DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Revelation

Why is the power and influence of traditional religion weakening in the 21st century? Various studies indicate that a majority is still religious to a considerable degree. And yet in the West churches are rapidly emptying. Many look elsewhere for inspiration. While few have time to work it out for themselves, one reason for ineffectiveness of traditional answers may be that perceptions of truth have changed radically.

Revelation is generally thought of as a disclosure by God, as distinct from "discovery" by us, of some information, command or wish concerning the natural order - of which we, of course, are part.

A well-respected and well-argued standpoint presented by H R Niebuhr holds that revelation can be understood as an event which so influences the imagination of an entire community that it forever changes the way that community perceives and interprets the world around it. That is, the world itself does not change; rather, it is our perception of the world which changes. 

Though it should be noted that, if I change, then the world of which I am part also changes - though I am so insignificant a part of that world that the change will be hardly noticeable and of little or no significance.

One source describes revelation as the disclosure of  "... hidden aspects of the character or purposes of God, of humanity in its relationship with God, and of what is to occur in the future through the providence of God." John Hick calls this "propositional revelation" - "a body of religious truths capable of being expressed in propositions." Such propositions are primary bearers of truths which cannot be arrived at by humans without input from God.  

All traditional renderings of the concept of revelation, however, seem to depend upon an unspoken assumption - that what is revealed is not available to us in any way whatsoever in the natural order. That is, revelation is from other-than the universe; from God to the natural order; a type of information which is not available to us through our experience of the natural. Because of this we can trust revealed information completely.

A number of reasons are given for revelation. They all have to do with the inability of humans to conceptualise God. Christian thinkers (Thomas Aquinas among them) have generally maintained that the divine can be known only indirectly, through its effects. To know God in any way requires a disclosure through physical means. 

But if God is completely "other" than the universe, how can we locate such disclosures? Some suggest that revelation is always in the form of symbols, analogies or parables which require interpretation in human terms (perhaps the strange visions of Ezekiel in the Old Testament are of this sort). If so, then revelation always comes to us indirectly through other people and through metaphors of various kinds.

Paul-Henri D'Holbach (1723-1789), in his time notorious for his atheism and the company he kept, protested in the name of common justice that revelation must, if salvation is in any way to hang upon it, be available to all. 

Remarking that 

All children are born atheists; they have no idea of God.

D'Holbach asked in The System of Nature:

What kind of revelation is it which cannot be understood? If only one man were incapable of understanding it, that circumstance alone would be sufficient to convict God of injustice.

To which the Church at large responds that it is the calling of those who do understand, and who are set aside by Christians as their pastors, to re-package God's revelation so that anyone disadvantaged in this way can understand. Thus interpretation of God's revelation is a primary task of the Church. The Roman Catholic tradition proclaims that one man alone, namely their Bishop of Rome, has the final say in matters of interpretation.

There are two possible media for revelation:

  1. God may impact directly on our thoughts [2]. We know that thoughts are electrochemical events in the tissue of the brain. So presumably disclosure of God comes through God's direct action on these events in the brain. When God manipulates the physical structure of our brains, the mental constructs of our minds are also altered - either (presumably) unconsciously or with our awareness.

    Thus individuals, either directly or through sacred writings, become the indirect sources of new awareness or information from God. They can then be perceived as the authority for the veracity of the revelation. This is the medium closest to the traditional understanding of revelation.

     

  2. God may be revealed through the medium of events. We may experience a realisation or understanding through such events, and in that way acquire new knowledge. William Temple thought that history is "... the intercourse of mind and event." 

    Richard Niebuhr wrote that revelation is "... that special occasion which provides us with an image by means of which all the occasions of personal and common life become intelligible." For Paul Tillich, revelation is encounter with the divine, the "... self-giving of the absolutely hidden, which by the very fact of its self-giving emerges from its concealment."

    Strictly speaking, this understanding of revelation undercuts the traditional idea of revelation, since all normal experience is of the natural universe. Only if the experience is directly of that which is not the natural order can it be said to be truly revelatory.

The propositional concept of revelation has as its main vehicle the Bible. It is thought of as a collection of books containing revealed truths which have been written down (i.e. in prepositions) for subsequent generations. The First Vatican Council said of the books of the Bible that they were written down "... as a result of the prompting of the Holy Spirit" and therefore "... have God for their author." A famous latter-day evangelist, Billy Graham, has said, "The Bible is a book written by God through thirty secretaries."

