.g., better testimony for the appearance of Our Lord alive after his crucifixion than there is for the death of St. Paul at Rome, better evidence for the stigmatisation of St. Francis than for the murder of the “princes in the Tower.” It should seem that what Huxley intends to suggest is precisely what he professes not to be suggesting, that the testimony which would be sufficient for more customary events is insufficient to establish the particular sort of event meant by the word “miracle.” Hence I should suppose that he also has the anthropological objection at the back of his mind.
If I had either the right or the desire to make my remarks on this problem into an apologia for the miracles of a particular religion—as, speaking in this place, I am not likely to do—I think I could offer some grounds for holding that the analogies alleged by the sceptical anthropologist between the unusual incidents in the stories of the heroes of savage folk–lore and those which figure among the credenda of great positive religions professed by communities of civilised men are not altogether as impressive as they are sometimes made to appear. There are similarities, it is true, but there are also dissimilarities which are equally significant. (The Nativity narratives in the Gospels, for example, do not strike me as being particularly like any of the folk–lore stories of virginal births I have read in the works of anthropologists, though they do remind me of Old Testament stories of a very different kind, like those of the births of Samson and Samuel, in which a virgin plays no part.) My actual purpose, however, is not, and ought not to be, that which is the legitimate business of the Christian apologist. The issue with which I am concerned is the more general one, what kind of view of the relation of the world to God is implied in the conception of the “miraculous” as a constituent of real becoming, and is there any incompatibility between acceptance of such a conception and loyalty to philosophical principle. I am not asking whether a truly philosophic mind ought to believe in this or that particular miracle, or indeed in any specific miracle in which men have ever been called on to believe, but with what antecedent convictions the problem should be approached. Is it our duty as lovers of truth to come to it with minds made up against the admission of the miraculous, in any intelligible sense of the word, into our scheme of things? Since our choice between participation in the devotional life of the actual religious societies around us and individualistic detachment cannot well fail to be influenced, and may, for some of us, be decided, by our answer to this question, the issue is a live one enough, and one which, if philosophy indeed has any function in the direction of life, the philosopher has no right to evade.
If we are to think with any approach to clarity, we must begin the discussion of the problem by drawing a distinction of the first importance which is too often obscured by loose and careless language—the distinction between the supernatural and the miraculous. Nothing but disaster can come, for our thinking about religion, from the common confusion of the two, illustrated, for example, in the last century by the title of a too–famous anonymous work on Supernatural Religion which was nothing more than a polemic against “miracles.” We need to understand clearly that the supernatural is the generic term, the miraculous only a subordinate species of the genus, and even more clearly that the vital and primary interest of religion is in the supernatural; for religion, the miraculous is, at best, secondary and derivative. Religion is only concerned with the miraculous if, and so far as, the miraculous can be taken as an indication of the reality of the supernatural. Religion exists whenever, and only when, there is the conscious domination of life by aspiration towards an absolute and abiding good which is recognised as being also the supreme reality upon which the aspirant is utterly dependent. Where we have as the fundamental motive of life “love towards an infinite and eternal thing,” there we have living religion; where we have not this motive, at least implicitly, we have not religion. Religion itself is thus consciousness of the strictly supernatural, the transcendent something which is above all mutability, passage, and history, or it is nothing. When a man really loses, if anyone ever loses, all belief in the reality of that which is ultra–temporal, and therefore strictly supernatural, at a level above that of the “complex event we call nature,” he ipso facto loses religion; where, if anywhere, men have not yet attained to at least a virtual recognition of the entirely abiding as the supremely real and the true centre of interest in life, there may be cults propitiatory of non–human powers, hostile or friendly, but there is nothing we can class with Christianity or Judaism; if we are to call such cults religious, we can only do so “equivocally”.
This seems to me the sure and certain kernel of Otto’s now famous conception of the numinous, however much there may be to criticise or correct in Otto’s own elaboration of his thought. But it should be clear that though religion, in our sense of the word, is the active recognition of the supernatural, and nothing else, this recognition of the supernatural need not carry with it any recognition of the miraculous, in the sense of abnormalities and singularities in the historic sequence of events, as specially revelatory of the supernatural. There is no more entirely irreligious conception of the world than that of Epicurean philosophy, the ancient theory which, more than any other, by its doctrine of the incalculable clinamen principiorum, insisted on the reality of the singular and abnormal. On the other hand, there is no room for the miraculous in a philosophy like that of the Stoics, or their modern counterpart, Spinoza, nor again in that of Plotinus; but a man would have to be very blind not to see the genuine spirit of religion in the hymn of Cleanthes, in many a discourse of Epictetus, or “moral epistle” of Seneca, in almost any essay of the Enneads, in the “fifth part” of Spinoza’s Ethics. A Christian may, and will, hold that there are more adequate expressions of spiritual religion than any of these, but he cannot deny that in their measure they do express it, and sometimes with great beauty and nobility. That there is religion genuine and undeniable in the Stoics, in Plotinus, in Spinoza, is of itself complete proof that though there can be no religion without the supernatural, there can be religion, and profound religion, without miracle.
Prima facie, then, it might be suggested that the complication of religion with miracle which meets us in the great positive religions is purely accidental, a mere consequence of the fact that these religions had their beginnings in ages of widespread ignorance of the facts of the natural order, and that by a wholly beneficent process of development they may be expected to get clear of their miraculous accretions, as of so many unhappy encumbrances, though still retaining to the full their assured conviction of the reality of the supernatural. They will end by ceasing to look to any special events as evidence of the supernatural, because they have learned to see its presence everywhere.
God is law, say the wise: O soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law, the thunder is yet His voice.
This is, as we cannot deny, an attractive and plausible, as well as a very widely held position; to many of you I may seem to be wilfully surrendering to unreason in suggesting that it is possibly not the last word on the matter, as it appeared to be to the generation for whom Tennyson wrote the verses I have quoted, and that “natural law in the spiritual world” may not prove to be the great secret of God’s way with mankind. The question, to my mind, is whether the position is not too plausible on the surface to be quite above suspicion.
With theories, as with men, one does well not to trust the exceedingly plausible without very careful consideration. And there is at least one reflection which seems to have some pertinency at this point. The savage and the primitive man are often said by the more popular of our anthropologists to be simple–minded creatures who have not yet learned to distinguish between fancy and fact; they are held to be in the habit of treating the visions of dreams, delirium, and artificially induced hallucination as all on the same level with the perceptions of waking life, to have no conception of causality, or of the existence of a regular routine in the sequences of nature. With them, we are told, casual association is the one sufficient ground of belief, “primitive credulity” is unbounded, and here we have the simple and sufficient explanation of the origin of belief in the “miraculous.” Now even if this is an accurate account of the workings of the savage mind—and I have a suspicion, encouraged by much that I have read of the work of recent and careful anthropological students such as Malinowski, that it errs seriously by over–simplification6—it is at least pertinent to remember that the great positive religions have all had their beginnings in historical times and among “civilised peoples”; none of them is really a simple unbroken development from the days in which the ancestors of Jews, Christians, Moslems may have been “savages” with the habits of life and thought of Australian aboriginals.7
As it happens, the only cases in which we have contemporary evidence about the mental life of the persons with whom a great positive religion originated are those of Christianity and, perhaps we should add, Islam,8 the two youngest members of the group. And however different the mental habits of the first Christian disciples may have been from those of a modern European Bachelor of Science, it is at least certain that the apostles and their converts were not “primitive savages” who could not distinguish between waking life and dreams, or had never bethought themselves that a resurrection from the dead is a startling departure from the “familiar routine.” It was precisely because men like St. Peter and St. Paul were as familiar as we are with the distinction between “customary experience” and “miracle” that they saw the hand of God so conspicuous in the miracle which they put in the forefront of their message to the world. If St. Paul, under bondage to “primitive credulity,” had thought it just as likely that the “next best” man would rise from his tomb on the third day as that he would not, plainly he could not have found in the resurrection of Christ any proof that Christ had been declared to be the Son of God “with power.” No doubt, the routine of “customary experience” as conceived by St. Paul and his contemporaries included sequences which it does not embrace for us, but this should not blind us to the more important fact that they were as much alive as ourselves to the existence of such a routine. If they appealed to a miracle as evidence of the presence of God behind the routine, this was not because they had never learned to discriminate between the familiar and the marvellous, or miraculous, but precisely because they did habitually make the discrimination.
