Thursday, November 6, 2014

Divine Revelation and Cultural Filters: The Human Journey to God

In the discussion section of my post on Abraham and Isaac, an interesting question came up: Would a God anything like the one envisioned in the Judeo-Christian tradition allow divine revelation to be filtered through (and possibly distorted by) the cultural lenses of the human recipients?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, my progressive theology is premised on an affirmative answer. Here's what I said in the discussion thread:
I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience. 
Christian progressives are often accused of "cherry-picking" the Bible or the tradition, when in reality what they are doing is approaching their religious inheritance in terms of the perspective described in the quote: They see it not as the very revelation of God, but as the product of divine revelation being filtered through the limitations of merely-human, culturally-situated recipients. Such an understanding calls for critical appropriation--which is not the same as cherry-picking.

Here, in a nutshell, is the idea behind a progressive understanding of divine revelation and human religion: God is imperfectly encountered in experience, filtered through the assumptions and prejudices and conceptual categories that we bring to our experience--our worldview, if you will. But experience also transforms our worldview. When a square peg is forced to go through a round hole, the hole may not be the same afterwards. And the more malleable the hole, the more this is true. A hole made of clay may actually take on the shape of the peg being pushed through it. Likewise, our worldview is transformed by our experience, including our experience of God.

Revelation stretches the limits of our worldview so that more authentic revelation can make it through, in turn leading to further stretching in an ongoing cycle. While the transformed worldview remains imperfect at each stage in the cycle, it is hopefully closer to the divine reality than its predecessors. This does not only mean that future revelations are less distorted, but that some revelations make it through the filters which would have been entirely blocked out before.

On this view of revelation, we can't be biblical literalists, and we can't be so tied to traditional theologies that we refuse to let new experiences transform our understanding. All inherited accounts of the divine, all traditional theologies, are the product of limited human worldviews both filtering and being transformed by the self-disclosure of God. They represent centuries of human progress--and so must be treated with reverence. But we do not revere that progress if we strive to shut down its trajectory of unfolding revelation. That trajectory is an arrow--but what it points to isn't our worldview and our understanding of God. It points beyond us, to the truth that lies at the end of an ongoing human process--one that we are called to participate in, not try to freeze in place.

One frequent commenter on this blog, Burk, doesn't buy it. Here's how he puts it:
Why is that revelation received through cultural filters? Isn't that an argument that the various and sundry revelations might rather be culturally constructed & psychologically actuated, instead of culturally filtered? The revelation could have been brought far more directly (not to mention uniformly) to each person, given the theory you have of it, yet it is not. The epistemological situation seems highly suspicious.
In other words, the cultural variation in accounts of revelation--both across cultural and religious traditions and through time--might well be explained in the following terms: Different cultures aren't encountering a divine reality and then understanding and interpreting it differently based on diverse cultural lenses and human limitations. Rather, they are making it up to meet varied psychological and social needs.

But Burk does more here than offer an alternative interpretation of religious diversity across time and cultures. He thinks there is a reason to prefer his interpretation, based on his conviction that were there a God, that God could (and presumably would) bypass cultural filters to produce a clear, direct, and cross-culturally uniform understanding of the divine.

Burk's implicit reasoning here parallels the reasoning in the traditional argument from evil--that is, the argument that challenges God's existence based on the evil in the world.That argument goes roughly as follows: God, as traditionally conceived, would be able to eliminate evil, would know how, and would want to eliminate it. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be no evil. But there is evil. Hence, there is no such God.

Burk's remark can be formulated along the same lines: The Judeo-Christian God would, in the act of divine self-disclosure, be able to bypass cultural filters, would know how, and would want to bypass them. Hence, if there is such a God, there would be a perfect revelation undistorted by cultural filters. (Interestingly, Christian fundamentalists routinely argue along the same lines.)

There is one big problem with this argument that I want to note right up front: It assumes a particular understanding of what God is like--and argues that if God is like this, then God would reveal Himself perfectly, without the distortions of cultural filters. Bit this assumption is seriously problematic from the standpoint of the progressive vision of divine revelation sketched out above. On that vision, we cannot ever be confident that our historically and culturally situated understanding of what God is like is beyond criticism or refinement. Hence, an objection to that progressive vision which is premised on the correctness of a particular understanding of God is really setting aside the progressive vision in the act of critiquing it. In other words, it's begging the question.

