IN THINGS religious mystery has ever been deemed essential to authority. For its own sake therefore, as well as for that of the world at large, authority has always fostered what it considered a wholesome degree of ignorance respecting sacred things. No doubt such reserve has its disadvantages, especially in respect of the controversies and schisms to which partial knowledge gives rise. But even an infallible Church can only choose between evils, and in its view the advantages of a firm belief far outweigh the evils arising from obscurity.
There have been few more fertile causes of scepticism than the logical difficulty attaching to miracles, and the moral difficulty of everlasting punishment. True, I am about to remove both difficulties for you; but I leave you to judge of the effect of similarly removing them for the world.
And first, as to Miracles. We have already treated of the perpetual miracle of the Incarnation. This being no other than that of Creation, or the
process ever going on of transmuting the eternal ideal into the phenomenal real, and constituting a problem insoluble by finite minds, we can but bow and pass on. The world exists, and we cannot think of it as making itself. That is all we know, or can know, on this head. The God of the naturalist has nothing in common with the God of the theologian.
Very different is it with the miracles which constitute your difficulty and that of inquirers in general. I say inquirers, because believers have no difficulty whatever. The very impossibility of a thing is to them but further proof of the existence and agency of God. The sense in which they receive them, however, will not satisfy you. Nor will it satisfy anyone who subordinates belief to knowledge. Nevertheless, notwithstanding your present aversion to miracles, I promise you that if you keep your foot beside mine on the track we are following, you will instead of regarding them as thorns and briars, soon be plucking them in delight by the handful.
Only let me remark first that the very terms in which you express your objection to miracles, involve the idea of their possibility. By ‘the laws of nature’ you imply limits to nature. By what right do you assign such limits, or determine their place? I should not, however, raise an objection on this point, but for your use in the same connection of the term omnipotence, by way of contrast to nature’s limitations.
For you thus expressly imply your conviction of the existence of a power external to and surpassing that of nature, and so yourself make way for the very interference you deprecate.
Endeavour now to dismiss from your mind the notion of an inside and an outside to nature. Trample down the limits you have been wont to assign to it, and bring into it the whole region hitherto allotted to the supernatural or divine. Doing this, you will be able to dismiss altogether from your vocabulary the term supernatural, and to regard nature as including all that is; only, compounded of twp elements, commonly called the natural and the supernatural, but properly the real and the ideal. Doing this, you will find yourself ranging under the name of the ideal all that portion of existence which does not come within the range of the senses, and of which we are cognisant in idea only: and under the name of the real all that is appreciable by the senses, and commonly called nature. This done, God becomes for us the supreme personal element in nature; but existing only in the ideal, inasmuch as it is only in idea, and not in the senses, that we are cognisant of him.
We now find ourselves in harmony with those who, like the Greeks and other Pantheists, regard Deity as immanent in and inseparable from nature. With those also who, like the Jews and Christians,
regard him as existing apart from and above nature. And with those who have earned for themselves the name of Atheist by regarding the real (under the name of nature) as existing independently of any ideal (or God) at all.
Under the influence of your inherited notions, you have been wont to regard all that, being in nature yet transcends nature, as miraculous and therefore impossible. Taking now the ideal into nature, do you find any difficulty in making the real your basis, and constructing your ideal upon it? If you do not, you admit that something which is natural can transcend the real, and so be ‘miraculous’ without being contrary to nature.
IT IS as I expected. You regard the real and the ideal as so intimately allied as to be inseparable for us; and you make this union the essential condition of conscious intelligence. That is, you find it impossible to be cognisant of any external object in fact, without being at the same time cognisant of it in idea; without, therefore, being able to imagine it as divested of the limitations which it has for your senses. You own that, being natural, it transcends nature: and you fail to see what this has to do with miracles?
Dear friend, what then is a miracle but the transmutation of a ‘natural’ or objective fact, that is a reality, into an imaginary or subjective one, and its enlargement to ideal or ‘supernatural’ dimensions?
For me ‘supernaturalism,’ in the popular sense, has as little meaning as for you; though the grounds of our objections are different. As I have tried to make clear to you, the ideal is as much a part of nature, or the universal order, as the real. So that
we have not to transcend nature to find an explanation of ‘miracles.’ What we have to transcend is the limitation of the fact in its reality. The moment it is removed from the category of the real into that of the ideal, and divested of limitations, it becomes what it is the custom to call supernatural or miraculous.
