Category Archives: Revelation

My sign from God

In his book Climbing Backward Out of Caves (pdf), John R. Harris discusses why apparent miracles and other empirical phenomena cannot be used to prove religious claims:

There are no [empirical] arguments for faith, properly speaking, nor can there be. If you could pray to be placed atop the church’s steeple and then, miraculously, your body rose through thin air to the lofty perch desired, what would you have proved to the scientist? He would examine your shoulders for ropes or cords. He would investigate the church’s structure for a small elevator concealed from a certain perspective. He would search the premises for cleverly installed mirrors that project stable images over some ladder or mechanism. If brought to his last resort, he would have his own blood tested for hallucinogens and his own brain for neurological disorders. In a last last defense, he would perhaps found a new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time.

Your miracle, having been perceived, would be scientifically explicable, and hence no miracle at all. The trick would be finding the answer… but the presence of an answer could be presupposed, since causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen. All that we perceive immediately incurs the possibility of explanation. Those who should choose not to investigate your levitation beyond a certain point — to accept you as a true miracle-worker and prophet — would have made an arbitrary decision to desist from the search. Their resignation would not be justified by any objective evidence: it would only demonstrate that they had grown weary of searching, and perhaps that they were already predisposed to see wonders all around them.

I experienced the truth of this firsthand a couple of years ago (Friday, October 15, 2010, to be exact) when I asked God for a very specific sign, received exactly what I asked for that very same day — and came out of the experience not appreciably less of an atheist than I had been before.

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I was living in Changhua, Taiwan, at the time, and working mostly in that city, but twice a week I took a train to Yuanlin and taught some classes at the university’s branch there. One day I was sitting in Changhua Station waiting for the train when something popped into my head and (subaudibly) out my mouth: “God, if you’re there, give me a sign.” Then, realizing that it might be nice to be a little less vague than that, I added, “Make someone give me a cicada.”

I can’t really say what prompted me to say such a thing. It’s not as if I had been particularly wondering whether God existed or hoping that he might. I had been an atheist for nearly 10 years, and I was quite confident in my unbelief. I had recently started reading and commenting on a few blogs by Christians (Bruce Charlton, John C. Wright, maybe a few others), and I suppose that’s what put it into my head. I had also had a few recent experiences where I had thought to myself, “You know, I could really use ___ right now,” and then the thing I had wished for had immediately (but otherwise quite non-miraculously) appeared.

Why a cicada? I don’t know. I had the idea that I should ask for something improbable but not actually miraculous, and that’s what came into my mind. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, and I thought at the time that it might be an inspiration — God telling me what sign he intended to give, rather than the other way around.

The request wasn’t quite as random as it probably seems, though. Those who remember the old header image from this blog will be aware that I’ve made the cicada a personal emblem of sorts, and that Friday morning in the station I was actually wearing a jade cicada pendant around my neck. (I had a second such pendant at home, but the cord had been broken for some time.) Cicadas are a reasonably common decorative motif in Taiwan, comparable to, say, unicorns in America. You don’t see them every day, but they’re not unheard of.

All day I was on the lookout for cicadas and was trying to guess what form the sign might take. (“Give me a cicada” is actually pretty vague.) Maybe I would see someone with a cicada T-shirt on the train. (I’ve never seen a cicada T-shirt before, but it could happen.) In addition to my regular classes in Yuanlin, I also did one-on-one tutoring with a little kid who loved insects and occasionally brought rhinoceros beetles and things to class with him — so maybe he would literally give me a live cicada. (His class was on Wednesdays, not Fridays, but it could still happen.) But nothing like that happened. All day I found nothing even remotely cicada-related, and that night on the train back home to Changhua I scolded myself for even entertaining the idea of a “sign” and said to myself, “Forget it. No one’s going to give you a cicada.”

I arrived home quite late that night, as I usually do. Ordinarily my wife would be waiting for me with dinner, but this time she met me at the door and suggested that we go out to the night market to eat and to get the broken cord on my other cicada pendant fixed. (I had bought both of the cicada pendants from the same vendor at the night market.) Her mentioning a cicada out of the blue (it had been broken for a long time, and it had been months since we had said anything about fixing it) got my attention, but it still wasn’t really the sign I had asked for, since I already owned the cicada in question and wasn’t being “given” anything.

