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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——WHAT IS NATURE?


My dear ——,

Desiring to approach the subject of miracles, you ask me whether I do not accept the following sentence as a statement of my views concerning nature: “The Universe is perennially renewed and created afresh by an active energy of the Spirit of God, and what we call ‘laws of nature’ are the mode in which our limited minds are enabled to apprehend the working of Creative Power.” If I accept it, you declare you cannot understand why I should stumble at miracles. “It is a matter of every-day experience,” you say, “and natural, that the human will should suspend the laws of nature, as for example by arresting the motion of gravitation; and consequently it seems unreasonable for you, or for other believers in a personal God, to be scandalized if He also now and then permits Himself the same liberty.”

I accept your statement, so far as concerns the perennial energy of the Spirit of God upon the material and immaterial Universe; but I do not quite agree with the thought, or perhaps I should say with the expression, of the last part of your sentence—“the mode in which our limited minds are enabled to apprehend the working of Creative Power.” I should prefer to call the Laws of Nature “a revelation of Himself by God to men, on the recognition of which our very existence depends.” The Laws of Nature are indeed nothing but ideas of our own Imagination; but they appear to me, more or less, true 135ideas, through which God has revealed Himself to us as a God of Law and Order. I believe in the fixity of natural Law as much (I think) as the man of science does; I reverence a Law of Nature, not as a result of necessity, but as an expression of God’s will. But your own remarks about the ordinary “suspension of the law of nature by the human will” appear to me to imply a little confusion of thought arising from a confused use of the word “nature” in two or more senses. On this point therefore I should like to say a few words.

i. Nature sometimes means the ordinary course of things apart from us and from our intervention; as when we say that “Nature looks gay”—an expression which we might use of fields and even of a not too artificial garden, but not of a city or a street.

In this sense it may be occasionally applied to the ordinary course of things in our own bodily frame, so far as it goes on without our deliberate intervention; as when a physician tells a fussy patient to cease from medicining himself and to “let Nature take its course.”

ii. Nature sometimes means the ordinary course of things in ourselves, not in our bodies but in some other part of us, but still apart from our deliberate intervention; as when we say that “Nature impels us to avoid pain, to preserve our lives, to cherish our children, to love and revere our parents, and to seek the esteem and friendship of our neighbours.”

But sometimes in human beings one “natural” impulse is opposed by another: as when the desire to preserve one’s life is opposed by the desire to gain the esteem of one’s neighbours. When these two conflict, which is to be called the more “natural”?

The answer will be different, according as we use the word “natural” in the sense of “ordinary” or “orderly.” One class of natural impulses, which may be called selfish or self-regarding, is perhaps more ordinarily predominant; another class, those which regard the good of others, contributes more to the progress and order of society. In the individual, as well as in society, the former or “ordinary” impulses, if unchecked, often tend to excess of passion, and what we call mental “disorder”; the latter (which are seldom in excess) tend to self-control and a well-ordered mind. In the former sense, it is more “natural,” because more “ordinary,” to laugh when we are tickled, or to seize food when we are hungry, than to die for our country or to provide food for our children; but, in the latter sense, the nobler actions are more “natural” because more in accordance with order.

What do we mean by a well-ordered mind? We mean one in which the Will does not at once yield to the impulses from the things which seem nearest to ourselves; in which the Imagination vividly presents to us the wants of our neighbours as well as our own; in which the Reason states what can be said for and against each proposal, and the Conscience finally decides the course to be taken. Here then we see an entirely new notion of Nature, at least so far as man is concerned; a course or order of things no longer apart from human intervention, but entirely dependent upon the supremacy of the Will and Conscience aided by Reason and Imagination: and hence we are led to a double definition of human Nature as follows:—

iii. Human Nature means, sometimes the ordinary, sometimes the orderly, course of human things.

Even as to non-human Nature we sometimes find a popular tendency to call, or think “unnatural,” some phenomena which strike us as being contrary to the general order and beneficence of things: and hence we are less fond of saying that Nature prompts the cat to torture the mouse or the moth to fly into the flame, than that she implants in the animal race the parental instinct to protect the young. I confess I sympathize with this tendency, and with all those who in their hearts look upon death and pain as being contrary to the ideal order of things and ultimately destined to be destroyed. But for the present, apart from sentiment, let us simply note the fact that in our popular language we sometimes say that it is the nature of a clock to indicate the right time, but sometimes that it is its nature to deviate from the right time: whence we deduce the conclusion that:—

iv. The Nature of a thing means sometimes its object, sometimes its custom.

Laws of Nature
Many of those unbroken sequences of phenomena around us, which have been most frequently observed, have been made the subject of the Imagination and have received an imaginative name. When we find Nature, upon an invariable system, dealing out rewards for one course of action and penalties for another, there is suggested to us the thought of a great Lawgiver laying down laws and affixing rewards for obeying, and penalties for disobeying. Hence the sequences of natural phenomena have been called “Laws of Nature.”

Every action of every moment of our lives is performed for the most part in the instinctive and unconscious confidence that Nature will not deceive us by breaking her Laws: and hence they might, from another point of view, be called “Promises of Nature,” or “Expressions of the Will of Nature;” but “Law of Nature” has been selected—not perhaps altogether happily—as suggesting 138something more fixed and definite than even the Promises or Will of the Maker of the world.

Law of Nature is a metaphorical name for a frequently observed sequence of phenomena (apart from human Will), implying; to some minds, regularity; to others, absolute invariability.

