The “Necessity” of Revelation?

Those who believe the Author of Nature to be also the Author of Scripture must expect to find in Scripture the same sorts of difficulties that they find in Nature. – Origen of Alexandria

The title of this post is almost a contradiction in terms. The term “revelation” seems to imply a sense of freedom in the act, especially if initiated by God. To use it in the same phrase with “necessity” might cause one to balk, so it requires some explanation before kicking off this phase of the journey. The kind of necessity we are concerned with here is one that is “built in” by choice… as a bike manufacturer who didn’t need to build a motorized bicycle, but chose to do so instead of a non-motorized one. Given the latter, we can claim that an energy source for the bike is a-posteriori “necessary.” The “need” was chosen and built in. It might be better referred to as “structural necessity” as opposed to “intrinsic necessity.”

The main question this post seeks to explore is if evidence exists that points us in the direction of revelation being “structurally necessary,” or in one where human rationality alone is “necessary.” Right up front we should certainly highlight, and admit, that this series wouldn’t be possible without the inroads made by the human pursuit (or “love”) of wisdom, commonly known as philosophy. It has brought us to the doorstep of the revelation question but cannot answer it without aid. It cannot by definition… an individual will must freely assent to it. As in past discussions, it isn’t suggested here that uncritical credulity is called for, only that airtight syllogism does not and should not work, as it would “prove too much.” Revelation involves an “other” and as such could not in principle take in that other in such a way as to “exhaust” that other. It is not like appropriating mere matter or information but more like a union of sharing with the other towards mutual fulfillment, not as a “part” to a “whole”… in other words it’s like a marriage. A man doesn’t propose marriage to a woman with a legal team building a case to ensure acceptance. The ridiculousness of such a scenario is palpable, but we do not often see it so easily when transferring the analogy to the realm of the truth about God. The main kernel of the quandary seems to be associated with the mystery of personhood (and consequently intellect and free will.) If the world is merely mechanistic, then the existence of humanity is in need of explanation. It does seem rather odd to change the focus from the question of God revealing Himself to the nature of man, but it is illustrative to take note of the candidate “receiver” of potential revelation.

“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” St. John Paul II – Redemptor Hominis

We might certainly say, even from a mere philosophical point of view that revelation must at least be possible, since nothing is impossible for God (except the technically absurd, which is ultimately a modality of non-being.) It is certainly not a stretch to admit that God would know something that is not manifest to man, AND that He might create a being equipped with the faculties to apprehend and receive it volitionally.

“But it is now time to depart—for me to die, for you to live. But which of us is going to a better state is unknown to every one but God.” – Plato, The Apology of Socrates

One might be more easily persuaded about this possibility if it weren’t for the wide variety of accounts of that revelation to chose from. But as discussed in a recent post, the leap isn’t really as daunting as it might appear at first. Especially if we see this as a search for the key that fits a lock, as our journey can be characterized so far. At one time in history, contracting parties that didn’t know each other could be sure of making the connection with one another by means of a symbolon: an object, (a sort of medallion) that was broken in such a way that each half would fit together. Each party would be given one of the halves and once they found each other they would be sure they could proceed with whatever business needed to be conducted. In this way it is possible to have revelation be both possible and reasonable: that while we only have a piece of the puzzle (the “lock”) and are acquainted only with its shape and design, a piece not in our possession (the “key”) can be adjudicated as fitting with that piece we do know (regardless of how “irregular” the shape may seem to us.) Essentially, even if the content of revelation is not judicable by reason, the step to it is favorably so.

“Reason’s last step is to acknowledge that there are infinitely many things beyond it.” Pensées – Blaise Pascal

It certainly seems like we come to a point where our own rationality, while good and indispensable, would be insufficient in guiding us all the way to true beatitude. We sense there is more to the story (as there is another half to our symbolon), but our unaided natural reason cannot breach that wall. However just because we need “more than our natural reason,” we don’t undermine or dispense with it. One way to see this is to consider a thought experiment. Imagine that you possess a set of instructions that takes you from your house to an unspecified location. You take it out of your pocket, hop in your car and drive out to the location, which happens to be at the beach. You step out of the car and follow the remainder of the instructions to a precise point… right up to the end of the pier. Once there, you find a boat, oars, neatly prepared provisions and an unopened envelope with what could be additional instructions. The leap into the boat, despite the absence of any indication in the original instructions, is certainly a reasonable one. This is a close analogy to the plausibility of revelation. The comparatively unreasonable alternative would actually be throwing up your hands and saying, “well looks like the instructions end here… guess I should go home now!” Given such a scenario, it seems the prospect of revelation is not only not anti-rational, it seems to actually cohere better with reason!

