The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
"Let Reason," observes Bishop Butler, "be kept to, and if any part of the Scripture account of the redemption of the world by Christ can be shown to be really contrary to it, let the Scripture, in the name of God, be given up." Yet in the face of these noble words, Butler makes, not experience and reason, but crafty ever-shifting probability the guide of life, and affirms that there is evidence enough on all the most important Christian truths to warrant our belief and determine our conduct—evidence of the same nature as that we act on in the ordinary affairs of life; and that this fact, if Christianity is rejected, condemns the unbeliever; for what right has he to decline on this subject the very kind and degree of evidence that he never hesitates to act on in all other cases?
To this argument there is an easy answer. It is because the subjects presented by Christianity are of awful moment, involving nothing less than the gift of supernatural power to the Church, and the general curse and damnation of our race, that we require the strongest, most distinct of all evidence, to determine their truth. One, for a very inadequate cause, will cross a mill-stream on a single unstable plank, but justly pause and shudder and refuse to cross for such a reason and on so frail a footing the wide and dreadful chasm in front of Niagara. The evidence that is enough in the ordinary affairs of life—the cost of a dinner or the succession to an estate—is too slender and insufficient to establish an authority that claims to determine man's eternal destinies.
But the evidence relied on by the orthodox is worthless compared with what is required in the most ordinary questions that arise,—to prove the theft of a silver spoon, or the price of corn last Michælmas. Compared with the direct proof required for such common matters, think on the hearsay, vague, constructive evidence offered that the two sole original written statements of the facts of Christianity are the work of the witnesses Matthew and John whose names they bear.
In one essential element of proof the Gospels are defective—they are dateless. Strange documents of evidence to rely on in a question so momentous? Neither the year nor the season of the year when Christ was born is known. It is not certain what age he was when he died. All is conjecture. Some think that he went about preaching for little more than one year; others, for three years. It is not clear whether he was born at Bethlehem or Nazareth. One gospel says he ascended from the road near Jerusalem; the other gospels say it was from a mountain a hundred miles distant from that city. In the very scope and substance of the gospels there are discrepancies that for three hundred years have defied the ingenuity of the cleverest priests to reconcile.page 40
But the evidence being weak, the Church backs it up by terrific imprecations; and you and I, dear reader, because we question the accuracy of a four-fold history, defective in the commonest elements of proof, have our souls devoted, like the soul of poor John Huss, to the infernal devils.
Dateless wonders are not very credible; but the orthodox labour hard to show that the gospel's miracles are at least not impossible, and might have taken place if it had been God's will that they should take place. To get you to admit this, is a great point with them.
Now the contrary of any matter of fact is not impossible. It is not impossible that a word might raise the dead or the throwing up of a pebble blot out the sun. But it is a matter of fact that such effects do not follow such causes. No one ever said that all miracles are impossible; but utter impossibility may certainly be affirmed respecting some of them. What we say is, that as miracles are contrary to matters of fact, they are incapable of proof—or in other words, that the breath of a man's lips may have raised the dead, but the proof of it to the world would itself be a new miracle. We hold that a man affirms he has himself wrought a distinct miracle, when he says he has proved Christ's miracles. He is precisely in the position of the priest who pretends by the breath of his lips to transmute a piece of dry bread into the bodily presence of his absent master.
A law of nature—that solids, for instance, sink in fluids lighter than themselves—is simply a matter of fact. Now you can only prove that Christ walked on the sea—or the contrary of this matter of fact—by means of some other matter of fact,—your own senses or the testimony of others. But however complete your evidence may be for walking on the sea, it cannot be more complete than the evidence for the law of nature that solids sink in fluids lighter than themselves. We say, then, that in this case, having sense and testimony for the law of nature on the one hand, and for the miracle on the other, all that you have gained is merely that the two opposing senses and testimonies mutually destroy each other, and leave you, if a reasonable soul, in a state of absolute suspense, or logical equilibrium.
Far, then, from establishing a solid foundation for religious belief, as some good but ill-informed men think, by proving the truth of Christ's miracles—that proof, could it be got, would be destructive of all belief, and the very highest triumph of scepticism.
