Miracles

This is inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. After reading this 1853 novel a second time in the summer of 2018, I put some passages I liked into a LaTeX file. I added some commentary and came up with a document more than 90 A5 pages long. I recently reread it and was reminded how much I had enjoyed the novel. I thought some of my commentary could be adapted to stand alone as a blog post—this one.

Man in a field, sack over left shoulder, casts seeds with his right hand
The Sower,” 1850
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The subject is the supernatural. In Villette, Charlotte Brontë takes the voice of Lucy Snowe, who is practically if not literally an orphan. She ends up on the Continent, an English Protestant teaching Catholic girls in a former convent that is haunted by the ghost of a nun. Lucy will see the ghost herself. To read the novel seriously and sympathetically, we have to

  • ascertain what the author thinks of ghosts;
  • be able to think the same way.

This will depend on what we already think of ghosts.

A ghost is a kind of miracle. Must one take a stand on the possibility of miracles, if one is going to be a scholar of such a person as Jesus of Nazareth?

John P. Meier tries not to take a stand. He is the author of several volumes (which I have not read) called A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Meier was asked in an interview, when he was a professor at Catholic University of America,

Q. Would a historian rule out miracles and divine intervention, then?

A. That is a very ticklish subject. I don’t know how in the world you would decide historically whether or not Jesus did or did not in fact perform miracles possible only by God alone. It’s a matter of faith.

Yet is it fair for a historian to enter into the question saying that obviously miracles are impossible and, therefore, Jesus did not perform any miracles?

The historian should try as much as possible to be quite modest in claims about what can be known about claims about miracles— especially from the ancient past where our sources are quite fragmentary. The proper stance of a historian is, “I neither claim beforehand that miracles are possible, nor do I claim beforehand they are not possible.”

On the contrary, the subject of miracles is not ticklish, if one agrees with the assertion of R. G. Collingwood in An Autobiography that all history is the history of thought. Collingwood describes (on pages 107–10) how, in 1928,

I first drew the distinction between history proper and what I called pseudo-history. By that name I referred to such things as the narratives of geology, palaeontology, astronomy, and other natural sciences which in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries had assumed a semblance at least of historicity. Reflection on my experience as an archaeologist enabled me to see that this was no more than a semblance …

History and pseudo-history alike consisted of narratives: but in history these were narratives of purposive activity, and the evidence for them consisted of relics they had left behind (books or potsherds, the principle was the same) which became evidence precisely to the extent to which the historian conceived them in terms of purpose, that is, understood what they were for …

[110] I expressed this new conception of history in the phrase: ‘all history is the history of thought.’ You are thinking historically, I meant, when you say about anything, ‘I see what the person who made this (wrote this, used this, designed this, &c.) was thinking.’ Until you can say that, you may be trying to think historically but you are not succeeding.

If we are historians of the Nazarene, then we ask what Jesus thought he was doing, and what his followers thought he was doing, when he performed those acts that are called miracles. In trying to answer the question, we ought to be clear about what we mean by miracles.

Let us consider, as an example, the loaves and fishes from Matthew 14. After the beheading of John the Baptist, when Jesus withdraws to a desert place, people come to him from the cities to be healed. In the evening, Jesus tries to feed them with the food that his disciples have brought. They have only five loaves and two fishes; but after the meal, twelve baskets of fragments are gathered, and five thousand men have eaten, not counting women and children.

Here is the full story from the Bible:

13 When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.
14 And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.
15 And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.
16 But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.
17 And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.
18 He said, Bring them hither to me.
19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.
21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.

According to the story, Jesus created something out of nothing. What was it? Did he violate the law of conservation of mass? If one allows this, even as a possibility, and if one is on the faculty of a university, then one is denying the value and even the possibility of the work of one’s colleagues in physics. The natural laws that they study are not such as can be broken by anybody, even a deity. This is not an experimental result; this is the foundation that makes experiments worthwhile.

If a miracle “is a violation of the laws of Nature,” in the words of David Hume, as quoted by Joseph Cohen in a 2010 lecture called “Miracles and Belief,” then there are no miracles. Cohen describes Spinoza as drawing this conclusion, unless a miracle is simply “an event whose natural cause cannot be explained”; the cause may not in fact be unknowable.

If we find these matters ticklish, we may avoid them; but we can do it more forthrightly than Meier does. The followers of Jesus did not think he had broken the law of conservation of mass; for such a law did not yet exist. We know now that the law applied then, because this is what we mean by saying there is a law in the first place. It is an absolute presupposition of ours that there are physical laws, which apply for all time; but there was no such presupposition in Biblical times.

There may have been little thought at all, as we understand it, among the masses to whom Jesus preached. Jesus says this himself, in Matthew 13:13: “they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” Let us set this in its context:

10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
14 And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
15 For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
17 For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.

