Revelation – Who Can You Believe?

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All religious claims to be authoritative in some important sense rely on the concept of revelation. By its very nature, religion assumes it is dealing with phenomena that are essentially different from “ordinary” experience.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, this claim that religious experience cannot be dealt with the way we deal with other experience makes it problematic. It suggests that humans have special capacities for experiencing these phenomena, and, presumably, special methods for distinguishing between legitimate experiences of this sort and bogus, misleading, or illusory ones.

It would be too presumptuous to assume that there are no such reliable methods or tests, because clearly most religious groups think there are, and at least some have what they consider to be carefully worked out theories of revelation – including ways of distinguishing between legitimate and not so legitimate instances of revelation. As far as I can tell these methods boil down to two distinct types.

The Roman Catholic Approach to Revelation

Over in one corner we have the example of the Roman Catholic Church. The RC “revelation verification system” clearly assumes that revelation is a fact of life – that god does special things in special circumstances that are significantly “revealing” of whatever message he/she/it deems worthy of revealing at that special time.

But the RC Church is steeped in history. And if there is one thing that history teaches us about religion it is that humans have a tendency to stray from the authorized message. The RC version of that authorized message has been worked out over centuries and is the jealously guarded possession of the church hierarchy. It is they (the hierarchy) who do the authorizing of that core message, and it is they who evaluate new revelation in the light of that core message.

This goes for anything that has a bearing on or may have an influence on that core message: theological teachings, the relationship of doctrine and science, the role of scripture, the interpretation and legitimization of miracles, the moral code adherents are expected to follow, the church’s legitimate role in politics, and on and on.

This clearly suggests that while Roman Catholics theoretically accept that god reveals himself through individuals in what we might call “direct revelation”, they do not accept that the simple say so of the recipient of that revelation is enough to legitimize it. The church hierarchy applies tests and it is only after this testing process has been completed that an instance of “revelation” is accepted as authoritative. The authorizing of supposed “miracles” is a good example. But a similar process has been applied throughout the history of the church to the authorization of scripture, and the development of core doctrine (“creeds” for example) through official church Councils.

Protestants and Direct Revelation

Meanwhile, in the other corner we have so-called “reformed” Christian denominations – Protestants – who balk at the idea of a bunch of old guys in funny suits and hats making decisions on behalf of god. They are much more inclined to accept that god speaks directly to individuals – some say selected individuals at special times, others say to all believers on a regular basis.

Now clearly Protestants have a problem here. Without an “authority” different interpretations of virtually every aspect of the faith abound. Many put up a good front by claiming the Bible is the only authority they need. But as everyone knows, the Bible is open to different interpretations too, so that claim just shoves the “who is the authority” question back without solving anything.

This authority problem is reflected in the splintered history of the Protestant wing of Christianity, not to mention the bizarre doctrinal mutations that take place among Protestants on a regular basis.

Who Decides It’s Really Revelation

So there we have it. The two most widely held versions of “revelation verification” in the Christian Church, and both suffer from the same problem: namely, they beg the question of “Who Decides”. The outsider looking in says “You tell me god is revealing something to you. But lots of crazy people say the same thing. And when I ask ‘Who am I to believe?’ you tell me ‘Don’t worry about it. Just believe us. We have the only authorized council of elders, or the only authorized interpretation of the holy book.’”

This throws the whole notion of “revelation” into question. Without a means of verifying what a particular religious group claims is a message from god, there is nothing to distinguish the authority or legitimacy of one message from another. All revelation is driven to the level of Joseph Smith (Mormonism). As we saw in the case of “religious experience”, it is not enough to simply say “This is a different kind of experience and should be evaluated by different criteria.”

But ultimately there are no criteria. We are simply asked to believe.