Sunday, August 16, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 5...

Ok, back to the series...

In Pt. 4 we examined Abraham's claim that divine revelation deserves to be given centrality in relation to the epistemological warrants for canonical theism (or, indeed, any theistic epistemology). Now we look at his argument for why this is so. Essentially, as we will see, his argument revolves around the assertion that revelation has the effect of constituting an entirely new world of epistemological reality.

Abraham's central thesis begins with his recognition that the God of canonical theism is understood to be a personal God; that is, God is an agent who acts. Therefore, it follows that we can become acquainted with God by becoming acquainted with God's actions in the world. But how does one begin to establish God's actions in the world? Abraham returns to his previous point concerning knowledge: We have no reason to doubt our initial interpretation of our experience a priori. Given this, we can have some confidence that our experience of God's action in the world follows a similar line -- if we have an innate capacity to perceive God, then we should also grant the possibility that this capacity is, in fact, leading us to perceive God.

This, as we have mentioned previously, sounds circular, and Abraham concedes as much. But, he argues, this is not unexpected, nor is it an insurmountable obstacle. But it does offer him a direction in which to develop his own theory: It is reasonable that if there is a God, and if we have a capacity to know that God, and if God is acting in the world, then we can come to know God as we interpret our perceptions of God's actions. But, we must note, that is a lot of 'if's'!

So, how does revelation assist Abraham's endeavor? Intriguingly, he appeals to Soren Kierkegaard at this point, which is notable if only because Abraham appears to find SK's epistemology generally unhelpful, being as it falls under the category of the "fideist approach." (see Pt. 1 of this series) Of course, I am fairly certain that I am oversimplifying Abraham's view on this point, and I think that Abraham himself might admit to finding more value in the 'fideist' approach than he seems to indicate in this book.

At any rate, Abraham calls upon SK's category of "prophet" as having a particular epistemological advantage - one which has the effect of drastically changing the playing field of knowledge. In SK, the prophet differs from the genius as such: One is a person of extraordinary ability who is able to develop new ideas or systems (think of Einstein as an example). The prophet, on the other hand, need not be a genius, for their new idea comes directly from divine revelation. In other words, there is an epistemological separation between the genius and the prophet that is grounded in different sources.

(Side note: I question Abraham's point here, not because of his use of SK, but because of his conclusion. I would need to research this more, but is SK saying that there is an epistemological or ontological difference between the genius and the prophet? Abraham [footnote 3, p. 82] states that SK never makes a claim one way or the other. If it is epistemological, then Abraham's point holds. But if it is even somewhat ontological, that would appear to pose a problem for Abraham's view. I guess we need to re-examine Abraham's understanding of the relationship between epistemology and ontology...)

At any rate, if the prophet has access to a separate epistemological source, then there is an entirely new framework for what counts as "evidence" for theistic epistemology.

As Abraham is quick to point out, the typical philosopher or theologian rejects this for a variety of reasons: Revelation is subjective and arbitrary; revelation is divisive and upsets our reasonable assumptions; revelation cuts us off from further reasoning; revelation is often used by authority as a way to gain power. (p. 82-83) Abraham responds to these criticisms by asserting that revelation is what he calls a "threshold concept," a concept that is as viable a foundation as reason, experience, intuition, etc. (p. 85)

Although revelation is not necessarily immediate or direct (like experience), it nevertheless can be employed as a term with similar value. Why? Because revelation is an epistemological category. Just as one has to assume the reliability of reason to trust it as an epistemological category, so one has to assume the reliability of revelation. To distrust tells us nothing about the category, it only tells us about our preconceptions regarding any theistic belief.

Now, it may seem as though Abraham has just confirmed the aforementioned criticisms - hasn't he just effectively cut off conversation by subjectively cutting off further reflection upon revelation? But, if we say this, then we have to also ask why we intuitively trust reason? Why do we assume that our rational approaches to epistemology are reliable? The non-theist would, presumably, argue that centuries of clinical and experimental study have shown us which concepts are reliable and which are not - and theistic concepts would fall into the 'unreliable' category.

