Friday, March 6, 2009

The Revelation Test

In centuries past, artists would sometimes cover an old painting with a new one. The practice was called pentimento because the artists were said to "repent" of their earlier work. When they were done, the new portrait looked like an original. It looked like it had always been there, the only one on the canvas.

When I look at a Biblical text these days, I think of pentimento. I'm seeing the last of many layers. These are the stories that survived, the ones that were remembered and made the final canonical cut. Beneath them are other layers. Layers of translation: the King James English, the Latin, the Greek, the Hebrew or Aramaic in which the stories were first spoken. Layers of information technology: printing, writing, speaking. Layers of interpretation: stories as infallible or even inerrant; stories as history, science, or creed; stories simply as stories. But the old layers are inaccessible to me. What I see looks like an original.

In the case of pentimento, we know the other layers exist because their lines and colors sometimes bleed through to the surface. (See it in a Picasso.) X-Rays and infra-red help as well. In the case of sacred stories, ancient fragments bleed through, and scholarship provides the X-Rays. But though we know the older versions exist, we cannot see or hear them. We cannot recover the original revelation of God.

So maybe it's time to revisit "revelation."

The word appears in many of the world's religions and it's been debated by many of its theologians. (Try Wikipedia for a quick sample of opinions.) Understandings differ as to who, what, where, and how. Does revelation come to a single person or a group? Is it law, poetry, wisdom, philosophy, narrative, what? Does it come on a mountain, in a cave, under a tree? Must it find its way into writing or can nature itself be a text? Can simple facts be "God's native tongue"?

My question is when. Did revelation happen back then, and only then--so that Mohammed, for example, becomes the seal of the prophets? Or is the canon still open, as it is for Latter Day Saints? When it comes to sacred stories, I believe the door's still open. Revelation was then. Revelation is now. The bottom layer was the Word. So is the top.

And so is one thing more, and it comes in the hearing of the story. The Word is what the story creates in you. And the test of that creation is both simple and classic. It's about the fruits.

If a story inflates, if it makes you self-righteous, self-important, and self-serving, if it leaves you brooding over the past and seeing enemies everywhere, if it calls you to (holy, cultural) war, it is not the Word of God.

But if the story inspires, if it creates hope, joy, goodness, peace, kindness, tolerance, patience, endurance, and humility, it is indeed the Word. And it's the Word if it leads you to a truth, however hard to take, and gives you the grace to rejoice in it.

If you're curious about the source of these two lists, check out I Corinthians 13: 4-7 and Galatians 5:19-23. These Christians texts are no different from those of other faiths. The Revelation Test has nothing to do with infallibility and inerrancy, with history, science, or creed, nor with decisions made by bodies of men. It has everything to do with you. A story is "revealed" if it helps you lose yourself, accept the truth, find compassion, and carry on.




Anonymous said...

As I read the article on the emergence of such terms as "doctrine" and "infallible," I thought of other texts that lie hidden in the scriptures. For example there is a text in which Jesus cursed the fig tree for not bearing figs during the season in which fig trees do not bear figs. If Jesus had a bad day once, i.e., on the day of that cursing, then I presume that he had many bad days, just as the rest of us. Yet very few of such days found their way into the scriptures. Another was the day on which he referred to the Syro-Phoenician woman as a "dog." There were most probably a multitude of such days. However to have put those days into texts would have been counter-productive to the effort to spread belief in the Christ.

Yet people like me hold onto such texts as ponder.

Gary Kirby said...

Once upon a time” sets the premise for, what is usually, a good story. Those words lie in a book, but the book sits in the family room of our culture. The premise lies outside the text, or in reverse, the real story lies in culture.

Is revelation simply a cultural premise of the text? And is the result from hearing the story another premise? My learned culture (a premise of science and empiricism?) happens to discard the first and accept the second.

If stories come wrapped in culture, is there a touchstone for culture? Is culture itself the brief human story? Let the story unfold!

Emmanuel J. Karavousanos said...

On February 12, 2009, I had the privilige to speak before The Solon Society at St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Hempstead, New York. At that meeting I explained the the so-called mystical state is ... an elevated conscience. Who can deny that the great mystics, Socrates, Buddha, the human Jesus and so many more did have an elevated conscience. A new concept such as this is not immediately accepted. Schopenhauer said that a new concept may first be ridiculed, it may even become violently opposed, but in the end it is accepted as being self-evident. And self-evident means, obvious! In his book titled "Science in the Modern World," Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "Familiar things happen and mankind does not bother about them. It requires an unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious." Hegel said, "Because it's familiar, a thing remains unknown." A number of other prominent names commented on the importance of analyzing famiiiar, obvious and known things, and things we take for granted. All of us dislike looking at things we already know, yet that is where insight arrives. Hesse said, "Nothing in the world is so distasteful to man as to go the way which will lead him to himself." Everyone saw and knew what lightning is and ignored it, but it was Benjamin Franklin who analyzed it and gained the insight to see that perhaps the power in lightning could be harnessed. Hence, electricity was born. It is time to begin looking toward the familiar, the obvious, the known and toward things we take for granted and ignore. Such are our individual thinking and our thoughts.
Respectfully submitted,
Emmanuel J. Karavousanos