For verse 15, I checked: among the five instances of “their,” it is precisely the single non-italicized one that has a correlate in the Greek. The quoted verses place us at what is described as

one of the stranger moments in the New Testament, when Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples. This is the one about a farmer sowing seeds—some get eaten by birds, some land in rocky soil, but some find fertile ground and produce a good crop. When the disciples ask the meaning of the story, an irritated Jesus explains that the seeds are the Word of God, the varieties of soil are the varieties of people who hear the Word, etc. The story means just what it sounds like it means.

That is Rivka Galchen in Harper’s, in a 2016 review of contemporary drama. The parable referred to is Matthew 13:3–9, just before the passage above; the explanation, just after, in verses 18–23. The parable of the sower means just what it sounds like to us, who have been trained to understand metaphors and similes. Many persons have not been so trained. I explored these matters in a blog article, “Thinking & Feeling,” written in Turkey, soon after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

The disciples want to know why Jesus teaches in parables. At the corresponding verse in Mark 4, what they want is more vague:

10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

Luke 8 is not much more definite:

9 And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?

There are three questions in play, of

  • the literal meaning of the parable,
  • the “parabolic” meaning, and
  • why the former should be used to stand for the latter.

The literal meaning of the parable is what it sounds like. This meaning could be expressed in a church window, and Stained Glass Inc. is ready to sell you one (and to advise you on how to raise money to pay for it). The parabolic meaning of the parable is what Jesus goes on to explain in Matthew 13—if this meaning is also obvious, that is only because we have become acculturated to it:

18 Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
19 When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
20 But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
21 Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
22 He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
23 But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Jesus goes on to tell the parables of

  • the man sowing good seed, among which tares are later strewn;
  • the grain of mustard seed;
  • the leaven.

Each is explicitly likened to the kingdom of heaven. Still the disciples do not understand.

36 Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field.
37 He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man;
38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.

If the meaning is obvious to those who have been taught literary analysis, this only shows what a challenge they have to understand, as historians, the thought of the disciples. I have such a challenge as a teacher of mathematics: I have to remember that what is obvious to me has become obvious, after years of growing familiarity.

The disciples differ from the masses whom Jesus heals, feeds, and teaches, because the disciples need not be taught, but only commanded. We see this in Matthew 4, after the Temptation, which happens to be alluded to, later in Villette, in Chapter XIV, called “The Fête.” The title alludes to “the fête of madame,” celebrated “in the ripest glow of summer” at the school on the Continent. Lucy observes how the Church nourishes the body at the expense of the mind:

A strange, frolicsome, noisy little world was this school: great pains were taken to hide chains with flowers: a subtle essence of Romanism pervaded every arrangement: large sensual indulgence (so to speak) was permitted by way of counterpoise to jealous spiritual restraint. Each mind was being reared in slavery; but, to prevent reflection from dwelling on this fact, every pretext for physical recreation was seized and made the most of. There, as elsewhere, the Church strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. “Eat, drink, and live!” she says. “Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure—guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.” A bargain, in which every true Catholic deems himself a gainer. Lucifer just offers the same terms: “All this power will I give [128] thee, and the glory of it; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine!”

The words of the Devil are from the account of the Temptation in Luke 4:

5 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

In Matthew 4, what Jesus says after the Temptation is:

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
19 And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
20 And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
21 And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
22 And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.

Unlike Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, most persons would not follow Jesus at a word, even if the word was that they would burgeon like good soil, if they did follow him. Anybody might listen to a story of the sowing of seed, at least if the storyteller were somebody who could heal the sick.

Today we can, like Rivka Galchen, explain the parabolic meaning of the seed. In the time of Jesus, not even the disciples could do that. What made the disciples special was their not needing the explanation, in order to follow Jesus. However, even having the explanation is not enough.

With the loaves and fishes, Jesus was believed to have done something remarkable, even unprecedented. Call it a miracle, but we are left with the question of what this means. It seems foolish to me to suggest that the miracle might be a violation of laws of nature worked out in the Renaissance, when the Evangelists themselves could not have thought that it was.

“Miracle” is the title of the last chapter of R. G. Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy of 1916. Collingwood shows (on page 200) how untenable is the naïve conception of modern times, that a miracle violates a law of physics.

The kind of thought which imagines natural law as subject to exceptions is precisely that of the most unscientific and inadequate type; as if Newton after observing the fall of the apple had written, “Everything has a natural property of falling to the earth; this is why the apple falls. Exceptions to this law may be seen in smoke, kites, and the heavenly bodies.”

Collingwood has already mentioned (on page 197)

the fundamental axiom of all thinking, namely that whatever exists stands in some definite relation to the other things that exist.

The religious expression of this fundamental axiom is monotheism. Collingwood develops the thought in An Essay on Metaphysics of 1940, where he argues that for the Church Fathers (the “Patristic writers”), the words “God exists” or “we believe in God”

mean that natural scientists standing in the Greek tradition absolutely presuppose in all their inquiries

  1. That there is a world of nature, i.e. that there are things which happen of themselves and cannot be produced or prevented by anybody’s art, however great that art may be, and however seconded by good luck.

