18 September 2016

A Sunday School Lesson: Christian Revelation and Knowledge:

Religion is a ubiquitous aspect of human experience. Every culture has acknowledged the existence of divinity in some form or another. Some cultures professed a belief in hundreds of deities arranged in an elaborate polytheistic hierarchy. They associated these deities with specific geographic locations or with forces of nature. Other cultures such as the ancient Hebrews, believed in one true God above an array of lesser spiritual entities, some benevolent others malevolent. Some of these cultures have asserted--or continue to assert today--that their deity has revealed his will to his followers. In Western culture, this claim is asserted by followers of a ancient Middle Eastern deity named Yahweh. They claim that he not only revealed his will through sacred writings collected in the Bible, but also that he revealed himself in human flesh in the Roman province of Judea over 2,000 years ago. Here at the Rational Right--necessarily brief introduction to the idea of divine revelation and asks if knowledge ever comes through divine revelation.

According to the Bible, God’s revelation came through several different means. God communicated through dreams, visions, personal visitations by himself or angels, audible voices out of heaven, and something called inspiration, in which he "breathed out" information that he wanted mankind to know.  The immediate question that comes to mind is how did the biblical characters (or people today in some religious traditions) become convinced that  God talked to them? The Bible reports these episodes of divine revelation in a very "matter of fact" way. God communicated; they responded. The scriptures do not often record anyone pondering about the voice, or dream, or vision.

Moreover, someone allegedly recorded these revelations that they or someone else claimed to have experienced. They took the form of chronologies, poetry, proverbs, and apocalyptic prophesy. The earliest of these writings established the religious traditions of the Jews.  After the arrival of an apocalyptic rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth additional sacred writings emerged. These  writings purported to be accounts of the life of Jesus, letters of didactic instruction by Paul and others to local Christian communities, and one last apocalyptic account of the imminent ushering in of the age of righteousness.

Whatever the literary form, believers today allege that the contents of the Bible is knowledge that God wants known about his dealings with mankind. And they claim everyone else should believe, too. What are we to make of such claims? Obviously, the alleged revelations took place in the minds or souls of the recipient. It consists of a private subject experience with a first-person ontology. Because we cannot gain access to the contents of  another's mind, we can only weigh their claims after the fact.

We might try putting ourselves in their places and ask ourselves if the claims make any sense. How would one of us today respond today if we heard a "still small voice" or a louder "voice out of heaven"? What if the normal content of our consciousness suddenly experienced an interruption in the form of a vision announcing, "We interrupt this cognitive apprehension of external reality with a brief visionary and largely symbolic message from Almighty God?" What is the socially and spiritually appropriate reply to someone claiming to be an angelic cosmic courier? Would we, too,  conclude that God is speaking to us? We would we dismiss it? Or would we immediately recall with alarm the conclusion of  the late Dr. Thomas Szasz-- "If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia” ?

And because at least 2,000 years has passed since even the most recent of these revelations, it becomes that much more difficult to believe such claims. Obviously, most religions which claim to possess written revelations from God emerged in a pre-scientific age. Dreams, visions, and angelic announcements constituted part of their traditions. Even processes of  nature lent themselves to supernatural explanation. Today we assume a more skeptical posture both to the idea of divine revelation itself and its alleged content. In our contemporary age we are more likely to hear more about encounters with aliens than with angels.

How to believers respond to such claims?

First, in order to believe that knowledge can come through divine revelation, they must assume that God exists. Second, they must also assume that he wants to communicate. Then they turn to reason, or rationalizations.

Most content in the Bible consists of pretty mundane stuff. In fact, some people argue against the divine origin of the bible for precisely this reason: it offers nothing than any human being could not produce. Because the texts take place in specific times and geographic locations that are well known, they appear more reasonable that some other ancient religions. A real historical, geographical, and cultural context imbues these religious writings with at least an appearance of  historicity and reasonableness and thus justifies Christians in their dismissal of other primitive religions with more exotic claims as mere superstitions.

But some claims asserted in the Bible appear beyond reason or down right unreasonable. Such teachings as the existence of  angels and spirits, other dimensions such as heaven and hell, miracles, and particular aspects of church dogma such as the trinity, the incarnation, and the vicarious atonement are not subject to analysis through senses or reason.

That's when believers justify belief in private and subjective alleged  revelations with even more
subjectivity. When the content of alleged revelation cannot be evaluated by reason, believers exercise what they claim is an alternative means to knowledge: faith.  Faith moves believers to assent to those propositions in the Bible that are not evident to reason. They claim that God’s Holy Spirit grants them the faith and convinces them that the Bible is the inspired word of God (1 Cor. 2.1-16). But this, too, is a private and  subjective experience that takes place in the mind or soul of the individual believer. 

In light of these observations, it is difficult to conclude that any knowledge comes through revelation. Or more exactly, it is difficult to conclude that we can know that any knowledge comes through revelation.

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