At the market, I gave the jade vendor my pendant for repairs, and she showed me something new that she thought I might be interested in: a small white jade key chain in the shape of a cicada. Now we were getting closer to the sign, but not close enough — because of course I was going to buy the thing, which isn’t the same as being given it.

She needed some time to fix the cord, though, and while she worked and my wife chatted with her I wandered around the market a bit. When I came back, the vendor gave me the two cicadae. I reached for my wallet, but my wife stopped me and said, “That’s okay. I paid already.” So the new cicada did in fact end up being a gift rather than a purchase.

I was suitably impressed. For all the vague things I would have been willing to accept as a sign (seeing a T-shirt with a cicada on it!), what I received was precisely what I had asked for: someone gave me a cicada.

At that point I thought of Gideon’s asking for a second sign to confirm the first, and it occurred to me to do the same thing. Again I asked for the first thing that came to mind, and again I can’t really explain why I chose what I did: “Make someone say the word rabbit” (again I was shooting for something relatively improbable but not at all miraculous).

Within a minute or two of this request, a woman walked past me carrying a live rabbit in her arms. (Had I seem this woman before without consciously noticing her? Is that what put the “rabbit” idea into my head. It’s entirely possible.) Frustratingly, though, no one said anything about it. The word rabbit was not spoken. I felt almost as if I were being taunted, as if the intended message were, “See how easy it would be for me to grant that request? Well, I’m going to make a point of not granting it.”

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In the following weeks I made a few half-hearted attempts at repeating the experiment — asking for other specific signs, trying to choose the first thing that came to mind — but nothing came of it — which is not surprising. “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” It’s not as if further signs would have served any useful purpose anyway. Repetitions would have decreased the odds that the original request had been fulfilled by mere chance — but the odds of that are already quite low enough. A billion to one or a trillion to one, what difference does it make? Mere coincidence is not an explanation I am seriously entertaining.

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But neither — obviously — did the experience turn me into a theist. I think most people, believers and non-believers alike, would agree that it would be a pretty stupid reason to start believing in God. There are just too many other possible explanations. It could have been subconscious precognition on my part. It could have been subconscious mind-reading on the part of my wife. It could have been the work of some supernormal but subdivine being who wanted either to make me believe in God or to pass itself of as the same. It could have been “synchroncity,” whatever that is. It could have been any number of different things — far-fetched, all of them, but not obviously any more far-fetched than the idea that the omnipotent Creator of the universe decided to intervene in our world to grant a pointless request I had made on a mere whim.

I know I sound like Harris’s hypothetical scientist, founding his risible “new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time” — but the point is that Harris’s scientist, however silly he may sound, is right. An explanation is always possible. There can be no empirical argument for God. And thus asking for a sign is a fundamentally foolish thing to do, since a sign alone can never convince an unbeliever, but can only increase his condemnation should there turn out to be a God after all. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!

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Revelation in Aeneid IX

The ninth book of the Aeneid contains what are in my opinion (and I admittedly know the book only in translation) two of its most beautiful passages. Both deal with the characters’ reactions to apparent revelation or inspiration from unknown sources.

Here is Robert Fitzgerald’s pitch-perfect rendition of Turnus addressing the divine messenger Iris:

Glory of the sky,
Who brought you down to me, cloudborne to earth?
What makes the sudden brilliance of the air?
I see the vault of heaven riven, and stars
That drift across the night-sky. I’ll obey
This great presage, no matter who you are
Who call me to attack.

And here is Nisus addressing Euryalus before their foray into the enemy camp, as rendered by Allen Mandelbaum:

Euryalus, is it
the gods who put this fire in our minds,
or is it that each man’s relentless longing
becomes a god to him?

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(Fitzgerald’s and Mandelbaum’s are the two best Aeneids of which I am aware, decidedly superior to those of  Patric Dickinson, Theodore C. Williams, and John Dryden. Having no Latin myself, I base that judgment on the poetic power of their verse, not on their fidelity to the original. Fitzgerald handles some of the passages better; Mandelbaum, others.)

