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14. ARE MIRACLES POSSIBLE?
We ourselves do not at once assume this attitude, We remember not only that an incredible story may have found its way even into a book which is otherwise credible; we feel bound also to examine more closely the actual manner in which it is demonstrated that this miracle-story as well as the others in the Fourth Gospel and in the 85Bible generally do not deserve to be believed. In the last resort most people, we may be sure, rely in this matter on the idea that miracles are quite impossible. But the idea is not so firmly established as is commonly supposed. At the outset, it is certainly remarkable that it does not have the slightest influence on one who believes in miracles. Now we might say that the person who believes in miracles is unable to think correctly. But even his opponent will feel that his own case is not very strong when a miracle-story is brought to his notice which is attested by people who are worth considering, and when he has nothing better to say against it than, “Ah yes, but there are no such things as miracles,” without being able to show, in this particular occurrence, how what seems miraculous in it can have arisen in a natural way. This reflection may lead us to what—regarding the matter from a strictly scientific standpoint—lies at the root of this question.
If we are to be able to say that a matter has been proved, it is necessary that it should have been proved by facts. In the case of a miracle-story, for example, we consider it to have been really proved that nothing miraculous happened, only when we have found the same phenomenon reappearing a second time and are certain that here no other than quite natural causes have operated. We call this kind of proof, proof from experience. The other kind is known as proof from reasoning. Whoever uses the latter in support of the contention that there are no miracles will say either, that the laws of Nature are unalterable, and a miracle would be no miracle unless one or more of the laws of nature were suspended; or he will say, it would be a contradiction of His character, rightly understood, if God were to suspend the laws of Nature the operation of which He has made so inviolable.86
Let us devote just a few words to the notion—unfortunately very common among theologians—that a miracle is not contrary to the laws of Nature, but that certain forces come into operation which are quite natural but are not as yet known to us. Of course in earlier times Electricity and quite a short time ago the Röntgen rays were not known to us, and some occurrence due to these forces might easily have seemed miraculous, so that no man, even if he were only half-witted, would think of denying that all the forces of Nature are not as yet known to us. But what is the use of calling something a miracle which is due to forces like these which are quite natural, though still unknown to us? These are miracles which no one in the world would regard as impossible. But the chief aim of those who pride themselves on believing in miracles is to distinguish themselves in this way—to their own advantage—from those who do not believe in them and for this reason, in the opinion of their opponents, deserve to be called “infidels.” That they have no right to make free with these quite natural but unknown forces, and by calling them to their aid to make miracles of as many occurrences as possible, is a fact that we need only mention in passing.
Another favourite contention is that in working a miracle God only makes certain forces, which are natural and known to us, operate in an extraordinary way, just as a man does when he makes a clock strike before the hour by moving the hand. We refrain from insisting here that such intervention on the part of God would involve a breach in the natural order of things, for this reflection will not trouble those who imagine the natural order of things to be not something unconditionally willed by God, a part of His own nature, but a limitation imposed upon him (by whom?), and who are only satisfied, nay can only see in Him a living God 87when (as happens rarely enough) He breaks through this limitation. But of course it is nothing better than a very naive presumption to suppose that a miracle which really deserves to be called one is prearranged by and adjusted to preconditions in exactly the same way as the premature striking of a clock. To produce bread for five thousand men—supposing that it were prearranged in some such way—flour, leaven, and heat must have been ready at hand. To increase the number of fish for the feeding, spawn and time for growth, or at least a good catch, and in any case heat, would again have been necessary; to walk upon the sea some quality in the water would have been needed to offer to the feet some power of resistance like that of a firm body; for a cure there must have been in the body a condition quite different from that which favours the continuance of sickness, though for the most part we cannot exactly define the condition necessary for disease or recovery. We must therefore disregard such statements, and reckon seriously with the fact that a miracle under all circumstances is a violation of the laws of Nature.
But if any one who for this reason pronounces miracles to be impossible is asked how he would prove it, he can in reality make no other reply than this: “I have come to that conclusion after using my reason to the best of my power.” But this conclusion is not drawn by every one, whereas a fact of experience is recognised by all. And supposing he should say: “If the laws of Nature could ever cease to operate, there could no longer be any such study as Natural Science, we could no longer construct machines, and reckon on the working of a machine or of any other force in Nature”; the answer would be somewhat as follows: the point is not whether we can do all this, but how the world is actually constituted; if there are miracles in it, 88the fact is that we cannot do any of these things for certain.
Now it has been proved, and proved by experience, that we can do these things; and whenever things do not work as the natural scientist or the technical worker expected, he regularly finds out afterwards that the fault is not with Nature, but that he himself has made a miscalculation and been the cause of the failure. But, strictly speaking, what this means is only that the number of miracles, if miracles there are, must be very small, and moreover the fact only applies to the present time; as regards the distant past, before every occurrence was observed as closely as it is now, one may still suppose that miracles happened in greater number. To try to dispute this with any prospect of success, one should be able to investigate all the miracle-stories of the past which have come down to us, and to show the events to have been perfectly natural; but we are no longer in a position to do this. In fact, even if we were, it would not help us sufficiently; for miracles might have happened which have not been recorded at all. And were it possible to trace these also to natural causes, we should be powerless to prevent an event taking place to-morrow which we should be obliged to recognise as a miracle, and nothing would then be gained by the statement that there are no such things as miracles. A scientific caution therefore bids us in no case to make this statement a guiding principle.
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