Monday, November 22, 2010
Blog 5. Divine Revelation – One Person's Understanding
The Thinking Post. In the interests of promoting greater tolerance and respect for diversity of religious traditions among all members of the human family, it is worthwhile to permit the natural light of human reason to focus on the concept of divine revelation.
My dictionary defines divine revelation as the communication of knowledge to humans by a divine or supernatural agency. I am more familiar with divine revelation as envisioned in the Bible and the Qur’an, and much less familiar with spiritual enlightenment as envisioned by religions originating in India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto, etc. Whatever the medium, revelation or enlightenment, my focus is on the basic concept of the divine intervening in human history to communicate messages on how humans should conduct their lives. What is presented below is my personal understanding, which is open to growth and change in response to new insights and discoveries.
In recent years, I have learned at my place of work that, to evaluate any situation objectively, it is very helpful to project oneself outside the situation, or outside the environment that the situation is in. Hence, to evaluate issues with planet-wide implications such as divine revelation, it is best to project myself outside the planet and try to see things through the eyes of an astronaut from space, or through the eyes of the Creator. That is what I have attempted to do here in taking a critical look at divine revelation from the outside. It is an attempt to see divine revelation in the context of the large picture of human history and human understanding.
The claim that the knowledge or teachings contained in holy books are of divine authorship has been over the centuries a source of inspiration in service of the human family’s many needs. Unfortunately, the same claim has also been the root cause of religious intolerance, extremism, and fanaticism. And this extremism and fanaticism down through history has inflicted all kinds of abominations on the human family including crusades against other belief systems, burnings at the stake, stoning to death, deep-seated prejudices against some of the Creator’s children, mutilations, book burnings, wars, suicide bombings, discriminations, denials of basic human rights, human torture, enslavement of millions, mass murders, etc., etc. That is the large picture. Divine revelation supports a worldview that inspires many to lives of great service while at the same time empowers others to become "soldiers of the deity” with a mission to convert, abuse, or eliminate all who do not share their belief system. I see evidence of this latter mindset even today among some Christians and Muslims.
We also must remember what was said in the last blog that the concept of the deity imparting messages to humans by means of written and/or spoken words either directly or through messengers is relatively new in recorded history-all happening within the past 5,000 years. That is the large picture.
I outline below my problems with the basic concept of the deity intervening in human history to impart knowledge.
Problem #1. In trying to understand divine revelation, I asked myself why was there no divine revelation in the first few million years of human existence? Were early humans not worth enlightening with divine messages? Or were they too underdeveloped and not ready to receive such messages? Or, in the parlance of some belief systems, did they not have souls to be saved? Why was the Prehistoric Thinker, depicted above, deprived of divine revelation? I now know that our ancestors, prior to 5,000 years ago, were certainly intelligent human beings. And it does not make sense to me that an all knowing and all loving deity, so concerned about redeeming mankind sent Jesus just recently (2,000 years ago) to redeem humans from their evil ways, or, if you wish, sent Mohammad even more recently (1400 years ago) to enlighten humans about the divine plan of salvation. Yet, that same concerned deity allowed humankind to flounder around in unredeemed and unenlightened darkness for millions of years. That to me is the preposterous assumption that Christians and Muslims make when they claim that the Bible or the Qur’an contain exclusively the deity’s revealed truth!
Problem #2. In thinking about divine revelation, I have equally big concerns internal to the divine revelations themselves as contained in religion holy books. All holy books claim to offer to humans a divinely inspired roadmap for living on our planet. However, some statements in the holy books are open to multiple interpretations and have been construed by many over their 5,000-year history not only as the foundation of particular belief systems, but as justifying all kinds of horrible acts against members of the human family. I conclude that an all-knowing deity could not have been so careless or be so lacking in foresight as to permit statements in holy books to be open to interpretations that justify such terrible deeds enumerated above. Even you or I, as lowly but responsible human mortals, would do everything in our power to correct any such statements so as to eliminate any and all such interpretations. The deity has taken no such action. The statements open to multiple interpretations still stand as the word of the deity.
Problem #3. I know from history that multiple interpretations of the holy books have spawned multiple religions and branches of religions, each with its own belief system. Even within the mainstream religions there are multiple sects with their own distinct set of beliefs, their own distinct understandings of the divine. The Roman Catholic belief system that I was born into and grew up with is but one of thousands of Christian belief systems that are quite different from each other. That is the large picture! Even if I accept the premise that the deity revealed certain truths, the truths evidently have become fragmented and distorted in human hands, leaving many others and me in a quandary as to what to believe. The cacophony of the multitude of conflicting religious beliefs underscores for me the improbability of divine revelation.
Problem #4. With the advent of the holy books, and so many claiming to have the truth, I think it is logical to conclude that either only one-belief system or set of holy books has divine revelation or no belief system has it. If only one belief system has the whole truth revealed by the Creator, then, to my thinking mind, that belief system should stand out above all the others like a shining light on a hill as the only one possessing the divine revelation. But after multiple claims of divine revelations over the past 5,000 years, no single belief system so stands out.
