Chapter Thirteen: The Revelations
Every major culture on the planet contains some form of religious belief. Sometimes these views are in agreement, sometimes in contradiction and sometimes they are so profoundly different from each other that it's difficult to even make a comparison.
The most widely practiced religions of today in order of followers are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are of course many others and I do not wish to imply any disrespect by not treating them in more detail. But statistically these four are the largest living religions of the world, the main candidates for the hearts and souls of the six billion potential believers on Earth. When we study the underlining theologies of these religions we discover a common claim of origin. They are religions born of revelation.
Most religious people on our planet believe that the true nature of God has been known for thousands of years. They believe that the founding prophets of their religion once communicated directly with God and recorded that revealed knowledge in sacred scripture. From the religious point of view, the only real question is which revelations were from God and which were not. While the nature of revelations vary, the common belief is that a profound understanding of God can be reached by something outside of human reasoning. The experience is usually described as a direct and overwhelming encounter with God. A few brief examples of the most well known religious revelations will show how different these experiences can be.
For Moses, one of the founding prophets of Judaism, revelation came while tending to a flock of sheep in the wilderness"
"And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he said, "Do not come near; put of your shoes from your feet, for the place of which you are standing is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God." (Exodus 2, 2-6)
The God of Israel is described as speaking to him in a clear human voice, telling him to lead the captive Jewish people out of Egypt. But Moses could do more than just passively listen to the voice of God, he could interact and debate with him. "Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?" what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am.' And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I am has sent me to you.'" (Exodus 2,13-14) Convinced he has had a genuine encounter with God, Moses agrees to become the leader of the Jewish people and founder of the nation of Israel.
For Paul, the writer of much of the Christian New Testament, revelation came after being suddenly struck blind. "Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him." (Acts 9, 3). Paul, who had been a Jewish enemy of the early Christian community, heard the voice of Jesus, the Son of God. "And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9, 4). When a Christian successfully healed him of his blindness, Paul converted, changed his name and became the leading apostle for his new found faith. [Bible]
Mohammed, the founder of Islam, reported receiving his revelation from the angel Gabriel. "He stood on the uppermost horizon; then, drawing near, he came down within two bows' length or even closer, and revealed to his servant that which he revealed." (Sura 53:7). Muslims believe that through this angel Allah sent his Holy Spirit to teach the words that would become the Koran. "The Holy Spirit brought it down from your Lord in truth to reassure the faithful, and to give guidance and good news to those that surrender themselves." (Sura 16:102). Mohammed dutifully received the teachings and began preaching the new religion to the Arab people. [Koran]
For the young prince Arjuna of India, revelation came on the eve of a great battle. Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu, transformed himself into a series of divine manifestations in front of an astonished Arjuna. Arjuna is staggered by the sudden revelation. "Lord! I see in your body all the gods as also the multitudes of varied beings; the Lord Brahma seated on the lotus throne, all the sages and all the celestial serpents" (Gita, 11:15). So overwhelmed was Arjuna by the supernatural demonstration that he pleaded for Krishna to return to his human form. Krishna agreed, revealing to his chosen prophet that he was the first to have see such a demonstration. "O Arjuna! Pleased with you I have shown you my Divine Power the effulgent, infinite, primeval great universal form of mine which no one else has seen before you." (Gita, 11:47). Needless to say the young prince was quick to accept the other teachings the avatar of Vishnu gave him. [Bhagavad Gita]
For a Hindu named Siddhattha Gotama years had been spent trying to achieve an understanding of the Divine through first self-indulgence and then self-mortification. Gotama came to believe that the ultimate reality could only be fully experienced if all of life's distracting desires and concerns could somehow be eliminated. After developing a more moderate and spiritual lifestyle he one day achieved this mystical enlightenment while meditating under a tree. Now called Buddha, the enlightened one, he began teaching the people of India how they too could discover this new spiritual path. (Buddhism: a History, p. 11)
What these revelations have in common is the belief that a human being was having a direct encounter with the Divine. The prophets believed that the words they heard and the ideas they discovered had not come from their own minds. They believed they had come directly from God. If enough people agreed that the prophet had experienced a divine revelation then the teachings would spread as an established divine truth. Later believers would speak of the revelations as the actual Word of God, even though they themselves had not directly experienced the divine encounter. This type of faith in divine revelation is the basis for the traditional religious views of God.