It is a true remark of some nineteenth–century writer—I believe of F. W. H. Myers9—that though we should be led into misconceptions if we thought of the apostles, as eighteenth–century apologists sometimes seem to do, as men with the minds of average British jurymen, we should be led much more seriously astray if we thought of them as men with the minds of hypothetical “primitive savages,” or even of actual Hottentots or Central Australians. After all, they were members, though most of them humble members, of a society which had possessed a high civilisation for centuries, and the mental traditions shaped by the superior intellects of a high civilisation work down to and stamp themselves on every section of the community, and must do so in virtue of their incorporation in its very vocabulary. It is nonsense to assert that the society which saw the rise of Christianity acquiesced in the marvellous elements of the Christian story simply because it was its habit to believe any marvel related of any one and by any one without discrimination. What is really illustrated by the comparative ease with which the miracles of the New Testament won credence and have retained it to this day, except in the relatively small circle of scientific and historical critics and those who have come under their influence, is not inability to distinguish between what is customary in experience and what is not, but the persistent tendency of the human mind, after it has learned to draw this distinction, to expect that the abnormal and exceptional will attend the doings of the men through whom God makes a special disclosure of Himself, that the “prophet” will be accredited by a “sign”.
The same tendency is interestingly illustrated by the rise of Islam. Mohammed, as is well known, expressly, and prudently, disclaimed all appeal to miracle in support of his own revelation. His “sign” was to be, apparently, the inimitable intrinsic divinity of the verses, or sentences, of his Koran, and inquirers were to expect no other. This did not prevent his followers from developing a tradition of evidential “miracles,” some of them on a cosmic scale. Now, of course, all that is proved by the history of these two faiths is the vitality of the tendency of the human mind to connect the performance of wonderful works with the possession of a special message from God and about God; the mere existence of the tendency is not its own sufficient justification. As Arnold said too flippantly, it would be no proof that my statements in my writings are true that I could turn my pen into a pen–wiper, though, if I could do so, men in general would be ready to believe anything I might assert. Still the very persistency of the tendency here acknowledged might tempt a cautious thinker who shares Aristotle’s conviction that a view held strongly and quasi–instinctively by the “many” is not usually a pure delusion to wonder whether the popular association of the true prophet with “signs and portents” is quite so irrational a prejudice as it is made to appear by Arnold’s caricature. Possibly even in the Jew’s “seeking after a sign,” as well as in the Greek’s demand for metaphysical “wisdom,” there may be exaggeration of a thought which is not in itself unreasonable.
To myself it seems that this really is so. If we grant the reality of the distinction, necessary to any religious view of life, between the temporal order of natural succession and a transcendent unseen order which pervades and dominates the sensible and natural, we still have, as it seems to me, a choice between two ways of conceiving this pervasion of the sensible by the supra–sensible, neither, on the face of it, irrational. We might think of the dominance of the supra – sensible as always strictly pervasive, but never obtrusive. The divine purpose might underlie and control the course of the familiar sensible order without anywhere disturbing it, as the conscious intelligent purpose of an artisan who is a master of his craft controls the running of adequate machinery employed on a material thoroughly pliable to the ends of the craftsman, with a mastery which is all–present, but presents no shocks or surprises.10
This is the way of thinking most congenial to the temper of my own generation, with its historically explicable prejudice in favour of finding gradual growth and slow and continuous “evolution” everywhere. Even the most strictly orthodox divines of that generation habitually think of the establishment of the kingdom of God itself by preference in terms of the parables of the unseen growth of the grain of mustard–seed and the slow working of the leaven hidden in the mass of dough; they allow the comparison of the revelation of the Son of Man with the sudden flash of lightning which lays the heavens bare11 to fall into the background.
But if we believe in the reality of the transcendent, it is equally possible to think of the sensible order, with its system of “customary experiences” articulated in the process of adapting ourselves to our immediate bodily environment, as being always something of a “misfit” for a reality so much richer than this extract which has been shaped from it under the pressure of urgent physical need. If we think along these lines, we may be led to expect that there will be occasions when the “misfit” will make itself specially manifest. There will be something catastrophic, violently irruptive, at moments of critical importance in the relation between the transcendent reality and its sensible temporal disguise, and at such times anticipations based on “customary experiences” will be liable to be suddenly and startlingly shattered. I cannot myself see that antecedently either of these ways of conceiving the relation of the two orders is more rational than the other. Such analogies as we can employ, and they are necessarily very imperfect analogies, are not wholly on either side. The nearest of such analogies, that based on the relations between purpose and routine in the life of an eminently wise and good man, for example, cuts both ways. Intellectual and moral dominance of one’s environment and the material from which one has to fashion one’s life is not the same thing as wild and unaccountable eccentricity. Neither the saint nor the genius is an “eccentric,” and the man whose behaviour is one succession of astounding “adventures” does not rank high in the scale of either greatness or goodness. Most of the good man’s life exhibits a routine of its own; he is, as we say, a man of “regular” habits, one on whom we can “count.” And so also with the great man; in the main, his greatness is not shown by attempting things it would never have come into the head of another to imagine, but by doing the obvious things, the things another could not well avoid attempting in his place, but doing them in a perfect way. He does what a score of his inferiors may be trying to do; the difference between him and them is that they, not being masters of their opportunities, try and fail; he, being the master of his situation, does the thing he attempts, and does it lastingly. It is this, so largely sound, thought that is exaggerated into falsehood when genius is said to be “capacity for taking pains”.
And yet the thought is not wholly sound. In a sense, indeed, the eminently good man does not “surprise” us; in a sense, we always can “count” on him. But this is only true in the sense that we can always count on him to act like a good man. It is not true that there is never anything surprising to us in his behaviour when he has to make a critical choice, or that we can always tell beforehand what he would do in a given emergency. We may be startled by the act, when it comes; it may be a reversal of all the expectations we had based on knowledge of the agent’s “habits.” It is après coup, when the choice has been made, that we discover its rightness and reasonableness. And, as I have long ago urged in another connection, the same is true of the man of genius. If, after study of some of Beethoven’s symphonies or Napoleon’s battles, we went on to make a study of a fresh symphony or battle, and found that it presented us with nothing we could not have anticipated on the basis of our previous study, I think this very absence of “surprises” would itself be felt in a rather painful surprise. It would be said that the master was “repeating himself,” and there would be conjectures that, for some reason, he was “not quite himself” when he composed the music or fought the engagement. (In fact, Wellington, as quoted by the historians, seems to have, been surprised that Napoleon had no surprises to spring at Waterloo. “Napoleon,” he wrote, “did not manoeuvre at all: He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.”12) It is neither the absence of surprises, nor the perpetual recurrence of surprises of every conceivable sort, that reveals intelligence behind a career or a work of art; it is the presence of the right kind of surprise at the right place. There is a real element of the “irrup–tive” and incalculable about the relation of human purpose and intelligence to the “routine” of events, and by analogy, we might expect the divine purpose behind history, if it really exists, to display the same quality. If the course of events is indeed subdued to a supreme divine purpose, it should neither be chaotic, nor yet a mere routine; it too, as a whole, should present shocks and surprises of the right kind, and in the right places.