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For Turnus, as Fitzgerald so convincingly portrays, the sheer aesthetic glory of his experience carries an authority of its own, so much so that he is willing to answer the call to battle without caring overmuch who it is that calls him. In fact it is the malevolent Juno, and she is calling him to his death — but even we who know that still feel that Turnus’s reaction is the right one, that it is an expression of his greatness of soul more than of his gullibility.

Joseph Smith has Moses apply a similar standard in his Book of Moses:

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? For behold, I could not look upon God, except his glory should come upon me, and I were transfigured before him. But I can look upon thee in the natural man. Is it not so, surely? Blessed be the name of my God, for his Spirit hath not altogether withdrawn from me, or else where is thy glory, for it is darkness unto me? And I can judge between thee and God (1:13-15).

For Moses, glory is a guarantee that the revelation is not a malevolent one. Virgil is not so sanguine. We take our chances, we mortals.

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In the same spirit, Nisus’ question is a rhetorical one, the answer to which is not truly important to him. Whether god-given desire or desire-turned-god, he intends to follow it. And because this is the relentlessly pessimistic Virgil we are reading, we know that he, too, will follow it to his untimely death. We never find out whether he and Euryalus were following a god or their own desires.

In Virgil, everything noble, without exception, comes to a bad end. But it is still noble for all that. That, I suppose, is the point of the Aeneid and what makes it, against all odds, an inspiring read.

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A Mormon taxonomy of revelation

A recent post at my brother Luther’s blog discusses three terms which are used differently by Mormons than by most other people: gospel, testimony, and prompting. Luther does not suggest that the three terms have anything particular in common other than their atypical Mormon usage, but it occurs to me that they constitute a very systematic way of classifying revelation, and that when analyzed as such they reveal a gap in the lexicon — a type of revelation for which there is no name.

The table below classifies revelations on the basis of what is revealed and how it is revealed — the content and manner of the revelation, respectively. By public content I mean timeless truths or principles which are applicable to all people (for example, “there is a God” or “thou shalt not steal”). Private content refers to propositions — or, more often, imperatives — which have reference to a particular person in a particular situation and do not necessarily have wider applicability (for example, “thy sins are forgiven” or “give Bob a call”). The manner of revelation can likewise be public (proclaimed to the world through the mediation of prophets, apostles, and scripture) or private (communicated directly to the individual by the Holy Ghost).

  Content Manner
Gospel Public Public
Testimony Public Private
Prompting Private Private
(no name) Private Public

 

The gospel, as the term is used by Mormons, is not limited to the good news of salvation but encompasses all publicly revealed truths of universal applicability. (For example, the law of tithing is part of the “gospel” for Mormons, though I believe that usage of the term would be atypical in the wider Christian world.) When Mormons are talking among themselves, they refer to the religion they profess not as Mormonism or Christianity, but as the Gospel.

A person’s testimony consists of direct, personal confirmations of gospel principles. There is only one gospel, but there are as many testimonies as there are individual Mormons. Each person’s testimony is a subset of the gospel, constituting only such truths as have been specifically revealed to that individual by the Holy Ghost. The paradigmatic example is the testimony of the Book of Mormon which the reader of that book is encouraged to seek in Moroni 10:4. The content of the Book of Mormon itself is part of the gospel; when the Holy Ghost manifests the truth of the book to a particular individual, typically in response to a prayer requesting such a manifestation, that’s a testimony.

Promptings are direct communications from the Holy Ghost relating to personal matters which are not included in the gospel and are meant only for the person to whom they are revealed. Typically this comes in the form of a sudden “gut feeling” that one ought or ought not to perform some specific action. Every Mormon will have stories to tell of promptings which saved him from danger or directed him to someone in need of help. Actually, the meaning of prompting is somewhat narrower than the above table implies, since it is typically limited to unsolicited revelations in the imperative mood. “Thy sins are forgiven” would not normally be called a prompting but a personal revelation. Even personal revelations in the imperative mood are not usually referred to as promptings unless they come to one unbidden. If, for example, a person prays before making a major life decision (such as getting married) and asks for confirmation that it is the right thing to do, the answer would again be called a personal revelation, not a prompting. If on the other hand one were to ask a more open-ended question — “O God, what career shall I pursue?” — and receive a distinct impression that one ought to become a large-animal veterinarian, which possibility had never crossed one’s mind before — that could well be called a prompting. I suppose the key distinction is that the content of a prompting comes from outside; it cannot be a mere confirmation of an idea the individual was already entertaining.

The final, unnamed category would include public revelations — proclaimed to the world by prophets or in scripture — which are nevertheless of limited personal applicability. It seems odd that such a category of revelation should even exist, but it does. The Doctrine and Covenants is full of such revelations — revelations to specific individuals about specific situations, but recorded and published for all to read in scripture. There is no name for this type of revelation, but the taxonomy implicit in the other three terms draws our attention to its existence.

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You say revelation, I say hypothesis

Bruce Charlton’s interesting new blog Scientists considering Christianity (the title refers to the intended readers, not to the writer) does not, regrettably, allow readers to leave comments, so I’ll just have to do my commenting here. I should mention at the outset, I suppose, that I myself am neither a scientist nor seriously considering Christianity.

In a recent post called Hypotheses and revelations, Mr. Charlton addresses those who think “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories.” After describing the way hypotheses often occur to scientists suddenly and inexplicably in a flash of inspiration, he concludes that the formation of a scientific hypothesis is not itself a scientific process, and that hypotheses are no less “made up” than revelations. He closes with this (I’ve proofread it a bit):

My point is that hypotheses in relation to [science] are analogous to revelation in relation to religion — both come from outside of the system, but science is based on hypotheses in the same way that Christianity is based on revelation.

But the point is that in formal terms (in terms of systems theory, to be exact) Christian revelations are no more bizarre than scientific hypotheses. Or both are equally bizarre.

To say that a revelations and hypotheses are “analogous” is actually an understatement. I would go further and say that a revelation simply is a hypothesis. Prophets and scientists come up with their ideas in pretty much the same ways — hunches, flashes of intuition, even dreams or visions (see Kekulé). The choice of words, “revelation” or “hypothesis,” is simply a reflection of one’s opinion about where the idea came from and how trustworthy it is. If you think it came from God and is therefore True, you call it a revelation. If you think it came from God-knows-where but might turn out to be true after being tested, you call it a hypothesis. Revelations are not a category apart; rather, a “revelation” is just a hypothesis you don’t feel the need to test.

When Mr. Charlton introduces the issue — “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories” — he’s being a little sneaky, lumping hypotheses and theories together. Once he’s convinced you, correctly, that a hypothesis is no more reasonable or “scientific” than a revelation, you’re meant to conclude that revealed religion is therefore just as reasonable as science. But while Christianity has hypotheses aplenty, in the form of “revelations,” it offers nothing as robust as a good scientific theory — that is, a hypothesis that has proven itself through rigorous and systematic testing.

Of course religious people test their hypotheses, too, after a fashion, since they don’t indiscriminately accept every purported revelation (Christians, for example, don’t generally accept the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad), but the testing is of a very different — and, it must be said, rather arbitrary — sort. Christianity generally focuses on the source of the hypothesis: Did he have a vision? Did your heart burn within you? Is that in the Bible? In science, on the other hand, the source of the hypothesis is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the hypothesis originated in a hunch, a dream, a bit of wishful thinking, or even in scripture; all that matters is whether it can be tested and how well it passes those tests. If a hypothesis consistently makes true predictions, we accept it, regardless of where it came from; and if it doesn’t, we don’t.

John Dominic Crossan had the right idea:

And only when [the] human normalcy [of “revelation”] is accepted can a proper response be offered. It should not be this: We deny the fact of your vision. It should be this: Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will have to judge not whether he had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not. (The Jesus Controversy, p. 7)

And so did William Blake:

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet; watch the roots,
the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

So, yes, Christian doctrines seem arbitrary compared with scientific theories. But the difference lies not in the admittedly arbitrary hypotheses/revelations that provide the raw material for both disciplines, but rather in the differing ways in which hypotheses are tested or validated. — whether by the objective tests of the scientific method, or by the arbitrary ones prescribed by various religions.

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