But, this is only a viable opinion if one already trusts, for example, the scientific method and rational inquiry. The reality is that such trust develops alongside that inquiry, in tandem, as it were. But this leaves open the possibility that theistic revelation is also a viable category, inasmuch as it too develops in tandem with inquiry into its validity. This is because the theist has been taken into an epistemological reality which privileges the category of revelation. Abraham explains it this way:

"[O]nce the term 'revelation' is deployed, it is simply and totally applicable; and once revelation is accepted, one enters a whole new world where everything is liable to be seen in a whole new light." (p. 85-86) He compares it to reaching the summit of a mountain, where suddenly everything can be seen from a new light, and new angles, which create a new field of vision. So, unlike other epistemological categories, which are naturally occurring in all self-reflective persons, revelation is a category in which we may or may not partake, depending on the situation. It means we have to re-think everything.

Now, we are still left with the accusations of circular reasoning, but it is no longer the only possibility. In fact, Abraham seems to indicate that circularity is a false argument against theism, though he doesn't elaborate. (see p. 88) But he does concede that outside the setting of revelation as a threshold concept, all of the notions that follow from revelation will appear as question begging. However, he is adamant that the question begging disappears once we have crossed the threshold, and further asserts that this alleviates the criticisms of revelation, since seeing revelation as a new epistemological reality offers more than it eliminates.

It is an ingenious application of revelation as an epistemological category. But, there is still a problem: Abraham admits it is only possible to see this new reality, even to be open to it, on the far side of its recognition in our lives. This, he must surely see, has actually repositioned the criticism of narrowing options in a different setting! Abraham states that revelation is a new world that "calls for the straining of every intellectual nerve and muscle in order to fathom the treasures made available." (p. 89) But since this only applies to those who have crossed the 'threshold', it automatically cuts off anyone who hasn't received revelation from having a valuable epistemological dialogue with one who has.

So, Abraham's subsequent claims that revelation can be a source of unity between varying epistemologies would, I assume, ring hollow for the unbeliever or skeptic: It is one thing to be excited about studying the varying approaches to knowledge stemming from an agreed upon set of grounding principles, it is another to not even agree on those grounding principles. In spite of Abraham's prescient call to humility when responding epistemologically to revelation, it seems somewhat naive to think that non-theists would be excited to work together with someone who thinks that they just haven't 'crossed the threshold' yet to true knowledge. So, unfortunately, it seems, the criticism of revelation still stands.

To be fair, Abraham points out the importance of critical appraisal of claims to divine revelation. He is right to note that there is a distinction between critically assessing the reality of revelation, and accepting revelation which we then seek to rationally resolve. In the latter case, we are effectively placing reason above revelation, and undermining the entire process. But, to ask whether the "crossing the threshold" has actually occurred is a viable use of reason in relation to revelation.

To say this another way, Abraham recognizes that claims to revelation have been often abusive and manipulative. Besides, if God and God's revelation are indeed trustworthy, then they are able to withstand scrutiny. God, Abraham points out, "dares to trust himself to us, knowing that his identity and action on our behalf can withstand our intellectual inquiry as much as our wickedness and folly." (p. 93) So, we can continue to hold onto our conviction that we have experienced the world-altering transition into the world of revelation, even as we honestly seek to evaluate whether our experiences are valid.

Of course, this is not as easy to do as it is to write. Honestly and critically examining our beliefs can be quite unsettling. Hopefully, as we do so, we will not only grow in our knowledge, but in our faith as well. In the remainder of the series, we will examine how Abraham applies the central concept of revelation as a threshold to various areas. I will also cover the remaining chapters a bit more briefly: I will take on two chapters for each post (6-7, 8-9, 10-11). We'll see how that works out!

No comments: