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Miracles And Supernatural Religion by James Morris Whiton

VIII SYNOPSIS.--The cardinal point in the present discussion

VIII SYNOPSIS. -- The cardinal point in the present discussion, the reality not of miracles but of the supernatural. -- Fallacy of pointing to physical events as essential characteristics of supernatural Revelation. -- The character of a revelation determined not by its circumstances, but by its contents. -- Moral nature supernatural to physical. -- Nature a hierarchy of natures. -- Supernatural Religion historically attested by the moral development it generates. -- Transfer of its distinctive note from moral ideals to physical marvels a costly error. -- Jesus' miracles a revelation, of a type common with others before and since. -- The unique Revelation of Jesus was in the higher realm of divine ideas and ideals. -- These, while unrealized in human life, still exhibit the fact of a supernatural Revelation. -- The distinction of natural and supernatural belongs to the period of moral progress up to the spiritual maturity of man in the image of God. The divine possibilities of humanity, imaged in Jesus, revealed as our inheritance and our prize. It remains finally to emphasize the point of cardinal importance in the considerations that have been presented. This is not the reality of miracles, but the reality of the supernatural, what it really is, as distinct from what it has been thought to be. The advance of science and philosophy has brought to the front this question: |Have those who reject the claims of supernatural Religion been misinformed as to what it is?| Is it, as they have been told, dependent for its attestation on signs and wonders occurring in the sphere of the senses? Does it require acceptance of these, as well as of its teachings? Or is its characteristic appeal wholly to the higher nature of man, relying for its attestation on the witness borne to it by this, rather than by extraordinary phenomena presented to the senses? There is at present no intellectual interest of Christianity more urgent than this: to present to minds imbued with modern learning the true conception of the supernatural and of supernatural Religion.

Miracles, legitimately viewed as the natural product of extraordinary psychical power, or, to phrase it otherwise, of an exceptional vital endowment, belong not to the Hebrew race alone, nor did they cease when the last survivor of the Jewish apostles of Christianity passed away at the end of the first century. This traditional opinion ought by this time to have been entombed together with its long defunct relative, which represented this globe as the fixed centre of the revolving heavens. Miracles have the same universality as human life. Nor will their record be closed till the evolution of life is complete. Animal life, advancing through geologic aeons to the advent of man, in him reached its climax. Spiritual life, appearing in him as a new bud on an old stock, is evidently far from its climax still. To believe in miracles, as rightly understood, is to believe in spirit and life, and in further unfoldings of their still latent powers.

This, however, is just now of subordinate importance. The present interest of chief moment is a riddance of the hoary fallacy that vitiates the current idea of a supernatural Revelation by looking for its specific characteristics to the physical world. By this deplorable fallacy Christian theology has blinded the minds of many scientific men to the essential claims of Christianity, with immense damage in the arrested development of their religious nature through the scepticism inevitably but needlessly provoked by this great mistake. When Elijah proclaims to idolaters that their deity is no God, and, as we read, corroborates his words by calling down fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice, it is reckoned as supernatural Revelation. But it is not so reckoned when the sage in the book of Proverbs proclaims to a nation of religious formalists the moral character of God: |To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.| This is accounted as ethical teaching, somewhat in advance of the times. A pagan rather than a Christian way of thinking is discoverable here. In each of the cases cited the specific character of supernatural Revelation is equally evident, -- the disclosure of spiritual truth above the natural thought of the natural men to whom it came. The character of any revelation is determined by the character of the truth made known, not by the drapery of circumstances connected with the making known. Clothes do not make the man, though coarse or careless people may think so. What belongs to the moral and spiritual order is supernatural to what belongs to the material and physical order.

This way of thinking will be forced on common minds by thoughtful observation of common things. Animate nature of the lowest rank, as in the grass, is of a higher natural order than inanimate nature in the soil the grass springs from. Sentient nature, as in the ox, is of a higher order than the non-sentient in the grass. Self-conscious and reflective nature in the man is of a higher order than the selfless and non-reflective nature in his beast of burden. In the composite being of man all these orders of nature coexist, and each higher is supernatural to the nature below it. Nature, the comprehensive term for all that comes into being, is a hierarchy of natures, rising rank above rank from the lowest to the highest. The highest nature known to us, supernatural to all below it, can only be the moral nature, whose full satisfaction is necessary to the highest satisfaction of a man, and in whose complete development only can be realized in permanency his perfected welfare as a social being.