It might further be urged, with some force, in favour of the view which is prepared to meet with the abrupt and irruptive invasion of the familiar order by the transcendent, that the expulsion of the element of surprise, marvel, and the wholly incalculable from nature and human life cannot be consistently carried out, except at a price which intellectual honesty itself forbids us to pay. However we may try to disguise the fact, the presence of something uncomfortably like “miracle” obstinately confronts us whenever we try to look at any section of the concrete becoming of things steadily, and this is no more than we may expect if we are careful to remember how much richer is the concrete reality than any of the systems of categories by which we try to stabilise it. This is the plain lesson of the now patent failure of the many and patient attempts to reduce physics to mere kinematics, biology to mere physics, psychology to mere biology, history to psychology. “Rationalisation” of this Cartesian kind is a stubborn attempt to get rid of the abrupt, startling, discontinuous, and an attempt which is being perpetually renewed, and always fails. To an intellect determined to work with the apparently transparent and self–justificatory concepts of pure kinematics, physical and chemical quality presents an intractable mystery: to one which confines itself to the concepts of physics and chemistry there is the same appearance of abruptness and sheer miracle about the entrance of organic life on the scene of becoming: the reality of consciousness is equally a pure “irrationality” to the mind resolved on explaining everything in terms of biological processes, and the reality of intelligent plan and purpose to one which will see in conduct nothing but the elaboration of highly complex patterns of sense–reflexes. The mind may, for a time, disguise the difficulty, after the fashion of the fabled ostrich, by simply pretending that what will not fit into its own picture of the world is not really there. Then one gets such doctrines as those of the “subjectivity” of sensible qualities, the purely “mechanical” character of vital processes, the epiphe–nomenalist version of the relation between body and mind. All these theories may now be said to have been fairly “tried out” over their respective fields and found incoherent, as, in fact, all are condemned in principle by the consideration that no feature of the historical world is really got rid of by the verbal trick of calling it an “illusion.” When you have made all possible play with that disparaging “name,” it still remains that what is there is there.
The recently prevalent fashion of talking freely about “emergent” evolution, as though the adjective could take the place of an explanatory theory, is a glaring illustration in point. The epithet is tantamount to an open confession that there is something really present in historical processes which ought not to be there if the substantive really means what it says. Something has “come out of” an alleged set of antecedent conditions which was never in the conditions, and therefore is not rationally accounted for by specifying them, though we are still to pretend, by the use of an adjective, that it has been accounted for.13 In all such cases we have, in fact, been trying to exhaust the whole content of the individual and historical by analysing it without remainder into a combination of a few “universals,” and so to reduce the unique and surprising to routine, and in all we have failed for the simple reason that the individual is not to be built up out of universals; being individual, it always contains the possibility of surprise for the abstractive understanding.
One might add that there appears to be a point at which the most resoluteenemies of the “miraculous” are ready to abandon the undertaking of eliminating it. Even those who scruple most at admitting the occurrence of a physical “nature–miracle,” an appearance of the wholly unforseeable and genuinely individual, in the course of strictly physical process, usually make no difficulty of the same kind about what we may call the human “nature–miracle” of genius, or the “miracle of grace.” Yet when all is said, familiar routine is not more intrusively broken by the surprising events recorded, for example, in the Gospels than by the abrupt appearance of high poetical genius in the youthful Shelley with his antecedent record of commonplace ancestry and particularly worthless adolescent verses, or the youthful Keats, or, again, by the extraordinary reversals of character and habit, often instantaneous and singularly complete, illustrated by someof the “conversions” known to history. These are facts which the serious student of human life cannot deny or deprive of their individual and incalculable strangeness. And I would ask you to note that we cannot, withoutdoing violence to historical testimony, confine these abrupt manifestations of an individuality not to be reduced to formula within a closed system of the psychical. For example, if there is any fact about the historical career of Christ which may be said to be thoroughly guaranteed by testimony beyond possibility of suspicion, it is the fact that he attracted attention on a large scale primarily as a worker of extraordinary acts of healing, and that his teaching was listened to on this ground. This is so manifest that hardly anyone who has seriously occupied himself with the records thinks of a simple denial of the fact, though there are numerous students who are willing to accept the record in so far as it concerns only such acts of healing as they personally think not too startling, and no further. We then disguise our real breach with the principle that the abrupt and intrusive is not to be reckoned with as fact by loose talk about the influence of the mind on bodily condition, conveniently forgetting that this very influence itself, as the history of psycho–physical hypotheses sufficiently shows, is just one of the outstanding “mysteries” which defy reduction to routine.
Partly, I suppose, this tendency to restrict the abrupt and really novel to the domain of mind is a mere survival of the obsolete prejudice that only the bodily is strictly real and historical, the mental being a superimposed “illusion”; partly, perhaps, it springs from the opposite equally unjustifiable prejudice that only the mental has any true individuality, whereas the physical may be treated as a mere complex of universals. But it should surely be plain that both prejudices are alike unreasonable. It is strictly absurd to treat the mental as “illusion,” for the obvious Cartesian reason that illusion is only possible on the condition that therereally are minds to be imposed upon; it is equally absurd to deny the individuality of non–mental things such as the Koh–i–niir, or the planet Mercury. There are not really two water–tight compartments of the historicalprocess, a “physical” sphere and a “mental” sphere; there is the one concrete given process with its mental and physical elements interrelated andinteracting. Thus the attempt to make a clean cut between one sphere of the historical, in which room may be found for the abruptness and surprises of individuality, and a second sphere, where there is to be nothing but routine, capable in principle of complete reduction to general formula, is thoroughly arbitrary and indefensible. This means, I take it, that it is quite unjustifiable to approach the study of the actual historical process with the antecedent assumption that, however the supernatural may make its presence recognisable, it cannot take the form of sudden and startling intrusiveness into the course of physical happening, reversal of the routine of “customary experience”; whether it does, in fact, take this form can only be known from acquaintance with the course of the historical in its historical concreteness. It is wrong in principle to assert that testimony to the occurrence of alleged fact may ever be dismissed on the plea that the facts alleged are miraculous, after the fashion suggested by Hume in his curiously incoherent onslaught.14 The mere consideration that a proposed interpretation of God’s dealings with the world involves the recognition of the surprises we call miracles does not stamp that interpretation as unphilosophical.
To admit this is not to say that reality is ultimately irrational, nor to blink the fact that, on any theory, the great majority of narratives of alleged miracles are thoroughly untrustworthy. When we say that the world of the historical is rational and that its rationality is a postulate of sane philosophy, all that we have a right to mean is that this world has a definite pattern which connects its parts in a thoroughgoing unity. We have no right to say, in advance of historically–minded examination of detail, what that pattern is, nor precisely how it dominates its constituent sub–patterns, nor to assume that our understanding of any of these sub–patterns and the mode of “ingression” of the dominant pattern into them is, or ever will be, complete and final. The proposition that the historical, that is, the actual, is rational, or intelligible, is, rightly conceived, an imperative of the practical reason. It is a command to ourselves never to stop short in the business of looking for a higher and more dominant pattern in the course of the historical than any we have yet found, not an assertion that the task has been achieved.15 The world is there as a problem; we have to “rationalise” it, but, in fact, we never succeed fully in carrying out the work, and, for that reason, no science which is not avowedly one of pure abstractions can dispense with a sane empiricism in its methods.
To put the point in a terminology made familiar to us by Hume, our duty as thinkers is never to be satisfied with bare “conjunctions” between events, to insist on looking behind the conjunctions for necessary connections. When Hume declared that the connections are simply “feigned,” that is to say invented, by the scientific man who is looking for them, and unconsciously imported into the objective world without any real warrant, he was—as he himself very well knew—denying the very possibility of science. If that is what is meant by one who says that “the understanding makes nature,” that statement is simply false. But Hume would have been absolutely right if he had been content to say that, however far we carry our process of search, we never actually reach a stage at which we have converted conjunction into connection without remainder. There always are, and always will be, loose ends, “bare” conjunctions not understood, in all our actual natural knowledge, just because it all starts from and refers to the historical and individual, which analysis cannot exhaust. To say the same thing again in different language, it is never a conclusive argument against the reality of a fact to say that it cannot be harmonised with a known “law of nature,” since the law, if asserted as having objective reference, only embodies our partial divination of a pattern which we never grasp in its concrete entirety. Though our formulated “laws” are never merely “subjective,” yet, as the history of natural science proves only too abundantly, they always contain a subjective constituent which affects them to a not precisely definable extent. Hence the fact we find so stubbornly recalcitrant may provide the very suggestion we need for introducing an illuminating correction into our “law”.
