1 Religion and Revelation
Different religions have totally different understandings of life. History is at the very nature of Christian claims. But history is of no importance at all to the Buddhist way of thought. The Western idea of logic and history is similarly inappropriate in understanding Hinduism.
Amongst the religions of the world several claim to be based upon revelation. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormons (and possibly the Hare Krishna) all claim to be based upon revelation. These are the religions of a personal god. This god is known through revealing himself to us. It is upon the basis of this revelation that we can know who God is and what he requires of us.
2 Revelation Differs
While these different religions all claim to be based on revelation, their perspective about revelation differs considerably. Revelation comes by a different mode as well as giving a different content. Consequently the way of evaluation will be very different. That the revelation is of a different content is easy for us to understand. Judaism accepts the Old Testament and rejects the New Testament thus claiming that Jesus is not the Messiah. Christianity accepts the Old and New Testament claiming that Jesus is the Messiah. Islam claims to accept the Old and New Testament as well as the Qur’an. But it claims the Old and New Testaments have been corrupted and are unreliable. Islam claims that Jesus is a prophet and not the crucified and resurrected Son of God. Mormons claim to accept the Old and New Testament and the book of Mormon. Similarly to the Muslims, Mormons claim that the Bible has errors and so rely on the perfect book of Mormon and thus give yet another understanding of God’s message to mankind.
However, not only the content but also the mode of revelation differs. In Judaism God speaks by his prophets. They speak and he speaks through them. Their words are his inspired word. Within Christianity it is accepted that God speaks through men such that as they speak he speaks, but God has also spoken through his son becoming man. That is, Jesus is God’s word. In Islam the prophet Mohammed, through the mediation of the Archangel Gabriel, reads the word of God out loud and his scribe takes it down. Thus the Qur’an claims not to be ‘the word of man’ but only ‘the word of God’. Similarly it is claimed that the book of Mormon was found – written on golden plates and translated perfectly into English by the use of specially designed glasses. Both the golden plates and the special glasses were subsequently removed. Thus the Jewish and Christian mode of revelation involves the speech and writings of men in a way that the Muslim and Mormon method of revelation does not. Consequently, for both the Mormons and the Muslims their holy book has an absolute authority and precision that exceeds that given to the Old and New Testaments by Jews and Christians. Furthermore, both the Muslims and Mormons claim perfect transmission of their holy book so that the modern edition is precisely and accurately the perfect result of God’s word to mankind.
These differences in: kind of literature, character of inspiration and authority of transmission, mean differences in criteria of judgement. The Qur’an claims to be the very words of prophecy without any human admixture. But the Bible claims poetry and history, apocalyptic and proverbs. The canons of evaluation and judgement involved with an historical narrative are quite different to those of prophetic proposition. Thus we expect the eye-witnesses to disagree about incidental detail of the events they are recording. Not to disagree would bring the charge of collusion. However, prophetic propositions we expect to be right in every detail, especially if there is no human admixture and the text has been authoritatively transmitted today.
3 Revelatory Circles
Revelatory religions always seem circular. Their circularity gives them great intellectual power and strength. However, their circularity seems off-putting to those who are outside the religious group. By circularity I mean that they are self confirming. That is, you believe the Bible because the Bible says that the Bible is reliable. You know the Bible is reliable because the Bible says it is reliable. You believe that the Bible is right about its view of itself because the Bible is reliable. In these previous three sentences you could transpose the word Bible for Qur’an or the book of Mormon.
For those who are on the circle, that is those who already believe their sacred book, there is a great confidence that what they believe is right. All the evidence of the world is viewed from the perspective of believing in the revelation. Whatever is in conformity with the revelation is believable; whatever is not in conformity with the revelation is unbelievable. Because the sole authority in all matters of faith and religion is their book then anything that disagrees with their book is by definition wrong. The only way their book can be disproved is from within their book itself. But as their book is the authoritative interpreter of their book, even these contradictions will be explicable. Thus the whole system has an internal consistency, which buttresses weak faith and confirms insecure people.
Whenever outsiders evaluate this revelation, their evaluation is held in question because of their lack of understanding. They do not understand because they do not think as those who are being taught by the book. Their value system is different. Their criteria for judgement are faulty. Thus the circularity of the ‘revelation religions’ creates great resistance to the world’s evaluation. This is all the more powerful when we remember that the world has itself not agreed upon any evaluation system. There is no absolute even in logic. Thus to submit your revelatory book to the judgements of the world’s philosophy is to submit your absolute authority to some relative fashion and fad in philosophical thinking. Usually most people will accept contradiction as being a philosophical absolute. However, the use of antinomy and paradox and even the acceptance of contradiction are all available to those with a revelation philosophy of life.
