Sunday, January 02, 2011

He said it: Chesterton on miracles

G. K. Chesterton was an early twentieth century Catholic writer for the popular press who provided strong support against materialism in his day. I have a chapter in a just-published book on his and other early Catholic writers’ response to Darwinist materialism. Let’s just say that they were not the fan club.

Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant's word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant's word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism-the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence- it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence, being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of medieval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, [1908], Fontana: London, 1961, reprint, p.149, free download at link, via Project Gutenberg.)

Chesterton is right about that. Once, explaining faith to an agnostic, I pointed out that many people come to faith in a power beyond themselves because of an inexplicable healing. Of course, the healing is not inexplicable, but an explanation might involve powers not yet fully understood. Sometimes, refusal to consider the possibility of such powers results in inferior explanations such as “she was only imagining her symptoms” or “she is only faking a cure.”

Still, the ex-sufferer is as happy to live with the non-medically induced cure as she would be with medications whose molecular structure she doesn’t understand. What works is what counts in these matters.