Suspension of Laws of Nature
Does human Will ever suspend a Law of Nature?

I am standing, we will suppose, under a tree in autumn. If a leaf flutters down and rests upon my head, the Law of gravitation is no more suspended by my Will, than if it rests upon some intercepting bough. The result of the Law is modified; downward motion is replaced by downward pressure: but the Law itself is not suspended.

But if, upon the command of a man, the leaf were arrested in mid air and remained immovable for an hour together, and if I were led to the conclusion that this was effected by no force which I could conceive as being consistent with the ordinary course of Nature and with the limitations of human power, then I should be obliged to say that the Law of gravitation, in this particular instance, did not work. Using a metaphor, I might say that the Law was “suspended,” and the phenomenon itself I should call a miracle.

In reality the true explanation might be quite different. It is conceivable that an extraordinary man, once in a thousand or once in ten thousand years, might be endowed with the power of arresting the motion of a stone in the air, without the intervention of the body and by the mere exercise of Will; and this might be done by him as easily, as regularly, and (for him) as naturally, as we ordinary men stop a stone in the air by the exercise of Will acting upon our bodily machinery. In that case gravitation would still act, pressing the stone, so to speak, upon an invisible hand: and the explanation would be, not that the Law was suspended, but that the results of the Law were uniquely modified by the peculiar action of a unique human nature, in the same way in which they are commonly modified by the regular action of an ordinary human nature. This, I say, is conceivable. Yet if we find (1) in past history, a general tendency to believe in miracles on very slight evidence; (2) in the present time, a general and, as many think, a universal refutation of the evidence on which miracles have been accepted; (3) an increasing power of explaining many so-called miracles in accordance with natural Laws—it becomes our obvious duty to regard miraculous narratives with a very strong suspicion until cogent evidence has been produced for their truth.

The Action of the Will
Hitherto we have been considering the action of the Will upon external Nature; but now what as to the action of our Will upon our own Nature, upon the machinery of our own body? Is that to be called a Law of Nature or a suspension of a Law of Nature?

It is to be called neither. Our definition of “Law of Nature” was “a metaphorical name given to the ordinary course of things apart from the intervention of human will:” consequently the action of human will (about which we are now speaking) is expressly excluded from the province of Nature, in this sense, and can neither be called “a Law of Nature,” nor a “suspension of a Law of Nature.” The action of the Will falls under the head of “human Nature;” and, discussing it under that head, we may call it by any metaphor we please, a custom, habit, law of human Nature.

140This distinction between the name given to the course of non-human Nature and the name given to the action of the human Will on the bodily framework, is based on our distinction between the regular and (if I may use the word) the anticipable sequences of the former, as contrasted with the irregular and unanticipable sequences of the latter. When the Will is undeveloped or enfeebled; when the human being is a baby, or one of an excited and undisciplined crowd, or mad, or drunk, or narcoticized, or mesmerized, or reduced to the bestial level by some overpowering instinct; we can occasionally prophesy his actions or movements with something of the certainty and accuracy with which we predict the motions of a machine; but we cannot thus calculate the actions of a mature, healthy, and reasonable man. Hence it has been usual to contrast with the “Laws of Nature” the “freedom of the human Will.” We cannot demonstrate the freedom of the Will any more than the fixity of the Laws of Nature: the belief in both is suggested by Imagination, tested and approved by Experience and Reason, and finally retained by Faith. Of course, when I speak thus, you will not suppose that I assume that my mind, or being, is divided into distinct parts (as the body consists of distinct limbs) called Will, Reason, &c.: you will understand that I merely use the ordinary brief and convenient phraseology which says “The Will does so-and-so,” meaning “I do so-and-so with a certain consciousness which appears to me to result from a faculty inherent in me of choosing between two or more courses of action, which faculty I call Will.” With this precaution, I assert that the action of the Will is natural as regards human Nature, but outside Nature or “extra-natural” as regards non-human Nature, and that it does not involve the suspension of what are technically called “the Laws of Nature.”

141It is thus shown that the human Will acts directly on the human body in accordance with the Laws of human Nature, and that it does not interfere with the external world except indirectly, through the body, in accordance with the Laws of Nature (as technically defined). There is nothing therefore in the action of the human Will that would justify the a priori inference that the divine Will would, by any direct intervention, disturb or suspend that fixed Order in the external world which constitutes a large part of the revelation of God to mankind.

If indeed we are to draw any kind of parallel between divine and human action, we shall have to ask ourselves what is there appertaining to the divine Spirit which can in any sense be said to correspond to its “Body”? And I suppose we shall reply, in Pauline language, that Mankind, which is said to have Christ for its Head, might be mystically and spiritually called the Body of the divine Will or Holy Spirit. If this be so, proceeding with our parallel, might we not repeat, word for word, with the needful proportionate changes, the language of the last paragraph: “The divine Will or Spirit acts directly on the divine body (that is on mankind) in accordance with the Laws of Spiritual Nature, and it does not interfere with the external world, except indirectly, through mankind, in accordance with the Laws of Nature (as technically defined)”? I do not say that this analogy is logic-proof: for what can be called a “body,” or what “external,” in relation to the all-pervading God? Nevertheless, as it falls in with our actual experiences, this mystical parallel seems as well worth recording as most a priori notions on this subject, though we take it as no more than an illustration of possibilities. But, if we are to confine ourselves to certainties, the one thing certain is, that Nature, in the fullest sense, human as well as non-human, emphatically discourages us from expecting “miracles.”

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