Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara


I address miracles and the metanormal as a historian of concepts, first suggesting some changes in vocabulary, notably the replacement of the term 'supernatural` by the term 'metanormal,' then addressing some epistemological stances that one may take toward what has been called the 'supernatural', and ending with a proposal for a working position. My intent is not to prove the existence of the 'supernatural' in any shape, but rather to challenge the common academic complacency in dismissing it. As a historian, I wish to test the traditional boundaries of historical explanation.

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]

An example of the metanormal is the third-century Passio Perpetuae. [5] First, it is in a category--visions--that does not leap to mind as {miraculous}. Resurrections, uncorrupted corpses, restorations of limbs, and other colorful {miracles} were usually more effective in engendering or confirming faith, but that is what makes a less concrete example such as a vision more marginal, less proselytizing, and thus more useful in a discussion of the metanormal. Second, Perpetua stands in a Christian tradition that stretches from the 'Shepherd of Hermas' to the Paradiso. Third, the Passion obviously can be read in thisworldly historical and literary terms, but the text itself reports the vision as a {miracle} in which the author/persona {really} sees heaven as it {really} is. [6] The Passio Perpetuae, one of the first books of {miracles}, was written in 203, the date of the aristocratic young catechumen and mother Vibia Perpetua's martyrdom in Carthage under Septimius Severus at the age of about 22, along with a number of other martyrs including her teacher Saturus and the slave Felicity. Part of the text was composed by Perpetua herself, part probably by Saturus, and then the whole was redacted. [7] The text contains two {miraculous} visions describing heaven, Perpetua's and Saturus's. For present purposes I conflate the two visions and speak of one persona. [8]

The persona is led to the East by four angels. She comes first to a vast space and then sees crystal walls shining with light and guarded by angels. She ascends the walls by a ladder, or else she advances up a gentle slope toward heaven and meets her priest and bishop, but they are unable to enter because it is reserved for martyrs and angels. Entering heaven, she sees a vast garden and in the midst of it a tall, white-haired man dressed as a shepherd sitting milking his sheep--he gives her some cheese--or else she sees him sitting on a throne. [9] Whether enthroned or milking, he is surrounded by twenty-four angels and by a throng of thousands dressed in shining white robes, the candidi martyres. The new martyr is received and acclaimed by the twenty-four angels, and she goes to play with the other martyrs in paradise. The hilares martyrs enjoy otium divinum, games appropriate to those free from weaknesses and passions. Heaven is a hortus inclusus in which the Tree of Life and other trees stand amid limpid pools and fragrant blooms. The persona enjoys a philosophical conversation in a rose garden. She meets Christ, who gives her the kiss of peace. Following this miraculous vision, which she recounts to her fellows, Perpetua--now understood as author as well as persona, meets her death and (like Dante later) ascends to heaven again, this time to stay. We are asked to assume that the author found it as the persona left it.

Before broaching my own suggestion as to how to treat such a metanormal account, I briefly review some other modes of understanding. The underlying question is epistemological: how do we know what is really going on?

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 an 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.

A word on terms. If {truth} is defined as ultimate reality as God sees it, we are incapable of reaching it or even intending it, as God himself says through Isaiah (55): `My thoughts are not your thoughts...as far as the heavens are above the earth are my thoughts above your thoughts.' We are on the other hand able to seek a coherent subjective worldview. Also, we can open ourselves to {understanding}. {Understanding} goes beyond subjectivity to engage the world beyond our minds. We can practically and comfortably assume that a world does exist beyond our minds. Our minds developed as a response to recurring real situations in the world. A Cromagnon man attacked by a wolf did not deconstruct the wolf: either he killed it, or he died. If our perceptions had no connection with outside reality, we would be extinct. The creative tension between our minds and what is beyond them produces phenomena--things as we perceive them--and whatever our doubts about {truth} we can be confident of {understanding} phenomena. I have called the historical study of phenomena the history of concepts. Concepts are the human constructs resulting from the tension between our minds and external reality, and these concepts are constructed socially as well as individually.