Whether they are aware of it or not, when a religious person speaks of having faith in God they are ultimately testifying to a belief in the revelations of their religion. They are accepting the idea that the founding prophets of their religion were in direct communication with God. But there is an unavoidable consequence to having this belief. If you maintain that the revelations of your religion came directly from God, the obvious implication is that anything that contradicts them can't have come from God and can't be true. This is basic fundamentalist dogma. And any simple comparison of the revelations of different religions leaves the reader with an undeniable revelation of his or her own. The revelations of the rival world religions are in conflict.
To affirm the revelations of one religion unavoidably excludes all other conflicting revelations from being true. To claim that the prophets of one religion were in direct and complete communication with God requires the belief that the prophets of conflicting religions were not. How, for example, could a prophet in direct communication with God confuse the idea of heaven and hell with the doctrine of reincarnation? If such a monumental mistake is possible in a revelation, then by definition it's not a complete and inerrant revelation.
Some of the most obvious disagreements between the major religions have to do with three great supernatural beliefs: divine intervention, life after death and reincarnation. These have been cherished religious beliefs since the beginning of recorded history. Each of the major religions today holds to at least one of these supernatural pillars. In fact, none of today's religions could continue to exist in their recognizable form without them. To remove belief in heaven and hell from Christianity and Islam or reincarnation from Hinduism or Buddhism would transform them into something that could not be called the same religion.
While the traditional religions all hold to some of these supernatural beliefs, they disagree passionately over which are true. Christians and Muslims denounce reincarnation as fundamentally incompatible with their faith. You cannot be a biblical Christian and believe in reincarnation. Buddhists denounce that salvation can come by divine intervention. You cannot believe in the teachings of Buddha and believe that you will go to heaven by accepting that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God. These major disagreements make it clear that any aspects of God common to the world's religions must come at a different level.
When we examine religious beliefs outside of these supernatural pillars we find a surprising variability of doctrine. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism each contain their own differing schools and sects with theologies sometimes so distinctly different as to make some question if they are all truly part of the same religion. Chief culprits for the universal phenomena of inner-religion divisions is the debate over who should be the leader of each religion and which writings should be considered genuine revelations from God. Further divisions are caused by different theological interpretations of the sometimes ambiguous texts of each religion.
Some quick examples will show how different these internal disagreements are between the different religions. Should the bread and wine of Christian communion be considered the actual body and blood of Jesus or should the ritual only be seen as a metaphor? Is the true spiritual decedent of Mohamed and legitimate leader of Islam the head of the Sunni or Shiite sect? Should modern Israelis accept the present boundaries of their nation or should they demand the borders that the Torah once promised them? Should Hindus accept being born in a lower caste as the fate of karma or should they attempt to improve their social standing? Can Buddhist enlightenment come suddenly, or must it be painstakingly cultivated over a lifetime, or perhaps over several lifetimes?
The major internal disagreements of each religion have no obvious solutions. Believers tend to follow the specific doctrine of the school or sect they are brought up in. Some hold these views with zealous passion, while others don't consider them to be overly important to their own personal faith. These differences in doctrine often bring out a major philosophical separation of the faithful throughout the world. The debate centers on the degree to which a religion's sacred writings are believed to be the inerrant Word of God.
There are at least three basic possibilities about the validity of divine revelations. One is that the prophet was in complete and direct communication with God. If true, any statements made by the prophet should be completely true. A second possibility is that the prophet was not having complete communication with God, but was experiencing some degree of divine inspiration or achieving some degree of divine insight. In this case the prophets message might be a mixture of the Word of God and the prophet's own cultural or personal beliefs. Another possibility is that the prophet was experiencing no communication with God or in no way discovering a divine truth. Everything the prophet claimed would then be seen as being entirely based on cultural or personal beliefs. Regardless of which of the last two views one might accept for any given revelation, if a prophet's teachings contain some demonstrable errors, it cannot be claimed to be inerrant.