Thus you see the significance of your admission that so far from the miraculous, thus understood, being contrary to nature, it constitutes a necessary element of thought, inasmuch as the union of the real and the ideal is an essential condition of conscious intelligence.
Writing of the soul I said, the process of idealisation consists in imagining an object as transcending its limitations, existing in a perfection not actually attainable by it, and even filling infinity with its expanded characteristics. And the faculty whereby we perform this act is the soul.
The soul, therefore, is the true miracle worker. Taking, necessarily, the real for its basis, it constructs thereon the ideal with all the wonders of religion. In admitting the union of the real and ideal in man, you are opening the door to every doctrine of Catholicism. To fail to see this is to be a sectarian, a Protestant; that is, one who, able to see but a short way along a road, denies the road’s continuance beyond the reach of his own vision.
You now understand how that all the wonders which make up the life of the God-man and Man-god, are equally with himself the product and necessary product of the soul’s longing for a realised perfection, or God made flesh. The translation of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, from being at most an apostle of the sect of the Essenes, though remarkably endowed with spiritual graces, into the ideal, would have been but a meagre and inadequate process unless combined with the like translation of his actions. It was through an extraordinary conjunction of circumstances that upon him, and not upon any other individual of admirable and exquisite character, fell the supreme destiny of being accepted as the representative man of the race, latest and most perfect realisation of the divine idea of humanity. But as such destiny was bound to alight upon some one, in accordance with the traditions and wont of mankind when previous incarnations had lost their prestige; and as the peculiar circumstances of the Jewish race were most fitted to produce the character best adapted for the part, – there is no reason why it should not have been filled by him as well as by another.
So common has it been for mankind to credit the objects of their veneration with miraculous powers, that the improbability that Christ should be so invested hardly becomes greater on the hypothesis
that he was no real person at all, but wholly a creation of the imagination. To judge from what we know of previous incarnations, it does not appear to be absolutely necessary that the character selected as their subject should have an actual existence in the flesh. Indeed some early Christian sects denied such existence to Christ. Even the Pauline epistles often leave us in doubt whether the writer regarded Christ as a real person, so strong is his tendency to treat him as but an idea. The declaration, ‘Last of all he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time,’ bears out this conjecture, inasmuch as it was not in the flesh, but only in the spirit, that Paul owns to having beheld him; while the refusal to know him after the flesh, indicates his strong preference for Christ as an idea and system of thought rather than as an individual.
Idealist as Paul was, it was assuredly not Christ as a person, but Christ as representing the ideal perfection contemplated in the law of Moses, and the triumph of that perfection over sin, death, and all the limitations of sense, that roused the apostle’s enthusiasm to its highest pitch. His principal solicitude was that the character represented by the name of Christ should proceed from the Jews. For in such a product he beheld a power capable of subjugating the world, and demonstrating their superiority over the Gentiles.
For, had it not subjugated himself? So long as he had deemed of Christ as a man, he had applied the whole force of his enthusiasm to the persecution of his followers. It was when the true idea of Christ flashed suddenly upon him in all its possible significance, that he fell stunned as it were to the ground, at the revelation of the grandeur and beauty of that which he had hitherto reprobated. Thenceforth his enthusiasm, turned into the opposite direction, led him into being himself accepted as the second founder of Christianity.
Brought up in a school whose leading characteristic was its intense appreciation of the spiritual significance of the Law, Paul was carried by his ardent spirit beyond all his compeers. For him ‘Sin’ consisted in the falling short of the perfection of the infinite by the finite. Everything appertaining to the real was a ‘body of death,’ utterly vile and contemptible in comparison with the ideal recognised by him. Yet lofty as was his doctrine, his omission to take account of the truth that the constitution of nature makes it utterly impossible that the finite should emulate the infinite, the real the ideal, and therefore that the individual is not responsible for the interval between them, has greatly contributed to the widespread belief that the whole domain of the real, or ‘nature,’ is essentially and thoroughly
bad, and worthy only of reprobation and perdition. And the belief has caused anguish unspeakable to millions of tender souls, and has inflicted on the world that kind of detriment which comes to everything that, being desirous of perfection, finds itself pronounced incapable of amendment. The law of perfection is holy, just, and good, and indispensable as a standard by which to regulate our lives. It is necessary, also, for our moral progress that we should recognise the interval between it and our performances. But when we assume that we are ourselves responsible for the existence of the interval, and abandon the hope of doing aught to diminish it, through our consciousness of the impossibility of wholly abolishing it, then the commandment which was ordained to life is found to be death to us. Raise our real as we may, we cannot with it attain to the full height of our ideal. Compared with that our best actions must always be defective.