Revelation as God's self-revealing acts through the natural order has been the more popular Christian doctrine in the 20th century. Proponents of this view talk about "salvation history" (heilsgeschichte). By this appears to be meant a particular vein or current of history which, because it is perceived as God's revelation, is described and interpreted in a particular way. That is, it's not necessarily miraculous because it's God being revealed. Nor is it necessarily obvious to everyone. Indeed, it requires "faith" to be perceived and interpreted adequately. 

William Temple's classic rendering of this equation was that in heilsgeschichte "... there is event and appreciation, and in the coincidence of these the revelation consists." This seems to mean that events occur and that we notice and interpret them; only then do we appreciate that they are God's revelation to us. So if a famine cripples and nation and causes many deaths, we can read this as God's revelation to us. Or if humanity arrives at a new insight into the way nature works and derives great benefit from that insight, that can also be God's revelation. We can, presumably, also look back at past events and draw our conclusions from the tides and currents of history.

In the "events-revelation" model, the Bible loses its divine inspiration and becomes instead essentially a memoir or record of God's activities in the world. Its many different writers are those who have observed events as "salvation history" and recorded them in writing. Christian teachings are, in this view, not infallible direct revelations from God (though they might also be that) but human attempts to understand God-initiated events.

If one accepts that revelation comes from God through individuals, then one must also accept that some doctrines can be irrefutably true without supporting evidence. However, if one person experiences a revelation, then others should ideally have the identical experience. The alternative is that God speaks only to a few, who would consequently have the absolute power of absolute knowledge direct from the divine source. 

If this is how revelation comes to us, then there is essentially no difference between individual and group revelation. God can communicate the same message to the many just as easily as to the few. Those outside the chosen group have no external means of verification, just as the individual who misses out on revelation has no way of telling if another's claim to having received revelation is genuine. 

If revelation comes through an event, on the other hand, the meaning of that event is open to differing interpretations. In addition there will always be those who hold that the event is not revelatory. Who is to demonstrate that they are incorrect?

Stepping back from the details of how revelation might happen, it becomes apparent that for many today it is the possibility of revelation which is at issue, not so much the method. For if revelation is found to be unlikely or impossible, there is little point in wondering how it might happen. So we must ask, given the way we understand the universe today, is revelation a tenable theory? The matter is of some importance because the traditional theological systems of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all depend ultimately upon revelation.

The vast majority if scientists today find the concept of divine revelation at best uncomfortable, and more usually unacceptable. This is because the results of experiment cannot be trusted if a divine being has both the power and the need to intervene in physical events. It may be that the Divine "interferes" with science and, if so, no scientist can trust results or the theory they are designed to support.

There are at least three ways of perceiving reality (the universe) as a whole:

1. The universe may be an unbounded system, having no "outside" or "before" (if space/time began at the the Big Bang, then there is no space/time outside the universe). The universe is therefore a closed system. Or, if it is not closed, any revelatory interventions by God into it can't be observed, since those interventions can only be in terms of the universe itself. There is therefore no way of telling natural and revealed information apart.

2. It consists of two parts or compartments - one (the universe) to which we have access, and the other (the supernatural) beyond our direct access. This is a dualist universe, perhaps most effectively stated by Plato and his many successors. In this case information passes from one compartment to the other. And if all information involves energy in some form, then the universe is given more energy with each act of revelation.

3. It is a continuum, rather like the electromagnetic spectrum, of which we can be aware of only part (just as we can only see a tiny part of the electromagnetic wavelength spread). Thus, if somehow given a special perceptual ability, some humans may be able to perceive what others can't.

The latter two possibilities allow revelation in the sense that an invisible truth might be able to penetrate normal space-time; or information from one part of a spectrum might be encoded so that it is available to the space-time part. A question remains how anyone receiving such revelation is to distinguish it from normal information and demonstrate to others not receiving it that it is God's revelation.

The first possibility also allows revelation - but only in the sense that the space-time continuum is altered by some unknown entity of which we can, by definition, know nothing (which is the traditional teaching about God). But if the continuum is altered, then the entire fabric of the universe is altered by each intervention, since its interlocking sub-systems are all interdependent - even if only to a tiny degree. All knowledge comes in, and is retained in, some material form (even if that form is alteration of electro-chemical brain circuits). For God to reveal knowledge from a supernatural dimension "outside" the universe is therefore to alter the material structure of the system we call the "universe". In this sense, history begins anew every time God communicates with us through the process we call revelation.

