R.W. Church.

Occasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 online

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Online LibraryR.W. ChurchOccasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 → online text (page 8 of 31)
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unreasoning impulse applied to a scientifically ascertained fact,
instead of to a vulgarly ascertained fact.... Science has led up to the
fact, but there it stops, and for converting the fact into a law a
totally unscientific principle comes in, the same as that which
generalises the commonest observations in nature."

The scientific part of induction being only the pursuit of a
particular fact, miracles cannot in the nature of the case receive
any blow from the scientific part of induction; because the
existence of one fact does not interfere with the existence of
another dissimilar fact. That which _does_ resist the miraculous
is the _un_scientific part of induction, or the instinctive
generalisation upon this fact.... It does not belong to this
principle to lay down speculative positions, and to say what can
or cannot take place in the world. It does not belong to it to
control religious belief, or to determine that certain acts of God
for the revelation of His will to man, reported to have taken
place, have not taken place. Such decisions are totally out of its
sphere; it can assert the universal as a _law_, but the universal
as a law and the universal as a proposition are wholly distinct.
The one asserts the universal as a fact, the other as a
presumption; the one as an absolute certainty, the other as a
practical certainty, when there is no reason to expect the
contrary. The one contains and includes the particular, the other
does not; from the one we argue mathematically to the falsehood of
any opposite particular; from the other we do not.... For example,
one signal miracle, pre-eminent for its grandeur, crowned the
evidence of the supernatural character and office of our Lord - our
Lord's ascension - His going up with His body of flesh and bones
into the sky in the presence of His disciples. "He lifted up His
hands, and blessed them. And while He blessed them, He was parted
from them, and carried up into heaven. And they looked stedfastly
toward heaven as He went up, and a cloud received Him out of their

Here is an amazing scene, which strikes even the devout believer,
coming across it in the sacred page suddenly or by chance, amid
the routine of life, with a fresh surprise. Did, then, this event
really take place? Or is the evidence of it forestalled by the
inductive principle compelling us to remove the scene _as such_
out of the category of matters of fact? The answer is, that the
inductive principle is in its own nature only an _expectation_;
and that the expectation, that what is unlike our experience will
not happen, is quite consistent with its occurrence in fact. This
principle does not pretend to decide the question of fact, which
is wholly out of its province and beyond its function. It can only
decide the fact by the medium of a universal; the universal
proposition that no man has ascended to heaven. But this is a
statement which exceeds its power; it is as radically incompetent
to pronounce it as the taste or smell is to decide on matters of
sight; its function is practical, not logical. No antecedent
statement, then, which touches my belief in this scene, is allowed
by the laws of thought. Converted indeed into a universal
proposition, the inductive principle is omnipotent, and totally
annihilates every particular which does not come within its range.
The universal statement that no man has ascended into heaven
absolutely falsifies the fact that One Man has. But, thus
transmuted, the inductive principle issues out of this
metamorphose, a fiction not a truth; a weapon of air, which even
in the hands of a giant can inflict no blow because it is itself a
shadow. The object of assault receives the unsubstantial thrust
without a shock, only exposing the want of solidity in the
implement of war. The battle against the supernatural has been
going on long, and strong men have conducted it, and are
conducting it - but what they want is a weapon. The logic of
unbelief wants a universal. But no real universal is forthcoming,
and it only wastes its strength in wielding a fictitious one.

It is not in reason, which refuses to pronounce upon the possible
merely from experience of the actual, that the antecedent objection to
miracles is rooted. Yet that the objection is a powerful one the
consciousness of every reflecting mind testifies. What, then, is the
secret of its force? In a lecture of singular power Mr. Mozley gives
his answer. What tells beforehand against miracles is not reason, but
imagination. Imagination is often thought to favour especially the
supernatural and miraculous. It does do so, no doubt. But the truth is,
that imagination tells both ways - as much against the miraculous as for
it. The imagination, that faculty by which we give life and body and
reality to our intellectual conceptions, takes its character from the
intellectual conceptions with which it is habitually associated. It
accepts the miraculous or shrinks from it and throws it off, according
to the leaning of the mind of which it is the more vivid and, so to
speak, passionate expression. And as it may easily exaggerate on one
side, so it may just as easily do the same on the other. Every one is
familiar with that imaginative exaggeration which fills the world with
miracles. But there is another form of imagination, not so distinctly
recognised, which is oppressed by the presence of unchanging succession
and visible uniformity, which cannot shake off the yoke of custom or
allow anything different to seem to it real. The sensitiveness and
impressibility of the imagination are affected, and unhealthily
affected, not merely by strangeness, but by sameness; to one as to the
other it may "passively submit and surrender itself, give way to the
mere form of attraction, and, instead of grasping something else, be
itself grasped and mastered by some dominant idea." And it is then, in
one case as much as in the other, "not a power, but a failing and
weakness of nature."

