|A PLAIN GUIDE TO
Why is the
power and influence of traditional religion weakening in the 21st century?
Various studies indicate that a majority is still religious to a
considerable degree. And yet in the West churches are rapidly emptying.
Many look elsewhere for inspiration. While few have time to work it out
for themselves, one reason for ineffectiveness of traditional answers may
be that perceptions of truth have changed radically.
Revelation is generally thought of as a disclosure by God,
as distinct from "discovery" by us, of some information, command or wish
concerning the natural order - of which we, of course, are part.
A well-respected and well-argued standpoint presented by
H R Niebuhr holds that
revelation can be understood as an event which so influences the
imagination of an entire community that it forever changes the way that
community perceives and interprets the world around it. That is, the world
itself does not change; rather, it is our perception of the world which
Though it should be noted that, if I change, then the
world of which I am part also changes - though I am so insignificant a part
of that world that the change will be hardly noticeable and of little or no
One source describes revelation as the disclosure of
"... hidden aspects of the character or purposes of God, of humanity in
its relationship with God, and of what is to occur in the future through
the providence of God." John Hick calls this "propositional revelation" -
"a body of religious truths capable of being expressed in propositions."
Such propositions are primary bearers of truths which cannot be arrived at
by humans without input from God.
All traditional renderings of the concept of revelation,
however, seem to depend upon an unspoken assumption - that what is
revealed is not available to us in any way whatsoever in the natural
order. That is, revelation is from other-than the universe; from God to
the natural order; a type of information which is not available to us
through our experience of the natural. Because of this we can trust
revealed information completely.
A number of reasons are given for revelation. They all
have to do with the inability of humans to conceptualise God. Christian
thinkers (Thomas Aquinas among them) have generally maintained that the
divine can be known only indirectly, through its effects. To know God in
any way requires a disclosure through physical means.
But if God is completely "other" than the universe, how can we locate such
disclosures? Some suggest that revelation is always in the form of
symbols, analogies or parables which require interpretation in human terms
(perhaps the strange visions of Ezekiel in the Old Testament are of this
sort). If so, then revelation always comes to us indirectly through other
people and through metaphors of various kinds.
Paul-Henri D'Holbach (1723-1789), in his time notorious
for his atheism and the company he kept, protested in the name of common
justice that revelation must, if salvation is in any way to hang upon it,
be available to all.
All children are born atheists; they have no idea of God.
D'Holbach asked in The System of Nature:
What kind of revelation is it which cannot be understood?
If only one man were incapable of understanding it, that circumstance alone
would be sufficient to convict God of injustice.
To which the Church at large responds that it is the calling of those
who do understand, and who are set aside by Christians as their
pastors, to re-package God's revelation so that anyone disadvantaged in
this way can understand. Thus interpretation of God's revelation
is a primary task of the Church. The Roman Catholic tradition proclaims
that one man alone, namely their Bishop of Rome, has the final say in
matters of interpretation.
There are two possible media for revelation:
- God may impact directly on our thoughts
. We know that thoughts
are electrochemical events in the tissue of the brain. So presumably
disclosure of God comes through God's direct action on these events in
the brain. When God manipulates the physical structure of our brains,
the mental constructs of our minds are also altered - either
(presumably) unconsciously or with our awareness.
Thus individuals, either directly or through sacred writings, become
the indirect sources of new awareness or information from God. They can
then be perceived as the authority for the veracity of the revelation.
This is the medium closest to the traditional understanding of
- God may be revealed through the medium of events. We
may experience a realisation or understanding through such events, and
in that way acquire new knowledge. William Temple thought that history
is "... the intercourse of mind and event."
Richard Niebuhr wrote that revelation is "... that special occasion
which provides us with an image by means of which all the occasions of
personal and common life become intelligible." For Paul Tillich,
revelation is encounter with the divine, the "... self-giving of the
absolutely hidden, which by the very fact of its self-giving emerges
from its concealment."
Strictly speaking, this understanding of revelation undercuts the
traditional idea of revelation, since all normal experience is of the
natural universe. Only if the experience is directly of that which is
not the natural order can it be said to be truly revelatory.
The propositional concept of revelation has as its main
vehicle the Bible. It is thought of as a collection of books containing
revealed truths which have been written down (i.e. in prepositions) for
subsequent generations. The First Vatican Council said of the books of the
Bible that they were written down "... as a result of the prompting of the
Holy Spirit" and therefore "... have God for their author." A famous
latter-day evangelist, Billy Graham, has said, "The Bible is a book
written by God through thirty secretaries."
Revelation as God's self-revealing acts through the
natural order has been the more popular Christian doctrine in the 20th
century. Proponents of this view talk about "salvation history" (heilsgeschichte).