Again, and this has a special bearing on the anthropological argument of which we have been speaking, the reality of “miracles” as a feature of the historical process is not in any way disproved by the true contention that the vast majority of narratives of alleged miraculous events are untrustworthy. The same thing is equally true of the so–called “miracles of genius.” The reality of genius is not disproved by the true observation that most of what, in any age, is acclaimed as the expression of genius is a very sorry imitation. To recur to our old illustration of the “surprises” of Shakespeare, it is no disparagement of their inevitable–ness and truth to life to say that what are intended by the inferior dramatist to be “strong” situations, or subtly divined characterisations, are mostly hollow, theatrical, and fantastic. The “Machiavellian” villain of the ordinary Elizabethan stage, a Barabas, a Bosola, a De Flores, may be unreal and mechanical enough; it does not follow that Iago is a mere puppet of the theatre. So, I think, we may say it is with the drama of the historical process. The play as we re–shape it in our own imagination may be as unlike the work of the divine artist as The Spanish Tragedy, or The Unnatural Father, is unlike Hamlet; it does not follow that the divine artist’s play is without its astonishing incidents, and, if we may reverently call them so, its sensational situations.
It seems to me, then, that there is nothing inherently irrational or unworthy in the conception that the relation between nature and supernature may be compatible with, or even require, that element of special abrupt and intrusive surprise which we mean to indicate when we speak of “miracles.” To expect such surprises in the course of events is no proof of inferior, to deny them no proof of superior, intelligence. It is therefore, so far as I can discern, no sufficient philosophic objection to a positive religion that it involves the belief that such surprises have actually occurred, or do still actually occur. The objection would only become valid if the kind of surprise asserted to occur were one which, if genuine, would involve a false conception of the divine nature itself. Indeed, for my own part, though I give this, of course, as a purely personal confession, I find a scheme which allows for the occurrence of what is popularly called “miracle” apparently more reasonable than one which excludes it altogether. For since we cannot deny the presence in the historical world–process of the intrusive, abrupt, and discontinuous, in the form of what we call a “miracle” of genius, or a “moral” miracle, or a “miracle of grace,” to confine it to these spheres seems to me to amount to one of those “bifurcations” which are in principle forbidden by the supreme postulate of a sound philosophy.
I venture, then, to make the following suggestions, in the hope of doing a little to diminish the mass of ambiguities and confusions which seem to beset current thinking on this issue of “miracles.” (Beyond this initial work of clarifying the issues, I doubt whether philosophy, as such, can legitimately concern itself with the problem; I am sure it is idle to look to metaphysics either for proof that “miracles” occur, or for proof that they cannot.)
(a) In the first place, since the whole issue in dispute is concerned with “nature–miracles,” it is necessary to note that, when a natural event16 is called a “miracle,” two distinct assertions are being made about it. It is part of the understood meaning of the word that the event itself is in a high degree startling and unusual; it is a sequence of a kind not familiar in “customary experience,” a breach of the normal routine. The miracle is a τέρας or prodigium, a wonderful event. If it were an event of a kind which we know to be common and frequent, it might still, like so many everyday events, baffle our powers of explanation, or even seem to be incompatible with recognised physical theories, but we should not on that account call it a miracle; we should only say that it presented a difficulty in the present condition of our scientific knowledge of nature. The most resolute enemy of the miraculous, if he is not a singularly ill–informed man, is aware that in all departments of science there are such stubborn facts, in apparent conflict with duly established “laws,” but it never occurs to him to urge that we should extricate ourselves from the difficulties they present by a bold “denial of the fact.” But, secondly, a miracle is also something more than a mere astonishing “freak” or “oddity,” however extreme, in the course of events. It is also, in New Testament phrase, a σημεῖον or sign, an event which, in an exceptional way, reveals something of a transcendent purpose, assumed to underlie the whole course of history, but not usually transparently present.17
To put the point in very simple language, a miracle is, in the first place, as I once heard an Anglican divine remark, “something which makes me say Oh!” To be sure, when one reflects, no event ever is completely explicable; there is always about every sequence of effect or cause something which we cannot reduce to “connection,” but have to accept as bare given “conjunction.” At bottom, then, there is something wonderful in all events; omnia abeunt in mysterium. But usually we are not alive to this; it is only the unfamiliar and exceptionally surprising which “makes us say Oh!” We may add that, in the customary use of the word, it seems further to be implied that a surprise which is called a miracle, except when the name is employed by a conscious catachresis, is always an event of the sensible order, something which gives a shock to our senses, a reversal of the “customary routine of our perceptions.” There are many true propositions in the pure mathematics, and, again, in the accounts physicists give us of their imperceptibles, which cause an intellectual surprise when we first make their acquaintance, but we commonly do not speak of “miracle” in connection with them. Thus the Epicurean clinamen of the atom, or the sudden jump ascribed in Bohr’s recently famous, but as I am given to understand, now antiquated theory, by an electron from one orbit and velocity to another, are as surprising as any ecclesiastical marvel, but they are not called miraculous, because, being imperceptible, they could administer no shock to our senses. Similarly, as I am informed—I can speak only at second–hand—it has been questioned whether the transubstantiation of the sacramental elements in the Eucharist taught by the Roman Church can properly be called miraculous or not; those who deny that it can basing their denial on the fact that the “sensible accidents,” shape, colour, taste, and the rest, undergo no change. And though we speak of miracles of intellect, or moral miracles, we are always conscious that, however permissibly, we are here extending the primary significance of a word, by metaphor, or analogy.
(b) But it is not every startling event of the sensible order that we call miraculous. The sudden occurrence of a gigantic earthquake would probably startle most of us much more than the quiet rising of a palsied man from his couch at the word of an apostle; yet we should certainly be at least disposed to regard the curing of the disease by a word as miraculous, and the earthquake, however startling, as a purely “natural occurrence.” The miracle not merely makes us “say Oh!” it makes us aware of the immediate presence and operation of God. Hence the frequent appearance in theological definitions of the differentia that a miracle is an event in which the supreme cause acts directly, and not, as commonly, through second, or intermediate causes.18
(c) The two characteristics may consequently be disjoined. There are startling events which are not “signs,” and, I take it, there are events which are “signs,” but are not unique and startling enough to be spoken of as miracles. Thus, to recur to our example, a great earthquake would presumably not be called a miracle by a divine, even though he saw in it a “sign” of the Creator’s power. The “proximate causes” of earthquakes are, in part at least, ascertainable, and this would probably be held to remove earthquakes from the class of the miraculous. For the same reason, if our scientific knowledge of nature should ever lead to such practical control of events that we succeeded in our laboratories in converting water into wine, or even in restoring the indubitably dead to life,19 no one, I conceive, would speak of such achievements, effected by laboratory methods, as miracles. If we could effect them for ourselves, they would, when so brought about, cease to be signs of the immediate special presence of the divine; they would, in the supposed conditions, only be signs of our human mastery over nature. The “miracle” in the strict sense of the word, must combine the two characteristics of being a superhuman “wonder” and being a “sign”.
