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The Proof From Miracles - Part 3

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



That miracles, when fully believed, are felt by men in general to be a source of authority, it is absurd to deny. One may say, indeed : Suppose I could change the pen with which I write this into a penwiper, I should not thus make what I write any the truer or more convincing. That may be so in reality, but the mass of mankind feel differently. In the judgment of the mass of mankind, could I visibly and undeniably change the pen with which I write this into a penwiper, not only would this which I write acquire a claim to be held perfectly true and convincing, but I should even be entitled to affirm, and to be believed in affirming, propositions the most palpably at war with common fact and experience. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the proneness of the human mind to take miracles as evidence, and to seek for miracles as evidence ; or the extent to which religion, and religion of a true and admirable kind, has been, and is still, held in connexion with a reliance upon miracles. This reliance will long outlast the reliance on the supernatural prescience of prophecy, for it is not ex-posed to the same tests. To pick Scripture miracles one by one to pieces is an odious and repulsive task ; it is also an unprofitable one, for whatever we may think of the affirmative demonstrations of them, a negative demonstration of them is, from the circumstances of the case, impossible. And yet the human mind is assuredly passing away, how-ever slowly, from this hold of reliance also ; and those who make it their stay will more and more find it fail them, will more and more feel themselves disturbed, shaken, distressed, and bewildered.

For it is what we call the Time-Spirit which is sapping the proof from miracles,—it is the 'Zeit-Geist' itself. Whether we attack them, or whether we defend them, does not much matter. The human mind, as its experience widens, is turning away from them. And for this reason : it sees, as its experience widens, how they arise. It sees that under certain circumstances, they always do arise ; and that they have not more solidity in one case than another. Under certain circumstances, wherever men are found, there is, as

Shakespeare says,___

No natural exhalation in the sky,

No scape of nature, no distemper'd day,
No common wind, no customed event,
But they will pluck away his natural cause,
And call them meteors, prodigies, and signs,
Abortives, presages, and tongues of heaven.

Imposture is so far from being the general rule in these cases, that it is the rare exception. Signs and wonders men's minds will have, and they create them honestly and naturally ; yet not so but that we can see how they create them.

Roman Catholics fancy that Bible-miracles and the miracles of their Church form a class by themselves ; Protestants fancy that Bible-miracles, alone, form a class by themselves. This was eminently the posture of mind of the late Archbishop Whately :—he held that all other miracles would turn out to be impostures, or capable of a natural ex-planation, but that Bible-miracles would stand sifting by a London special jury or by a committee of scientific men. No acuteness can save such notions, as our knowledge widens, from being seen to be mere extravagances, and the Protestant notion is doomed to an earlier ruin than the Catholic. For the Catholic notion admits miracles, —;so far as Christianity, at least, is concerned,—in the mass ; the Protestant notion invites to a criticism by which it must be-fore long itself perish. When Stephen was martyred, he looked up into heaven, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. That, says the Protes-tant, is solid fact. At the martyrdom of St. Fructuosus the Christian servants of the Roman governor, Babylas and Mygdone, saw the heavens open, and the saint and his deacon Eulogius carried up on high with crowns on their heads. That is, says the Protestant, imposture or else illusion. St. Paul hears on his way to Damascus the voice of Jesus say to him : 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?' That is solid fact. The companion of St. Thomas Aquinas hears a voice from the crucifix say to the praying saint : `Thou hast written well of me, Thomas ; what recompence dost thou desire?' That is imposture or else illusion. Why? It is impossible to find any criterion by which one of these incidents may establish its claim to a solidity which we refuse to the others.

One of two things must be made out in order to place either the Bible-miracles alone, or the Bible-miracles and the miracles of the Catholic Church with them, in a class by themselves. Either they must be shown to have arisen in a time eminently unfavourable to such a process as Shakespeare describes, to amplification and the production of legend; or they must be shown to be recorded in documents of an eminently historical mode of birth and publication. But surely it is manifest that the Bible-miracles fulfil neither of these conditions. It was said that the waters of the Pamphylian Sea miraculously opened a passage for the army of Alexander the Great. Admiral Beaufort, however, tells us that, ' though there are no tides in this part of the Mediterranean, a considerable depression of the sea is caused by long-continued north winds, and Alexander, taking advantage of such a moment, may have dashed on without impediment." And we accept the explanation as a matter of course. But the waters of the Red Sea are said to have miraculously opened a passage for the children of Israel ; and we insist on the literal truth of this story, and reject natural explanations as impious. Yet the time and circumstances of the flight from Egypt were a thousand times more favourable to the rise of some natural incident into a miracle, than the age of Alexander. They were a time and circumstances of less broad daylight. It was said, again, that during the battle of Leuctra the gates of the Heracleum at Thebes suddenly opened, and the armour of Hercules vanished from the temple, to enable the god to take part with the Thebans in the battle. Probably there was some real circumstance, however slight, which gave a foundation for the story. But this is the utmost we think of saying in its favour; the literal story it never even occurs to one of us to believe. But that the walls of Jericho literally fell down at the sound of the trumpets of Joshua, we are asked to believe,. told that it is impious to disbelieve it. Yet which place and time were most likely to generate a miraculous story with ease,—Hellas and the days of Epaminondas, or Palestine and the days of Joshua? And of documentary records, which are the most historical in their way of being generated and propagated, which the most favourable for the admission of legend and miracle of all kinds,—the Old Testament narratives with their incubation of centuries, and the New Testament narratives with their incubation of a century (and tradition active all the while), or the narratives, say, of Herodotus or Plutarch?

None of them are what we call critical. Experience of the history of the human mind, and of men's habits of seeing, sifting, and relating, convinces us that the miraculous stories of Herodotus or Plutarch do grow out of the process described by Shakespeare. But we shall find ourselves inevitably led, sooner or later, to extend the same rule to all miraculous stories; nay, the considerations which apply in other cases, apply, we shall most surely discover, with even greater force in the case of Bible-miracles.



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