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?


Ryan McKenzie said...


I also share your thoughts on this (a well written post, by the way). At various times in the past I've felt like a had pictures from God for the church, and whilst feeling REALLY nervous about giving them, I have, in good faith that God's will would be done through whatever was said.

But I started getting worried that maybe my breakfast that morning was the reason I was having a pictures of lands of milk and honey... That made me really stress out! Was I simply giving people my own thoughts and passing them off as God's?

I now feel that the only time I'll ever get up at church with a word from someone is if it's straight out of the Bible - a clear verse for someone. I think Scripture is the safest bet. What do you think?

Dave said...

I wonder the same thing, from my "doubting atheist" perspective. (Is there a clearer phrase for somebody who on a true-false test would put "God exists: false" but have serious doubts about that answer?)

I still go to a Christian worship service each Sunday with my wife (who is still Christian), and they have a prayer team that shares during service what image(s)/word(s) they received in prayer before service. The lack of specificity ("there's somebody here who's struggling with anger" or "feeling exhausted" or "keeps going back to some sin...and you need to engage it, and we'd love to pray with you") makes it feel made-up to me; but why would I assume a priori that God MUST be specific? (Granted, reading transcripts of "psychics" like John Edward and explanations of their tricks is part of it; but no proof of anything.)

Our prayer team also is taught (I took part of the class before the [painful] transition to doubting atheism) to filter first: don't share anything un-biblical (can't be from God), or that seems like your usual thought patterns, etc. Whatever can't be explained "naturalistically" and still matches the Bible--keep that. ("Revelation of the gaps"?)

Along with the impossibility of proving/disproving anything, people seem to really respond, and work through issues and get healed. I often think of "alternative medicine" (pick whichever you don't believe in), how it "works" if only because the placebo effect is so strong. So I don't use it myself, but I think it's great that people can get (really/physically) healed by it. But (as you said in another post), I want to know the truth. Perhaps foolish.

I've certainly had dreams, even as an atheist, that make me wonder. One involved me crying a lot, and Jesus coming (spiritually), and me being surprised that Jesus actually was divine--at that time I thought even if God exists, Jesus probably wasn't "divine" in any sense, though I didn't believe in God either. I suppose if I were from another culture, that should have been enough to (re)convert me on the spot. I had another dream after reading (while awake) about a "Christian" discipline method of writing your child's name on paper and burying it to rot, wherein an eagle gave me a piece of paper with my name and a heart drawn around it. I'd love to believe I got a love note from God and direct evidence of Jesus' divinity, but (after my initial warm feelings and excitement wore off) what do I have?

Conclusions seem directly driven by assumptions here; and then even within theistic, even Christian assumptions, how could you ever really discern? Maybe partly you need to be ok with being wrong (I'm getting there, slowly). For now I mostly have doubt, uncertainty, confusion, eagerness to learn and experience more.