Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Second hand revelation

Continuing the current stream of doubting...

I go to a church where people regularly have 'words of knowledge' or 'pictures' or other apparent direct revelations from God. Some have apparently had dreams conveying meaning from God. And while they don't generally do this in the main church service, I know that many of them speak in tongues.

I have never had any of these experiences.

The only time I ever came close was when I was on a SU camp many years ago and was talking with someone who was going through a hard time. We were out in the hills and I remember looking across the valley and seeing a tree on the far side of the valley. It was a tree, standing on its own, on an otherwise featureless hillside. It was a windy and cloudy day, with the sun breaking though only occasionally and transiently, and the patches of sunlight moved and changed rapidly. Except, as I looked, the sun broke through the clouds and the lone tree was bathed in a patch of sunlight which seemed to remain on the tree and not change or shift for a couple of minutes (may have been less than that, but it seemed a relatively long time). Seeing that 'vision' (of something that was actually there) gave me an idea for the right encouraging word to say to my companion. I've always kind of interpreted that experience as a kind of 'vision', but maybe it was just part of an active imagination, while seeking to find the right words to say to a friend going through a rough patch.

But that's the extent of my experience. And yet I know people who apparently get 'pictures' or 'words of knowledge' on a weekly basis. Sometimes these seem to be specific and aimed at a particular person or situation, sometimes they are more general. But rarely (if ever) is there a way of testing these 'revelations' to see if they have a divine source. If someone says something like:
"I've got a picture of a tap, and its turned off, I think there's someone here who is feeling spiritually dry and needs to turn the tap on again..."
then it might be genuine revelation, or it might be a random thought that just occurred to them, but if its stated in a large enough Christian gathering, there's a fair chance that somebody there will be feeling spiritually dry on that day, and so will take this to be a message for them.

This is the problem I see, if a 'picture' is described, and there is somebody there who relates to it, then its taken as a message from God and boosts the faith of both the picture receiver and the one to whom it relates. But if there isn't someone who connects with the message, it is rarely taken to mean that the picture was wrong, misinterpreted or just imagination. There is no negative feedback loop - only a positive one or a no-effect one. So, basically, whether or not these pictures come from God, so long as somebody does this often enough, the net effect will be to boost their faith, not only in God (who may have had nothing to do with the process), but also in the 'picture' ability.

In addition to that, the interpretation of such pictures is always (in services that I've been at, at least) positive and encouraging. Even if the picture is of a raging torrent of water, the interpretation is never that someone is going to be swept away and smashed on the rocks, the interpretation will be something about the power of God to break into some situation or other. So, even if the pictures do come from a divine source, perhaps the interpretation is derived from church culture rather than from above? In the Old Testament, some of the prophets had no problem issuing dire warnings based on their interpretations of the revelations they apparently received, but maybe that was just part of the cultural filter of the day? I fully expect that in some Christian sub-cultures, in some parts of the world, revelations from God are still interpreted in such a manner. But not in our culture. As far as I can tell, the culture shapes the message. If that is the case, is there any need for a divine origin for the message?

My point is this. How can you know if any claimed revelation is genuine?

Someone receives a picture and interprets it that they need to open your arms and embrace their neighbours. Is that from God? Well, at least it is consistent with some bits of the bible. So maybe it is? Revelation which is consistent with culture is endorsed.

Someone else receives a picture and interprets it that they need to kill their neighbours. Is that from God? Well, that too is consistent with some parts of the bible. But I doubt that most churches would endorse this. Culture trumps revelation.

Both pictures there could be the product of an active imagination. Or both could be from God. But both are filtered through at least two interpretation layers - that of the person seeing the picture and that of the culture. So if someone shares a picture with you, how on earth can you know what to do with it?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What has to be taken on faith?

What has to be taken on faith?

And what can we reasonably expect there to be evidence or experience for?

Does faith refer to the future, the present or the past?

