On truth and revelation

Jonathan asked:

I wondered if there was any rational and logical reasons in disbelieving stories of divine interventions that many religions pretend. Most certainly yes, as we do not have any reason to believe them in the first place. However, if such divine revelation were to happen directly to any one of us personally (you or me), we would certainly be obliged in believing it.

So my question is: What if such revelation were to happen to thousands of people at once, but you personally are not part of this group, should you believe it? What kind of credibility such event should have? I am asking this because I think it is the case with the (pretended) revelation found in the Bible at Mount Sinai, and wondered if any historian, theologist, or philosopher has ever thought of this. Thank you in advance for your help as this question does bother me for quite a while now.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This an excellent question that applies as much to epistemology — or ‘theory of knowledge’ — as it does to theology. The sense that something has been ‘revealed’ to us, when it comes, seems beyond all uncertainty and doubt. One example outside theology would be the sudden illumination that tells you your life’s purpose. You ‘see’ the way ahead. You ‘know’ what you have to do, from here onwards. There is no obstacle so great that it could block your path.

Yet even on the personal level, leaving aside other persons and whatever they believe or disbelieve, you may also recall that you have experienced more than one such episode in your life. And later, in the cool light of day, all you can do is wonder that you were so easily persuaded of the ‘truth’.

But let’s stick with theology. After months of anguish at my failures, or losses, one day I wake up with the absolute and certain knowledge that Jesus loves me. Human beings love to be loved. The emotion of divine comforting embrace banishes all questions and doubts. And yet, thereafter, doubts may return, and it becomes harder and harder to recall that moment when I ‘knew’. The words reduce to a mantra or magic spell that over time loses its efficacy, fades and dies from over use.

Or not. Human beings differ. Those who claim to have been ‘born again’ might yet succeed in shoring up their defences against doubt, especially — band this is the important point that relates to your question — while in the company of other persons who claim to have experienced a similar episode of illumination. Should we believe them when they say that they know, beyond all doubt, that they have been ‘saved’?

Human testimony can be a source of knowledge, but I doubt whether this is true in the case of the claim of revelation. Regardless of the numbers of persons involved, One would have to experience the revelation for oneself. That is my answer to your question.

There is something else, that relates to truth telling. If you’re going to tell a lie, be crystal clear and honest with yourself that you are lying. What do you hope to achieve by your lie? What are the likely consequences if you are found out? The worst kind of lie is when you give in to the temptation to believe. As if you could change the facts by your lying words. Ministers of religion, as persons looked up to by their congregations, are especially prone to this trap.

This isn’t a soap box and I am not going to call al religious believers liars. If you had a problem in engineering and then a sudden revelation of the solution, there would be a way of testing this out. The broken machine is now fixed, or not fixed. Knowing that God has spoken to you, or that Jesus loves you may make you a happier person, or drive away the fear of death, but that is not in itself a test of the truth of what you believe.

3 thoughts on “On truth and revelation

  1. Great answer. Great discussion!
    I will humbly add if that is fine with everybody – I think, in many ways we are talking about ‘experience’. Obviously, the word can have a ‘mundane’ meaning and one which is more closely related with Reason as in Kant’s Vernuft.

    Gnosis would be another relevant word for us here.
    There is a level of discussion where we might not reach a level of meaning. This might, for example, be on the level of ‘concepts’, of ‘Name and form’ – Nama and Rupa rather than any level of ‘penetration’ into what we might, humbly call, the transcendental or, dare we say it, the Absolute.

    Kant stated that we cannot ‘penetrate’ Reason with the senses, thus, we must ‘Go beyond’ the senses.

    Buddhism and Jnana Yoga (which we might call Gnosis and is indeed where we get the word Gnosis from – ‘Jna-na’ the ‘Jna prefix is ‘Knowledge – the direct and literal translation from Sanskrit).

    Jnana Yog (yoga) is standardly known as being a form of Vedanta which broadly posits arriving at Knowledge of ‘what we are’ – of our metaphysical state.

    ‘Will’ is often considered the ‘metaphysical faculty’ with which we arrive a Knowledge. It uis, we might say, our means of ‘penetrating’ the Beyond, Truth, Knowledge.

    The wonderful thing about Vedanta and Buddhism to some degree is that it offers us multiple ways at arriving at Truth. Vedanta, for example, broadly posits four such ways. One is the path of devotion which is often considers Christianity or Islam to be to a lesser or greater extent. Bhakti Yoga is also espoused by follwoers, for example, of Krishna Consciousness. The other three forms are – the Path of Knowledge as already mentioned (Jnana Yoga), the Path of Discipline (Raj Yoga) and the Path of Selfless Service (Kamma Yoga). This. latter, is also known as the Path of Action.
    Joyfully, it states and maintains, we may arrive at Truth therefore by a variety of ways – a wonderful thing should we begin to think we have some ‘special path’ only we may follow(!).

    Many thanks,
    Much kindness.

  2. Truth is axiomatic. A=A is the only truth that is self evident. Stories in books, declarations ‘revelation’ and subjective observations, are not truth.

  3. There is a different aspect of this: I once was a true believer and “saw God in every leave of grass” so to say. That was a subjective truth that waned away everntually.

    But there is a world-historic truth testified by thousands of church-edifices all over Europe built since 2000 years — including Hagia Sophia, St.Peter and St.Paul and those gothic cathedrals and many many others. Behind those buildings was not just a lie but a world historic event — the life of Jesus as a humble preaching rabbi.

    Who or whatever he may have been, his message had charisma and he convinced a group followers and the message stick with great minds and “did not vanish from the Earth”. Whatever you may think of Jesus, you cannot dismiss St.Paul and St.Augustine and St.Benedict etc.. They formed a continents mind — which is not a small feat. Its not that the rulers forced the peoples to believe in Christ, is was the people who forced the rulers. The message had spiritual power. And the believers were honest — most of them. St.Paul and St.Augustine and St.Benedict and St.Thomas and St.Ignatius and Luther were not pretenders, neither was J.S.Bach. And they all were not silly or weak either.

    Thus, whatever you may personally think of it, Jesus was a well a world historic force as was Marx. This is much more than just a personal matter of belief and non-belief.

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