Monday, July 27, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 4...

We have now reached the point in William Abraham's "Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation" where he begins to explain the nature of the key term, namely, revelation. For Abraham, access to God's revelation is essential to any attempt at uncovering an epistemology that might be useful for Canonical theism. This should not be difficult to see; after all, as Abraham states, "[T]o have access to God's acts is ipso facto to have access to the truth about God." (p. 58) Again, "God is made known through what he does." (Ibid)

Before continuing, I want to take a brief sidestep and point out something that is obvious, but often forgotten. For, if God is made known through what he does, then we must not only determine what God is actually doing (as Abraham will unpack in this chapter), but we must also remember that, unlike humans, who will (in this life, at least) undertake a limited number of actions, God's acts are infinite and unbounded - if God is indeed anything like the God of Canonical theism. What this means is clear: No matter how much we think we know about God, no matter how many acts of God we think we've experienced, we can never really know God.

Indeed, if it is possible to argue (and it is) that we can never really know another human being completely, then how much more must that be the case with God? This perhaps seems like a rather obvious point, but I feel it deserves mentioning precisely because it is so easy for any of us, having experienced God (or what we believe to be God) or having been enlightened by reading Scripture, etc, to then assume that we have a sufficient understanding of God. But, no; while God's revelatory acts to humanity - Scripture, the witness of the Spirit in our lives, and, ultimately, Jesus Christ - are (Christians believe) sufficient to understanding the way God has interacted with and brought salvation to humanity, they in no way provide a sufficient understanding of God. That sufficiency belongs to the life of faith.

I do not think Abraham would argue this point, so I will continue with my review of the present chapter. Because God is revealed through God's acts, explains Abraham, revelation must be seen as a polymorphous activity. (p. 58) This simply means that God's revelation comes to us in a vast unfolding array: the created order, the 'moral law' (borrowing from C.S. Lewis), the biblical accounts of historical events we claim actually occurred (of course, many of these historical events are disputed precisely because there is a lack of external evidence), our experiences of God (including the Spirit's enlivening of our spirits to the Gospel), and - most vitally - in Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be the most complete revelation of God given to humanity this side of the eschaton.

Of course, we now come to the first question I noted above: How do we know that such-and-such an act is REALLY God's revelation? Abraham's response to this question might be a letdown to some: He simply points out that we seldom can know for sure. (p. 61) The truth is - and I personally think he downplays this point just a bit - most of the Christian claims to God's revelation are pretty outlandish claims, with minimal empirical or rational evidence to support their veracity. This is not to say that there is no evidence, or that Christians have no good reason for believing. But, let's at least admit that things like seas parting, animals talking, and people being raised from the dead are pretty rare, and those who are skeptical of the faith aren't entirely unreasonable in their doubt. After all, what honest person hasn't doubted the craziness of some of this stuff? :-) But we trust that we have received revelation from God.

Abraham echoes this, and actually says it quite succintly: "Our quest for revelation... tends to entail a set of assumptions about the human predicament that casts our ideas about the nature of revelation in a certain mold." In other words, there are two dangers. One is the aforementioned skepticism, which merely throws the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, because it sees scant evidence for the baby. The other, however, is more subtle. We slowly begin to doubt the most outlandish aspects of our faith, because they don't fit with what we know rationally. This leads us to morph Christianity into something we can comprehend, rather than the audacious (and sometimes intolerable) claims given to us in Scripture. God was a Jewish carpenter who died on a cross 2,000 years ago?! So, warns Abraham, we must be careful not to let our desire to understand God's revelation lead us down a path of attempting to re-cast that revelation in ways that must make sense to us.

In spite of this, says Abraham, there are reasons to say with conviction that we have experienced God's revelation. His approach is as follows: First, there is an appeal to "initial credulity" - things are as they appear to us to be, unless they appear otherwise. This alone will not establish revelation, but it does give us a point of reference. When we meet other persons, we already have an idea of what makes them human, and how they will act, and we need no epistemological system to help us intuit or interact with other people.

Abraham asserts that the same can be said of God's revelation. We have an awareness, he says, "however vague, of God and his presence in the world and in our lives." (p. 66) This is not something we have come to through reasoning or arguments; it simply is. Such beliefs arise naturally and do not need explanation. So, he suggests, our default position ought to be: "in the absence of good arguments to the contrary, we recognize straight off God's general revelatory activity in the world and within ourselves." (p. 67)

Now, right away, some will respond, "But there are good arguments to the contrary!" Abraham does not dismiss this possibility; he simply points out that we haven't gotten to that point yet. He is still setting up his grounding principle, which is merely that (as Plantinga and others have suggested) it is not irrational, as a starting point, to begin with the assumption that "the world itself evokes in human agents generally a sense of God that should be taken seriously..." (p. 67) It is certainly possible here to ask whether Abraham is transferring his intuitions onto others, but, at the very least, his point that most people instinctively wonder about God ought to be granted.

Still, even granting this does not get us very far. But Abraham thinks we have made progress simply by coming to a place where we have to trust (or distrust) our own perceptions. Abraham is simply pointing out that there is no a priori reason to assume that one's awareness of God's presence is an unreliable perception. After all, isn't the suspicion that God might exist just as viable, as a starting point, as the suspicion that everything in the universe is completely by chance?

But for all of Abraham's explication, what his argument in this chapter really boils down to is a matter of faith. I am intrigued by the points he makes in this chapter about trusting that our way of "seeing" God is reliable need not be viewed as illogical. But, to put in bluntly -- So what? There are many things that are not in themselves illogical to believe, yet we come to recognize that they are not real. Why should we assume it is different in the case of Christian revelation? Why should we trust that our "seeing" is a more accurate picture of reality than any other way of "seeing"? Are we, after all, left with a situational pluralism in which no view is more correct than any other?

Abraham doesn't think so. And he will set out to show why in the next chapter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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