Sunday, November 2, 2008

Revelation as Authority

Our discussion about religious experience got me thinking about what actually counts as evidence or authority. It seems to me that there are so many levels of possible deception that make it impossible to determine whether a religious experience is really genuine. There is the possibility that the person is lying, and did not really have the experience. Then there is the possibility that they really did have the experience, but it was a dream or hallucination or from some other natural explanation. Last there is the possibility that they really had the experience, and it really was God or something supernatural communicating with them, but that thing itself is actually deceiving the person. Most people of faith would be uncomfortable with the possibility that their revelation is genuine, but God is actually lying to them, but I bring it up simply as a logical possibility. It is also possible that Satan or whatever other supernatural being is posing as God to give someone a revelation. Deception can enter the picture at any point in this chain, and even if you are the person experiencing the revelation, how can you even determine its validity, let alone convince anyone else of it?

This is important because ultimately all religion comes down to a spiritual experience of some kind. Christians take the Bible as their authority, but what gives it its authority? The revelations given to the prophets and other authors, and later Paul's vision of Jesus are all varieties of revelation, as is the recitation of the Qur'an to Muhammed. Even the canonization process ultimately goes back to asking what authority the compilers of the Bible had to do so, which is connected to apostolic succession and their own religious experiences. What makes one legitimate and not the other, and how do you know? We can't say that all religious experiences are equally legitimate because obviously some are mutually exclusive. So we must have a way to distinguish what is real from what isn't. There seems to be no way to do this besides one's own personal conviction in the strength of their experience, but anyone from any other faith has the same argument and equal convictions of their own.


Talia said...

It's interesting that you bring up the point of who legitimizes Religious Experiences? I think it's funny to think that in some cases and some religions they have a systematic approach for deciding whether or not an individual's religious belief is legitimate or not because I'm certain that all sorts of biases come into play. For example I'm sure catholics would say that a Muslim's religious experience that obviously legitimizes Islam was illegitimate and ill conceived. However, if there are no rules to saying what a genuine religious experience is and we all just took it on faith that every person who claims a religious experience is legitimate then I would for see a lot of fraud and David Karesh kind of events. In that same vein if we were to go to the other extreme and just say that all religious experiences are false then we are pretty much throwing out the foundations that most religions are based on as you put it. How can we find legitimacy when there is no unshakeable proof that individuals have genuine religious experiences and there is no unshakeable proof that individuals never have genuine religious experiences?

Blake said...

The authority that comes from Revelation (Spiritual Experiences) is determined by the number of people whom are convinced of the authenticity of a particular revelation (of a particular manifestation of the divine).

It is unfortunate that we cannot take claims made by someone(i saw God/talked to God/etc...) at face value. That is, in this world when someone claims to have perceived something, more often than not, one must see it for oneself before one becomes a believer. For example, when someone says "the sky is blue" ,one would not take their word for it because one would look up at the sky to see its color. We are constantly checking on claims made by other people (or at least should be). The problem with using Revelation as authority is simply that we cannot check on claims made using Spiritual Experiences as their authority; that is, we cannot "see" or "feel" another's spiritual experiences thus we cannot determine their legitimacy, or lack thereof.