The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske
Public Domain Books
V. A WORD ABOUT MIRACLES.
 These comments on Mr. Henry Rogers’s review of M. Renan’s Les Apotres, contained in a letter to Mr. Lewes, were shortly afterwards published by him in the Fortnightly Review, September 15, 1866,
It is the lot of every book which attempts to treat the origin and progress of Christianity in a sober and scientific spirit, to meet with unsparing attacks. Critics in plenty are always to be found, who, possessed with the idea that the entire significance and value of the Christian religion are demolished unless we regard it as a sort of historical monstrosity, are only too eager to subject the offending work to a scathing scrutiny, displaying withal a modicum of righteous indignation at the unblushing heresy of the author, not unmixed with a little scornful pity at his inability to believe very preposterous stories upon very meagre evidence. “Conservative” polemics of this sort have doubtless their function. They serve to purge scientific literature of the awkward and careless statements too often made by writers not sufficiently instructed or cautious, which in the absence of hostile criticism might get accepted by the unthinking reader along with the truths which they accompany. Most scientific and philosophical works have their defects; and it is fortunate that there is such a thing as dogmatic ardour in the world, ever sharpening its wits to the utmost, that it may spy each lurking inaccuracy and ruthlessly drag it to light. But this useful spirit is wont to lead those who are inspired by it to shoot beyond the mark, and after pointing out the errors of others, to commit fresh mistakes of their own. In the skilful criticism of M. Renan’s work on the Apostles, in No. 29 of the “Fortnightly Review” there is now and then a vulnerable spot through which a controversial shaft may perhaps be made to pierce.
It may be true that Lord Lyttelton’s tract on the Conversion of St. Paul, as Dr. Johnson and Dr. Rogers have said, has never yet been refuted; but if I may judge from my own recollection of the work, I should say that this must be because no competent writer ever thought it worth his pains to criticize it. Its argument contains about as much solid consistency as a distended balloon, and collapses as readily at the first puncture. It attempts to prove, first, that the conversion of St. Paul cannot be made intelligible except on the assumption that there was a miracle in the case; and secondly, that if Paul was converted by a miracle, the truth of Christianity is impregnable. Now, if the first of these points be established, the demonstration is not yet complete, for the second point must be proved independently. But if the first point be overthrown, the second loses its prop, and falls likewise.
Great efforts are therefore made to show that no natural influences could have intervened to bring about a change in the feelings of Paul. He was violent, “thorough,” unaffected by pity or remorse; and accordingly he could not have been so completely altered as he was, had he not actually beheld the risen Christ: such is the argument which Mr. Rogers deems so conclusive. I do not know that from any of Paul’s own assertions we are entitled to affirm that no shade of remorse had ever crossed his mind previous to the vision near Damascus. But waiving this point, I do maintain that, granting Paul’s feelings to have been as Mr. Rogers thinks they were, his conversion is inexplicable, even on the hypothesis of a miracle. He that is determined not to believe, will not believe, though one should rise from the dead. To make Paul a believer, it was not enough that he should meet his Lord face to face he must have been already prepared to believe. Otherwise he would have easily found means of explaining the miracle from his own point of view. He would certainly have attributed it to the wiles of the demon, even as the Pharisees are said to have done with regard to the miraculous cures performed by Jesus. A “miraculous” occurrence in those days did not astonish as it would at present. “Miracles” were rather the order of the day, and in fact were lavished with such extreme bounty on all hands, that their convincing power was very slight. Neither side ever thought of disputing the reality of the miracles supposed to be performed on the other; but each side considered the miracles of its antagonist to be the work of diabolic agencies. Such being the case, it is useless to suppose that Paul could have distinguished between a true and a false miracle, or that a real miracle could of itself have had any effect in inducing him to depart from his habitual course of belief and action. As far as Paul’s mental operations were concerned, it could have made no difference whether he met with his future Master in person, or merely encountered him in a vision. The sole point to be considered is whether or not he BELIEVED in the Divine character and authority of the event which had happened. What the event might have really been was of no practical consequence to him or to any one else. What he believed it to be was of the first importance. And since he did believe that he had been divinely summoned to cease persecuting, and commence preaching the new faith, it follows that his state of mind must have been more or less affected by circumstances other than the mere vision. Had he not been ripe for change, neither shadow nor substance could have changed him.