“It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings to search things out.” Proverbs 25:2

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33

The preceding analogy about directions to the boat demonstrates the feasibility of a scenario that holds off the two extremes; radical skepticism… ignoring the obvious serendipity, and credulity… jumping into any old boat. Now we just need to deal with the “necessity” part. Up until now, we have discussed the technical possibility of there being revelation, and the technical possibility of identifying it from among multiple possibilities. But how do we demonstrate “necessity” if it is revelation we are considering? The key lies in the implication of the rationality that makes humanity distinct from other species. This is where the “structural necessity” part comes in. Human rationality (Our piece of the “symbolon”) is necessary for authentic deliberation, judgement and acts of the will. If this faculty is present, what is its function? It can’t merely be for physical “survival” as all other species accomplish this operating (and co-operating) on instinct. This is like arguing that the purpose of the instructions in the above thought experiment was only to guide you in merely making the turns… it certainly is that, but much more. In a merely mechanistic system, an element thereof with real God given agency would be superfluous by definition… why involve potentially “capricious” entities when raw instinct is sufficient for basic survival? It really is the mechanistic view that tends to block the consideration of revelation. If agency is present, it seems it would be for a sort of “coworker” role in stewardship of the universe. We behold a creature that creates (or more appropriately, sub-creates.) This is a surprising “lifting up” of a limited creature to peer into the work of God. Why go through this elaboration and not keep everything parsimonious? It only makes sense if, rather than a mechanistic universe, we are more likely in a setting for an encounter… one where revelation is the conduit of that encounter. The real perplexity is in the mechanistic “Watchmaker” view, in that it imagines the Creator stepping away after making everything because it could run on its own. In our modern culture, “automation” is highly valued, but does it make sense to automate away everything? Wouldn’t it be more plausible that God is intimately involved with His creation?

“But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working.’” John 5:17

One could argue that needing to continue involvement with creation means something was not cared for, but understanding the telos involved should dispel such a notion: that of facilitating an encounter by allowing a share in the work of creation, through which we may observe His Mind and Heart. Far from being a deficiency, such a prospect should elicit wonder and awe of God, as He continuously holds in being all creatures, those with and without rational agency… juggling the jugglers, if you will. But are there any clues that could lead us to answer the latter supposition in the affirmative? In other words what contours on the symbolon are begging for completion? Perhaps we could examine further the implications of human nature to shed light on this. If we take two previously mentioned facts together, a proposition becomes clear. The first fact is that rational agency is superfluous in a “clockwork” universe…certainly its appearance within such a mechanistic matrix would be incoherent as there would be no advantage therein. In fact it would be like throwing a monkey wrench into the works since such faculties could immediately act to undermine the deterministic nature of such a system. The second fact, which follows from the first, is that our role is beyond mere material survival, and thus beyond what we can accomplish with our own correspondingly limited human nature. Limited nature equals limited capacity.

“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” St. Augustine – Confessions

The latter is most clearly seen in our futile efforts to satisfy desires via the technology we create, which we wouldn’t have done unless we were trying to satiate a restlessness we experience in the first place. We are trying to put out a raging fire with a gallon of water. Again it is seen in the courtroom… a system dedicated to the proposition that there is a common standard that we have trouble discerning and keeping. Included in this courtroom is also tradition of oath swearing… an institution that suggests we need God’s help to do what we are called to do. This sets up a dilemma that can only be solved by authentic revelation. It seems we need both the “what” (content) of revelation and the “means” or “capacity” to attain its end. This cannot be mere informational knowledge as again we are proposing the per se superfluous (e.g. even a computer could read in information and process it.) The cooperative construction exhibited by lower animals is accomplished by instinct, while humanity has the ability to plan; to reason. This last point seems to be the final knock against deism… if reason cannot be accounted for in the above ways then, the ability to receive revelation is in point of fact the function implied in its structure… it’s “telos,” it’s “need.” In fact it seems this very need for revelation drives much theorizing and hypothesizing about meaning. But our own attempts to do so are necessarily unsatisfying and can only lead in dangerous directions, if not for grace…

“I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” GK Chesterton – Orthodoxy

This latter point leads us inexorably to consider the need for a coherent, continuous expression of revelation and how it might be introduced and maintained in time. As God is outside of time, to limit His engagement with us to only the first moments of creation seems arbitrary (and counterintuitive actually since terrestrial time is also a created thing.) In light of this understanding, it would be sensible to assume that His sustaining engagement with creation is ongoing from the temporal perspective, as He is in an “eternal now.” As such creation can be better described as an obtaining relation (or relationship) of creaturely substances to God. And in those beings with reason (angels and humans,) the relationship bond is enriched by revelation, but not just any revelation… the revelation of Truth. As previously mentioned, myths really show themselves as constructed due to the passive and casual “engagement” they inspire. As something concocted, they could never inspire real purpose. Only revelation that is Truth could transform us and be “curated” and “defended” with sufficient solemnity and zeal to be taken seriously. Based on conclusions reached in the last few posts, we now can begin to examine the 3 monotheistic faiths that claim to hand on authentic revelation: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In or next post we look to explore “Religio: ‘What binds us.’”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?” Job 38:4-5

Comments are closed.