Thursday, April 19, 2012

Revelation or Discovery? Two Models of Spiritual Truth

I don't much enjoy discussing religious matters with adherents of doctrinaire faiths such as the majority of Christians and Muslims (there are exceptions in both cases, of course), except when the mischievous imp in my personality takes over and prompts me to yank their chains. We come at spirituality, the doctrinaire and I, from completely different epistemological assumptions. It is therefor extremely difficult to find common ground or any basis for discussion. But examining these two diametrically opposed ways of approaching the truth can perhaps be useful and instructive.

My own approach is one of discovery. I hold the sacred reality which is variously (and always metaphorically) termed God, the Gods, or other words for principles underlying the reality that we sense and in which we live, to be something that, while never possible for the human mind to encompass in its totality, we can discover. It lies at the bottom of our own being and at the core of the world's essence. The process of discovering it is also a process both of self-discovery and of self-transformation, in which the mind grows wider, deeper, more perceptive, and better able to embrace and understand. The discovery of the sacred is a stretching of the mind. It's the only thing that allows sacred reality to be comprehended at all, in my view.

Since sacred reality is there to be discovered, everyone who discovers it finds the same reality, even though the process of discovery varies. As an old Japanese proverb has it, there are many paths up the mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same. This is why mystics of all sorts, no matter what their starting-point religion, always end up saying very similar things and recognizing the oneness of all faiths.

I view spirituality as like a wheel, in which sacred reality is at the hub, while normal consciousness resides out on the rim. Religions are like the spokes of the wheel, bridging the rim and the hub. Each spoke is most distinct from the other spokes at the rim, at the shallow end of perception, and approaches common ground the closer it approaches the hub of the wheel, where God is.

All of this makes perfect sense to me, but it rests on the epistemological assumption that discovery is the way to know sacred reality. The doctrinaire make a different assumption: that sacred reality cannot be discovered, but can be known only by revelation.

Revelation is not a human act but a divine one. It involves sacred reality revealing itself to a prophet such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed, who communicates this reality to others in words and symbols. The more thoughtful among the doctrinaire recognize, as I do, that ultimately the sacred reality is unknowable, but they disagree with me that it can even be approached through human effort. The inadequacy of revelation for complete knowledge is acknowledged, but of course the same is true for discovery; when it comes to sacred reality there is no such thing as "complete knowledge."

An epistemological divide is essentially unbridgeable, because neither side acknowledges the proofs of the other as valid. Each side has its own way of knowing, and hence its own way of proving. There are perhaps some observations I can make about problems with the revelation mode of knowing, but when people begin with the assumption that a certain body of written word is revealed truth, there is not much more to be said, is there? Still, the effort should be made, if nothing else to clarify my own thoughts.

One problem with revelation is correctly identifying genuine revelation and distinguishing it from pretenders. Consider the Bible, for example. This is a collection of short books in three different languages (Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, and ancient Greek) by many different authors. At some time in the dim past, Jewish authorities have identified the five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) as sacred, with lesser degrees of sacredness applied to the Biblical historical accounts, the five books of poetry and philosophy (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs), and the books of the major and minor Prophets. The Imperial Church at its founding in 325 or shortly thereafter adopted all of these books from the Jews without distinguishing among them in Jewish fashion, simply saying that they were all equally sacred, and added a selection of Christian writings chosen from among the many in circulation at the time: four Gospels, one history of the very early Church, a number of letters of instruction from Paul of Tarsus and several of the Apostles to various Christians, and one (very weird) book of prophecy. In each case, we have the testimony of various authority figures, backed by the government either of the Kings of Judea or of the Roman Empire, that these writings are to be taken as sacred.

So the first question is simply this: Why should we believe them? On what basis should we conclude that politicians (as we must regard these men) are proper judges of spiritual validity? Today's politicians certainly don't inspire a lot of confidence along those lines. I mean, would you accept the word of President Obama that a particular text revealed the truth of the Gods? Not I, and I say that as someone who voted for him. I voted for him for President of the United States, not for Supreme Spiritual Leader and Prophet. Nor would I consider him an appropriate choice for the latter office.

If we cannot trust the enlightenment of those who have chosen the sacred books, how can we take their word for it that the books are sacred? How can we be sure that they chose correctly among the various possibilities?

Another problem arises when we examine the texts of alleged sacred books themselves, and I am not referring here to contradictions or clearly non-factual statements (those are open to interpretation or to the recognition that sacred writing is neither science nor history). I am referring to cases in which the alleged revelatory text seems to itself endorse a discovery approach. Many of the parables of Jesus seem to point that direction, as does his encouragement to the Apostles to develop their own relationship with God, to recognize the presence of God within them, and to draw upon this presence through faith to accomplish miracles similar to (and even greater than) what Jesus himself is said to have done. Jesus himself seems to have endorsed a discovery method for identifying sacred truth, so isn't the allegedly sacred text itself contradicting, here and in other places, the claims of those who swear by it?

Finally, let's recognize that all sacred writings had human authors. Each human author, if the claims of the revelationists are correct, had a direct relationship with and/or experience of sacred reality, from which he derived the written word. As this sort of relationship and experience is what discovery advocates like myself are talking about, revelation draws upon the same source -- but at second hand rather than directly. If discovery cannot suffice to gain the truth, then neither can revelation, because revelation depends on discovery ultimately.

All of these arguments seem good to me, but I know very well that they will not persuade the doctrinaire, because the application of logic and evidence are themselves inappropriate to a revelation-based epistemic model, except insofar as logic reasons from the premise that the text is sacred, and evidence draws upon the words of the sacred writings themselves, without questioning their validity (only their interpretation). It is in the end a pointless exercise, except insofar as it helps our own thoughts to be clear.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Devil and Dualism: or, Having One's Cake and Eating It, Too

Emerging from some discussions with evangelical Christians and Catholics on another forum regarding the subject of Hell and the Devil has prompted some thoughts a bit too complex for that forum, but worth pursuing. So I will pursue them here.