It was necessary that one who surpassed the limits of the finite in things moral and spiritual, in such degree as to be accounted God manifest in the flesh, should surpass them also in respect of things physical. As all his teaching must be the teaching of perfection, so all his doing must surpass the possible. Should you, in your reading of the Gospels, be disposed to ascribe error or imperfection to the divine Master; should he appear to you cold
and unfilial to his blessed Mother, or harsh to the stranger seeking relief; should you be led to the opinion that the miracle of Cana, or the raising of Lazarus, was effected by chicanery and collusion, and his conduct in regard to the fig-tree, the result of an ebullition of bad temper; should some of his parables, such as that of the unjust steward, or the importunate widow, strike you as defective in their morality or theology, – set it down to the dullness of his reporters. If they did not represent him as perfect, they ought to have done so; for no one less than perfect could occupy the position assigned him by the Church. Whether as Son at once of God and man, the Divine Word made flesh, or as the heaven sent Messiah, nothing short of perfection was suited to the part. There is for the Catholic no sound canon of criticism except this.
This canon however, so far from ruling miracles out of the record, makes them indispensable. True, Paul makes mention of no miracle but that of the resurrection, and that was for him a spiritual rather than a physical fact. The apostle’s contempt for things of the ‘flesh’ accounts for his indifference on this head. But for us to whom the Jewish law and its spiritualisation are considerations subordinate to Humanity and its consciousness, the perfection of Christ in all things is essential to our accepting him as God incarnate; and the soul of the believer is
wanting in the fervour of true faith if it fails to translate all his acts from the region of sense and limitation into that of spirit and perfection. The soul as I have said is the only miracle-worker; and where there is unbelief even the Son of Man himself – the soul’s personified perfection – can do there no mighty works.
But where faith is strong no miracle will be beyond his power. Divested of limitations in virtue of his ideality, he will be conqueror over all the ills of human existence. Did he not herein transcend the real, were he not all powerful over the elements of the world, over disease, sorrow, sin, and death, he would be but commonplace humanity, merely real, and no true ideal rising sublime above all limitations.
What we already as mere men have from the beginning been striving to accomplish in reality, he accomplishes for us in idea and hope. We have always been struggling to improve our real by banishing as far as may be the ills which afflict it. The fact of our continued efforts is a virtual confession of our faith in the possibility of a greater or less success. For, what becomes of those who make no such efforts? They remain what they were myriads of ages ago – the lower races of men and animals – creatures, however human in form, devoid of soul inasmuch as they lack the faculty necessary
to improvement, the faculty of transcending their real in the ideal.
It is thus, through his possession of an ideal, in which he sees himself ultimately victorious over all that he now counts as hindrances, that man is induced to struggle at all. The divine discontent which inspires him, the travailing and groaning in pain, are themselves agents in his redemption and adoption into the perfection of the ideal realised. Faith in God, that is faith in his ideal, is no other than faith in Humanity, – in himself.
To render unnecessary further reference to Paul, whose life and writings are accounted the strongest portion of the evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ, I will add here three remarks.
First, that as a Pharisee and one of the sect most instrumental in bringing about the death of Christ, the true Paul could not have ‘gloried in the cross’ of Christ, and in being a Pharisee also. Nor could he have referred, as the Pauline epistles continually do, to his sufferings without a word of compassion for him, or reproach for the sect that caused them. Nor, again, could he have known aught of Christ’s denunciations of the Pharisees, and still continued to exalt both Christ and Pharisaism.
Secondly, that the ‘secret and method’ (I employ the phrase of the author you so much affect) of Jesus and the Paulist writer are identical. They both aim
at a rule of absolute perfection, a rule transcending the limits of the ‘flesh,’ and attainable only in the ‘spirit.’
