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MWP 1.1.g Against Revelatory Metaphysics

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Apart from philosophers, the other major source of metaphysical claims in the world is religious. I do not identify religion solely with revelation and metaphysical belief, so it is not religion as a whole, or even any specific religion as a whole, that I am commenting on here. However, religion is a sphere where revelatory metaphysics is often found. In this chapter I am going to try to head off some common defences for it.

By ‘revelation’ here, I mean a metaphysical claim that is justified by appeal to an absolute authority. Very often such revelations are believed to come from God, but God is not the only claimed source of revelations. In the Buddhist tradition, revelations come from enlightened beings, and in polytheistic traditions, from gods or other spiritual beings. Even when revelations are believed to come from God they also need a proximate authoritative source to convey them, such as a religious leader, a scripture, a ‘sign’, or the inspired will of a community.  These revelations become metaphysical when they gain absolute authority because of their source, rather than being judged as theory according to their relationship to experience.

Here we need to distinguish the idea of absolute authority from a source and credibility from a source. If we have trusted a source before and found it reliable, then we have greater justification in trusting it again, based on experience. We are also likely to trust sources in a secondary way because they are recommended by people that we know as trustworthy, or are widely assumed to be trustworthy. So, for example, many people throughout the world (including me) trust the BBC news as offering a reasonably objective report of world events. However, this is far from an absolute reliance. If I began to experience the BBC as less reliable, I would lessen my trust in them and perhaps switch to other sources of news – if I could find better ones. An absolute revelatory authority, however, is not subject to this kind of review in the light of experience. A religious believer who trusts God, or trusts the guidance of the Buddha, cannot withdraw or even reduce that trust when it proves unreliable, because there are no circumstances in which it can be accepted to be unreliable. If the BBC allows an uncritical account of a despotic or corrupt regime in a distant country, we can soon find out by consulting other sources about that regime. If, on the other hand, we are given a one-sided account of Jesus or the Buddha by religious scriptures or modern religious teachers, the absolute claims made for these figures, and the lack of an effective critical tradition within religious traditions, means that challenges will be taken as attacks on the religious group as a whole and ignored or reinterpreted so as to be compatible with continuing faith in the revelation.

Credibility is not only based on direct or indirect experience to begin with, but it is also subject to continuing scrutiny by comparison with alternative sources of information. Revelation may sometimes be accepted on the basis of experience, but the partiality and limiting assumptions that are used to interpret that experience can only be recognised with great difficulty once the revelation has been accepted, because of the lack of ongoing critical scrutiny. Critical scrutiny becomes redundant once an absolute source of truth is believed to have been discovered, simply because the motive for believing in that source of truth is no longer conceived as investigative.

It is the dualistic features of revelatory metaphysics that have been most obvious to atheistic critics making a moral case against ‘religion’. Revelation puts the emphasis on a source of authority, which often has the effect of polarising the response between those who obey or disobey that authority. This polarisation is strongly illustrated by the episode in Exodus where Moses leaves the Israelites to ascend Mount Sinai, and when he returns finds that they started to worship a Golden Calf image in disobedience against God’s law.

Moses saw that the people were out of control and that Aaron had laid them open to the secret malice of their enemies. He took his place at the gate of the camp and said “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come here to me”; and the Levites all rallied to him. He said to them, “The Lord God of Israel has said: Arm yourselves, each of you, with his sword. Go through the camp from gate to gate and back again. Each of you kill brother, friend, neighbour.” The Levites obeyed, and about three thousand of the people died that day. Moses said, “You have been installed as priests of the Lord today, because you have turned each against his own son and his own brother and so have brought a blessing this day upon yourselves.”[1]

This episode has been echoed in a host of religious conflicts ever since, the defining feature of which is the revelatory assumption of one true account of ‘God’s word’ and the falsity of all other beliefs. If evangelical certainty no longer results in such massacres in all cases today, it can hardly be revelatory beliefs themselves that are responsible for the development of tolerance. Rather it is the countervailing development of awareness that other views may, after all, have something to be said for them because they are expressive of other experiences that have engaged differently with conditions, or perhaps with the recognition that slaughter does not address the conditions of belief as well as persuasion does.

Those that receive revelation assume a special status, which can in some cases apparently justify any action up to and including the massacre of those without that status[2]. Revelation also puts the emphasis on revealed moral instructions to be followed to the letter, which makes it easy for these moral instructions to become an end in themselves regardless of the wider moral context. For example, the Jewish dietary regulations given in Leviticus 11 seem largely motivated by the need to distinguish the Israelites from other tribes.

In all of these kinds of cases, it is revelation that is the problem, not ‘religion’, for religion includes many other beliefs, attitudes and practices, and amounts to a whole sphere of life, not a particular set of beliefs. Religious art, ritual, story, community, meditation, ethics or social action does not have to be either revelatory or metaphysical, though these aspects of religion can be focused on or motivated by metaphysics to a greater or lesser extent. It is revelation that makes religious attitudes metaphysical, whereas in other cases religious beliefs and practices can merely provide a context for passing on theories that can be tried through experience, whether these consist in moral attitudes, rituals or meditation technology.