  2. That this world of nature is a world of events, i.e. that the things of which it is composed are things to which events happen or things which move.

  3. That throughout this world there is one set of laws according to which all movements or events, in spite of all differences, agree in happening; and that consequently there is one science of this world.

  4. That nevertheless there are in this world many different realms, each composed of a class of things peculiar to itself, to which events of a peculiar kind happen; that the peculiar laws of these several realms are modifications of the universal laws mentioned in 3; and that the special sciences of these several realms are modifications of the universal science there mentioned.

For Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy, and I agree,

the common conception of miracle is untenable … Instead of finding the operation of God in isolated and controvertible tacts, we are now free to find it universalised in everything that is true or good or beautiful.

If I found myself in a large hungry crowd, and I had brought some food, I would be reluctant to bring it out, if I thought others had come empty-handed. Jesus and his disciples were not so reluctant. Following their example, the the crowd shared what they had brought from the cities, though they may have denied having brought anything. This is the miracle of the loaves and fishes: the creation of generosity among selfish people. I am sure I have heard this simple explanation somewhere. It is the idea behind the story of Stone Soup.

Such an explanation is not so obvious for the ensuing story in Matthew 14, when Jesus sends his disciples off in a ship, but comes to them in the night, walking across the water:

22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.
23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.
24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.
25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.
27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

I have no ready explanation of this incident. One might refer to Doubting Thomas, to whom Jesus says in John 20:29, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” If one need not see the wounds in the body of the risen Jesus, perhaps one need not see him coming over the Sea of Galilee like a water strider.

One might also look for an undersea formation like the one I have walked on at Orhaniye on the Marmaris peninsula in Turkey, described in the Rough Guide (page 357):

further out in the bay lurks a celebrated curiosity: a long, narrow, submerged sandspit known as Kızkumu (Maiden’s Sand) extending halfway across the bay, which allows day-trippers apparently to emulate Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. Legend asserts that a local beauty, menaced by raiding pirates, filled her skirts with sand and attempted to escape across the water by creating her own causeway, but upon exhausting her supply at midbay drowned herself rather than surrender her virtue to the marauders.

I am also sympathetic to the attitude of Socrates, expressed near the beginning of the Phaedrus, and discussed by me in “On Knowing Ourselves,” that instead of trying to explain away myths and legends, one does better to respect the Delphic command to know oneself.

Charlotte Brontë would seem to be engaged in just this. Her Protestantism is a theme of Villette, at least as it is contrasted with the superstitious Catholicism of the persons whom the narrator finds herself among on the Continent. What then are we to think when she starts seeing a ghost?

Bibliography

Barbara Aland et al., editors. The Greek New Testament. Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart, fourth revised edition, 2006.

Rosie Ayliffe, Marc Dubin, and John Gawthrop. Turkey: the Rough Guide. Rough Guides, London, 3rd edition, 1997.

Joseph Cohen. Miracles and belief. The St. John’s Review, 54(2), 2013.

R. G. Collingwood. Religion and Philosophy. Macmillan, London, 1916. Accessed November 21, 2016, from archive.org.

R. G. Collingwood. An Autobiography. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978. First published 1939. With a new introduction by Stephen Toulmin. Reprinted 2002.

John Bookser Feister. Finding the historical Jesus: An interview with John P. Meier. St. Anthony Messenger, December 1997. www.americancatholic.org, accessed from web.archive.org, June 18, 2018.

Rivka Galchen. New drama. Harper’s, pages 80–1, March 2016.

David Pierce. Thinking & feeling. Polytropy, July 2016. Blog article.

David Pierce. On knowing ourselves. Polytropy, March 2018. Blog article.


Copy-edited September 25, 2022. For its resemblance to the paragraph of Villette, whereby “the Church strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning,” I might bring in Collingwood’s remark in An Autobiography (pages 8–9),

The orthodox theory of public-school athletics is that they distract the adolescent from sex. They do not do that; but they give him a most necessary outlet for the energies he is not allowed to use in the class-room. Apart from a few eccentrics like Whitelaw, the public school masters of my acquaintance were like the schoolmaster in the Dunciad:

Plac’d at the door of learning, youth to guide,
We never suffer it to stand too wide.

The boys were nothing if not teachable. They soon saw that any exhibition of interest in their studies was a sure way to get themselves disliked, not by their contemporaries, but by the masters; and they were not long in acquiring that pose of boredom towards learning and everything connected with it which is notoriously part of the English public school man’s character. But they must have some compensation for their frustrated and inhibited intellects; and this they got in athletics, where nobody minds how hard you work, and the triumphs of the football field make amends for the miseries of the class-room.

One Trackback

  1. By Sacrifice and Simulation « Polytropy on September 26, 2022 at 11:04 am

    […] another post. I also want to come back to Collingwood and Lewis on the subject of the post “Miracles” of June, 2022, because I think Lewis lacks Collingwood’s understanding of science. Meanwhile, […]

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