Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Miracles and the Metanormal

Jeffrey Russell is a leading Catholic historian. Although his position on religious epistemology is well to the left of mine, he offers a useful analysis of relationship between historiography and the miraculous. I'll be quoting some of his observations on the subject:


To use the term 'supernatural' is to encounter the core difficulty of the history of concepts: both the vocabulary and the idea behind the vocabulary shift frequently through time. [1] Fortunately two simple points lead off. First: the popular misconnection between the words `supernatural' and 'superstition' is false, and second, the meaning of {supernatural} depends upon the meaning of {natural}. The term 'nature' is notoriously polysemous, from antiquity at least into the eighteenth century. The classical philosophical concept was that of a cosmos guided by an eternal law insuring both coherence and intelligibility. This implied a workaday distinction between expectable events and events that were not expectable under the eternal law. From antiquity through the Middle Ages to the present, the term `natura' never lost its physical sense. The scholastics were concerned both with nature in this sense and in the philosophical sense of that which is proper to any being. To simplify Aquinas' view: The {natural} in any being is what is determined by the exigencies of its essence. {Supernatural} is something that is added by God to the nature of a being. The {supernatural} is not contra naturam: it does not contradict the {natural} but supplements it. [2]

The term 'supernatural' has by the end of the twentieth century acquired far too much baggage to be handled effectively, so I propose a term that travels light and is more precise: 'metanormal.' By 'metanormal' I mean alleged events that have been placed beyond the boundaries (norms) set by academic discourse, here specifically by history.

Augustine's discussion of {miracles} set the tone of understanding of the metanormal before the Enlightenment. [3] The cosmos is a signum of Christ's activity, and the cosmos is full of signa in the universe, in the human mind, in society. What matters is the eternal signification of things and events rather than their physical context. [4]

One mode of understanding is the traditional Christian mode. It claims that Perpetua (auctor and persona) actually saw what she claimed to see. It was not a psychotic episode, but a view into a reality beyond what mortal creatures ordinarily perceive. Similarities between this and other visions of heaven do not betoken literary borrowing or topoi, or even archetypal expressions, but rather a confirmation that this is indeed the way things {really} are. This traditional mode has the advantage of grasping things much as the author of the `Passion' perceived them. It has the disadvantage of a potential naive literalism. Yet it is not necessarily naive, for the reliability of evidence and testimony were carefully weighed from Bede through Locke to Barfield and Coady. [10]

Most professional historians regard this traditional view as metanormal, that is, beyond the boundaries of their profession, and any {events} reported from such a view as inaccessible and meaningless. They regard both the view and {events} it reports as valuable only for shedding light upon {normal} social or intellectual structures. By thus leading metanormal events into the sheepfold of mentalités, historians domesticate and normalize them for their own methodological purposes.

The reason they do this is the dominance of another mode, materialist skepticism, common since the arguments of David Hume against miracles. This view, later strengthened by logical positivism, Marxism, and Freudianism, both arises from and reinforces the mentalité of late twentieth-century Western culture. This mode has the advantage of discarding naive literalism and credulity about metanormal events, but the disadvantage of forcing us to ignore a priori the enormous quantity and quality of actual reports of metanormal events observed by respectable witnesses.

Arising from the second mode was a third mode, Religionswissenschaft, sometimes called History of Religions or Comparative Religion, which offers structural or other theoretical explanations in terms of myth and cult or of analytical psychology. According to this mode, {miracles} are mythical, that is, metaphorical vehicles for spiritual truths. The advantage of this approach is that it establishes myth, like poetry, as a system of understanding independent of science and history. From Religionswissenschaft came the method of phenomenology, which the historian finds useful. The disadvantage to historians is that Religionswissenschaft withdraws the subject from its historical context, and it proceeds synchronically in a way foreign to what Arthur Danto, Nancy Partner, and others have shown to be the essence of the historical method: explicit or implicit diachronic narrative.

A similar problem exists with a fourth mode, structuralism and anthropological approaches in general, and a fifth mode, psychoanalytical studies, though all of these give historians valuable views through different prisms (for example Peter Dronke's psychological analysis of Perpetua as daughter and mother).

A sixth mode, that of the Annalistes, though emphasizing the longue durée and the cultural context, does not annihilate the human person in abstract systems. Indeed, the Annalistes' broadening of the social base of knowledge has reconstructed the humanity of many ordinary people ignored by traditional historians of ideas and events. The Annalistes offer the further advantage of attempting to find a way of taking third-century beliefs seriously and using them constructively without returning to a pre-Enlightenment view. They do domesticate the metanormal, however, for purposes {normal} to their discipline.

Myth, religion, history, and especially literature, have been influenced by a seventh mode, `deconstruction,' in one or another of its forms. For deconstructionists, meaning recedes infinitely owing to the inherent inability of language (the signifier) to reach or even to point toward the signified. This collapse of meaning, this endless devolution of nonmeaning into nonmeaning, is Dante's hell, the endless circling downward and inward into darkness and helplessness. As Nancy Partner (among others) has argued, deconstruction is counterintuitive, and everyone eventually resorts to some version of `we have to assume.' The advantage of deconstruction is that it confirms that any world view is precarious (including deconstruction itself), and that therefore what historians define as {normal} is simply a definition based on the convenience and tradition of historians and has no claim to {truth} in any but a practical sense. The historian--indeed the human being--cannot function without making some act of faith or at least act of assumption. The opposite of the endless metonymic hell of deconstruction is heaven, in which meaning opens up in endless metaphor to the infinite variety which is Meaning Itself. I AM WHO AM catches the endless lapsus into nonbeing, throws it back into being, where it dissolves in the light and warmth of the immediate Presence.

But how can historians broaden their understanding so as to include the metanormal, to bring it within their norms? The prior question is whether the cosmos has inherent meaning. The logical premise is this: we all live in the same cosmos, and this cosmos is either one in which miracles do occur (the term is fuzzy-bordered but both traditional and convenient) or one in which they do not. This is not a dogmatic statement but rather a statement of what ought to be obvious. We have no choice as to which kind of cosmos it is. If the cosmos has no miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does; if it does have miracles, we are simply wrong to believe that it does not. We have no way of knowing intellectually which sort of cosmos it is.

Three fundamental approaches that historians may take follow: Approach A assumes that intelligent purpose works in the cosmos and that events may occur that are beyond naturalistic explanation. The best-known kind of such events are commonly called {miracles} convenient. In Approach A Perpetua's vision of heaven, for example, may really be a view into a {reality} beyond the {natural}. It still has the potential for naiveté. Approach A, in which historians treat {miracles} as part of what happens, or may happen, in the cosmos, is now so unpopular in the academic world that it is commonly simply assumed to be false. What does the statement `Perpetua may really have seen heaven' do to epistemology? Does not history deal with {facts}? Only if {facts} are defined as propositions with a high degree of probability. If epistemology is reconstructed as the study of {understanding}, then historians can indeed deal with the metanormal and rate such events according to degrees of possibility. This leads beyond reductionism. It is at least curious that spiritual {events} are the only category of events simply set aside by historians at the outset.

Approach B assumes that the cosmos is one in which the {miraculous} does not and cannot occur. This view, however cosmeticized, has its roots in naturalistic reductionism. The rule used by historians following approach B is that the more unusual an alleged event, the more evidence is required to make it believable. For a supposed unique event, then, such as a resurrection, the amount of evidence must be infinite, and therefore any alleged unique event is ruled outside the boundaries of history. But what if such events are not after all unique; what if they are in a category that actually occurs in {reality}?

With Approach B, there is not and cannot be any historical or scientific evidence for or against miracles. This approach simply yields no data at all pertaining to the question. In spite of that, the methodological choice not to deal with {miracles} can easily slip into the purely a priori stance that we live in a cosmos in which they cannot occur. The construction of knowledge by most scientists and historians is a pure act of faith in materialist reductionism, just as completely an act of faith as one that asserts the {reality} of miracles.

B also limits options. If, in order to write historically, I must assume that a metanormal explanation for an {event} must be a priori set aside, then I limit myself to the political and social questions surrounding the miracle. Even if I delve into why John believed the reported miracle and why Jane did not, I am treating John's and Jane's minds as data. And that means that I am failing to do the most important task of the historian, namely to be in dialog with our brothers and sisters who precede us in time, respecting them and their beliefs fully and without temporal chauvinist, chronocentric condescension.

A third approach--call it C--brackets the question whether miracles exist. [11] Without affirming A, it goes farther than B in that it treats persons' experience of metanormal events as an irreducible experience that must be taken seriously in itself and not explained away. Put another way, the number over time of well attested and well documented reports of {miracles} is such that one may argue that they are not to be treated as unique and thus not to be subject to the rule that alleged unique events require an infinite amount of evidence. Now, C does not merely restate the views of persons with such experience. It engages them.

Still, we may go beyond bracketing. Bracketing, for all its virtues, has limitations. One is this: it claims to avoid both A and B, but by bracketing out explanations beyond the framework of naturalism while accepting explanations and arguments within the framework of naturalism, it proceeds practically like B. C historians, like B ones, are not allowed by the rules to discuss whether a given miracle might have occurred, or how, or what providential results it might have brought. Sometimes a C work differs from a B work only by the inclusion of a statement that although miracles may or may not occur, this does not concern the writer as a historian. Stronger proponents of C deliberately reject naturalistic reductionism by pointing out the sometimes far-fetched and tortuous arguments that proponents of B make in response to miracle stories. Reductionists, by declaring all but naturalistic explanations a priori impossible, are sometimes forced to accept the least bad explanation that fits their bias. Bracketing avoids this problem. Nonetheless, the similarity of C to B means that most scholars, assume (correctly) that it is dangerous to explore beyond these boundaries. But the boundaries are artificial. To write history, as to play football, you abide by certain rules. But we are entitled to ask whether the rules might better be changed, or, better, developed.

Another problem of C is that the bracketer wears a mask, a persona, and pretends that he or she operates in a world of ideas unconnected to his or her own deeply held beliefs, feelings, and even experience. An essential difference exists between bias and point of view. Bias is taking a position and forcing the evidence to fit it. Point of view is engaging the whole human being with the question and therefore being willing to change--not only one's scholarly position but one's own life. One must understand Perpetua's own perspective, but one must engage it with one's own perspective. It is impossible (even if it were desirable) for scholars to bracket out everything about themselves in order to attain objectivity. But there is a great difference between bias and point of view. Bias is taking a position and forcing the evidence to fit it. Point of view is engaging the whole human being with the question and therefore being willing to change--not only one's scholarly position but one's own life.

[4] The medieval terms `mirum' and `miraculum' were generally interchangeable. Miracle: Augustine's view is that a miracle is an astonishing event sent by God: De civitate Dei 4.27. De utilitate credendi 16.34: `miraculum voco quidquid arduum est aut insolitum, supra spem vel facultatem mirantis.' `Mirum' is a broader term. See Le Goff's article here: he focuses particularly on the term `mirabilia' but claims to find three categories in medieval literature: the miraculous, the marvelous, and the magical.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. Thanks for the link.