Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 38.

Miracles and Science.

Sunrise, they say, often at first draws up and deepens the very mists which it is about to scatter: and even so, as the excitement of my first conviction cooled, dark doubts arose to dim the new-born light of hope and trust within me. The question of miracles had been ever since I had read Strauss my greatest stumbling-block — perhaps not unwillingly, for my doubts pampered my sense of intellectual acuteness and scientific knowledge; and “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” But now that they interfered with nobler, more important, more immediately practical ideas, I longed to have them removed — I longed even to swallow them down on trust — to take the miracles “into the bargain” as it were, for the sake of that mighty gospel of deliverance for the people which accompanied them. Mean subterfuge! which would not, could not, satisfy me. The thing was too precious, too all-important, to take one tittle of it on trust. I could not bear the consciousness of one hollow spot — the nether fires of doubt glaring through, even at one little crevice. I took my doubts to Lady Ellerton — Eleanor, as I must now call her, for she never allowed herself to be addressed by her title — and she referred me to her uncle —

“I could say somewhat on that point myself. But since your doubts are scientific ones, I had rather that you should discuss them with one whose knowledge of such subjects you, and all England with you, must revere.”

“Ah, but — pardon me; he is a clergyman.”

“And therefore bound to prove, whether he believes in his own proof or not. Unworthy suspicion!” she cried, with a touch of her old manner. “If you had known that man’s literary history for the last thirty years, you would not suspect him, at least, of sacrificing truth and conscience to interest, or to fear of the world’s insults.”

I was rebuked; and not without hope and confidence, I broached the question to the good dean when he came in-as he happened to do that very day.

“I hardly like to state my difficulties,” I began —“for I am afraid that I must hurt myself in your eyes by offending your — prejudices, if you will pardon so plain-spoken an expression.”

“If,” he replied, in his bland courtly way, “I am so unfortunate as to have any prejudices left, you cannot do me a greater kindness than by offending them — or by any other means, however severe — to make me conscious of the locality of such a secret canker.”

“But I am afraid that your own teaching has created, or at least corroborated, these doubts of mine.”

“How so?”

“You first taught me to revere science. You first taught me to admire and trust the immutable order, the perfect harmony of the laws of Nature.”

“Ah! I comprehend now!” he answered, in a somewhat mournful tone —“How much we have to answer for! How often, in our carelessness, we offend those little ones, whose souls are precious in the sight of God! I have thought long and earnestly on the very subject which now distresses you; perhaps every doubt which has passed through your mind, has exercised my own; and, strange to say, you first set me on that new path of thought. A conversation which passed between us years ago at D—— on the antithesis of natural and revealed religion — perhaps you recollect it?”

Yes, I recollected it better than he fancied, and recollected too — I thrust the thought behind me — it was even yet intolerable.

“That conversation first awoke in me the sense of an hitherto unconscious inconsistency — a desire to reconcile two lines of thought — which I had hitherto considered as parallel, and impossible to unite. To you, and to my beloved niece here, I owe gratitude for that evening’s talk; and you are freely welcome to all my conclusions, for you have been, indirectly, the originator of them all.”

“Then, I must confess, that miracles seem to me impossible, just because they break the laws of Nature. Pardon me — but there seems something blasphemous in supposing that God can mar His own order: His power I do not call in question, but the very thought of His so doing is abhorrent to me.”

“It is as abhorrent to me as it can be to you, to Goethe, or to Strauss; and yet I believe firmly in our Lord’s miracles.”

“How so, if they break the laws of Nature?”

“Who told you, my dear young friend, that to break the customs of Nature, is to break her laws? A phenomenon, an appearance, whether it be a miracle or a comet, need not contradict them because it is rare, because it is as yet not referable to them. Nature’s deepest laws, her only true laws, are her invisible ones. All analyses (I think you know enough to understand my terms), whether of appearances, of causes, or of elements, only lead us down to fresh appearances — we cannot see a law, let the power of our lens be ever so immense. The true causes remain just as impalpable, as unfathomable as ever, eluding equally our microscope and our induction — ever tending towards some great primal law, as Mr. Grove has well shown lately in his most valuable pamphlet — some great primal law, I say, manifesting itself, according to circumstances, in countless diverse and unexpected forms — till all that the philosopher as well as the divine can say, is — the Spirit of Life, impalpable, transcendental, direct from God, is the only real cause. ‘It bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth.’ What, if miracles should be the orderly result of some such deep, most orderly, and yet most spiritual law?”

“I feel the force of your argument, but —”

“But you will confess, at least, that you, after the fashion of the crowd, have begun your argument by begging the very question in dispute, and may have, after all, created the very difficulty which torments you.”

“I confess it; but I cannot see how the miracles of Jesus — of our Lord — have anything of order in them.”

“Tell me, then — to try the Socratic method — is disease, or health, the order and law of Nature?”

“Health, surely; we all confess that by calling diseases disorders.”

“Then, would one who healed diseases be a restorer, or a breaker of order?”

