Friday, May 28, 2010

Models of Revelation 1

Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ. Models of Revelation (Orbis, 1992, 1983).

Dulles begins with “the problem of revelation.” Why is revelation a problem?

“Christian faith and theology… have been predicated on the conviction that God gave a permanently valid revelation concerning Himself in biblical times – a revelation that deepened progressively with the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets, until it reached its unsurpassable climax in Jesus Christ. The Christian Church down through the centuries has been committed to this revelation and has sought to propagate it, defend it, and explain its implications.” (p. 3). He goes on to state that our definition of revelation remained more or less vague until the Reformation; and that it gained precision in defending the doctrine of revelation between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th c., against the Deists in the 17th and 18th c., and against the Enlightenment (“evolutionists,” who “held that all religious truth was the fruit of human inquiry,” and “positivists,” who “denied that the human mind could have knowledge of the divine”) in the 19th c.

The nature and the quality and the content of revelation all matter very much. Dulles will talk about three ways: in the individual’s life of faith, in the mission of the Church, and in the method(s) of theology (p. 4ff).

Next, Dulles briefly lists eight challenges or objections to “the concept of revelation as a permanently valid body of truths communicated by God in biblical times, preserved and commented on by the Church” (his working definition, p. 6). Let’s look at these:

1. Philosophical agnosticism asserts that God is not knowable from the phenomena of the natural world, or is not comprehensible as transcendent other. If this is true, statements about God cannot have meaningful content, and revelation can only be mythical or metaphorical.
2. As a particular subset of the first, linguistic analysis claims that all theology is only symbolic, not “real,” language.
3. Modernist epistemologies (i.e., how we know what we know) all tend to limit the capacity to know to material observation (some form of “empiricism”), and to discount any possibility of either infused knowledge or a priori knowledge.
4. Empirical psychology “has destroyed any naïve confidence that visions and auditions… can be credited as coming from on high…” (p. 6).
5. Biblical criticism has complicated revelation by seeking naturalistic explanations for necessary miracles, by importing the model of evolution (sometimes as the only model, which is highly problematic) into biblical textual history, and by stressing human agency (sometimes to the point of denying inspiration) in the generation of biblical texts.
6. A wrong understanding of the development of doctrine is used to show that ideas once thought to be divinely inspired are in fact false (most famously, the “geocentric” solar system and the Copernican revolution). “If the dividing line between revealed and non-revealed is in flux, the category of revelation itself appears questionable.” (p. 7)
7. A certain kind of comparative religious studies tries to level all religious experience to the human, even to the individually subjective, experience. (This is related closely to 1-4, above.)
8. Sociology using a certain kind of critical method reduces all religious experience to shared ideologies and tools for social power. Revelation here can be seen only as a claim to authority or legitimacy for a particular social construct.

What all these “deconstructions” of revelation have in common is roots in the radical “rationalism” of the Enlightenment. But, all of these ideas are very common, and their popular forms are not going away any time soon. What Dulles is showing is that defending revelation is not a trivial task for the modern believer.

Discussion: Where are these ideas in our local culture today?


drtom12 said...

I shall preface my comments by first saying that I have not read the book as of yet, but will dive into it shortly. One of the points did jump out at me as it were and I wished to comment specifically Pt 4 on empirical psychology. This is obviously an area of interest of mine. I can't even begin to tell you the number of people who want to talk about spirituality and revelation. In my office, they are very hesitant to do so because they believe professionals like myself will think they are psychotic and in need of very powerful medications. I have found that most people fall into the category of not being psychotic. They are simply having very powerful experiences and are looking for someone who will not judge them and will share it with them. I am always watchful for the other psychological problems, but the characteristics seem to be very different. There seems to be a depth of humility that permeats any discussion on private revelation. It tends to have a way of moving the person deeply and sticks with an individual. I remember Fr. Scott from USD commenting similarly on this this past spring. These individuals are also open to a variety of possibilities in regard to revelation they have received People with very serious mental illness usually do not show any of these. They see their hallucinations/delusions as absolutely crystal clear and are certain of their authenticity even when several people they trust do not and can emperically show them it doesn't exist.