But let's put aside the problem of question-begging for the moment, just to see whether we can really be so confident that the understanding of God in play would lead where Burk (and many Christian fundamentalists) think it leads--to a God who would bypass cultural filters in the act of divine self-disclosure, in order to make sure that divine revelation is clear and accurate and uniform.

In fact, a few years ago on this blog I wrote a post that directly addressed an argument along these lines--an argument formulated by Christian funamentalists to support a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I drew the parallel between their argument and the argument from evil, and noted that some of the "theodicies" that attempt to reconcile God's existence with the existence of evil might also be invoked to explain why God might not create a perfectly clear and inerrant revelatory text.

I think what I say there about an inerrant text can apply to any direct, clear, and unambiguous revelation. But my reasons for being suspicious of Burk's argument go beyond what I said there. If we are, indeed, creatures made by God, then God is responsible for us being the kinds of creatures that we are. And part of what is essential to us is that we are social creatures who form cultures and engage with the world through our cultural lenses. We meet reality as historically and culturally situated beings with concepts and assumptions and stories shaped by that context, which in turn shape our experience of the world.

That's part of what it is to be human. To bypass that would be to bypass our humanity, and to connect with us in a way that defies who we are. But a critic of theism might at this point regard this aspect of who and what we are as a defect--at least insofar as it interferes with our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Our cultural context imposes limits on our ability to grasp our world, precisely because it puts up filters between ourselves and unvarnished reality.

Such limits and imperfections make perfect sense from a naturalistic standpoint, where we are nothing more than the products of blind forces operating through the mechanism of natural selection. But if you assume that the world is created by a God who cares about forging a relationship with us, we are forced to ask, "Why would such a God make us such that our capacity to experience the divine is limited by the filters of culture (among other things)?"

The mistake, I think, is in treating this as a rhetorical question. Because there are answers. John Hick, in his soul-making theodicy, offered a theological portrait according to which God, out of love, sought to create otherness--beings truly distinct from the divine who were afforded a space in which to develop themselves in accord with the rules of their natures and their own choices. Here's how Hick puts it:
For what freedom could finite beings have in an immediate consciousness of the presence of the one who has created them, who knows them through and through, whi is limitlessly powerful and well as limitlessly loving and good, and who claims their total obedience? In order to be a person, exercising some measure of genuine freedom, the creature must be brought into existence, not in the immediate presence of the divine, but at a "distance" from God. This "distance" cannot of course be spatial; for God is omnipresent. It must be epistemic distance, a distance in the cognitive dimension...this "distance" consists, in the case of humans, in their existence within and as part of a world which functions as an autonomous system and from within which God is not overwhelmingly is religiously ambiguous, capable both of being seen as a purely natural phenomenon and of being seen as God's creation and experienced as mediating God's presence. In such a world one can exist as a person over against the Creator.
Thomas Talbott has similarly argued that "an initial separation from God" is crucial to the creation of persons at all. If God wanted to create persons distinct from God, Talbott thinks God would have no choice "but to permit their embryonic minds to emerge and to begin functioning on their own in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism." This creates a distinct kind of dilemma, which Talbott characterizes as follows:
Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as rational individuals distinct from God are themselves obstacles to perfect fellowship (or union) with him, and these cannot be overcome until after we have already emerged as a center of consciousness distinct from God's own consciousness.
 But this means that the very project of connecting with God will require that God come to us through the filters that our self-development apart from God have put in place. Those filters--fashioned through our upbringing as ignorant children by parents of limited understanding--are part of our self-understanding and identity. For God to simply bypass them or erase them would be to refuse to pursue a relationship with us. A change in those filters--an opening up that allows more of God to enter in--is consistent with preserving our identity if that change is progressive and incremental, and if at each stage the development is based on the recognition that the change is called for by insights or discoveries that one can discern from where one is at the moment.

And this is true at both the individual and collective levels. What it means is that if there is a God something like the Judeo-Christian God, we should not expect divine revelation to blast through our filters and presuppositions all at once--to essentially erase our identities in order to have a relationship with us.

To have a relationship with who we are in all our otherness, God must meet us where we are, cultural filters and all. But that doesn't mean we stay where we are after God has come to us. Instead, that's the start of a new journey of discovery.