One of the great weaknesses of the circularity of revelation is its inability to attract outsiders. If you’re in the circle it may be very confirming and comforting. But if you are an outsider, what is it about the circle that can attract you? Some insecure people are attracted by a system with absolute answers. But, why choose this system, why not another? And what intellectual defence or argument can you give for accepting this particular circle? If there is no common ground between you, the outsider, and the circle of faith then how can you transfer from one to the other? Those of us within revelatory circle either talk to ourselves in a language that is completely meaningless to the outsider or seemingly concede that ours is not a perfect circle, that we are open to evaluation and judgements that come from outside our source of authority.
4 Revelation Tangents
What we need are some tangents by which people can come from outside and join onto the circle. And yet any tangent by which people can join must also be one by which people can leave. All religions have tangential relationships with the world, places at which the revelation touches the world’s perspectives. They are points where the word of God intersects with the existence of humanity. These are points of contact, interchange, and mutual evaluation. They are not points where only the world does the evaluation, for they are also points where the revelation is able to evaluate the world as well. So they are points of both apologia and kategoria.
b Varied Evaluations
These tangents, and the evaluations that can be made at the points of contact, will vary from one holy book to another. For the New Testament history is an important tangent whereas for the Qur’an it is relatively insignificant. However, each of the circles will touch upon the world in terms of history, science, philosophy, lifestyle, ethics and morality and other revelatory circles. That is, humans claim knowledge from a series of different sources and in a series of different areas. Wherever the human knowledge touches upon the revelatory claims there is this point of mutual evaluation. Thus where the Bible or the Qur’an or the book of Mormon makes a statement about the physical nature of the universe, the scientist, who investigating the nature of the universe has come to some perception as to its character, may be in a position of being able to evaluate the revelation by his scientific conclusions and evaluate his scientific conclusions by the revelation. Agreement between the revelation and empirical investigation does not prove the rightness of either but makes movement from one to the other easier. If there is disagreement he may have to
i) choose between which source of knowledge he trusts, or
ii) hold a suspended judgement about one or other or both, or
iii) accept the possibility of contradiction within truth.
The character of the revelation determines the significance of any of these tangents. Thus the Bible makes very few scientific claims, if any, about the nature of the universe. However, it does make great claims about the wisdom for lifestyle, relationship between the testaments, and historical veracity etc. Thus the normal tangent by which one can approach the claims of Christianity, is that of history. For the Bible is claiming that certain events happened in time and were seen by witnesses who have recorded their experiences. Furthermore, it claims, that if these things have not happened then Christianity is fraud.
c 2 Way Evaluation
However, we must remember that the evaluation goes both ways. History is not an absolute discipline. It, like science and philosophy, has its assumptions and presuppositions. Events only have meaning within a particular philosophical worldview. In a worldview of meaninglessness the events of Christianity will be meaningless. We must not imagine that we will be able to “prove” Christianity to someone who is walking along a tangential line of thinking. Nor must we accept a tangent’s evaluation of Christianity for Christianity may make more sense of history than history does of Christianity.
d Spiritual Evaluation
Furthermore, we must understand the character of spiritual evaluation. Cynicism and scepticism undermine genuine enquiry as profoundly as gullibility and naivety. To the nihilistic cynic nothing can ever be demonstrated. Not even our own existence can be proven. Furthermore, we must understand our society’s constraints on fair evaluation. We have all been raised within one particular culture and find it easier to think and evaluate in terms of the culture in which we have been raised. Because we are evaluating a system of thought which is different to the one in which we were raised it does take special effort to be fair. This is true of those who are in any revelatory circle and are evaluating another revelatory circle just as it is true of those who are within the circle and evaluating the tangent or are on the tangent and are seeking to evaluate the circle. If you come from a secularized, atheistic society, people’s religious view of the world seems strange and their judgements seem illogical. It is necessary to hear and understand their way of evaluation before you make hasty decisions.
However, it is not just the intellectual culture determinants that influence our evaluation. The society does or does not give us freedom to enquire. Some societies by law prevent open discussion. Some mini societies by emotional manipulation and blackmail do not allow fair enquiry. Many families put enormous pressure upon people so that they will not change their religious affiliation. Such emotional pressure can also be applied by certain cults or sects, which will not allow the balance of family and society opinion to colour the thought processes of the cult member. Evaluation under coercion can never be genuine evaluation.
Yet from a revelatory point of view the greatest difficulty in evaluation is that of arrogance. Because all revelations claim to be words of God, they call upon people to submit to what is being said. Because the outsider has not yet submitted to the revelatory message, they read the revelation with a critical arrogance demanding of the revelation that it comes up to their standard. This critical arrogance the Bible calls sin. It is the establishment of self as the authority to whom God is answerable rather than the acknowledgement that God is the authority to whom we are answerable. Such a sense of judgementalism, especially backed with profound scepticism or cynicism, prevents people from hearing and obeying God’s word.
1 What are the tangents that touch Christianity?
2 What are the points of contact between Christianity and other revelatory religions?
3 Why are you not a Muslim?
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Philip was chaplain 1975–2005.