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15. MUST WE BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?
But we have only reached this result quite provisionally. It will take us a step further if I may be allowed to recall a personal experience. When I had occasion some years ago to express the above ideas to my class at the University, 89as they left the class-room they shook their heads and said, “He believes in miracles.” I had certainly given them credit for more intelligence. To hold that it is not right to deny unconditionally that miracles are possible, and to believe that miracles do really happen, are two entirely different things. All that has been said so far only amounts to saying that in forming my opinion about miracles I must not be guided by general ideas, but by experience. But from experience I know for certain that I have never yet seen a miracle. I know also that pretty well all the miracles which are supposed to have happened in the present age have turned out, upon more careful inquiry, to be perfectly natural occurrences. I know too that the certainty with which the natural scientist and the technical worker reckon has never yet failed them. As regards the miracles of the past, I know that we can find no reason for supposing that miracles could have happened then more easily than to-day. In particular, I know that to say that God was obliged to use miracles for the purpose of proving Jesus to be the Saviour of the world is a bare assertion and cannot be proved. The Bible tells us that Paul, as well as Jesus, and very many ordinary persons in the Christian communities, and in fact—a still more important point—even the disciples of the Pharisees and other contemporaries of Jesus, possessed the power of working miracles (Rom. xv. 19; 2 Cor. xii. 12; 1 Cor. xii. 9 f., 28; Mt. xii. 27, vii. 22 f.; Mk. ix. 38-40); and yet none of these was ever regarded as the Saviour. Had Jesus worked ever so many miracles, without being at the same time a physician of souls, I know that he would not have been worshipped as the Saviour, and that we of to-day should not be called by his name.
And what is the use of the knowledge we possess of so many other religions if we refuse to use it in order to find 90out the origin of our own? Works of wonder are ascribed to every founder of a great religion of whose life we possess records, and they are often much more astounding than those attributed to Jesus; and—what is most remarkable here—in the case of each one of them utterances have at the same time been preserved in which he absolutely declines, as Jesus did (see above, p. 21 f.), to work miracles, and refers to them as matters of quite minor importance.
In the case of Buddha the utterance is preserved: “I do not teach my disciples, Do miracles by means of your supernatural power . . .; I say to them, Live by concealing your good works and making your sins to be seen.” Confucius, the founder of the Chinese religion, or rather of their political and moral science, is reported to have said: “Investigate what is obscure, do what is wonderful, that later generations may say of it, I do not like these things.” In the case of Zarathustra, the founder of the Persian religion as committed to writing in the Zend-Avesta, we read: “God said to me, If the king asks for a sign, do thou say, Only read the Zend-Avesta, and you will need no miracles.” In the Koran we find God saying to Muhammed: “Thy destiny is to preach and not to do miracles.” Muhammed appeals to God’s great miracles, the rising and setting of the sun, the rain, the growth of the plants, and the birth of souls; these are the true wonders to those who know what faith is.55Further information on this subject will be found in Seydel, Das Evangelium von Jesu in semen Verhältnissen zu Buddha-Sage und Buddha-Lehre, 1882, pp. 239-251. Very much that is told us about these founders of religion is untrustworthy. But these utterances deserve to be believed without question; for who could have invented them?
To these we may add in conclusion the saying of Kant, the founder of the newer philosophy: “Wise governments have at all times conceded, in fact have legally incorporated the notion in the public doctrines of religion, that in olden times miracles happened, but they have not allowed new miracles to happen. As regards new wonder-workers, they must have feared the effects they might have on the public peace and the established order.” It is not difficult in the case of so clear a thinker to read between the lines: if, he would say, in olden times there had already been a wise government, it would not have allowed miracles to happen even in those days.
From which presupposition then ought we to start, if we wish to decide the question whether miracle-stories deserve belief? Strictly speaking, from none. But that is not possible. We always bring to the consideration of a subject some kind of presupposition. After what has been said, this must not be to the effect that miracles are not possible. But it would be still worse to assume, that miracles may easily happen. One who starts with this presupposition will certainly regard many occurrences as miracles in which everything has been brought about by causes which are quite natural. If then we cannot avoid starting with a presupposition, it can only of course be one that has already stood its trial in other cases, not one which has never yet been tested. In the present case therefore it can only be this, that any miracle-story we propose to examine will, presumably, admit of exactly the same natural explanation as others which we have so far been able closely to investigate. It is therefore not only permissible, but is our bounden duty, to try with all the means at our disposal to explain such matters by natural causes. While we do this, we must be ready to find a miracle if 92necessary, but only when there are insurmountable obstacles to our regarding a matter otherwise.
Until such obstacles arise, we are entitled to accept the two statements, (1) that the laws of Nature are unchangeable and (2) that God himself does not desire to suspend them by a miracle. Only we must be clear on this point—that they are not matters which have been proved quite sufficiently, but in spite of all that can be advanced in their favour, are never anything more than a belief.
If we know a miracle-story only from written accounts—which is the case with those of the Bible—the first question we must ask is, Do these accounts show themselves to be reliable in every detail? For instance, it is not a matter of no importance, whether Jesus healed one blind man before he entered the city of Jericho (so Lk. xviii. 35-43) or healed him after he left it (so Mk. x. 46-52), or whether he healed two blind men (so Mt. xx. 29-34) at the same place. Why should I take it for granted that the Evangelists or their authorities duly informed them selves that it was really a case of blindness, when they are not agreed as to where and in the case of how many per sons the thing was done? Nor is it any more a matter of indifference whether on the evening after Jesus had healed Peter’s wife’s mother, people brought all the sick to him and he healed many of them (so Mk. i. 32-34), or whether they brought many and he healed all (so Mt. viii. 16), or whether they brought all and he healed them all (so Lk. iv. 40). Nor again is it a matter of no importance whether he taught the multitude before the Feeding of the Five Thousand (so Mk. vi. 34), or whether he healed their sick (so Mt. xiv. 14). We might continue thus for a long time if we wished /to throw light on this aspect of the miracle-stories found in the Synoptics. But the points we have 93mentioned are only intended to serve as examples of the kind of thing we are obliged to take note of in the stories of the Fourth Gospel.
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