On the Objectivity of Revelation

Revelation isn’t indisputably obvious. It cannot be straightforwardly read off of history, nature, or culture. One must be taught to see revelation. What can this mean? Why think that’s the case? How is it learned?

1. R. P. C. Hanson on the historical record of disputes over the content of revelation

It is … quite clear that the process [of defining orthodoxy] was a process of trial and error. Almost everybody changed their ideas in some way during it. A satisfactory vocabulary, a clear and constructive way of thinking, only gradually emerged. Men learnt by experience, by controversy, by seeing their own mistakes and the mistakes of others. This is how orthodoxy was reached in the fourth century. It is probable that this is the way that orthodoxy is always achieved. There must be a preliminary period of confusion, of groping, of uncertainty. Diverse and clashing views must be given expression. Conference, conversation, perhaps even confrontation, are an unavoidable part of the process.

From The Making of Orthodoxy, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 153-4.

2. N. K. Verbin on the logic of revelation’s mode of perception

One important feature that distinguishes different perceptual phenomena from one another is the role of a conceptual scheme, of language and a particular type of training and education in some perceptions but not in others. On that score, we can distinguish the perception of objects and colors from the perception of beauty, courage and God. While the perception of objects and colors does not presuppose the mastery of a language and is, therefore, naturally applied to animals, the perceptions of courage, beauty and God presuppose the mastery of a language, and are therefore restricted to people who master the relevant conceptual scheme. While we describe dogs as seeing other dogs, cats and birds, we do not ordinarily describe them as hearing the beauty of a sonata, nor do we describe them as perceiving the courage in an act. The role of a conceptual scheme, of culture, and of a particular type of education within such perceptions reveals the manners in which such phenomena incorporate a different although related conception of “experience.”

Perceiving God, whether through a mystical union, or in the more ordinary experience of seeing God in the beauty of the universe is an experience which presupposes a complex conceptual scheme, a particular type of training and education. As such, it is not applied to animals nor is it applied to little children before they speak. Neither dogs nor babies are ordinarily reported as having mystical experiences. In respect to the role of language, training, and education in our ability to see God, religious perceptions fit better among perceptions of beauty and courage than among perceptions of objects and colors. […]

It is important to notice that trusting the mystic’s experience is not simply a matter of trusting a person’s testimony concerning the features of an object that one was not in a position to observe. Rather, it is more like the case where one is asked to trust another person’s testimony of her perception of an (aspect of) an object or situation that one did perceive, but perceived differently, under a different aspect. The atheist is asked to mistrust her own perception of the world, and to trust the mystic’s way of perceiving the world.

Both the mystic (theist) and the atheist inhabit the same world. They may be participating in the same battle, parenting the same sick child, looking at the same sky, or reading the same book. Unlike the mystic, the atheist does not see the world as revealing of God’s design; she does not see the heavens telling the glory of God, nor does she see God in a cloud. She does not hear God speak to her in the verses of the bible. She does not see floods and earthquakes as God’s Will, nor does she see unexpected victories or recoveries as miracles. She sees cancer, madness and death as the marks of the meaningless and purposelessness of human existence. What reason does she have to trust the mystics’s way of seeing the world when she sees a universe in disarray? What would it be like for her to trust the mystic’s testimonies while she continues to see the world as she does? Calling her deprived, condemning her way of seeing the world as sinful or ungrateful, comparing her inability to see God to color blindness or to a lack of musical ear does not amount to a reason.

from “Can Faith be Justified?” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 4, (2001): 505, 510-11.

3. Austin Farrer on the theologically laden character of reason and nature

What [was once taken] to be natural religion was deeply indebted to Christian faith. It was supposed to derive from a view of the world and of man, simply as we see them to be. But these natural realities had been looked at so long with Christian eyes, that they had taken on a Christian sort of look. People could not distinguish naked fact from inveterate interpretation. An old man may find it intolerable to revisit his college, because (he says) the staircases are full of ghosts. The ghosts are not there; but he cannot see the walls and banisters, without expecting the footfall of friends long dead. In some such way the vaunted Age of Reason could not see a natural world, unhaunted by the ghost and echo of ancestral faith.

All reasoning from nature towards God is the recognition of God displayed in his handiwork; it is a reasoning from God to God, from God seen in nature to God considered in himself. If God is not seen, or half seen, in the beginning of the argument, he will not be seen at the end of it either.

The saving events are seen as such only if they are accepted as the acts of God, and the acts of God are not appreciated as such by a mere flat historical judgment, as are the acts of Caesar or Napoleon. They are spiritually discerned. […] Now it is obvious from painful facts of history that the discernment of the divine action in the redeeming facts is not a matter of a simple sensitivity for spiritual things, like the fineness of ear which enables those who have it to hear the cry of bats. We do not either simply appreciate the divine in the facts or else simply fail to appreciate it: we interpret it, and we may do so inadequately or erroneously; and no mere historical expertise or scholarly soundness in settling the human facts will assure a correct reading of the divine meaning. It is had by faith, and faith is the possession of the Church.

All of this evidence is addressed to faith, and to nothing but faith.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 193, 36; and The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 39, 86-87.

Commentary on the above: The grammar of revelation is such that it is patient with dispute.  (Think John 20.) Neither what revelation we perceive, how we perceive it, nor the means we have to talk about it are incontestably secure. For some this opens the door to faithlessness. For others it bespeaks the possibility that there may yet be more that can be learned about God. I’m tempted to say that the lesson is that perception of revelation is rather like an aesthetic judgment, in that it’s both subjective and universal. I hesitate to commit to that move, though, because (1) it’s best practice not to couch theological categories in such a non-theological idiom. And (2) Rowan Williams has expressed reservations about the danger of over aestheticizing our understanding of the presence of God due to a latent egoism underneath the supposition. To say the least, this is a topic to which I hope to devote further thought.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s