But in respect to this miracle of walking on the sea, and in every case like it where the conditions of the miracle are distinctly stated and are capable of measurement, its impossibility and consequent falsehood can be as surely demonstrated as any proposition in arithmetic.
The miracle of a man walking on the sea consists in this, that the one pound of water displaced by his feet shall outweigh, in page 41 the most; delicate and exact of all balances, the one hundred and sixty-eight pounds of living matter that constitutes his bodily frame,—or in other words, that a thing shall be made not only equal to all its parts but equal to one hundred and sixty-eight times more than itself—a proposition that is a contradiction in terms,—an impossibility that God's will you appeal to cannot effect—and which remains for ever and eternally untrue.
And what are the proofs the orthodox rely on to rebut these conclusions of common sense? Their boasted proofs consist neither of their own senses nor of human testimony, but of certain copies of old manuscripts that contradict each other and of which there are no originals. These writings were not published in the place nor at the time Christ's miracles are said to have been wrought. They are not even in the language of the common people before whom he exhibited his wonders, but in Greek, the tongue of a foreign and distant people; and they did not exist till a whole generation after Christ's death, when the statements they contain were safe from all possible scrutiny or detection. Such are the gospels—the evidence of holy writ—whereby divines prove the truth of miracles and the eternity of hell torments,—the two vermillion-coloured pillars of the orthodox temple.
Luke says he wrote what others told him; and, to a certain extent, the other gospel writers did the same;—and good, but credulous men, on the authority of these writings, believed then in the gospel miracles, very much as they do now, without troubling themselves about evidence; and the belief then, as now, gave rise to many practical results,—just as, two centuries ago, good men, on the authority of Moses, believed in witches, and burned alive in consequence many innocent persons.
Had their contemporaries known who Luke and the rest were, and that they were the writers of the gospels, as authentically as we know who James Boswell was, and that he wrote the life of Johnson,—this would only prove, what no one doubts, that knowing their character, men believed these writers,—a very different thing indeed from knowing that the miraculous facts they stated were true. But there exists to us no public contemporary independent information respecting the gospel witnesses. If the witnesses themselves are myths, what can their evidence be? Men however, to whom reason or common sense is troublesome, may very well be content to display the vast multitudes who in all ages have believed the gospel miracles, and so establish their creed on authority which saves all inquiry and is easily understood.
In vain you appeal to the marks of credibility the gospels themselves contain. You will find in Homer and the Arabian Nights, miracles ascribed to gods and genii that are undoubted falsehoods; and yet the narratives containing these miracles overflow with strokes of nature and expressions of piety the most tender, true, and beautiful, and with genuine details of the page 42 life, customs, and opinions belonging to the state of society, government, and civilization that existed in the days the poet and the story-teller describe.
Is it not very possible that men shall endure ignominy and the last extremities of torture to assert a cause on which their self-importance and power over others depends? How many fabrications are there in the world, simple, natural, minute, and having all the confidence of truth? Happy is he who has not been taught by experience that the highest claims to gospel light may be found side by side in the same bosom with baseness and knavery.
But Miracles Christ himself avouches as his witnesses, and on their evidence he rests his claim to the messiahship. Go and show John, says he, those things which ye do hear and see : the blind recover their sight and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up. In distinct and solemn appeal to his miracles he says, "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not." Let us then take him at his word, and assume the test he offers of his truth.
The husbandman who ploughs and sows and divides to his children the bread that rewards his forethought and toil, is a doer of the works of God. No other manner of God's working is seen on earth. To give existence by the word of one's mouth to wine, barley loaves, and fish, are not the works of God. These are wizard's works, that might be the credentials of a messenger from Zeus, but not from God. His works are before our eyes; and they are entirely different from Christ's miracles. How then could his miracles, even were they true, be evidence that he came from God, or spoke the words of God? If they are evidence of anything, they must of necessity prove that he was not sent and is not to be believed; for miracles are wholly contrary to all God's undoubted works that we have ever seen or known.
We know neither mind nor matter except through the orderly laws which constitute and rule them. By the use of this knowledge we obtain whatever we possess of moral or material well-being, and through the same sacred medium we as rational beings perceive and are brought near to God. To say, then, that miracles or violations of His own orderly laws were by the Almighty chosen as attestations to a mission from Himself, is to say a thing that is antecedently or beforehand incredible. Christ's miraculous works consist of two classes—namely, things which are absolute impossibilities, and things which may be true but which are incapable of proof. Can we for a moment suppose that God selected such violations of the order of nature as attestations of a mission from Himself, to beings who beyond that Order know nothing, and who are unable to conceive of His own existence except as the adorable fountain of immutable Order?
You say, indeed, that Christ's works were attestations to a page 43 divine mission, and that although limited to individuals in their effects, their usefulness to mankind was of little moment compared to the fact that they were miracles—and on this fact you rest their unspeakable importance to our race. But unfortunately for their purpose, the miraculousness of Christ's works, which constituted their orthodox value to the men that saw them, far from fitting them to be attestations to the rest of the world of a divine mission, has rendered those works themselves incredible. As miracles they quite as much need attestations as the divine mission they attest. If as works they are limited in effect and without intrinsic worth to mankind—if they cast no guiding light on the capabilities of mind or matter—if they afford no aid to human progress,—then are they in truth worthless works; for as miracles, by their own distinct terms they are violations of the Order of nature, and unfit therefore to be proofs of anything, being essentially destructive of the very root and foundation of all evidence. Their natural, or rather priestly value, seems to be to qualify and prepare the mind of the believer to admit readily any amount of further theological error.
The avowed purpose of these orthodox miracles is to overawe reason into meekness and credulity: the divine purpose of science is to establish reason's validity and power. Miracles are witnesses and attestations to primeval curse and ultimate eternal suffering : the facts of science are evidences of Order, Intelligence, Goodness—the hope and eternal root of human well-being. The triumphs of science are at once a revelation of God, and form toward Him one long and free and glorious hymn of adoration. But no eloquence can redeem the inherent littleness of the New Testament's recorded miracles, and the malignity of its predicted ones, or quiet our revolt against the tenets they sanction. Far from being proofs that the son of Mary is, any more than you or I, the son of God, human progress has turned them into distinct evidence that he was but a veritable man—weak, erring, and passionate as we.
But your heart is not bold enough to urge these arguments : education, affection, the dread of singularity, tie you to the Church. The priest entreats you to pray to the Holy Ghost to operate on your soul, and the subtlety of the entreaty lies in this, that the moment you begin to pray, you become the priest's property. In the very act you are born again—you enter the kingdom of credulity, and out of guilt and darkness obtain gospel peace? And what is this peace? Not the sunshine—the carnal peace of honesty and common sense, the priest boldly tells you, but peace through Christ's blood between your soul and God—the peace that can be given or taken away by priests—the power whereby they aim to reign over the mind, and through it over the civil state of every man under heaven. "I am not come to send peace but a sword—I am come to set a man at variance against his father—The brother shall deliver up the brother to death— page 44 I am come to send fire on the earth." These words—this repudiation of the peace of common sense, the priest quotes from Christ's mouth, your master,—and Loyola, De Montfort, Dominic, Alva, Catherine, answer to the call.
O strangest spectacle exhibited on earth! Violence the cruellest and most base, and learning, genius, zeal, devoted to uphold the dogma that God has cursed mankind and fixed eternal woe and ruin as the fate and portion of our race! But it is on this terrific doctrine priestly power depends. Take this away, and of what value is the boasted efficacy of Christ's atoning blood? Priests would be a mock and an absurdity—their wealth and power would melt away. Primeval curse is the very basis of their existence and glory.
The proof by miracles—the evidence by what is in itself contrary to all evidence—is the boldest experiment ever practised on mankind. But in them is the safeguard of the human understanding. The Christian narratives, so sweet—divinely artless,—written in tones of heartfelt reverence and adoration that take the holiest natures captive—were almost irresistible if miracles had not been enwoven in them. On the forehead of each evangelist is written by his own hand, miracle. It is the seal of the Almighty that their narratives are untrue. On those narratives are priesthoods, churches, creeds established, claiming supreme domination over human life; but the Great Disposer has willed that the Church, like all else, should bear in her bosom, in these boasted miracles, the tokens of change—the very seeds of her own death
Heavenly messengers—unnumbered miracles :—Nothing can be a revelation of the God of the universe but the universe itself. No lesser symbol can be received. God—the Infinite :—an impassable gulf for ever interposes between that thought and all circumscribed existence.