By this appears to be meant a particular vein or current of history which,
because it is perceived as God's revelation, is described and interpreted
in a particular way. That is, it's not necessarily miraculous because it's
God being revealed. Nor is it necessarily obvious to everyone. Indeed, it
requires "faith" to be perceived and interpreted adequately.
William Temple's classic rendering of this equation was that in
"... there is event and appreciation, and in the coincidence of these the
revelation consists." This seems to mean that events occur and that we
notice and interpret them; only then do we appreciate that they are God's
revelation to us. So if a famine cripples and nation and causes many
deaths, we can read this as God's revelation to us. Or if humanity arrives
at a new insight into the way nature works and derives great benefit from
that insight, that can also be God's revelation. We can, presumably, also
look back at past events and draw our conclusions from the tides and
currents of history.
In the "events-revelation" model, the Bible loses its
divine inspiration and becomes instead essentially a memoir
or record of God's activities in the world. Its many different writers are
those who have observed events as "salvation history" and recorded them in
writing. Christian teachings are, in this view, not infallible direct
revelations from God (though they might also be that) but human attempts to
understand God-initiated events.
If one accepts that revelation comes from God through
individuals, then one must also accept that some doctrines can be
irrefutably true without supporting evidence. However, if one person
experiences a revelation, then others should ideally have the identical
experience. The alternative is that God speaks only to a few, who would
consequently have the absolute power of absolute knowledge direct from the
If this is how revelation comes to us, then there is
essentially no difference between individual and group revelation. God can
communicate the same message to the many just as easily as to the few.
Those outside the chosen group have no external means of verification,
just as the individual who misses out on revelation has no way of telling
if another's claim to having received revelation is genuine.
If revelation comes through an event, on the other
hand, the meaning of that event is open to differing interpretations. In
addition there will always be those who hold that the event is not
revelatory. Who is to demonstrate that they are incorrect?
Stepping back from the details of how revelation
might happen, it becomes apparent that for many today it is the
possibility of revelation which is at issue, not so much the method.
For if revelation is found to be unlikely or impossible, there is little
point in wondering how it might happen. So we must ask, given the way we
understand the universe today, is revelation a tenable theory? The matter
is of some importance because the traditional theological systems of
Christianity, Judaism and Islam all depend ultimately upon revelation.
The vast majority if scientists today find the concept of
divine revelation at best uncomfortable, and more usually unacceptable. This
is because the results of experiment cannot be trusted if a divine being has
both the power and the need to intervene in physical events. It may be that
the Divine "interferes" with science and, if so, no scientist can trust
results or the theory they are designed to support.
There are at least three ways of perceiving reality (the
universe) as a whole:
1. The universe may be an unbounded system,
having no "outside" or "before" (if space/time began at the the Big Bang,
then there is no space/time outside the universe). The universe is
therefore a closed system. Or, if it is not closed, any revelatory
interventions by God into it can't be observed, since those interventions
can only be in terms of the universe itself. There is therefore no way of
telling natural and revealed information apart.
2. It consists of two parts or compartments - one (the universe)
to which we have access, and the other (the supernatural) beyond our
direct access. This is a dualist universe, perhaps most effectively stated
by Plato and his many successors. In this case information passes from one
compartment to the other. And if all information involves energy in some
form, then the universe is given more energy with each act of revelation.
3. It is a continuum, rather like the electromagnetic spectrum, of
which we can be aware of only part (just as we can only see a tiny part of
the electromagnetic wavelength spread). Thus, if somehow given a special
perceptual ability, some humans may be able to perceive what others can't.
The latter two possibilities allow revelation in the sense
that an invisible truth might be able to penetrate normal space-time; or
information from one part of a spectrum might be encoded so that it is
available to the space-time part. A question remains how anyone receiving
such revelation is to distinguish it from normal information and demonstrate
to others not receiving it that it is God's revelation.
The first possibility also allows revelation - but only in
the sense that the space-time continuum is altered by some unknown entity of
which we can, by definition, know nothing (which is the traditional teaching
about God). But if the continuum is altered, then the entire fabric of the
universe is altered by each intervention, since its interlocking sub-systems
are all interdependent - even if only to a tiny degree. All knowledge comes
in, and is retained in, some material form (even if that form is alteration
of electro-chemical brain circuits). For God to reveal knowledge from a
supernatural dimension "outside" the universe is therefore to alter the
material structure of the system we call the "universe". In this sense,
history begins anew every time God communicates with us through the process
we call revelation.