The passive imagination, then, in the present case exaggerates a
practical expectation of the uniformity of nature, implanted in us
for practical ends, into a scientific or universal proposition;
and it does this by surrendering itself to the impression produced
by the constant spectacle of the regularity of visible nature. By
such a course a person allows the weight and pressure of this idea
to grow upon him till it reaches the point of actually restricting
his sense of possibility to the mould of physical order.... The
order of nature thus stamps upon some minds the idea of its
immutability simply by its repetition. The imagination we usually
indeed associate with the acceptance of the supernatural rather
than with the denial of it; but the passive imagination is in
truth neutral; it only increases the force and tightens the hold
of any impression upon us, to whatever class the impression may
belong, and surrenders itself to a superstitious or a physical
idea, as it may be. Materialism itself is the result of
imagination, which is so impressed by matter that it cannot
realise the existence of spirit.

The great opponent, then, of miracles, considered as possible
occurrences, is not reason, but something which on other great subjects
is continually found on the opposite side to reason, resisting and
counteracting it; that powerful overbearing sense of the actual and the
real, which when it is opposed by reason is apt to make reason seem
like the creator of mere ideal theories; which gives to arguments
implying a different condition of things from one which is familiar to
present experience the disadvantage of appearing like artificial and
unsubstantial refinements of thought, such as, to the uncultivated
mind, appear not merely metaphysical discussions, but what are known to
be the most certain reasonings of physical and mathematical science. It
is that measure of the probable, impressed upon us by the spectacle; to
which we are accustomed all our lives long, of things as we find them,
and which repels the possibility of a break or variation; that sense of
probability which the keenest of philosophers declares to be incapable
of rational analysis, and pronounces allied to irrational portions of
our constitution, like custom, and the effect of time, and which is
just as much an enemy to invention, to improvement, to a different
state of things in the future, as it is to the belief and realising of
a different state of things in the past. The antecedent objection to
the miraculous is not reason, but an argument which limits and narrows
the domain of reason; which excludes dry, abstract, passionless
reason - with its appeals to considerations remote from common
experience, its demands for severe reflection, its balancing and long
chains of thought - from pronouncing on what seems to belong to the
flesh and blood realities of life as we know it. Against this
tyrannical influence, which may be in a vulgar and popular as in a
scientific form, which may be the dull result of habit or the more
specious effect of a sensitive and receptive imagination, but which in
all cases is at bottom the same, Mr. Mozley claims to appeal to
reason: -

To conclude, then, let us suppose an intelligent Christian of the
present day asked, not what evidence he has of miracles, but how
he can antecedently to all evidence think such amazing occurrences
_possible_, he would reply, "You refer me to a certain sense of
impossibility which you suppose me to possess, applying not to
mathematics but to facts. Now, on this head, I am conscious of a
certain natural resistance in my mind to events unlike the order
of nature. But I resist many things which I know to be certain:
infinity of space, infinity of time, eternity past, eternity
future, the very idea of a God and another world. If I take mere
resistance, therefore, for denial, I am confined in every quarter
of my mind; I cannot carry out the very laws of reason, I am
placed under conditions which are obviously false. I conclude,
therefore, that I may resist and believe at the same time. If
Providence has implanted in me a certain expectation of uniformity
or likeness in nature, there is implied in that very expectations
resistance to an _un_like event, which resistance does not cease
even when upon evidence I _believe_ the event, but goes on as a
mechanical impression, though the reason counterbalances it.
Resistance, therefore, is not disbelief, unless by an act of my
own reason I _give_ it an absolute veto, which I do _not_ do. My
reason is clear upon the point, that there is no disagreement
between itself and a miracle as such." ... Nor is it dealing
artificially with ourselves to exert a force upon our minds
against the false certainty of the resisting imagination - such a
force as is necessary to enable reason to stand its ground, and
bend back again that spring of impression against the miraculous
which has illegally tightened itself into a law to the
understanding. Reason does not always prevail spontaneously and
without effort even in questions of belief; so far from it, that
the question of faith against reason may often be more properly
termed the question of reason against imagination. It does not
seldom require faith to believe reason, isolated as she may be
amid vast irrational influences, the weight of custom, the power
of association, the strength of passion, the _vis inertiae_ of
sense, the mere force of the uniformity of nature as a
spectacle - those influences which make up that power of the world
which Scripture always speaks of as the antagonist of faith.

The antecedent questions about miracles, before coming to the question
of the actual evidence of any, are questions about which reason - reason
disengaged and disembarrassed from the arbitrary veto of
experience - has a right to give its verdict. Miracles presuppose the
existence of God, and it is from reason alone that we get the idea of
God; and the antecedent question then is, whether they are really
compatible with the idea of God which reason gives us. Mr. Mozley
remarks that the question of miracles is really "shut up in the
enclosure of one assumption, that of the existence of God"; and that if
we believe in a personal Deity with all power over nature, that belief
brings along with it the possibility of His interrupting natural order
for His own purposes. He also bids us observe that the idea of God
which reason gives us is exposed to resistance of the same kind, and
from precisely the same forces, in our mental constitution, as the idea
of miracles. When reason has finished its overwhelming proof, still
there is a step to be taken before the mind embraces the equally
overwhelming conclusion - a step which calls for a distinct effort,
which obliges the mind, satisfied as it may be, to beat back the
counteracting pressure of what is visible and customary. After
reason - not opposed to it or independent of it, but growing out of it,
yet a distinct and further movement - comes faith. This is the case, not
specially in religion, but in all subjects, where the conclusions of
reason cannot be subjected to immediate verification. How often, as he
observes, do we see persons "who, when they are in possession of the
best arguments, and what is more, understand those arguments, are still
shaken by almost any opposition, because they want the faculty to
_trust_ an argument when they have got one."

Not, however, that the existence of a God is so clearly seen by
reason as to dispense with faith; not from any want of cogency in
the reasons, but from the amazing nature of the conclusion - that
it is so unparalleled, transcendent, and inconceivable a truth to
believe. It requires trust to commit oneself to the conclusion of
any reasoning, however strong, when such as this is the
conclusion: to put enough dependence and reliance upon any
premisses, to accept upon the strength of them so immense a
result. The issue of the argument is so astonishing that if we do
not tremble for its safety, it must be on account of a practical
principle in our minds which enables us to _confide_ and trust in
reasons, when they are really strong and good ones.... Faith, when
for convenience' sake we do distinguish it from reason, is not
distinguished from reason by the want of premisses, but by the
nature of the conclusions. Are our conclusions of the customary
type? Then custom imparts the full sense of security. Are they not
of the customary, but of a strange and unknown type? Then the
mechanical sense of security is wanting, and a certain trust is
required for reposing in them, which we call faith. But that which
draws these conclusions is in either case reason. We infer, we go
upon reasons, we use premisses in either case. The premisses of
faith are not so palpable as those of ordinary reason, but they
are as real and solid premisses all the same. Our faith in the
existence of a God and a future state is founded upon reasons as
much so as the belief in the commonest kind of facts. The reasons
are in themselves as strong, but, because the conclusions are
marvellous and are not seconded and backed by known parallels or
by experience, we do not so passively acquiesce in them; there is
an exertion of confidence in depending upon them and assuring
ourselves of their force. The inward energy of the reason has to
be evoked, when she can no longer lean upon the outward prop of
custom, but is thrown back upon herself and the intrinsic force of
her premisses. Which reason, not leaning upon custom, is faith;
she obtains the latter name when she depends entirely upon her own
insight into certain grounds, premisses, and evidences, and
follows it though it leads to transcendent, unparalleled, and
supernatural conclusions....

Indeed, does not our heart bear witness to the fact that to
believe in a God is an exercise of faith? That the universe was
produced by the will of a personal Being, that its infinite forces
are all the power of that one Being, its infinite relations the
perceptions of one Mind - would not this, if any truth could,
demand the application of the maxim, _Credo quia impossibile_?
Look at it only as a conception, and does the wildest fiction of
the imagination equal it? No premisses, no arguments therefore,
can so accommodate this truth to us as not to leave the belief in
it an act of mental ascent and trust, of faith as distinguished
from sight. _Divest_ reason of its trust, and the universe stops
at the impersonal stage - there is no God; and yet, if the first
step in religion is the greatest, how is it that the freest and
boldest speculator rarely declines it? How is it that the most
mysterious of all truths is a universally accepted one? What is it
which guards this truth? What is it which makes men shrink from
denying it? Why is atheism a crime? Is it that authority still
reigns upon one question, and that the voice of all ages is too
potent to be withstood?

But the progress of civilisation and thought has impressed this amazing
idea on the general mind. It is no matter-of-course conception. The
difficulties attending it were long insuperable to the deepest thought
as well as to popular belief; and the triumph of the modern and
Christian idea of God is the result not merely of the eager forwardness
of faith, but of the patient and inquiring waiting of reason. And the
question, whether we shall pronounce the miraculous to be impossible as
such, is really the question whether we shall once more let this belief