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; it 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.

That point of view is best which incorporates and engages as many previous and alternative angles of vision as possible. From Perpetua herself to us today, we engage in many dialogues: among ourselves here present; with previous historians; with Perpetua herself. This dialogue is intentional to {understanding}.

Recognizing the precariousness of any worldview, including our own, we can establish a dialogue with people earlier in time than ourselves, respecting them fully as human beings. We cannot encounter our subjects as living, hoping, suffering people, unless we listen to their voices. The dead are speaking to us. We can unpack Perpetua's text by metaphor, by drawing it out. What was the author thinking, and feeling, that urged her to express her thoughts in a vision? What were her implicit, unconscious assumptions, those that she would not or could not express because they seemed to her to be givens needing no argument or explanation?

Perpetua does not express herself as a historian, theologian, or philosopher. Neither does she intend her vision as allegory, though allegory it is (among other things). Perpetua expresses the moral structure of the cosmos, of the society, of the Christian community, and of the human soul. The vision may be termed myth, but myth as ontological statement. Mythical cosmology, different though it is from historical or scientific cosmology, intends ontological meaning.

Medieval writers themselves often drew a distinction between poetical allegory, which is in verbis only, and divine or biblical allegory, which is non in verbis sed in facto. If Perpetua had had to face the question, she would have claimed her allegory to be in facto as a divine revelation of what the heavenly world is actually like. Perpetua's narration, like Dante's, is at least one powerful way to express the eternal moment of Paradise, for which we have neither vocabulary nor image. Since the vision of God is timeless, it must be allegorically translated into time for a human audience. We engage Perpetua with gratitude and love, less as an icon of the church than as a fellow human being. The imposition of methodologies or ideologies created by intellectuals, bureaucrats, or zealots upon people who neither understand them nor want them is one of the greatest evils in the world today. It is less painful, but it is just as unfair, to impose them upon the mute and unresisting dead. Indeed the dead are mute only if we smother them--smother, because perhaps they are not dead at all.

The point of history, and its great joy, is to encounter people in the past as real people, to rescue them from oblivion, to restore them as living, whole human beings. That means opening ourselves as much as possible to encountering them in their own terms, unblinkered by any modern ideology or academic fashion. The people of the past are not mummies, nor are they statistics. History is never about the dead past, always about the present: it is about our relationship, now, with all people wherever and whenever they live. They are our living brothers and sisters. Perpetua is our beloved mother, sister, child.

For their criticisms and suggestions I am grateful to Stafford Betty, Sharon Farmer, Richard Hecht, Rick Kennedy, Leonard Marsak, Nancy Partner, Jan Ryder, Miriam Vivian, and Tim Vivian, many of whom have substantial differences from me on the subject. Helpful articles and books include: Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 2d ed., London, Harcourt Brace, 1965; Nancy Partner, `Making Up Lost Time: Writing on the Writing of History,' Speculum 61 (1986), pp. 90-117; Nancy Partner, `Notes on the Margins: Editors, Editions, and Sliding Definitions,' in Roberta Frank (ed), The Politics of Editing Medieval Texts, New York, AMS Press, 1993, pp. 1-18; C. A. J. Coady, Testimony, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 179-197; Francis Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant, and Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1984, pp. 15-40; Pierre Boglioni, `Miracle et nature chez Grégoire le Grand,' Cahiers d'études médiévales 1 (1974), pp. 11-102; Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987; Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984; Jacques LeGoff, `The Marvelous in the Medieval West,' in LeGoff, The Medieval Imagination, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 27-44; Elizabeth Avilda Petroff, `Women in the Early Church: St. Perpetua and St. Macrina,' in Petroff (ed), Medieval Women's Visionary Literature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 60-77; Gábor Klaniczay, The Uses of Supernatural Power, Karen Margolis (ed), Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990.

[1] Summa theologiae Ia 29.1.4: Following Aristotle in 5 Metaphysics, the name natura first means the generation of living things, i.e. nativitas. Then the word is extended to mean the intrinsic principle of any given motus. And thus it is defined in 2 Physics. A principle of this kind is formal and material, so that both form and matter can be called natura. And the essence of a thing may therefore be called natura. Boethius had said (De duabus naturis 1): `natura est unumquodque informans specifica differentia.' It is better to use the word `nature' for the essence of a particular thing, reserving the word `essence,' which comes from esse, to the communissimum (the species as a whole). ST Ia 23.1: the Beatific Vision is supernatural: `vita eterna, quae in divina visione consistit, quae est supra naturam cuiuslibet creaturae.' ST Ia 12.4: Entities: `Utrum aliquis intellectus creatus per sua naturalia divinam essentiam videre possit.' Therefore to see the essence of God is `supra naturam illius cognoscentis. Quod est supra facultatem naturalem intellectus animae humanae, secundum statum praesentis vitae, quo corpori unitur.' ST Ia IIae 10.1 says that various meanings of natura exist, whether matter, or material form, or substantia or ens. ST IIIa 2.1: natura derives from the word `nascendo': `nomen naturae a nascendo.' But even taking natura as signifying the essence of a being, the word natura cannot be applied to the union of the Word with the Father. The Divine nature is in no way univocal with human or other nature. But the word nature can be used because the divine nature is that which is essential in God. Natura divina est incorporea. God is not supra naturam; things are supra naturam only when they surpass that which is naturale to them.


[3] As on most subjects, Augustine changed his views. Before about 390 he believed that the only miracles were the great ones of the past: creation and incarnation, resurrection, and ascension. In the 390s, in order to strengthen his hand against pagan skeptics, he shifted to the view that contemporary miracles occurred and could be demonstrated. The greatest miracle is creation itself, so that everything is both natural and miraculous. The cosmos is the great signum of God's energetic creativity, and events in the cosmos are important much less as physical than as typological. De Genesi ad litteram, 9.16-18; De Trinitate, 3.5-10; De utilitate credendi; De civitate Dei, 22; Sermons 320-324.

[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.

[5] J. Armitage Robinson (ed), The Passion of S. Perpetua Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1891, pp. 66-68; 78-80. See Petroff, Dronke, and A. Fridh, Le Problème de la Passion des saintes Perpétue et Félicité, Göteborg, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1968; R. Petraglio, `Des Influences de l'Apocalpyse dans la "Passio Perpetuae," 11-13,' in Yves Christe (ed), L'Apocalypse de Jean: Traditions exégétiques et iconographiques, Geneva, Droz, 1979, pp. 15-29.

[6] The Passio Perpetuae might be considered typology. Typology differs from symbolism in that it is properly reserved to identifying two or more figures in the same text. If the Bible is taken as a text, we then have Adam/Christ. But of course Jews do not accept the New Testament, and beyond that the Old Testament was written by a variety of authors. Hence the term typology can also be applied more widely to the Passio if it is seen as part of the long story of the church. So Perpetua's ascent is a typos of Christ's ascension--and also of Dante's journey later.

[7] On the text see Dronke, pp. 281-283. Perpetua's part is 3-10; Saturus' 11-13; the rest (1-2; 14-21) is by the redactor. Saturus' part was originally probably in Greek; the others probably in Latin.

[8] As with St Paul himself, it is unclear whether the persona in the miraculous vision is in the body or out of the body. The author's imagery draws upon both classical and Christian sources, including the Old Testament, the pseudepigrapha, Luke, Revelation, Christian Apocrypha, and Hermas. Whether Perpetua saw her vision in a dream or in a waking moment is irrelevant; in either case she perceived it as a miraculous revelation of what heaven was {really} like.

[9] Perpetua 24.8: `Et vidi spatium immensum horti et in medio sedentem hominem canum, in habitu pastorali, grandem, oves mulgentem; et circumstantes candidati milia multa.' Tertullian comments on this in De anima 55.4-5.

[10] The critique of miracles became more and more sophisticated through the Middle Ages. See Janet K. Ryder, `Miracles and Mentality: The Medieval Experience,' diss. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1993.

[11] Suggested by Professor Richard Hecht.