There are, of course, many aspects of truth. But broadly
speaking there are two main dimensions in which we process truths. One is
what we normally call subjective truth. This is available only to the
individual. That is, each of us has our own unique perceptions of the
universe. These subjective perceptions can be stated but not verified. If I
say, "I have been told by God to stand on my head," you may see me standing
on my head as a result of what I call revelation, but you have no way of
verifying that God has indeed spoken to me.
The other dimension is normally called objective.
If I say, "God has told me that the world will end on Thursday," the rest
of humankind has only to wait until midnight on Thursday to verify the
accuracy of the revelation. But its inaccuracy doesn't demonstrate that
God didn't speak to me, only that if God did speak to me, God was
incorrect or I misunderstood the message.
The fabric of all modern analytical knowledge - from
mathematics and physics to archeology and geology - is based upon the
continuity of cause and effect. Or rather, space/time flows in an unbroken
stream in which at any one moment everything is connected to everything
else. What we say is a "cause" and its "effect" are actually elements of
that ceaseless, completely joined-up flow of space/time. We are helped by
this artificial, analytic separation to better understand the world around
What appears to be the case, however, is that we can't
always predict exactly which effect will proceed from a cause (as
Newtonians once thought). Rather, the continuity of cause and effect at
its most basic level is not determined but probable.
For example, if I use the most accurate measurements and
methods available to calculate the position of Venus in the night sky, it
will be in that position - but not exactly. There will always be a small
degree of error. I can therefore only predict its probable
position even though in theory my calculations are exact. I don't know
exactly what effect will result from any cause. But I do know that
every cause will have an effect; or more accurately, that every moment
and every action are joined to everything else.
The system which is the universe of space/time consists
of sub-systems which maintain themselves within the greater system. If
revelation happens, the natural systems of cause and effect upon which all
our modern knowledge is based, is rendered an illusion.
If God, for example, does protect us from drought or
cause rain to fall to end a drought, then all our knowledge of weather
systems is pointless. We can never predict what might happen, nor can we
know what part of the universal system was changed. If God injects any
knowledge into the human system of knowledge which has been, as it were,
carved out of the multiple cause-and-effect systems which we call our
world, then we can never know how those systems truly work; how they adapt
and change; and how we can manage them.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam claim to be historical
religions. That is, their truth depends on events which actually happened.
We are able, they say, to track actual events in the past which really
happened. History depends upon cause-and-effect for its efficacy as a
means to knowledge.
We have to assume, for example, that Adolf Hitler
decided to invade Russia during the Second World War. That decision (a
"cause", albeit one among many in this instance) led to a long chain of
events which we can broadly trace down to present times. But if God
intervenes, either with propositions (direct into our brains, thus
influencing or even stimulating decisions) or through events (by forcing
Hitler's hand in some way) then history becomes an impossible discipline
since we cannot know which causes were part of the natural
cause-and-effect chain and which were due to God's direct action.
This argument, or others similar to it, has made the
religious concept of revelation extremely difficult to sustain. Although
the concept of revelation seems attractive on the surface, many
people instinctively recognise that life's not like that. They are
accustomed to testing information for its truth with little or no resort
to authority as such. I may accept the authority of scientists that bosons
exist. But I am always (at least in theory) open to the possibility that
they don't exist. I may accept that God led Hitler to defeat, but so much
other data indicates otherwise (unless revelation is always hidden and
therefore irrelevant) that the likelihood of God intervening to cause
Hitler's defeat is slight.
In short, if we receive information of any sort from God
via revelation that information can't be doubted. Hence religious claims to
absolute truth . But more and
more people no longer see truth as absolute. Truth for them is essentially
provisional. It is provisional in the sense that each person's vision of
truths changes from time-to-time; in the sense that humanity at any one time
has a wide variety of understandings of truth; and especially that so-called
scientific truths are not only always open to change, but also inevitably
open change, elaboration and refinement.
 "Discovery" in the same sense that humanity
"discovered" the scientific
method, for example. It amounts to a new
way of seeing the universe, what
Thomas Kuhn termed a new paradigm. We are
now literally forced to view
our world as a highly complex, interlocking
system, recognising for example
that climate change is the result of massive
and rapid alterations in certain
key sub-systems about which we are not yet
certain. If we don't change the
ways in which we perceive and manage our
planet, we run the risk of
triggering events which could destroy us as a
species. Without a systems
perspective we will not be able to modify
 One other approach is that of John Dominic Crossan in In Parables
(Polebridge Press, 1992): "God does not act in history or
intervene in time. It
is the presence of God which, in calling for our
response, creates our history
and gives us time, this history and this time.
Time is, in both cases, the
present of God."
 For a chain of thought which claims this, see
 See also Revelation