Chesterton on Miracles

Another excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, this time on the subject of miracles:

But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up.  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 … 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 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 mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle.  If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles … Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.

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Related posts:

Believing and understanding

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Plus ça change…

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12 thoughts on “Chesterton on Miracles

    • Not surprising – the copy of the book that I read was based on that same manuscript (from ccel.org), but that’s actually an edited version. The original publication is available free online from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/16769), and it has quite a bit of material that was subsequently edited out. A lot of it is specifically relevant to the time and context of his writing, but I recommend taking a look at the full version anyway.

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  2. Are you absolutely sure that Chesterton wrote “Orthodoxy” in 1908 and not in 2008? I guess some things really don’t ever change.

  3. Sadly I still haven’t read Chesterton … but I have recently absorbed tons of Tozer who I’d swore was an Emergent from his critique of churchianity … so, one huge blot on my record but a balancing tick on the other 🙂

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  9. “The sceptic always takes one of the two positions; either an ordinary man need not be believed, or an extraordinary event must not be believed.”
    Quite correct. This pragmatic decision is based on the observed fact: 99.99% of the time that ordinary man did not actually observe an extraordinary event. Thousands of people have seen UFOs. Are UFOs an extraordinary event? Science says yes. So the pragmatic dictum has become – extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And there is no extraordinary evidence for UFOs. So the willingness of Chesterton to believe eye-witnesses testimony is not acceptable to science. Somehow your quote has been edited to remove the original reference to believing the old woman when she said she saw a ghost?

    • There are a few ellipses in the passage where cuts have been made; I don’t think any of them are of much consequence to the message.

      Chesterton’s point is that there are millions of sober, rational people who, over the centuries, all testify to very similar spiritual experience. The weight of testimony is so monumental that it requres explanation. Richard Dawkins is fond of doing a glib hand-wave of “mass hallucination” whenever the question of religious experience is raised, but that really doesn’t cut it in this case.

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