(d) But the special interest of religion in the miraculous event is due wholly to its interpretation as a “sign” of the direct operation of God. If it were not such a sign, however astonishingly wonderful it might appear, the event would not have the special religious significance the theologian attributes to it. Hence, provided that this character is indubitably present, the element of mere surprise and unfamiliarity, though it must not be absent, may be reduced to a minimum. So we find St. Thomas, for example, arranging miracula in three classes, one of which includes such cases as recovery virtute divina from an ordinary malady which might have been successfully treated by a physician,20 and Dante even giving the name miracle to the legendary opportune cackling of the Capitoline geese when the Gauls were making their nocturnal assault.21
(e) It follows from the combination of the two characteristics that in dealing with the credibility of narratives of alleged miracles it is always necessary to distinguish between two questions which are too often confounded—the quaestio facti, whether the events narrated actually occurred as narrated, and the quaestioiuris,22 as we may call it, whether, if they occurred, they have the religious significance of “miracle,” whether they are signs. The opponents of the miraculous, I think, are specially prone to forget this distinction. What they really want to discredit is commonly the value of the alleged miracle as “evidence” of the truth of a certain religion. They wish to argue that the event is not to be rightly taken for a sign accrediting a given doctrine as a revelation from God, or a given person as a messenger of God. But they frequently assume that it is further necessary to their case to prove that the alleged event was not even a “portent”; that it either did not happen, or, if it did, was a commonplace event of a familiar kind. Their antagonists, again, are only too prone to suppose that they need only establish the fact that the surprising event occurred to put its “evidential” character as a sign beyond all question. It is this standing confusion of two distinct issues which gives most of the literature of the controversy about miracles its unsatisfying and unedifying character. To me it seems clear that the fullest vindication of marvellous narratives as accounts of facts which have actually happened would leave the question whether the facts have the quality which makes them of moment for religion still undecided, in point of rigorous logic.
Thus, to take the most crucial example which presents itself, I can conceive it possible, though not probable, that it might be established beyond all reasonable possibility of doubt that Our Lord actually died, was actually buried, and actually seen alive again “on the third day.” But to establish these facts, I should say, would not bring one any nearer proving the reality of what Christians mean by the “miracle” of the Resurrection. It would still be possible for men satisfied of the facts to dispute their significance. There would be no formal absurdity in the position—I do not say that it is one ever likely to be widely adopted—that it has been proved by a well–certified historical instance that, under conditions not yet accurately ascertained and perhaps not accurately ascertainable, the transition of a human organism from life to death is reversible, and yet to deny that this is anything more than a curious and puzzling scientific fact; to deny, that is, that its occurrence is any reason for believing that the person to whom it happened was one standing in any unique relation to God, or having any special significance for the history of humanity. Presumably this was the actual position of Seeley, who appears to have regarded the fact as historically certain, and also to have definitely rejected the Christian conception of the relation of man to God.23
For my own part, I do not see how anyone who had once taken up such a position could be driven from it by argumentation. You might, I take it, establish the historical character of the most unprecedented events, provided only that the testimony to them were sufficiently good. Hume’s attempt24 to draw a distinction between two different classes of events, both equally at variance with “customary experience,” but of which one type may be accepted if there is sufficient testimony, while the other ought to be rejected without so much as a scrutiny of the testimony, appears to me, as I suspect it must have done to Hume himself, arbitrary and logically worthless. But when the fact has been established, when, if ever, for example, the resurrection of Christ has been made “as certain as the assassination of Julius Caesar,” the question of our right to interpret the fact as Christianity interprets it still remains an open one, and cannot be closed by any appeal to “testimony.” To compare the two questions is like comparing the question of the authorship of a given work with that of its scientific or literary worth. Thus, whenever some startling and arresting event is accepted not merely as a singular event, but as a miracle with a significance for religion, as disclosing the divine character or purpose, one is, I should say, in the presence of an act of “faith.” This particular act of faith would cease to be possible if the believer were to be convinced that the alleged fact had never occurred, but the completest probatio facti would not compel the further act of faith in its significance, as demonstration compels assent to its conclusions when you have assented to its premisses. The act of “faith” which converts mere belief in a marvel into belief in a miracle is, in its very nature, one of free, not constrained, assent.25
Thus belief in a miracle, like belief in God itself where it is genuinely religious belief, always involves free assent to something which cannot be proved; as the scholastic theologians rightly held, it involves a specific attitude of will,26 and is thus a reaction not merely of the “intellect,” but of a man’s whole personality to influences from without. This is why the scholastics regard it as “meritorious,” and why we are bound to recognise that a man’s faith, what he believes, unlike his “opinions,” makes a profound difference to his character. From a psychological point of view we may say of any act of assent of this kind that in the recognition of an event as a “sign” we have an immediate divination, comparable not so much with the drawing of an inference from premisses in which the conclusion is already fully implicit, as with our direct recognition of beauty, or aesthetic significance, in a product of nature or art, and our direct recognition of rightness, or moral significance, in a human act.
(f) These reflections suggest to me a further question which is not, so far as I know, often raised. Is there any meaning in speaking of an alleged event as simply, or absolutely, miraculous?27 Is not “miraculous” a relative term, like “probable”? (It is only by a pardonable inaccuracy that we allow ourselves to talk of estimating the probability of a given event, as though the same event could only have one probability.) What we actually estimate is always probability relative to some set of data which constitute our assumed frame of reference.28 (“The probability of x,” like log x, is a many–valued function of x, though in both cases, for practical purposes, we may confine our attention to one specially important value; as for these purposes we take no notice of the infinitely numerous “complex values” of log x, so in dealing with the “probability of x” we take no account of its probability relative to “freak” sets of data.) I mean that if it is part of what we understand by a miraculous event that it is one which astounds and perplexes, it would seem that we cannot properly call any event miraculous without a reference to the mental habits and expectations of an experient of the event, as a frame of reference. Thus it might be quite reasonable to say that events rightly called miracles by one age may be rightly regarded as non–miraculous in another age which has grasped more of the general pattern of natural process, or that to an intelligence with a grasp of that pattern transcending the human, for example to an angel, as conceived in the scholastic philosophies, much that will always astound, and so be rightly called miraculous, quoad nos homines, might very possibly appear to be “just what might be expected,” and therefore not miraculous. In the same way, if we allow the existence of a whole hierarchy of intelligences, what would be miraculous to an angel of lower rank might be non–miraculous to one of higher, though it would still remain the case, seeing that complete knowledge of God per essentiam suam can only be possessed by God Himself, that there are works of God which are profoundly astounding, and therefore miraculous, for the highest of created intelligences. If this is so, we might still agree with men of an age and society less familiar than our own with the regular natural order that certain events which they called miraculous really happened, and really were “signs” of the power, the justice, or the mercy of God, as they had rightly discerned; but to us these events have become “natural” signs, part of the cursus ordinarius.
It is true that such a view would be inconsistent with the traditional hard–and–fast distinction between events traceable to God as working through the instrumentality of “second causes,” and events for which there is no second cause, res immediate a Deo productae; but it seems in any case impossible to attach much real value to this traditional distinction. It could never be safely used as a criterion, for the simple reason that we could never “constate” the absence of a second cause in a given case.29 At the most we could only say that the “second” cause, or causes, of the event cannot be discovered in the present state of our general knowledge. The thought presumably at the bottom of the distinction seems to me to be obscured by the scholastic expression of it. What is really meant, I suppose, is that the ultimate reason why the event which is said to have God for its immediate cause happens is that just it, and nothing else, is demanded at just this juncture by the purpose of God in His dealings with His creature, man. If anything else happened at this juncture, the “counsel of God” would be brought to nothing. God, so to say, has no alternative course of action open to Him, if His end is not to be frustrated. Consequently, so long as we leave this necessity for the realisation of a divine purpose out of account, it is useless to try to discover antecedent conditions for the event which would permit us to say “whenever these conditions are fulfilled, this kind of event must follow.” For the one supremely relevant consideration, the necessitation of the event in view of a divine purpose, belongs to the order of finality, and can never figure among constateable “antecedent conditions.” (Just so when the poet
takes his pen and writes
The inevitable word.
What makes the word inevitable is its unique aesthetic fitness for its present context; this is seen by the “amazed” poet in a moment of inspiration. It would be idle to find the explanation of the inevitableness anywhere else, e.g. in the “laws of the association of ideas”.30) The thought, as I say, seems to me a perfectly sound one, but the expression given to it is unfortunate, since it suggests the possibility of deciding whether an event is a “divine miracle” by first ascertaining that it has no “natural cause”.