The founders of the Church knew not the immeasurable grandeur amid which they lived. The idea of God they give is too narrow for man's ever-widening thoughts, Religion is the apprehension and emotion of the soul toward God, progressive with man's progress. The apprehension and emotion correspond to the glory, immensity, benignity of this infinite universe science discloses. Nor Christ nor Paul could enlarge their doctrine by the world's then undiscovered glories, and the ideas they bid you form of the attributes, works, and government of the Eternal, are erroneous, and the believer forms less exalted thoughts, and offers a less sublime adoration, than science gives the means to attain. When, in despite of holy texts, astronomy and geology are established, and the old cosmogony and its doctrines overthrown, the Church admits that Scripture does not teach Science. But she sees not that this is her own condemnation; for in that case she cannot teach religion, but like a fantastic mother she abides by the wayward emotional utterances of the childhood of our race.page 45
But the night is come. The redbreast, the sweet singer amid falling leaves and the shortening day, is silent. Around are the sea and the dark mountains, and above the all-glorious universe of God. Who can look on that scene of majesty and beauty—the immeasurable distances, the innumerable worlds, the dread motion, the ever-widening horizon of infinitude,—who can look on this amazing vision of God, and not say, Till science revealed this, adoration could not exist—religion could not be.
And these eyes that open to me this vast sight—that admit light from these stars—that stand in relation to existences far off in the depths of eternity—these eyes—this organ of these great perceptions, may in a few days be a little dust that feels nothing. I would rise above the imbecility of this mortal life—I would claim kindred with the Eternal which surrounds me. Can it be that this Me, that marks and compares and combines the impressions of the senses, shall share their fate and return to dust? Here indeed the response of science is still unheard; but can we doubt that it will come, and that it will be found in unison not only with the greatness of being, but with all our fondest and highest anticipations of good.
This music that in the darkness awakens emotions of serene life and desires after inexpressible goodness and beauty, is made up of sounds high or low, soft or clear, dilated or compressed, whose measurements, and the intervals that divide them, can be taken. There is, however, another geometry—another series of proportions, by which these sounds are arranged and the senses formed. But there is also a higher order, in which the soul in music and our souls and the beauty and goodness we adore, have their origin. Here matter and spirit are not opposed as separate or distinct, but are rather the varied parts of one whole, the waves ever-flowing of eternal life. They roll and change into each other, or the distinction is lost to our reason.
Surely it is something spiritual as human thought that animates these sounds and crowds the memory with the past.
There are the savage notes of a trumpet sounding defiance—the wild roll of a drum at midnight—a maiden singing by a fountain—a violin heard on the dark and lonely streets—the soft fond cradle hymn of a mother—the solemn adoring hallelujah of a resigned heart,—sounds formed on combinations the most profound, but of which, while they give them expression, the soldier, maiden, mother, saint, know no more the principles than the working bee does those on which it constructs its cell. Are our emotions formed on the same principles also, and the elements of that high geometry out of which they have their birth hid from our eyes? The emotions of the soul are not fantastic, religion is not a dream, nor faith in the Unseen a delusion. The vibrations that awake emotions of order, goodness, beauty, or their opposites—the sounds to which the soul responds, are marshalled and interwoven on principles which are eternal;—and is the soul, and page 46 the Unseen to which it tends, untrue? Sooner than believe this, I would believe that there had never existed an antagonist, a true love, or a mother. These objects of our emotions indeed are seen, and the other is not. God is still to us the Unseen, but to whom our trust, our hope, our adoration join us, not only as earth enchains us by our affections and wants, but in the same eternal stream of reason and goodness that unites to Him all conscious intellect. Our existence here is transitory—its fountain is Eternal. The channels life animates are material—the waters are Immortal.—Campbell's New Religious Thoughts.