“A restorer, doubtless; but —”

“Like a patient scholar, and a scholarly patient, allow me to ‘exhibit’ my own medicines according to my own notion of the various crises of your distemper. I assure you I will not play you false, or entrap you by quips and special pleading. You are aware that our Lord’s miracles were almost exclusively miracles of healing — restorations of that order of health which disease was breaking — that when the Scribes and Pharisees, superstitious and sense-bound, asked him for a sign from heaven, a contra-natural prodigy, he refused them as peremptorily as he did the fiend’s ‘Command these stones that they be made bread.’ You will quote against me the water turned into wine, as an exception to this rule. St. Augustine answered that objection centuries ago, by the same argument as I am now using. Allow Jesus to have been the Lord of Creation, and what was he doing then, but what he does in the maturing of every grape — transformed from air and water even as that wine in Cana? Goethe, himself, unwittingly, has made Mephistopheles even say as much as that —

“Wine is sap, and grapes are wood,

The wooden board yields wine as good.”

“But the time? — so infinitely shorter than that which Nature usually occupies in the process?”

“Time and space are no Gods, as a wise German says; and as the electric telegraph ought already to have taught you. They are customs, but who has proved them to be laws of Nature? No; analyse these miracles one by one, fairly, carefully, scientifically, and you will find that if you want prodigies really blasphemous and absurd, infractions of the laws of Nature, amputated limbs growing again, and dead men walking away with their heads under their arms, you must go to the Popish legends, but not to the miracles of the Gospels. And now for your ‘but’—”

“The raising of the dead to life? Surely death is the appointed end of every animal — ay, of every species, and of man among the rest.”

“Who denies it? But is premature death? — the death of Jairus’s daughter, of the widow’s son at Nain, the death of Jesus himself, in the prime of youth and vigour — or rather that gradual decay of ripe old age, through which I now, thank God, so fast am travelling? What nobler restoration of order, what clearer vindication of the laws of Nature from the disorder of diseases, than to recall the dead to their natural and normal period of life?”

I was silent a few moments, having nothing to answer; then —

“After all, these may have been restorations of the law of Nature. But why was the law broken in order to restore it? The Tenth of April has taught me, at least, that disorder cannot cast disorder out.”

“Again I ask, why do you assume the very point in question? Again I ask, who knows what really are the laws of Nature? You have heard Bacon’s golden rule —‘Nature is conquered by obeying her?’”

“I have.”

“Then who more likely, who more certain, to fulfil that law to hitherto unattained perfection, than He who came to obey, not outward nature merely, but, as Bacon meant, the inner ideas, the spirit of Nature, which is the will of God? — He who came to do utterly, not His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him? Who is so presumptuous as to limit the future triumphs of science? Surely no one who has watched her giant strides during the last century. Shall Stephenson and Faraday, and the inventors of the calculating machine, and the electric telegraph, have fulfilled such wonders by their weak and partial obedience to the ‘Will of God expressed in things’— and He who obeyed, even unto the death, have possessed no higher power than theirs?”

“Indeed,” I said, “your words stagger me. But there is another old objection which they have reawakened in my mind. You will say I am shifting my ground sadly. But you must pardon me”

“Let us hear. They need not be irrelevant. The unconscious logic of association is often deeper and truer than any syllogism.”

“These modern discoveries in medicine seem to show that Christ’s miracles may be attributed to natural causes.”

“And thereby justify them. For what else have I been arguing. The difficulty lies only in the rationalist’s shallow and sensuous view of Nature, and in his ambiguous, slip-slop trick of using the word natural to mean, in one sentence, ‘material,’ and in the next, as I use it, only ‘normal and orderly.’ Every new wonder in medicine which this great age discovers — what does it prove, but that Christ need have broken no natural laws to do that of old, which can be done now without breaking them — if you will but believe that these gifts of healing are all inspired and revealed by Him who is the Great Physician, the Life, the Lord of that vital energy by whom all cures are wrought.

“The surgeons of St. George’s make the boy walk who has been lame from his mother’s womb. But have they given life to a single bone or muscle of his limbs? They have only put them into that position — those circumstances in which the God-given life in them can have its free and normal play, and produce the cure which they only assist. I claim that miracle of science, as I do all future ones, as the inspiration of Him who made the lame to walk in Judea, not by producing new organs, but by His creative will — quickening and liberating those which already existed.

“The mesmerist, again, says that he can cure a spirit of infirmity, an hysteric or paralytic patient, by shedding forth on them his own vital energy; and, therefore he will have it, that Christ’s miracles were but mesmeric feats. I grant, for the sake of argument, that he possesses the power which he claims; though I may think his facts too new, too undigested, often too exaggerated, to claim my certain assent. But, I say, I take you on your own ground; and, indeed, if man be the image of God, his vital energy may, for aught I know, be able, like God’s, to communicate some spark of life — But then, what must have been the vital energy of Him who was the life itself; who was filled without measure with the spirit, not only of humanity, but with that of God the Lord and Giver of life? Do but let the Bible tell its own story; grant, for the sake of argument, the truth of the dogmas which it asserts throughout, and it becomes a consistent whole. When a man begins, as Strauss does, by assuming the falsity of its conclusions, no wonder if he finds its premises a fragmentary chaos of contradictions.”

“And what else?” asked Eleanor, passionately —“what else is the meaning of that highest human honour, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but a perennial token that the same life-giving spirit is the free right of all?”

And thereon followed happy, peaceful, hopeful words, which the reader, if he call himself a Christian, ought to be able to imagine for himself. I am afraid that writing from memory, I should do as little justice to them as I have to the dean’s arguments in this chapter. Of the consequences which they produced in me, I will speak anon.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44