Problem #5. This problem is about the timing and duration of divine revelation. It is not helpful to say that God’s revelation started with Genesis some 2,500 years ago and stopped with the Book of Revelations some two thousand years ago as Christians claim, or that Allah’s revelation stopped with the Qur’an some fourteen hundred years ago as Muslims claim. That is to say that God/Allah not only started very late in the day communicating with humans (over several million years too late) but stopped communicating with humans in one belief system 2000 years ago and in another belief system 1400 years ago. So all that I and other humans can do in matters of religion is rehash old news and old insights over and over!
For nearly 2000 years the dominant western understanding of the divine has been stuck in place with no major advancement or development. And since the western understanding of the human has been for the most part inseparable from the western understanding of the divine, the dominant western understanding of the human has also been stuck in place for two millennia. The same can be said of the Muslim belief system, as its understanding of the divine and of the human has been stuck in place for the past 1400 years with no major advancement in understanding.
Imagine where we would be in matters of scientific understanding, if we dogmatically stated that we reached the pinnacle of scientific understanding back in the second century with the thinking of the Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy (83-161 CE) or with the geocentric solar and lunar theories of the 14th century Arab Muslim astronomer, mathematician and engineer, Ibn ash-Shatir (1304-1375 CE), with no further growth possible in scientific knowledge! That would be to permanently condemn our scientific thinking to a twilight zone.
But that is precisely what Christians and Muslims have done. By dogmatically declaring that revelation ceased at a certain point in time, they declared the Creator impotent to communicate any new religious truth to humans, who are then limited until the end of time to rehashing old truths, deprived of the capacity for change. By excluding originality and freedom of thought in their belief systems, religions have erected a major roadblock to advances in knowledge and understanding of the divine and of the human, and logically down the years have also fought tooth and nail acceptance of advances in our scientific understanding.
[Some belief systems profess that divine revelation is ongoing and evolving. The Unitarian Universalists believe that there is spiritual value to be found in the scriptures of all religions: in the Bible, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, etc., and in the words and actions of all spiritual men and women, past and present. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) claims to receive continuing divine revelation primarily through key church officials: the Living Prophet/President, two male counselors to the President, and the 12 male present day replacements of the 12 Apostles, called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.]
Problem 6. As I see it, to accept the deity of revelation, any revelation, is to accept in some respects a small tribal deity; a deity that has a “chosen people” and plays favoritism; a deity depicted as an all powerful, just, and a loving father; a deity depicted as cruel and vengeful; a deity that condemns erring humans to the worst kind of torture imaginable not for a hundred, a million, or even a billion or a trillion years but for eternity, which makes the deity into a monster torturer; a deity that micromanages human activities and is concerned with each human peccadillo; a deity that reaches down now and then to cure an individual of some illness or infirmity (a miracle), but takes a hands off approach to the big problems of natural calamities such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, and tsunamis, and major disasters brought about by humans such as wars, famines, genocides, and mass murder and torture.
That is the deity of revelation, a loving father that micro manages human lives on one side, and on the other side a capricious, impulsive monster and torturer that is all-controlling and all-powerful but missing when catastrophe strikes, that is omnipresent yet very aloof and above the fray when most needed.
Problems 1-6 Lead Me to One Conclusion. With the above problems it seems to me that accepting divine revelation, any divine revelation, as the word of the deity, flies in the face of common sense, at least my understanding of common sense! And anyway, why would an all powerful deity intervene in human history (only in recent times) with revelations that have been largely failures, for the vast majority of people do not believe in any single belief system or revelation. Divine revelation has been such an utter failure that I cannot attribute it to an all-knowing, all-just, all-loving, and all-powerful deity. My logical mind cannot lay such incompetence at the feet of the divine.
There Has to Be Another Explanation! The evidence forces me to conclude that the only rational way to look at the multiplicity of competing divine messages or revelations, which can be interpreted by extremists and others to suit their particular agendas, is to regard all the divine messages and revelations as merely human attempts to understand the divine, and therefore have all the limitations and proneness to error shared by all human writings be they secular or religious in nature.
The most reasonable answer to the question – did divine revelation actually happen? – is best presented by what I said in the previous blog, that as in all matters pertaining to life on the planet, it would seem that the deity has left it up to humans to figure things out for themselves. In the pursuit of knowledge in medicine, astronomy and space, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, etc., the deity has left it up to humans to study, explore, discover, and grow in the understanding of their planet and the universe. Why not also in the area of religion?
It is long past time for a discussion of divine revelation to go public for so much is at stake. Let the conversation begin.
The next blog will look at the consequences for a planet without belief in divine revelation.
Comments, expansions, adjustments, counterpoints, rebuttals, etc. to the above are very welcome.