Just as positive metaphysics is dualistically opposed by negative metaphysics, revelation is dualistically opposed by anti-revelation: that is, by the denial of the content of revelation because of the authoritative claims made for it. A Middle Way response to revelation, then, denies the authority of the revelatory claims, but examines the content of revelatory scriptures or other instructions in the same way as other content, neither giving it higher nor lower status than other texts (except where greater credibility can be based on experience). Obviously this is easier to do with some texts than others. It is hard to interpret the passage from Exodus quoted above in other than revelatory terms, but if we focused on, for example, the content of Jesus’ moral teachings or the Buddha’s meditational instructions aside from the claims of authority ascribed to them, these can provide a rich source of religious technology or religious inspiration regardless of revelatory claims.

Theologians through the ages have offered various kinds of justification for revelation, some of which I will try to address here:

1. Human sinfulness makes reliance on ‘reason’ unacceptable

2. Revelation can be wholly or partly supported through ‘reason’

3. Revelation arises from, and is justified by, the power of religious experience

4. God would not allow us to be influenced by the wrong revelation

1. Firstly, the belief that human beings are universally sinful is itself a metaphysical belief which can have no justification in experience. No matter how great our experience of the evil or the corruptibility of individual human beings, this would not justify us in extending an assumption of absolute sinfulness to all human beings. Any theory of universal absolute sinfulness that was open to observation would immediately founder on every example of human goodness. If only a degree of sinfulness is encountered, though, it would not make us utterly unjustified in using reason. Human sinfulness, then, is not a justifiable foundation for accepting revelation.

Further unjustifiable assumptions are also made in this line of argument, even if it were accepted that we are universally sinful. If sinfulness merely makes our use of reason fallible, this is a fallibility that needs to be embraced rather than rejected, for the reasons outlined in 1.d. If our reason is flawed by sinfulness, in any case, this does not necessarily mean that we should depend entirely on revelation as an alternative. Since there is no further reason for accepting revelation beyond the authority of the source, accepting revelation because of doubt about our own capacity to think through the issues correctly is a bit like jumping off a cliff because you can’t see any way to climb down it.

Theological arguments of this kind tend to share a conception of ‘reason’ with analytic philosophers that unhelpfully separates the conceptual aspects of human experience from the emotional – a distinction tackled in I.1.i and III.1.a. For the moment I am using the common term ‘reason’ with scare quotes, but really do not accept the narrow assumptions that are often attached to the concept of ‘reason’ used as a synonym for thinking justified by human experience. In drawing conclusions from evidence or assumptions, we use our emotions as much as our logical faculties, and such ‘reasoning’ is only ever as good as the assumptions it depends on. The acceptance of revelation itself involves ‘reasoning’ in which one abstract representational belief is justified by another, and it is the false dichotomy between revelation and ‘reason’ that needs addressing here rather than asserting one over the other.

2. Given that revelation attempts to provide an absolute justification for belief, in its own terms there is neither need nor justification for using ‘reason’ as a basis of judgement. There is no need because revelation has already answered our questions with absolute authority, and no justification because the use of reasoning based on experience to justify beliefs might undermine that authority. Of course, in practice religious believers through the centuries have indeed supplemented or supported revelation using reasoning based on experience, but one presumes because that this is due to understandable limitations in their faith in the revelation. The re-emergence of the perspective of human experience in a religious context dominated by revelation seems unavoidable, because the complexity of that human experience is simply not fully addressed by revelatory certainties. The adoption of increasingly liberal perspectives within a revelatory religious context increasingly sidelines the revelation until it becomes almost irrelevant.

One area where it might be argued that the use of reasoning based on experience is always necessary is in the interpretation of revelation. Any verbal statement of revelation, in a scripture, a leader’s words, or elsewhere, will either be highly generalised or written for a specific context different from the one where it is used. The terms used will also be interpreted differently by the audience from the speaker and will contain many ambiguities. For example, take the ‘Sword Verse’ from the Qur’an:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). But if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.[3]

The context of this verse, as moderate Muslims point out, is one of treaties between Muhammad and the pagans of Makkah. The preceding verses appear to give Allah’s blessing to the breaking of treaties with pagans that are believed to have broken their obligations or become hostile to the Muslims. So, the verse could be taken to mean that Muslims should only fight pagans who showed hostility first. It could be used to stop Muslims waging holy war during Ramadan or against those who have surrendered to Islam. On the other hand, it still supports the use of violence, in at least some circumstances, to force people to convert to Islam. What this means today, then, particularly for a Muslim surrounded by unbelievers or a Muslim nation in contact with non-Muslim nations, is highly ambiguous. Who broke a contract first, for example, is often highly disputable, as is the more basic moral issue of whether we should praise Muslims for their restraint in limiting warfare against pagans to certain defined conditions, or blame them for engaging in it at all.