This view of the case is by no means so extravagant as Mr. Rogers would have us suppose. There is no reason for believing that Paul’s character was essentially different afterwards from what it had been before. The very fervour which caused him, as a Pharisee, to exclude all but orthodox Jews from the hope of salvation, would lead him, as a Christian, to carry the Christian idea to its extreme development, and admit all persons whatever to the privileges of the Church. The same zeal for the truth which had urged him to persecute the Christians unto the death afterwards led him to spare no toil and shun no danger which might bring about the triumph of their cause. It must not be forgotten that the persecutor and the martyr are but one and the same man under different circumstances. He who is ready to die for his own faith will sometimes think it fair to make other men die for theirs. Men of a vehement and fiery temperament, moreover,such as Paul always was,never change their opinions slowly, never rest in philosophic doubt, never take a middle course. If they leave one extreme for an instant, they are drawn irresistibly to the other; and usually very little is needed to work the change. The conversion of Omar is a striking instance in point, and has been cited by M. Renan himself. The character of Omar bears a strong likeness to that of Paul. Previous to his conversion, he was a conscientious and virulent persecutor of Mohammedanism. After his conversion, he was Mohammed’s most efficient disciple, and it may be safely asserted that for disinterestedness and self-abnegation he was not inferior to the Apostle of the Gentiles. The change in his case was, moreover, quite as sudden and unexpected as it was with Paul; it was neither more nor less incomprehensible; and if Paul’s conversion needs a miracle to explain it, Omar’s must need one likewise. But in truth, there is no difficulty in the case, save that which stupid dogmatism has created. The conversions of Paul and Omar are paralleled by innumerable events which occur in every period of religious or political excitement. Far from being extraordinary, or inexplicable on natural grounds, such phenomena are just what might occasionally be looked for.
 Saint-Hilaire: Mahomet et le Coran, p. 109.
But, says Mr. Rogers, “is it possible for a moment to imagine the doting and dreaming victim of hallucinations (which M. Renan’s theory represents Paul) to be the man whose masculine sense, strong logic, practical prudence, and high administrative talent appear in the achievements of his life, and in the Epistles he has left behind him?” M. Renan’s theory does not, however, represent Paul as the “victim of hallucinations “to a greater degree than Mohammed. The latter, as every one knows, laboured during much of his life under almost constant “hallucination"; yet “masculine sense, strong logic,” etc., were qualities quite as conspicuous in him as in St. Paul.
Here, as throughout his essay, Mr. Rogers shows himself totally unable to comprehend the mental condition of men in past ages. If an Apostle has a dream or sees a vision, and interprets it according to the ideas of his time and country, instead of according to the ideas of scientific England in the nineteenth century Mr. Rogers thinks he must needs be mad: and when according to the well-known law that mental excitement is contagious, several persons are said to have concurred in interpreting some phenomenon supernaturally, Mr. Rogers cannot see why so many people should all go mad at once! “To go mad,” in fact is his favourite designation for a mental act, which nearly all the human race have habitually performed in all ages; the act of mistaking subjective impressions for outward realities. The disposition to regard all strange phenomena as manifestations of supernatural power was universally prevalent in the first century of Christianity, and long after. Neither greatness of intellect nor thoroughness of scepticism gave exemption. Even Julius Caesar, the greatest practical genius that ever lived, was somewhat superstitious, despite his atheism and his Vigorous common-sense. It is too often argued that the prevalence of scepticism in the Roman Empire must have made men scrupulous about accepting miracles. By no means. Nothing but physical science ever drives out miracles: mere doctrinal scepticism is powerless to do it. In the age of the Apostles, little if any radical distinction was drawn between a miracle and an ordinary occurrence. No one supposed a miracle to be an infraction of the laws of nature, for no one had a clear idea that there were such things as laws of nature. A miracle was simply an extraordinary act, exhibiting the power of the person who performed it. Blank, indeed, would the evangelists have looked, had any one told them what an enormous theory of systematic meddling with nature was destined to grow out of their beautiful and artless narratives.
 Hecker’s Epidemics of the Middle Ages, pp. 87-152.
