Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unavoidable temporal limitations of Revelation

The idea that revelations can only find expression from human thinking in temporally qualified forms is most likely first considered in Spinoza's Theologico-Political Tractatus (English Part I, Part II; German PDF).

If memory serves right, for it is many years since I read that work, Spinoza argues that the laws of the Old Testament either applied to the governmental structure of the times of the Ancient Hebrews, or the present. But if the applied to the present, then the revelations would have made no sense to the then-existing people, so it must have been exclusively to the past that this applied. Again, this is a mere outline of the argument.

I wonder if there is a similar argument that could be made that is the foundation of the true meaning of a book religion, namely a theory of how the temporal individualities of the context of revelation are unavoidable in a book religion, and that there is an expectation of "error" and "misunderstanding" that derives from its historical context of authorship. It is possible that such an apologetic move might be more effective than a stance that claims revelatory status of the entirety of the text, and is then trivially refuted in its entirety by a single erroneous claim.

Spinoza might provide the ramp for driving up here, by pointing out that it is specific humans, contextualized in their religious and social settings, that are recipients of revelation. Specifically, it is at minimum a socio-linguistic setting in which the revelatory production is captured.

Merely historically speaking, the revelations of the Godhead are recorded in Ancient Hebrew in the case of Isaiah and St Paul; in Koine Greek in the case of the Gospel writers; in Magadha, a Northern Indian dialect, in the case of Siddharta Gautama; in Fus'ha Arabic in the case of Mohammed; and in King James-like English to Joseph Smith Jr. Since the record is all that we have, the question of in what language the revelation itself was communicated---Reformed Egyptian for the Book of Mormon, the language that Gabriel spoke to Mohammed---is in some sense irrelevant; we cannot return to that layer of the communication.

Because the revelation is revelation into a specific situation, it includes references to that specific situation. The understanding of that situation must be understandable to the recipients, so it has to be couched in the conceptual models that the recipients have of themselves in that situation. (For obvious reasons, given the linearity of the time arrow, previous times will not benefit from the revelation.)

Thus, take the plague of Cholera striking the Camp of Zion during the march on Missouri. The present time (2014) understanding of cholera is that it is an infection of the small intestine caused by a bacterium conveniently named Vibrio cholerae. There is no reason for hubris here, i.e. one should not assume that this will be the understanding henceforth until the end of the human race. The then existing interpretation was some form of Jehovian displeasure with the Mormons.

However, Spinoza would argue, future times do not share either the situation or the past understanding of the situation. [Fichte might interject at this point, and further research is needed here, that this is one of the reasons that all revelation can only be a re-iteration of natural religion, that is, the timeless aspect of revelations.]

Joseph Smith Jr would disagree and claim that the continuity of the Divine plan of salvation with its structure of covenants and their cycles of prophecy and fulfillment provide a shared situation with an ongoing valid understanding, the ordinances and prophecies and the laws of the Lord.

But there is a certain undermining to that continuity in the admission that continued revelations are necessary. Can you undercut the change in time by local revelations? Or is the necessity of local revelations in truth not an admission that the times are changing and that even the Lord cannot escape these changes?

The origin of this approach could be a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of Joseph Smith Jr, namely that revelation literature is precisely concerned with the absence of God's intervention. It is the fact that life sucks and God is doing nothing to fix it that requires revelation literature to bridge the day to day pain of waiting. The "original" Revelations of John of Patmos speak into the situation of the Christian persecutions to explain why the Son of Man has not returned yet, why God is holding back. Instead Joseph Smith Jr wants to get day-to-day instructions from God, whether it be on the organization of economic situations or on the details of temple construction. This is more the OT law giving interaction with God, from Sinai and the interactions with Moses, the setup of the perfect society, not the NT dealing with the delay of the parousia.

It is difficult to figure out if a literal inspiration approach to both the Hebrew and the Greek Bible gives one an adequate system for differentiating the various uses of revelation and prophecy. There is the giving of the laws in the OT; the social criticism of the OT prophets; and the apocalyptic descriptions of the coming judgement of the Lord; to name just these three.

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