The Devil/Hell complex of ideas in traditional Christianity is similar to -- yet different from in a fundamental way -- the older Zoroastrian concept of a division of the universe into good and evil principles. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were thought of as equal principles, equal in power, knowledge, and wisdom, engaged in a conflict throughout the ages. In this way, Zoroaster resolved the philosophical conundrum of how God can be both all good and all powerful, given the existence of evil. His perfectly logical conclusion was to surrender half the goal: God (Ahura Mazda) is all good, but he is not all powerful. He has an opponent who is just as strong and completely independent of his will, and from this opponent come all wickedness and misfortune.

Christians resolve the same conundrum somewhat more problematically by the device of free will, stating that God, although all powerful, cannot do what is logically self-contradictory; he cannot at the same time make human beings free and remove their capacity for sin. This works as an explanation for human evil, but not for misfortune or suffering that comes from a source outside humanity. Most especially, it does not work for the Christian idea of Hell.

The Devil, in Christian theology, acts by divine permission. He can do nothing that God does not allow. Hence, everything done by the Devil is, at one remove, an act of God, insofar as people (including God) are responsible for their sins of omission as well as of commission. Hell is the work of God; God sends people to suffer in perpetuity. Sin may be an inevitable outcome of free will. Sin's punishment, certainly that particular outrageous punishment, is not. And so through the theological device of Hell, Christians re-introduce the philosophical conundrum that Zoroaster resolved. The God of Christians, if he indeed created Hell and sentences sinners (or, even worse, mere unbelievers) to that immeasurably draconian fate, is not all good. Or, if he did not, if Hell is the work of the Devil, acting independently of God and in ways God cannot prevent, then God is not all powerful. He has become more like Ahura Mazda, only a co-creator of the world along with a principle of evil that is just as strong.

Some Christian theological ideas do paint God as not being all powerful. One idea is that God cannot touch or be in contact with sin. Thus, it is said, God cannot embrace or accept sinners into his presence in Heaven, unless their sins are covered by the blood of Christ. Leaving aside the savagely sanguine quality of that image for the moment, here we are faced with a limitation on the power of God. There is something that he cannot do, which is not logically self-contradictory. God is not all powerful. And yet, faced with this question in words, Christians would deny it. Yet if it is not so -- if God is all powerful -- then either God is not all good (indeed, is a monstrous tyrant worse than any mere human tyrant who has ever lived), or there is no Hell.

The question must be asked why Christians devised the idea of Hell in the first place. It is a strictly Christian idea, rather than one derived from the three sources of ancient Roman Christianity (Judaism, the teachings of Jesus, and Greco-Roman paganism). Judaism has nothing like it, indeed no concept of an afterlife at all. The teachings of Jesus as reported in the Gospels contain some images and metaphors that could slant that direction, but no clear statement that the soul of the sinner or unbeliever is punished perpetually after death (and there are much better and more likely interpretations of his metaphors). Greco-Roman paganism contained some limited ideas of divine punishment after death, but only in extraordinary cases of people who had severely offended the Gods, and even they (Sisyphus, Tantalus) received punishments that came nowhere near the perpetual torture inflicted on the mildest of offenders in Christian theology. In fact, nowhere even in the New Testament is this idea clearly set forth. So why did Christians develop and implement it?

The most likely answer is that, like the belief in Christian exclusive possession of the truth itself, Hell was a device for enforcing the power and authority of the Imperial Church, or of the proto-authorities that pre-existed it and emerged to dominance by means of it. As the power of the Imperial Church and of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches into which it split fades, as separation of church and state becomes the norm worldwide, more and more Christians today seem to be abandoning the idea of Hell, or at least modifying it so that it is less offensive to civilized concepts of morality.

Continuing along these lines of thought, what of the very idea of dividing the world into principles set by moral judgment? Granted that for humans, judging the value, the goodness or badness, of events, behavior, and each other is part of who we are and something fundamental to our societies, is it really right to say that it is fundamental to the cosmos itself? Is there any evidence that the universe is either good or evil, in terms that are meaningful to human moral judgments? And if it is not, does it make any sense to apply terms like that to personifications of the universe such as God or the Gods? What of that other pole of the philosophical conundrum? Could it be that God is indeed all powerful, but is not all good? This is the solution that Ahura Mazda rejected and that most religious people of any religion do, too. But perhaps it is the most sensible conclusion.

The idea of God as not good but beyond good, the idea that human judgments simply have no meaning when applied to God, has a beautifully poetic expression in the Book of Job. "Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?" (Job 2:10). In the discussion between Job and his friends, much time is given to examining the mysterious work of God in visiting suffering on the good as well as the evil, or good fortune on the wicked as well as the just. By his works, God cannot be judged either good or evil. In the end, after much interesting discussion among the friends, God emerges from a whirlwind and declares himself a mystery not to be judged by the standards of men. "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted?"

A child, in the custody and protection of its parents, has a simplistic idea of morality as coming from its parents, from outside itself, but in maturity takes responsibility for its own judgments. Similarly the idea of morality as laid down by the Gods is one for an immature civilization; but it is not nature, not the Gods, and not God who sets out standards of good and evil. We do that ourselves, and rightly so, by our own authority, according to what seems good to us. As our civilization gropes its stumbling way towards maturity, perhaps we have reached a point now when we may assume that responsibility, and see good and evil as a product of human judgment rather than of the Gods.

The Gods, like nature, are neither good nor evil. The Gods, like nature, are wild.