To put the whole matter once more in yet another way, a miracle, if there is such a thing, is an event which is recognised as having what Otto has taught us to call a numinous character. No amount of criticism, however justified in other respects, will really seriously shake Otto’s central position that it is this immediate recognition of the numinous, the wholly other and transcendent, in persons, things, events, which is at the root of worship, and so of religion. It does not follow that there is no such thing as misrecognition of the numinous. It may be wrongly taken to be where it is not, exactly as beauty, moral goodness, or professed truth have been, and often are, supposed to be where they are not. It is conceivable that the majority of the objects men suppose to be beautiful are not beautiful; that most of the acts human societies have thought morally noble have only been thought so because our current moral notions are perverted by false sentimentalism, that most of the statements which have been acclaimed as profound truths are only plausible errors; it is certain that spurious beauty, sham virtue, flashy half–truths do often impose on mankind. But just as the fact that bad pictures and bad music are often admired, and spurious heroism often belauded, is no proof that there is no true beauty or moral heroism, so the aberrations of silly, lewd, or cruel worships are no proof that there are not events, things, persons, really endued with the numinous quality. If there are, then we may expect the task of distinguishing the true numinous from the counterfeit, or the more fully from the imperfectly numinous, to prove at least as difficult as that of discriminating true beauty from false. The education of mankind in recognition of the numinous should, by all analogy, be as slow and hard a business as their training in the discernment of beauty, and we might anticipate that, in both cases, the training would only advance pari passu with, and in close dependence on, the general mental development of man. The unity of human personality does not, indeed, guarantee that there shall be any precise correspondence between intellectual, moral, and aesthetic accomplishment. The age which is most sensitively responsive to beauty is not necessarily also that which is most eminent in the sciences, or most distinguished by lofty moral practice. But it is at least true that intellectual and moral childishness, or deep–rooted perversity, is commonly reflected also in the aesthetic life of a people, or an age. The art of a savage group may be in advance of its morality, or what we may, by courtesy, call its science, but, for all that, it remains the art of savages, childish, crude, or grotesque. And the same thing is true of the savages’ worship and religion, and it is a part of Otto’s own theory that this is so, though his more unfriendly critics seem to forget the point.
This is all that I have to say in principle on the philosophical issues raised by the miraculous. I do not pretend that the recognition of possibilities of the abrupt, invasive manifestation of the supernatural in special events of the natural order has no disturbing consequences. Any view of the relation between the eternal and the temporal which finds room for the miraculous must be disturbing to our penchant for what W. James used to call a neat and tidy universe. If there are such things as miraculous events, the actual historical order must be less visibly orderly, less regimented, I might say, than we like to suppose it. A world where such things happen, however rarely, must be one which is “uncanny,” a place where we are not, and cannot be, quite at home. And we all tend to resent the uneasy suspicion that we are not wholly at home with our surroundings, and so cannot implicitly count on them, for the same reason that we should dislike to be living where an earthquake may at any moment shake the solid foundations of our houses. Also, of course, on such a view of the world, the ascertainment of historical truth becomes harder, the very unfamiliar cannot simply be brushed aside, with the ease permitted by a philosophy which refuses to have anything to do with real “breaches in the customary routine of experience.” If there are miracles, the task of distinguishing the true from the false is likely to be hard. Hence one can readily understand why the philosopher, more than most men, should have a special bias against miracle, because he feels more acutely than others the need for a coherent representation of the world.
Yet, as has been already said, it is at least certain that whatever the central purpose which makes the historical into a unity may be, it is not the purpose of gratifying our natural indolence by making thinking easy. Even apart from miracles, the historical world as we know it is disconcerting, untidy, and, on a surface view, wildly disorderly, and the advance of science has, in fact, only increased the appearance of disorder. How much more disorderly and untidy, on a first view, is our present astronomical scheme than the system of Eudoxus with its twenty–five or twenty–six concentric rotations and their absolutely uniform velocities; or, again, our present perplexed attempts to construct an intelligible account of the behaviour of the electron than the truly childish simplicity of the Epicurean scheme of atoms falling—apart from the rare moments of παρέγκλισις—steadily in a single direction with a single constant velocity. And the world of human life and human relations, again! Does a week pass without something to remind us that its safe and settled ways and regular habits, even in the societies where these things count for most, are very much on the surface? In dealing with one’s fellows, one never knows when the ground may not fail under one’s feet and reveal the crude, violent, and bloody reality of elemental human passions. We who have seen the thing happen to the human race at large during the past fifteen years must surely be aware that it may happen to our little personal “world” any day. Real life is eminently disorderly and dangerous, with a disorder which is not sensibly increased by the admission of an occasional “miracle” into the pattern, and it would not be surprising if the old–fashioned “rationalist’s” vision of the physical order as one where “miracles do not happen” is as wide of the mark as the “Sunday–school–book” vision of the moral world as a realm in which there are no worse crimes than an occasional over–indulgence in liquor, or a stray act of poaching. If rationality really meant, as it is sometimes mistakenly supposed to mean, monotony, it would be true to say that every step taken towards fuller comprehension of the historical structure of the world is a step away from rationality. Thus the mere consideration that to let the miraculous into the course of events makes their pattern less easy to pack into a formula affords no ground for regarding the miraculous as irrational in any sense in which the irrational must be disavowed by a sane philosophy.
Indeed, the very notion of miracle should be possible only to a conscious or unconscious rationalist. If there were really no connection, no unity of plan, in the march of events, it would be meaningless to distinguish between what is miraculous and what is not. In a world where all that happens happens without plan and purpose, any event would be just as much or as little miraculous as any other; there would be no basis for the distinction between what may reasonably be expected and what may not. Were the world what Hume professed to think it when he said that events are “conjoined but never connected,” we could, of course, note the fact that some sequences occur frequently, others rarely, and, if we only allowed ourselves to forget that the observer’s mind is assumed to be part of the world to which this dictum applies, we could go on, with Hume, to offer a psychological explanation of the fact that men expect the course of events to run on familiar lines and are incredulous of the wholly unfamiliar. But we could do nothing to justify this habit of expecting the familiar, give no reason for thinking that it yields more “intelligent” anticipations of the course of events than expectation of the most fantastic occurrences. This seems to be the explanation of the apparently perverse conclusion of Hume’s famous essay on Miracles,31 where a page devoted to the suggestion that Christianity requires us to accept stories which are on a par in improbability with the fairy tales of the nursery is followed by the declaration that there is nothing in what has been said to disturb the orthodox theologian; it is true that he believes what is irrational; but why should he not, seeing that he is conscious of a standing miracle in himself? His assent to the unfamiliar is itself as much a miracle as any of the events narrated in the scriptures to which he assents; thus he actually has in his own personal experience the certainty that miracles do occur.
If we leave out of account the touch of satire in this language, we see at once that the conclusion drawn is no more than must necessarily follow from the principles Hume adopts as the basis of his own professed theory of the world. If it is true, as Hume maintains, that there is no intrinsic reason why any one event may not be followed by another, it is also true that there is no reason why our expectation that an event of given kind will be followed by the kind of event with which it has been “customarily” conjoined in the past should not be disappointed at any moment. Our psychologically explicable prejudice in favour of the customary is no guide to the real pattern of the historical process. Hence the fact that a single miracle has been believed in by anyone proves that “customary experience,” though a common source, is not the only source of conviction, and proves nothing further as to the wisdom or unwisdom of holding convictions due to some different causes. There are persons, as is proved by the mere existence of Hume’s more orthodox friends and antagonists, who in fact hold, and hold with strong conviction, some beliefs which are not due to customary experience. That they actually hold these beliefs is that consciousness of a miracle within themselves of which Hume speaks. On the question of the truth or falsehood, reasonableness or unreasonableness, of these beliefs the argument has no bearing; that question cannot even be asked without absurdity by an irrationalist who regards belief itself as nothing more than an unaccountable “propensity” to view things in a certain light.32 The ordinary divine and the ordinary “free–thinker” can only discuss the question and disagree in their answer to it, because both, whether they know it or not, mean to be rationalists in their metaphysics. Both hold, or should hold, that there is a real, objective, coherent pattern in the historical course of events; their disagreement is only about the precise character of the pattern.
It is even more clear that the specifically religious question about startling events, whether they are “signs,” is only in place if we accept a rationalist metaphysic. On genuinely irrationalist principles, as I said, we could distinguish between rare and frequent sequences, and take note that some suggested sequences are not known ever to have occurred, though we should have no right to say that a rare, or even an unprecedented, sequence is less likely to occur at any moment than any other. But if the unprecedented sequence presented itself, we could not ask whether it might not be a “sign,” a significant clue to the ultimate pattern underlying all events, since the whole point of metaphysical irrationalism is that there is no such pattern. Events awaken various mental expectations in us, and what expectations they will awaken depends on our personal history, but no event is a “sign” of anything, for the reason that all events are merely loose and separate; “all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences,” and “the mind never perceives any real connection among distinct existences”.33
(g) It is further in this double character of the miracles of the great religions that we may perhaps find the possibility of an answer to the “anthropological” difficulty. The kind of “miracle” which is only too common in the folk–lore studied by the anthropologist is one which is merely a portent without being a sign, a surprise, but an insignificant surprise. There is a real and relevant difference between such mere surprises and surprises which, if they are real, are significant disclosures of a self–coherent supernatural source of the temporal process. There is accordingly rational justification for the refusal to treat surprises of such different kinds as though they stood on the same level of rationality. If eminent anthropologists of the type of Sir James Frazer are curiously blind, as I think they sometimes are, to the relevance of the distinction, the reason of their blindness is presumably that they start with the uncriticised assumption of a sheer metaphysical irrationalism. They are at heart persuaded that history has no meaning. Discussion of the miraculous, or of any other subsidiary issue, is mere waste of time, unless the parties to it are antecedently agreed on this most fundamental of all metaphysical issues, the question whether “becoming,” the course of history as a whole, has a meaning or has none, or, in plainer words, whether God exists or does not exist.
However we answer that question we shall, of course, have to admit that, in view of the limitations consequent on our situation, that of beings who only become very gradually aware of a small part of the indefinitely extended historical process of becoming, we must expect violent surprises, events which upset all calculations built on our customary experience, to present themselves from time to time. But acceptance or rejection of belief in God, and, for the matter of that, acceptance or rejection of the specific conception of God conveyed by a great positive religion, will necessarily affect our view as to the character of the surprises which may reasonably be expected, and their distribution through space and time. As I have put the point elsewhere, “in an atheistic or neutral metaphysical scheme there would be no reason to expect the surprises to wear any special character, or to be distributed in any special way over space and time. We should expect them to make their appearance as simple freaks. If our philosophical world–scheme is definitely theistic, the case is altered completely. For we shall then conceive of the pattern of events not merely as providing a connection between them, but as providing a connection which is intelligible, in the sense that, like the structure of a symphony, or a well–lived life, it exhibits the realisation of an end of absolute value. We should thus antecedently look for the ‘irregularities’ in nature and history to exhibit a special kind of concentration, exactly as the surprises in the construction of a great piece of music, or the conduct of a life of wise originality, exhibit the same concentration. … Thus the difference in ultimate metaphysical outlook between a theist and a non–theistic philosopher would make a difference between the two sets of initial premisses relatively to which each estimates the probability of certain events. It is not unreasonable in a convinced theist to be satisfied with evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ which would not satisfy him of the resurrection of a next–door neighbour, since he may well ascribe to the resurrection of Christ a unique spiritual value … which he could not ascribe to the resurrection of his neighbour.”34
It may be said, I fear, that there is, in the words just quoted, a confusion of two distinct problems which have no bearing on one another—the problem of fact and the problem of value—that the “spiritual value” attaching to an alleged event, supposing it actually to have occurred, has nothing to do with the reasonableness of judging it to have occurred; that is dependent solely on the amount and quality of the available “testimony.” But I would rejoin that, so far as I can see, though the problems are distinguishable, they are not disconnected; the question of value has a real bearing on the question of fact. We all recognise this in practice, when, for example, we take into account what we call “evidence to character.” We do regard evidence of facts which would be treated as altogether insufficient to convict one man of a charge—e.g. of “loitering with intent”—as ample in the case of another. If I am a “suspicious character,” I am reasonably regarded as not having cleared myself of an allegation by evidence which would be more than enough to clear the man who is “above suspicion.” Of course, though the principle is sound, there is always a good deal of danger in the application of it, and in human society, which, being human, is never quite free from snobbery, it often works out cruelly or absurdly, but I do not see that this affects its soundness as a principle. As such it is just a form of the refusal which, as I hold, sound metaphysics must make, to divorce reality from value. In the last resort, I should say, the raison d’être of any fact must be a “value”.
However that may be, I would at least end this discussion by repeating once more that the credibility of miracles, in the theological sense of the term, can never be regarded as independent of the central issue of all religion, the reality of God. For the frame of reference by which an intelligent man estimates credibilities will itself be different according as he believes in God or disbelieves. For that very reason it seems to me impossible to appeal, as some of the old–fashioned apologists for Christianity used to do, but as philosophers of the calibre of St. Thomas were careful not to do, to the assumed actuality of miracles as a ground for the belief in God itself. Except as interpreted in the light of antecedent belief in God, no marvel, however stupendous, however well authenticated, and however marked its results on the life of mankind, would be more than a rare and curious fact. As Francis Bacon said long ago, no miracle was ever wrought to convince an atheist.35 If a man does not see God in the cursus ordinarius of nature and human life, “neither will he believe, though one rose from the dead.” Or at least, we should perhaps say, he may in fact be converted by the rising of one from the dead, but he will owe the fact of that conversion to the weakness of his logic; his conversion will prove that, whatever his good points, he is no esprit juste.
Hume (E.M.L.), c. 7.
Hellenism and Christianity, p. 233 ff.
The remark is taken from Burton’s version of the Thousand and One Nights (Night 236).
Cf. E. W. Hobson, Survey of the Domain of Natural Science, p. 490, and the whole of the essay by Prof. Eddington in Science, Religion, and Reality, pp. 189–218 (references which I owe to Dr. Gore, Can We Then Believe? p. 52). See also the singularly able essay by H. D. Roelofs on “The Experimental Method and Religious Beliefs” in Mind, N.S. 150.
Hume (E.M.L.), pp. 133–9.
E. g. “savages” appear from the evidence, in many cases, to see no causal connection between the commerce of the sexes and the birth of children. But this does not mean that they do not assign a cause of some kind for conception. They have their own rival theory of the cause, which they can defend with some ingenuity, as readers of Malinowski, or Spencer and Gillen, are aware.
This becomes all the more evident if those critics are right who regard Judaism as originating in “post–exilic” times.
See for a strong statement of the paucity of the evidence in this case Professor Margoliouth’s article “Muhammad,” in E.R.E. viii.
I have now found the precise reference: “They (the apostles) were more like a British jury than like a parcel of hysterical monomaniacs” (Myers, Essays Classical and Modern, p. 448).
This is, in fact, the way of conceiving the divine control of the course of nature which is adopted in Plato’s reply to the deniers of providence and the moral government of the world in Laws x., and explains why the Platonist makes the recognisable order and “uniformity” of the celestial revolutions a principal argument for Theism.
Luke xvii. 24.
Quoted from York Powell and Tout, History of England (1900), p. 866.
I need hardly say that I am not attacking the phrase “emergent evolution” as a useful description of certain historical processes; my comments only apply when the words are treated as conveying an explanation.
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section x. For an examination of Hume’s reasoning I may perhaps refer to my own brochure, David Hume and the Miraculous (Cambridge, 1927).
The perfect typical example of the process is the evaluation of a “surd” numerical value defined by a series. However far we go in the evaluation, we have never expressed the exact value of our “surd” (π or e or what not). But we can, in. this ideal case, assign limits within which the error of our estimate falls, and by carrying the evaluation far enough we can make the interval between these limits as small as we please. In this case, of course, we do, in a way, know precisely what the “dominant pattern of the whole” is. Our “sub–patterns” are the successive approximations to the “value” of our “surd”; the dominant pattern is the, precisely–known, form of the series by which the “surd” which is its “limit” is defined; this is “ingredient in” the sub–patterns, because each departs from it by an excess or defect which the known form of the series enables us to restrict within a determined “standard.” The formulae which we employ as our “laws” of physical process do not, of course, represent anything like so complete a “rationalisation” of the concrete observed facts.
For suppose, to take a very simple example, we wish to determine the fraction of its own length by which an iron rod expands when heated as a function of the increase of temperature. Our formula has, in the first instance, to be determined by measurements made when the rod has been heated to certain definitely known points, but it mustalso hold good when the increase of temperature is intermediate between two of those from which we start, or is less than the least or more than the greatest of them. Hence a formula which fits any series of observed results may be shown by further experimentation to demand modification if it is to fit “intermediate values” of our “independent variable,” or values lying beyond either of the originally examined extremes. This is the problem of “interpolation” and “extrapolation.” And, again, the general character of the formula itself is conditioned from the first by the consideration that the “law” to be discovered must be a series of a type which we can readily submit to mathematical operations (must be readily integrable); and, again, for practical reasons, must be such that a consideration of two or three initial terms of the infinite series will give a sufficiently close approximation to the “limit” of its sum. Thus, in the case just supposed, practical considerations lead us to assume that if x represent the fraction of its own length through which the rod expands when it receives the increment of temperature θ, the law connecting the two will be of the form x = aθ + bθ2 + cθ3 +... where a, b, c … are arbitrary coefficients, which must now be chosen in such a way that, for all practical purposes, aθ + bθ2 + cθ3 may be taken as a sufficiently exact equivalent for the value of the “sum to infinity” of the whole series. This explains why such laws are always open to revision as our knowledge of facts grows in a way in which purely mathematical “approximations” to limiting values are not. (Throughout the whole of the present paragraph my indebtedness to the brilliant work of É. Meyerson, L’ Explication dans les sciences, will be obvious.)
By “natural” event I mean here, of course, simply an event belonging to the sensible order, whether it conforms to, or departs from, “customary routine.”
Cf. St. Thomas, S.T. ii.a iiae q. 178, art. I ad tert. “in miraculis duo possunt attendi: unum quidem est id quod fit, quod quidem est aliquid excedens facultatem naturae, et secundum hoc miracula dicuntur virtutes. Aliud est id propter quod miracula fiunt, scilicet ad manifestandum aliquid supernaturale: et secundum hoc communiter dicuntur signa.” As here given, the definition of virtus is obviously open to the criticism that we cannot say in advance of any event that it excedit facultatem naturae, since we do not know what the facultates naturae may prove to be. In this same quaestio Thomas says that the frogs and serpents produced by the magicians of Pharaoh (Exod. vii. 12, viii. 7) were real frogs and serpents, but their production was not a true miracle, since it was due to “natural causes.” One wonders how Pharaoh was expected to know that this was not the case with Aaron’s serpent, or Moses’ frogs.
E.g. St. Thomas, S.C.G. iii. 101 “hoc sonat nomen miraculi, ut scilicet sit de se admiratione plenum, non quoad hunc vel quoad illum tantum. Causa autem simpliciter occulta omni homini est Deus… Illa igitur simpliciter miracula dicenda sunt quae divinitus fiunt praeter ordinem communiter servatum in rebus.” Cf. De potentia, q. 6, art. 2 “illa quae sola virtute divina fiunt in rebus illis in quibus est naturalis ordo ad contrarium effectum, vel ad contrarium modum faciendi, dicuntur proprie miracula.” S.T. i.a q. 105, art. 7 resp. “miraculum autem dicitur quasi admiratione plenum, quod scilicet habet causam simplicem et omnibus occultam. Haec autem est Deus. Unde illa quae a Deo fiunt praeter causas nobis notas miracula dicuntur.”
If we should ever discover how to effect such results in the laboratory, we might still continue to regard their analogues in the Gospel narratives as “miraculous,” but the “miracle” would then be taken to be constituted by the absence, in these instances, of the “laboratory process.”
S.C.G. loc. cit. “Summum gradum inter miracula tenent ea in quibus aliquid fit a Deo quod natura nunquam facere potest... secundum autem gradum in miraculis tenent illa in quibus Deus aliquid facit quod natura facere potest, sed non per illum ordinem … tertius autem gradus miraculorum est cum Deus facit quod consuetum est fieri operatione naturae, tamen absque naturae principiis operantibus.” The examples given of (1) are occupation of the same place by two bodies at once, the standing still or going back of the sun, the opening of the sea to provide a passage; of (2) the restoration of the dead to life, of the blind to sight, of the halt to the use of their feet; of (3) the healing of a naturally curable “fever,” or the production of rain virtute divina. Cf. the shorter statement, S.T. i.a q. 105, art. 8 resp.
Monarchia, ii. 4.
More accurately, we might borrow a distinction from the technical language of ancient rhetoric and distinguish between the question of the quid and that of the quale.
Cf. Bevan, Hellenism and Christianity, p. 234 (commenting on Seeley’s words in Ecce Homo, c. 2, “the evidence by which these facts are supported cannot be tolerably accounted for by any hypothesis except that of their being true”).
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, pt. 2, pp. 127–8 (ed. Selby–Bigge).
Assent to a demonstrated conclusion is certainly a determination of the will, as Descartes, in adherence to the scholastic tradition, maintained in the fourth Meditation, but there is no freedom about it. Free assent is always assent to what has not been completely proved.
E.g. St. Thomas, S. T. ii.a ii.ae q. 4, art. I resp. “actus autem fidei et credere … qui actus est intellectus determinati ad unum ex imperio voluntatis. Sic ergo actus fidei habet ordinem et ad objectum voluntatis, quod est bonum et finis, et ad objectum intellectus, quod est verum.”
In the passages already quoted from St. Thomas it will be seen that a genuine miracle is discriminated from events which are only mira to some men (e.g. to the unlearned, or the rustic); the miraculum must be mirum OMNI homini. But this leaves it still a question whether what is mirum omni HOMINI need be mirum to a higher “angelic” intelligence or not, as will be remarked below.
Cf. J. M. Keynes, Treatise on Probability, pp. 6–7.
Thus on a previous page we have seen St. Thomas pronouncing that the restoration of sight to the blind is entirely beyond the power of the system of “second causes” we call nature. It is most improbable that St. Thomas would be confident on the point if he were living in our own day. According to Leibniz there is a mechanism of “second causes” everywhere; the miracles of the faith have their “second causes” which go back to the creation, when the system of nature was constructed expressly to produce these unique events at just the moments when they were called for by the divine purpose. Whatever we may think of this view, I do not see that it in any way hazards the interests of religious faith. (Théodicée, pt. i. § 54).
Cf. Stout, Analytic Psychology, bk. ii. c. 6, § 4.
Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, sect. x.
Strictly speaking, the only conclusion to which Hume is entitled by the argumentation of part i. of his essay, where “customary experience is treated as the only cause of belief, would be that no one ever has believed in a miracle, since there has been no “custom” to cause the belief. But this conclusion is so glaringly false that, to avoid it, he has to correct his original assumption into the form that customary experience is only the most usual cause of belief.
Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Appendix (Selby–Bigge, p. 636).
David Hume and the Miraculous, pp. 46–8. Of course I am assuming that the theist spoken of does not base his theism itself upon belief in the fact of Our Lord’s resurrection, since his reasoning would then be circular.
Advancement of Learning, bk. ii. (E. and S. iii. 345): “There was never miracle wrought by God to convert an atheist, because the light of nature might have led him to confess a God: but miracles have been wrought to convert idolaters and the superstitious, because no light of nature extendeth to declare the will and true worship of God.”