Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Models of Revelation 10

In Ch. 7, Dulles presents his fifth and final model, that of “revelation as new awareness.” Again, he’s presenting an abstraction, a type assembled from several related theological ideas, and he admits he’s not really representing any of the authors thoroughly.

This model is rooted in “subjective idealism of the nineteenth century” (98). It assumes the Kantian denial of noumenal knowledge is fully true (i.e., we cannot know things as they really are in themselves, only as they appear to our senses). It also assumes a very aggressive historicism of ideas (context driven meaning rather than content driven meaning). Thus, this model begins with the premise that the Church at time/culture A is not inherently the same thing as the Church at time/culture B.

Furthermore, this model also assumes an “anthropological turn” characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries. Man can be defined only with reference to himself; there is no “outside” or “objective” constant against which to define (no noumenal knowledge means no certain knowledge of a personal God, a non-mythical Jesus Christ, or an unchanging human nature). In its more virulent modes, this is taken of the individual person; in less aggressive modes, it is taken only of groups of persons (cultures, “peoples” in the sense of “the American people,” or even of humanity in general).

Given these assumptions, it’s scarcely surprising where this model goes: namely, evolution. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued that revelation and [spiritual] progress are tightly interlinked (99). He talked about “orthogenesis” (“right becoming”) rather than orthodoxy. Karl Rahner followed this argument. “For him revelation is a particular instance of a more general phenomenon – that of the self-transcending movement of created reality toward ever-greater freedom and self-possession” (100). [Questions: does this movement exist? Can it be proven to be in this direction? Is it “self-” movement, rather than having an exterior cause?] Rahner basically argued that revelation is grace: the experience of grace (even understood more or less in classical theological terms) itself reveals the self-giving God who saves. Dulles quotes another contemporary theologian, Gregory Baum: “Since divine revelation is not information about another world but God’s self-communication to man, and hence his gracious entry into the dynamic process of man’s becoming fully human, it is possible to express what the Church believes by describing the new self-consciousness created by faith.” (101, fn 18). In other words, in the end, revelation doesn’t reveal God to man, it reveals man to himself.

It’s characteristic of this model to assert the use of reason; but in order to get around the limits Kant et al set on reason, they must assert a non-discursive reason, a kind of intuition for faith (103). This often becomes the role of imagination. “Since the imagination is the power by which we anticipate and construct our own future, revelation must actuate the symbolic imagination” (103). This kind of symbolic thought is the opposite of propositional doctrine: image, not word; myth, not truth-that-can-be-expressed-propositionally; subjectivity, not objectivity. As symbolic, the truth-value of revelation can only be judged pragmatically. “Revelation is true if it enriches the quality of individual and community life.” (104, fn 36).

Therefore, revelation is not something we receive from the past; it is by definition something we experience in the present. “History is revelatory insofar as it provides paradigms for human self-transcendence that continue to function in the present” (105). Biblical history, creeds, and doctrines are not recordings or summaries of some objective truth, but of powerfully creative symbols of change (106).

Because there are no revealed truths, this model cannot talk about “human nature;” instead, it talks about “the human condition.” To the extent that revelation says something useful about the human condition, it is universal. Therefore revelation is not limited to the Bible or Judeo-Christian truths. From here it’s a very short step to the idea that grace is universal (107).

The strengths of this model which Dulles notes are not objective, but require the same assumptions the model uses. First he notes how this model responds to the weaknesses of all the other models: not “authoritarian and rigid” (110) as the propositional model is argued to be; not assuming two layers of history; not sentimental or overly mystical, as the “inner experience” model can be; not passive, as the dialectical model can render us. If, however, one does not accept the initial assumptions, it’s much less clear that this model provides any significant advantage over any of the other models.

In terms of the seven criteria of evaluation, Dulles suggests this model does well on plausibility, practical fruitfulness, and dialogue. Again, it’s only plausible if one accepts the assumptions. It’s very practical in the sense that it can be made to fit a lot of different kinds of situations and ideas; but if Truth is the measure of practice, its inherent relativism mitigates this. The same with dialogue.

Apart from the reasonable of its core assumptions, this model also has some serious flaws. “The most persistent objection has to do with the fidelity of this model to Scripture and tradition” (111). Moreover, by implying that modern Christians are more “enlightened” than in the past [oh, those doltish credulists of the past!], it makes Christ not Christ. Dulles rather laconically notes that this makes it “difficult to give a fully coherent account of [this] position” (113) as a Christian theological position. Further, this model is adequate, not to all experience, but only to certain kinds. As to theoretical fruitfulness, its reduction of thought to imagination is “dissatisfying” (113).


Cecilia said...

Question: Does the term imagination used above (103) refer to the common, contemporary meaning for what's classically called fantasy? Or does it have the classical meaning, referring to the spiritual senses? Seems like it must be the current popular meaning.

Deacon David said...

I think some of the thinkers who use "imagination" in this context probably intend something more like the classic spiritual senses; but given the barrier of Kant etc., it ends up in practice looking more like classical fantasy. I mean, if it's true that the noumenal isn't knowable, then it's not knowable also by non-discursive reason, and what your spiritual senses are grasping at is not spirit, but just another form of fantasy.

Cecilia said...

If I understand your answer correctly, the Kantian influence seems to have a serious implication for what it means to be human (philosophical anthropology) and not just what we can know (epistemology). In what you've described above, as I understand it, there's not much point in even having spiritual senses.

Deacon David said...

Yes. Kant himself tried to contain the implications, but post-Kantian philosophy has mostly tended to push his epistemological argument to conclusions in other areas. So, Nietzsche's nihilism, Freud's agnostic pschologizing, Sartre and Heidegger's existentialism, Jung's mythologizing, Dewey's American utilitarianism, etc., etc., all depend on Kant's denial of noumenal knowledge.

There is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference in anthropology here: if man is primarily defined in reference to something outside of himself (God, or even just an objective human nature), certain truths must obtain in the moral and social life. But, if man is primarily defined only in reference to himself, these social and moral truths are ultimately indefensible as truth. At best, they can be defended only as culture, that it, as a choice. There is no grounds for arguing that this choice is objectively "better than" any other choice.

The same, then, is true with respect to religion. If there is nothing knowable outside of man, then all religion is equally "made up" and there is nothing to choose between them. In this sense, you're absolutely right that there's no point in having spiritual senses, because they can do nothing objectively. At best, they can allow us to articulate religious experience, which itself is entirely subjective, having reference only to the self.