The conception of a limited Deity then, i.e. a Being really
circumscribed in power, and not verbally only by a confinement to
necessary truth, is at variance with our fundamental idea of a
God; to depart from which is to retrograde from modern thought to
ancient, and to go from Christianity back again to Paganism. The
God of ancient religion was either not a personal Being or not an
omnipotent Being; the God of modern religion is both. For, indeed,
civilisation is not opposed to faith. The idea of the Supreme
Being in the mind of European society now is more primitive, more
childlike, more imaginative than the idea of the ancient Brahman
or Alexandrian philosopher; it is an idea which both of these
would have derided as the notion of a child - a _negotiosus Deus_,
who interposes in human affairs and answers prayers. So far from
the philosophical conception of the Deity having advanced with
civilisation, and the poetical receded, the philosophical has
receded and the poetical advanced. The God of whom it is said,
"Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them
is forgotten before God; but even the very hairs of your head are
numbered," is the object of modern worship. Nor, again, has
civilisation shown any signs of rejecting doctrine. Certain ages
are, indeed, called the ages of faith; but the bulk of society in
_this_ age believes that it lives under a supernatural
dispensation, and accepts truths which are not less supernatural,
though they have more proof, than some doctrines of the Middle
Ages; and, if so, _this_ is an age of faith. It is true that most
people do not live up to their faith now; neither did they in the
Middle Ages.

Has not modern philosophy, again, shown both more strength and
acuteness, and also more faith, than the ancient? I speak of the
main current. Those ancient thinkers who reduced the Supreme Being
to a negation, with all their subtlety, wanted strength, and
settled questions by an easier test than that of modern
philosophy. The merit of a modern metaphysician is, like that of a
good chemist or naturalist, accurate observation in noting the
facts of mind. Is there a contradiction in the idea of creation?
Is there a contradiction in the idea of a personal Infinite Being?
He examines his own mind, and if he does not see one, he passes
the idea. But the ancient speculators decided, without examination
of the true facts of mind, by a kind of philosophical fancy; and,
according to this loose criterion, the creation of matter and a
personal Infinite Being were impossibilities, for they mistook the
inconceivable for the impossible. And thus a stringent test has
admitted what a loose but capricious test discarded, and the true
notion of God has issued safe out of the crucible of modern
metaphysics. Reason has shown its strength, but then it has turned
that strength back upon itself; it has become its own critic; and
in becoming its own critic it has become its own check.

If the belief, then, in a personal Deity lies at the bottom of all
religious and virtuous practice, and if the removal of it would be
a descent for human nature, the withdrawal of its inspiration and
support, and a fall in its whole standard; the failure of the very
breath of moral life in the individual and in society; the decay
and degeneration of the very stock of mankind; - does a theory
which would withdraw miraculous action from the Deity interfere
with that belief? If it would, it is but prudent to count the cost
of that interference. Would a Deity deprived of miraculous action
possess action at all? And would a God who cannot act be a God? If
this would be the issue, such an issue is the very last which
religious men can desire. The question here has been all
throughout, not whether upon any ground, but whether upon a
religious ground and by religious believers, the miraculous as
such could be rejected. But to that there is but one answer - that
it is impossible in reason to separate religion from the
supernatural, and upon a religious basis to overthrow miracles....

And so we arrive again by another route at the old turning
question; for the question whether man is or is not the _vertex_
of nature, is the question whether there is or is not a God. Does
free agency stop at the human stage, or is there a sphere of
free-will above the human, in which, as in the human, not physical
law but spirit moves matter? And does that free-will penetrate the
universal frame invisibly to us, an omnipresent agent? If so,
every miracle in Scripture is as natural an event in the universe
as any chemical experiment in the physical world; if not, the seat
of the great Presiding Will is empty, and nature has no Personal
Head; man is her highest point; he finishes her ascent; though by
this very supremacy he falls, for under fate he is not free
himself; all nature either ascends to God, or descends to law. Is
there above the level of material causes a region of Providence?
If there is, nature there is moved by the Supreme Free Agent; and
of such a realm a miracle is the natural production.

Two rationales of miracles thus present themselves to our choice;
one more accommodating to the physical imagination and easy to
fall in with, on a level with custom, common conceptions, and
ordinary history, and requiring no ascent of the mind to embrace,
viz. the solution of miracles as the growth of fancy and legend;
the other requiring an ascent of the reason to embrace it, viz.
the rationale of the supremacy of a Personal Will in nature. The
one is the explanation to which we fall when we dare not trust our
reason, but mistake its inconceivable truths for sublime but
unsubstantial visions; the other is that to which we rise when we
dare trust our reason, and the evidences which it lays before us
of the existence of a Personal Supreme Being.

The belief in a personal God thus bringing with it the possibility of
miracles, what reason then has to judge is whether it can accept
miracles as such, or any set of miracles, as worthy of a reasonable
conception of the Divine Nature, and whether it can be fairly said that

Online LibraryR.W. ChurchOccasional Papers Selected from the Guardian, the Times, and the Saturday Review, 1846-1890 → online text (page 8 of 31)