Take the 'heroes of faith' chapter in Hebrews 11 as an example, here's the whole text, with interjections by me:
1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
Here it would seem that faith refers to God's actions in the past - we have no evidence that God formed the universe, so we have to take it on faith.
4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.
Here I think it is safe to say that Abel did not need faith to know that there was a God, or that God wanted offerings. Rather, his faith related to the way he approached God.
5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
The Enoch verse is odd, as it doesn't tell us anything about how Enoch's faith was manifested, but verse 6 is interesting, in that it implies that even the existence of God is something we have to take on faith. Does that mean there is no evidence for God? I'll come back to this below...
7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.
Here Noah receiving the warning was not an act of faith, his faith was demonstrated through the way he responded. He believed the warning was true and put that into action.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
Here again, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah show their faith through believing the promises that they were given. Receiving the promise was not an act of faith, and it doesn't seem like their belief in the promise giver was an act of faith, only the way they trusted the promise and acted accordingly.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
This is a bit odd, as some of those listed above did receive the things promised before they died. Anyway...
17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Once again, faith is demonstrated in trust. Not trust that God exists, but trust that the things God says are true.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.
I'm not sure what these three examples teach us about faith, but hey.
23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.
God spoke to Moses audibly out of a weird burning bush. Hearing that voice was not an act of faith, acting upon what the voice said was.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
And again, faith is demonstrated by believing that that the instructions of God are trustworthy and acting on them.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
So in almost all cases, except verses 3 & 6, faith is seen to be trusting the promises of God, and acting accordingly. Belief by itself is not enough, faith seems to be belief in action.

In almost all instances there, the pattern is this:
  1. God speaks (audibly, visibly, clearly) to someone.
  2. Person acts on the basis of the message, even if they can't necessarily see the end result.
  3. Faith is demonstrated by believing the message and acting on it.
However, for us, there are a lot more links in the chain. Do we have to take all of these on faith?

For the vast majority of us, the 'message' comes to us from words written down some 1900 to 2500 years ago. It is filtered through our own personal interpretation of the words, and through the imposed interpretation of the (church) culture we are part of or were raised in. Beyond that, for most of us, there is the filter of the translation, and possibly also the filter of transmission. Next we have to contend with the filter of canonical selection (Were all the 'words of God' included in the canon? Was anything else let in by mistake? Were any genuine 'words of God' omitted?) and (so some claim) the filter of the 'ecclesiastical redactor' who may have edited some of the NT writings before they became 'canon'. Beyond that, we don't know with any certainty who wrote most of the NT writings, and we have no idea at all who wrote the majority, if not all, of the OT.

Were the gospels written by eyewitnesses? If they weren't (as seems probable), then where did the information come from? How many jumps are there between the eyewitnesses and the written documents? Did any spurious stories make their way into the gospels? If so, how can we distinguish the facts from the fiction?

There's too many question marks there. Either you accept (on faith) that our contemporary interpretation of the books of the bible is 'The Word of God' or you doubt one bit and the whole edifice begins slowly to crumble. Without faith in the end product, there's almost not compelling evidence for believing any of it.

What evidence is there that the Bible is the Word of God?

Indeed, what evidence is there that there is a God to have a Word?

I think many Christians would use the existence of God as evidence for the Bible, and would use the Bible as evidence for the existence of God. But that's circular reasoning and gets you nowhere.

Now don't get me wrong here, I'm not doubting the existence of the Deity in general, but I am beginning to doubt the existence of the God-in-three-persons as interpreted from the Bible. If you use the Bible as the filter through which to view God, you get a definite and fairly well defined picture of God. And that is what I am currently questioning.

I believe in 'religious experience' and I believe it is evidence for the existence of the divine. But the more I reflect on this, the greater a gulf I see between experience and the Christian picture of God. As I said in a previous post, I believe in the Holy Spirit, its just the Divine Father and the Divine Son that I'm wrestling with. Or rather, I'm wondering if the 'Holy Spirit' of Christianity today, and the 'Father' who Jesus prayed to, and the God of the Old Testament are simply the same God. Not different aspects of God, not different persons in a Trinity, just one God, the same one. I wonder if we've been misunderstanding God for the best part of two thousand years, perhaps much, much longer.

Almost all of what Christians believe is taken on faith from the Bible. What if the bible is in error? I don't see that we have any way of testing the authenticity of the bible. Indeed, historical criticism of the Bible has shown, in many different ways, that it is a human document, which has been compiled, edited, changed, rearranged and contains errors. Unless you take it unquestioningly at face value, there is no compelling evidence to believe in the God it presents, over any other God presented in any other holy book.

I'm not sure I have enough faith to believe in that God anymore. Largely because the reasons I had for my faith have been shown to be resting on very scant evidence.