Now it is precisely in the progress of moral development that supernatural Religion manifests itself as a reality. Religion, indeed, is as natural to man as Art. But there is religion and Religion, as there is art and Art -- the sexual religion of the primitive Semites, the animistic religion of China, the spiritual Religion that flowered on the Mount of the Beatitudes, embryonic religion and Religion adult; all, indeed, natural, yet of lower and of higher grade. Doubtless, Religion of whatever grade outranks all other human activities by its distinctive aspiration to transcend the bounds of space and time and sense, and to link the individual to the universal; and so all Religion sounds, feebly or distinctly, the note of the supernatural. But this is the resonant note of the spiritual Religion which unfolds in the moral progress of the world. As moral nature is supernatural to the psychical and the physical, so is its consummate bloom of spiritual Religion to be ranked as such, relatively to the religions which more or less dimly and blindly are yearning and groping toward the light that never was on sea or land. Thus defining the word according to the nature of the thing, supernatural Religion, with its corollary of supernatural Revelation not as an apparition from without, but as an unfolding from within, is both a fact and a factor in the development of spiritual man.

The term supernatural Religion has been rightly applied to that system of religious conceptions, ideals, and motives, whose effective culture of the moral nature is attested historically by a moral development superior to the product of any other known religion. Whether the greatest saints of Christianity are all of them whiter souls than any that can be found among the disciples of any other religion, may be matter for argument. There can be no gainsaying the fact that, of great and lowly together, no other religion shows so many saints, or has so advanced the general moral development in lands where it is widely followed. But its essential character has been obscured, its appeal to man's highest nature foiled, and its power lamed by the wretched fallacy that has transferred its distinctive note of the supernatural from its divine ideals to the physical marvels embedded in the record of its original promulgation, even conditioning its validity and authority upon their reality. Such is the false issue which, to the discredit of Christianity, theology has presented to science. Such is the confusion of ideas that in the light of modern knowledge inevitably blocks the way to a reasonable religious faith in multitudes of minds thereby offended. From this costly error Christian theology at length shows signs that it is about to extricate itself.

As to the Christian miracles, there can be no reasonable doubt that |mighty works,| deemed by many of his contemporaries superhuman, were wrought by Jesus. These, whatever they were, must be regarded as the natural effluence of a transcendently endowed life. Taking place in the sphere of the senses, they were a revelation of the type seen before and since in the lives of wonder-workers ancient and modern, in whom the power of mind over matter, however astonishing and mysterious, is recognized as belonging to the natural order of things no less than the unexplored Antarctic belongs to the globe. But the Revelation which he gave to human thought as a new thing, a heavenly vision unprecedented, was in the higher realm of the moral and spiritual life. This was the true supernatural, whose reality and power are separable from all its environment of circumstances, and wholly independent thereof. The characteristic ideals of Jesus, his profound consciousness of God, his filial thought of God, his saturation with the conviction of his moral oneness with God, his realization of brotherhood with the meanest human being, still transcend the common level of natural humanity even among his disciples. As thus transcendent they are supernatural still. Till reached and realized, they manifest the fact of a supernatural Revelation in that peerless life as plainly as the sun is manifest in the splendor of a cloudless day.

In the coming but distant age, when man's spiritual nature, now so embryonic, shall have become adult, it will doubtless so pervade and rule the physical and psychical natures which it inhabits that the distinction between natural and supernatural, so important in the period of its development, will become foreign alike to thought and speech. But until the making of man in the image of God is complete, when the spiritual element in our composite being, now struggling for development, shall be manifest in its ultimate maturity and ascendency as the distinctive and proper nature of humanity, it is of supreme importance for the Christian teacher, who would point and urge to the heights of being, to free men's minds of error as to what the real supernatural is. Not the fancied disturber of the world's ordered harmonies, but that highest Nature which is the moulder, the glory, and the crown of all the lower.

Imaged to us in the human perfectness of Jesus, the ideal Son of man, it is revealed as the distinctive inheritance and prize of the humanity that essays to think the thoughts and walk the ways of God. To each of us is it given in germ by our human birth, to be fostered and nourished in converse with the Infinite Presence that inhabits all things, till its divine possibilities appear in the ultimate |revealing of the sons of God,| full grown |according to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.|


|Upon the conception of the supernatural as the personal,| says Professor Nash, |apologetics must found the claims of Christianity.| -- Ethics and Revelation.

The words in which Jesus expresses this are much more extraordinary and profoundly significant than any of those mighty works of his, the like of which are recorded of the ancient prophets. Jesus was conscious of God as living in him, and of himself as living in God, in the unity of the one eternal life. Not merely as a man of God, but as a man in God, as no other man has consciously been, does Jesus utter such sayings as, |I am the light of the world,| |I and my Father are one.| (See |Jesus the Ideal Man,| by the present writer. The New World, June, 1897.)

Romans viii.19.

Ephesians iv.13.

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