Thirdly, that as the Pauline epistles implicitly if not explicitly set aside Jesus as a person for Jesus as an idea, it is far from improbable that the apostle himself may, under the sublimating process of historical criticism, be removed from the category of the real, and transferred to that of the ideal. Certainly is this true so far as concerns the identification of their writer with the Paul of the Acts. Every such exaltation, however, of the ideal in place of the individual, of the spirit in place of the letter, is a gain to religion. For we thereby escape more and more from the region of persons, fact, and controversy, into that of doctrine, faith, and unity; and become more and more one with God and with each other in the spirit of holiness. That is, more Catholic and less Protestant as we cease to worship the letter.
The mythical character of Paul’s history finds exemplification in the narrative of his conversion, an event readily explicable on the solar hypothesis. As secondary founder of Christianity it was fitting that he should be represented as impelled to his mission by the direct action of the solar divinity with whom Christ had become identified.
THE CHRISTIAN OLYMPUS
LET us follow the new creation which owns the soul of man for its maker. Given the soul and space, all that is in man the real becomes necessarily transferred to the ideal, and there exists divested of limitations, comprising all desirable or imaginable objects of aspiration and worship. Already do we behold, seated upon the throne, of infinity, the Absolute Supreme, ideal Father of our spirits, associated in bonds of eternal amity with the ideal Mother and ideal Son, and animated by the same ideal disposition or Spirit, the Spirit of ideal perfection. Nought is there in their nature or conditions to disturb the everlasting equilibrium of their satisfaction, could they only be content to pass eternity in the contemplation of their own perfections.
But the ideal must have a reflex influence on its real. Wherefore they are not like the classic gods of old, so finely described by England’s truly Catholic poet: –
The Gods who haunt
The lucid interspace of world and world,
Where never creeps a cloud or moves a wind,
Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,
Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,
Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar
Their sacred everlasting calm.
For, as mankind has mounted in the scale of moral being, so have the gods, or, to adhere to our own nomenclature, the ideals, of mankind. And hence it comes that, no longer selfishly absorbed in themselves, no sound of human joy or sorrow here is so faint but that it mounts to their sacred abode, not to mar their repose, but to win a sympathetic response. More ‘perfect’ these, as we understand perfection, than their impassible predecessors. No sooner, then, does man, finding it vain to attempt to redeem himself by his own limited efforts from the evils inherent in all conditions involving limitation, glance upward in appeal for aid, than the ideal Son, obeying the impulses which are at once human and divine,
Down from his glorious throne descends
With joyful haste to save;
Dies for our sins in mortal flesh,
Then leaves the vanquished grave.
For even death has no power over the children of the ideal. Rather do they, when freed from the limitations of mortality, rise and ascend into the brightest heaven the imagination can depict, there
for evermore to bask amid the full glories of the throne.
Thus is it with the company of the glorified dead, who all are children of the ideal, even those whom we style Saints inasmuch as they have lived on earth the life of ideal excellence, the life in which the realities of sense have had little part, or power to withdraw them from their devotion to ideal perfection.
But for him, their elder brother and lord, Son at once of Humanity and of the supreme personified Ideal, – not for evermore does he abide in repose to enjoy his well-earned laurels. The sovereignty he has acquired is not that of lotos-eaters,
Resting their weary limbs on beds of asphodel;
and lying –
On the hills together, careless of mankind.
It imposes a responsibility. It constitutes him judge of all men, who at the crisis of every soul is to descend, and determine the fate due for its conduct on earth.
Different indeed to his former coming is this one.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory,
does he now come ‘to judge the quick and dead.’
No rare or isolated experience is this; but a fact in the soul’s history of all men possessing a faculty of idealisation, that is of all who have a soul, and this again is all who possess a moral consciousness.
Recall, if you can, your earliest conception of perfection in life and conduct. Was it not meagre and unstable; too weak to raise and guide you; strongest ofttimes when you felt most humble, and weakest when you were best satisfied with yourself?
So is it with the ideal of every man. At first, ‘coming in humility.’ But, carefully cherished, it grows ‘in stature and in favour with God and man,’ ever lifting up our real towards itself; and when our decaying powers warn us that the end is near, and we make a final estimate of ourselves and our work, and see how often and how far we have failed to cherish our ideal, and to strive to act up to it, it stands over us an unerring criterion of our deserts, from whose judgment there is no appeal. ‘And so he cometh to judge the world.’