There are, of course, many aspects of truth. But broadly speaking there are two main dimensions in which we process truths. One is what we normally call subjective truth. This is available only to the individual. That is, each of us has our own unique perceptions of the universe. These subjective perceptions can be stated but not verified. If I say, "I have been told by God to stand on my head," you may see me standing on my head as a result of what I call revelation, but you have no way of verifying that God has indeed spoken to me.

The other dimension is normally called objective. If I say, "God has told me that the world will end on Thursday," the rest of humankind has only to wait until midnight on Thursday to verify the accuracy of the revelation. But its inaccuracy doesn't demonstrate that God didn't speak to me, only that if God did speak to me, God was incorrect or I misunderstood the message.

The fabric of all modern analytical knowledge - from mathematics and physics to archeology and geology - is based upon the continuity of cause and effect. Or rather, space/time flows in an unbroken stream in which at any one moment everything is connected to everything else. What we say is a "cause" and its "effect" are actually elements of that ceaseless, completely joined-up flow of space/time. We are helped by this artificial, analytic separation to better understand the world around us. 

What appears to be the case, however, is that we can't always predict exactly which effect will proceed from a cause (as Newtonians once thought). Rather, the continuity of cause and effect at its most basic level is not determined but probable. 

For example, if I use the most accurate measurements and methods available to calculate the position of Venus in the night sky, it will be in that position - but not exactly. There will always be a small degree of error. I can therefore only predict its probable position even though in theory my calculations are exact. I don't know exactly what effect will result from any cause. But I do know that every cause will have an effect; or more accurately, that every moment and every action are joined to everything else.

The system which is the universe of space/time consists of sub-systems which maintain themselves within the greater system. If revelation happens, the natural systems of cause and effect upon which all our modern knowledge is based, is rendered an illusion. 

If God, for example, does protect us from drought or cause rain to fall to end a drought, then all our knowledge of weather systems is pointless. We can never predict what might happen, nor can we know what part of the universal system was changed. If God injects any knowledge into the human system of knowledge which has been, as it were, carved out of the multiple cause-and-effect systems which we call our world, then we can never know how those systems truly work; how they adapt and change; and how we can manage them.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam claim to be historical religions. That is, their truth depends on events which actually happened. We are able, they say, to track actual events in the past which really happened. History depends upon cause-and-effect for its efficacy as a means to knowledge. 

We have to assume, for example, that Adolf Hitler decided to invade Russia during the Second World War. That decision (a "cause", albeit one among many in this instance) led to a long chain of events which we can broadly trace down to present times. But if God intervenes, either with propositions (direct into our brains, thus influencing or even stimulating decisions) or through events (by forcing Hitler's hand in some way) then history becomes an impossible discipline since we cannot know which causes were part of the natural cause-and-effect chain and which were due to God's direct action.

This argument, or others similar to it, has made the religious concept of revelation extremely difficult to sustain. Although the concept of revelation seems attractive on the surface, many people instinctively recognise that life's not like that. They are accustomed to testing information for its truth with little or no resort to authority as such. I may accept the authority of scientists that bosons exist. But I am always (at least in theory) open to the possibility that they don't exist. I may accept that God led Hitler to defeat, but so much other data indicates otherwise (unless revelation is always hidden and therefore irrelevant) that the likelihood of God intervening to cause Hitler's defeat is slight.

In short, if we receive information of any sort from God via revelation that information can't be doubted. Hence religious claims to absolute truth [3]. But more and more people no longer see truth as absolute. Truth for them is essentially provisional. It is provisional in the sense that each person's vision of truths changes from time-to-time; in the sense that humanity at any one time has a wide variety of understandings of truth; and especially that so-called scientific truths are not only always open to change, but also inevitably open change, elaboration and refinement. [4]
_____________________________________________________
[1] "Discovery" in the same sense that humanity "discovered" the scientific
      method, for example. It amounts to a new way of seeing the universe, what
      Thomas Kuhn termed a new paradigm. We are now literally forced to view
      our world as a highly complex, interlocking system, recognising for example
      that climate change is the result of massive and rapid alterations in certain
      key sub-systems about which we are not yet certain. If we don't change the 
      ways in which we perceive and manage our planet, we run the risk of
      triggering events which could destroy us as a species. Without a systems
      perspective we will not be able to modify climate change.
[2] One other approach is that of John Dominic Crossan in In Parables
    
(Polebridge Press, 1992): "God does not act in history or intervene in time. It
     is the presence of God which, in calling for our response, creates our history
     and gives us time, this history and this time. Time is, in both cases, the
     present of God."
[3] For a chain of thought which claims this, see Dominus Iesus  
[4] See also Revelation Revisited

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