What this tells us is that there is a basic incoherence in the very idea of propositional revelation, not that the use of ‘reason’ can somehow preserve the absolute status of revelation despite these difficulties. Given the relativity of linguistic communication, no absolute truths can be communicated in words, so that if we use reasoning based on experience to interpret utterances that are supposed to be revelation, we are actually treating them merely as advice and weighing them on their own merits. If all religious believers admitted that this was what they were doing there would be no problem about it, but when fundamentalists and other religious conservatives use ‘reason’ to interpret revelation and then attach the supposed absolute authority of the revelation to their own interpretation, we have major confusion and self-deception.

The alternative to a propositional revelation is a non-propositional revelation, which may occur, for example, in a wordless mystical experience, in a vision, in an experience of nature, or through the character of a great religious leader. Some of the issues around religious experience will be considered under the next point, but generally there are even more difficulties surrounding the idea of non-propositional revelation than around propositional revelation. Given the requirement on religious believers to do all the interpretation from a deeply ambiguous communication, how can non-propositional revelation be distinguished, in practice, from inspiration? It is difficult to see how those claiming non-propositional revelation are not merely trying to attach the authority of revelation to beliefs acquired through their own judgement and experience.

On the whole, then, revelation and reasoning based on experience are oil and water. They can supplant each other but they cannot mix. Any appeal to revelation prevents judgements being based on experience because the revelation, if it is as absolute as is claimed, must always override the perspective of experience. Any judgement made on the basis of experience to supplement or interpret revelation, on the other hand, removes the revelatory authority and substitutes a fallible human perspective.

3. Religious experience is an important dimension of human experience, and there is no justification for reductive treatments of these experiences. They remain potent, mysterious and inspirational for those who have them (or even, indirectly, for others). However, I want to argue that the religious tradition of trying to make revelatory capital out of religious experiences is just as crass as the attempt to explain them away as ‘merely’ chemical imbalances in the brain or the product of psychiatric disorders.

One basic argument against the possibility that religious experiences could communicate absolute truths is simply the impossibility that perfection could be experienced in a context of imperfection. Whatever experiences of rapturous emotional positivity, empathy, intuitive insight or apparent certainty religious experiences may offer, these cannot be experiences of a perfect being or even a perfect perspective, because they are imperfect. What has happened is that a human being has experienced an inspired and integrated state, but nevertheless still a fallible state. To attribute godlike qualities to a fallible human experience is a type of (what in the theistic traditions has been called) idolatry, not very different in effect from attributing godlike qualities to a carved piece of wood. In terms of brain hemispheres, it takes the open and intuitive experiences of the right hemisphere and reduces them to the linguistic certainties of the left hemisphere.

Sometimes traditional accounts of religious experience take the gap between perfect and imperfect into account. For example, the Israelite elders who are said to have seen God on the top of Mount Sinai can see and comprehend the pavement he stands on, not God himself[4]. Muhammad in the Cave of Hira is told to recite the words of the Qur’an that arise in him spontaneously, so the words are not said to be expressive of his revelatory state at all – he is merely a channel for God[5]. However, even if we grant that religious experience merely provides a context for the communication of divine words, rather than the divine words being justified by the experience, we are still left with the contradictory idea of divine words. Such words, if they were ever capable of expressing a perfect point of view, will immediately lose that perfection when understood and interpreted.

4. A final theological strategy to defend revelation is to appeal back to God’s perspective. If we doubt whether we have the right revelation, and point out the imperfection of our interpretation of revelation, it is argued that God must be guiding that interpretation. Indeed, given that God is both omnipresent and good, God must be guiding our interpretation, and would not leave us alone in error.

If you were to use this argument to support belief in the existence of God, it would obviously be circular: we believe in God because he has revealed himself to us, and we know the revelation to be correct because God exists. However, if you believe in God’s existence already, it would certainly be within God’s power and consistent with his assumed personality to ensure that we understand revelation correctly.

The bigger problem with this argument, then, is the abstracted turn that it shares with analytic philosophy (see previous chapter). This argument does not appeal to God as an experience at all, but to a conception of God that is metaphysical and thus beyond human experience. It would be possible to believe in such a God, and that he was guiding our revelations, even if our experience appeared to completely contradict such assertions, for example if his revelation involved instructions for deliberate destruction of the earth and mass suicide, or if every individual on earth had a different revelation which brought them into violent conflict with all the other individuals. Finally, then, it must be re-emphasised that the decisive rejection of revelation is not anti-religious. The problem is metaphysics, not religion, and revelation is simply metaphysics applied to religion. However, it has to be accepted that religion provides us with many of the most striking examples of the drawbacks of metaphysics.

[1] Exodus 32:25-29: Oxford Revised English Bible

[2] This can be seen not only in the above example from Exodus, but also in the Israelite conquest of Palestine as recorded in the book of Judges, and the well-known ‘Sword verse’ of the Qur’an (9:5), discussed further below.

[3] Qur’an 9:5 (translated Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

[4] Exodus 24:9-11

[5] Qur’an 96:1

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