I believe private revelation is happening all around us. I support the church in it's position that it will take no official stand on private revelation. But, to coin Kevin Poss from this spring, "we're missing the cherry on the sundae" when we aren't open to all the ways God, in each of His three persons, can reveal Himself to us. To reject that very personal, very intimate gift He has for me would be a shame.

Not sure any of this made sense, but now it's in your head and you're stuck with it.


Cecilia said...

That doesn't surprise me. It turned up a bit in RCIA when I was involved with that, and I always felt bad for folks who'd been raised strict Calvinist or otherwise taught that these things just don't happen any more, so when it did happen they were at a loss. But plenty of Catholics don't know how to react, either, when it happens to them or someone confides something "unusual".

Ever read St. Athanasius' "Life of Anthony"? That's St. Anthony the Great of Egypt. Athanasius spent time with him out in the desert and recorded his teaching about the spiritual life. What's very striking is how casual he is about gifts, in the sense that he absolutely took it for granted that it was a NORMAL consequence of serious prayer. He basically gives a catalogue of experiences and how to respond to them. And I wish it were more widely known, because it's pretty easy, even as a Catholic, to feel like receiving "extraordinary" graces is the equivalent of having two heads.

St. John of the Cross talks about some of the same events/experiences as being common in particular stages of prayer. He may well have known Athanasius' work. Since he's writing from his experience as a spiritual director, he covers some of the same topics & gives pretty much the same advice a thousand years later. I find the consistency between St. Anthony and St. John of the Cross quite reassuring.

dgoebel said...

I think there tends to be a dangerous level of what some would call revelation in denominations that say they are being lead to their own, unique interpretation of Scriptures. For example: I hear frequently when discussing/defending the faith with my protestant family members, that the Holy Spirit guides us in what this passage or that passage means. This spills over into the choices that are made in daily living...I guess this would be along the lines of relativism.?.
Being exposed to this I have a very hard time accepting private revelation outside the Catholic Church. Right or wrong? I know the Holy Spirit is not limited to just working in and through those in the Church.
I read a book not to long ago called "The Final Quest" by Rick Joyner, who claimed to have visions and dreams of heaven. It was extremely engaging and convincing. It even displayed (very subtly) some Catholic purgatory, redemptive suffering, etc. I later found out that this author, belonged to a church that practices, what I would classify as voodoo.
So, the dilemma I see in certain situations is, how do you know if the revelation some one receives is from God or another source?

Deacon David said...

Tom brings up a good point, which we also touched on in our last class. There is very much an assumption that if one is educated (a doctor, a professor, etc), one does not accept "superstitions" like the Faith. This is one of the popular forms of empiricism and materialism (especially #3 and 4 in Dulles's list of challenges).

Empiricism and materialism can be and must be challenged as assumptions about the nature of stuff, just as Hilarius did in Podcast 5.

Dan and Cecilia also bring up the very important question of discernment of inspiration. Here, we have to be clear on the difference between revelation and mystical experiences. One might, as Cecilia and Dan imply, group them together for some purposes (i.e., "private revelation"), but not to the extent of making them the same thing. First, private revelation cannot contradict the "public" (sort of) revelation of Scripture and Christ, and its interpretation in Tradition and by the Magisterium. Second, mysticism is a fruit of spiritual life, not a cause of having faith. Third, mystical experiences (of the visionary sort) are a gift of the Holy Spirit, in general given to strengthen the Church, in whole or in part, in a particular circumstance; while revelation more properly speaking is universally valid and more fundamental to the identity of the Church. These are also some of the key layers of discernment to be applied to individual mystical experiences to know their source, as Dan asks.

dbrockhaus said...

Just getting my feet wet.
the discussion so far has pointed me in the right direction. I was having difficulty trying to figure even what the book was about.Have dictionary, will use it!

thanks ;-)