The incapacity to appreciate this frame of mind renders the current arguments in behalf of miracles utterly worthless. From the fact that Celsus and others never denied the reality of the Christian miracles, it is commonly inferred that those miracles must have actually happened. The same argument would, however, equally apply to the miracles of Apollonius and Simon Magus, for the Christians never denied the reality of these. What these facts really prove is that the state of human intelligence was as I have just described it: and the inference to be drawn from them is that no miraculous account emanating from an author of such a period is worthy of serious attention. When Mr. Rogers supposes that if the miracles had not really happened they would have been challenged, he is assuming that a state of mind existed in which it was possible for miracles to be challenged; and thus commits an anachronism as monstrous as if he had attributed the knowledge of some modern invention, such as steamboats, to those early ages.
Mr. Rogers seems to complain of M. Renan for “quietly assuming" that miracles are invariably to be rejected. Certainly a historian of the present day who should not make such an assumption would betray his lack of the proper qualifications for his profession. It is not considered necessary for every writer to begin his work by setting out to prove the first principles of historical criticism. They are taken for granted. And, as M. Renan justly says, a miracle is one of those things which must be disbelieved until it is proved. The onus probandi lies on the assertor of a fact which conflicts with universal experience. Nevertheless, the great number of intelligent persons who, even now, from dogmatic reasons, accept the New Testament miracles, forbids that they should be passed over in silence like similar phenomena elsewhere narrated. But, in the present state of historical science, the arguing against miracles is, as Colet remarked of his friend Erasmus’s warfare against the Thomists and Scotists of Cambridge, “a contest more necessary than glorious or difficult.” To be satisfactorily established, a miracle needs at least to be recorded by an eyewitness; and the mental attainments of the witness need to be thoroughly known besides. Unless he has a clear conception of the difference between the natural and the unnatural order of events, his testimony, however unimpeachable on the score of honesty, is still worthless. To say that this condition was fulfilled by those who described the New Testament miracles, would be absurd. And in the face of what German criticism has done for the early Christian documents, it would be an excess of temerity to assert that any one of the supernatural accounts contained in them rests on contemporary authority. Of all history, the miraculous part should be attested by the strongest testimony, whereas it is invariably attested by the weakest. And the paucity of miracles wherever we have contemporary records, as in the case of primitive Islamism, is a most significant fact.
In attempting to defend his principle of never accepting a miracle, M. Renan has indeed got into a sorry plight, and Mr. Rogers, in controverting him, has not greatly helped the matter. By stirring M. Renan’s bemuddled pool, Mr. Rogers has only bemuddled it the more. Neither of these excellent writers seems to suspect that transmutation of species, the geologic development of the earth, and other like phenomena do not present features conflicting with ordinary experience. Sir Charles Lyell and Mr. Darwin would be greatly astonished to be told that their theories of inorganic and organic evolution involved any agencies not known to exist in the present course of nature. The great achievement of these writers has been to show that all past changes of the earth and its inhabitants are to be explained as resulting from the continuous action of causes like those now in operation, and that throughout there has been nothing even faintly resembling a miracle. M. Renan may feel perfectly safe in extending his principle back to the beginning of things; and Mr. Rogers’s argument, even if valid against M. Renan, does not help his own case in the least.
On some points, indeed, M. Renan has laid himself open to severe criticism, and on other points he has furnished good handles for his orthodox opponents. His views in regard to the authorship of the Fourth Gospel and the Acts are not likely to be endorsed by many scholars; and his revival of the rationalistic absurdities of Paulus merits in most instances all that Mr. Rogers has said about it. As was said at the outset, orthodox criticisms upon heterodox books are always welcome. They do excellent service. And with the feeling which impels their authors to defend their favourite dogmas with every available weapon of controversy I for one can heartily sympathize. Their zeal in upholding what they consider the truth is greatly to be respected and admired. But so much cannot always be said for the mode of argumentation they adopt, which too often justifies M. Renan’s description, when he says, “Raisonnements triomphants sur des choses que l’adversaire n’a pas dites, cris de victoire sur des erreurs qu’il n’a pas commises, rien ne parait deloyal a celui qui croft tenir en main les interets de la verite absolue.”