While all believers must hold to the supernatural pillars of their religion, there is a vast gulf that separates the two extreme views about scriptural inerrancy. The fundamentalist view is that the sacred writings of their religion are the inerrant Word of God. All other beliefs are simply false. If their religion holds a view that is in dispute with another religion or with science there can be no compromise: the scriptures are the Word of God and anything that would dispute them is by definition false. For the fundamentalist, their religion is seen as the only true course. All other paths lead to misunderstanding.
The opposite view is relativism, the belief that all religions are fundamentally the same and differences in doctrine are relatively unimportant. Extreme relativism even declines to challenge the supernatural pillars of other religions that disagree with their own. A good example of religious relativism is the growth of the New Age movement in the US. Followers often simply pick and choose their religious ideas from different faiths to create a hybrid belief system. Different religions are seen as different rivers flowing into the same ocean.
Most religious people throughout the world hold a belief somewhere in between these extreme views, but usually lean more toward fundamentalism. While most naturally proclaim that their faith is superior to others, they often feel that there is at least some imperfect truth to rival religions, especially if they appear to be morally compatible. Modern Catholic doctrine, for example, maintains that other religions, particularly Judaism and Islam, contain a degree of truth that is at least a step in the direction of their greater truth. "The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among the shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 243)
Most people believe that their religion is the Word of God but make some allowances for scriptural errancy or reinterpretation, especially if such flexibility allows for a more enriching lifestyle. Indonesian Muslims, for example, rarely subject themselves to the difficult month long fast of Ramadan despite the clear Islamic teachings to do so. [Great Religions of the World, p. 259] In a similar way, Christian churches today usually allow woman to ask theological questions openly and have some authority over men, even though such practices are in direct violation of the apostle Paul's teachings. Exceptions to scriptural teachings like these are common throughout the world and don't seem to cause any noticeably undermining of faith.
While in a minority, the extreme fundamentalist point of view is held by millions of each of the world's religions. Is there anyway to demonstrate that one religion actually is the inerrant Word of God on every doctrine? Is there any real evidence that would force an unbiased person to that conclusion?
I believe that each of the world religions can make a strong case that it contains the Word of God within its sacred texts. However, I also believe and will attempt to respectfully show that each of these ancient texts contains at least a few human creations that are simply not true. But to discover this the reader must agree to a few assumptions.
The first assumption relates to the touchy subject of scriptural criticism. In order to examine the conflicting claims to religious inerrancy we are required to critically study each religion's sacred writings. The fact that some people believe that the founding texts of their religion were written directly by God should not prevent us from making a skeptical study. We are not trying to prove or disprove the ultimate truth of any religion, nor do I believe such a thing is even possible with the world's four largest religions. To point out that some statements in a religious work are inconsistent or are in disagreement with scientific or historical findings is not doing a disservice to the respective religion. The reality that these religions are all thriving despite the fact that this information should be obvious to any careful reader shows how unimportant they are to matters of faith. Critical study of writings such as the Torah, Gospels, Koran, Rig Veda or Dhamapada is not anti-God or anti-religious.
To the contrary, I would argue that it is the fundamentalist insistence on blindly accepting everything in these ancient scriptures as absolute truth that is sometimes morally and intellectually questionable. To say that we must accept or justify the often-horrendous customs that were prevalent in the ancient world because they were included in the otherwise moral teachings of a religion is simply wrong. Embracing the good and rejecting the bad of a religious text is, I believe, a much more pro-God view of religion than fundamentalism.
The second assumption has to do with how we scientifically differentiate between what is true and what is not true in the physical world. For the sake of argument we must accept that what the global scientific community can demonstrate by empirical evidence to be true actually is true. We must accept this despite the fact that the scientific community has been wrong in the past and will undoubtedly be proven wrong on some subject in the future. The important thing to remember is that the global scientific community is much more likely to be right than any other group when dealing with specific verifiable evidence. This is because the scientific method requires that its own beliefs be altered if more convincing evidence contradicts previous views. The history of the great debates and changes in scientific beliefs demonstrates that this is exactly what science does over time. It is this self-correcting aspect that distinguishes science from non-science.
At the same time it should be pointed out that some scientific philosophers often vastly overstate their claims to knowledge about God and the supernatural. Many people with deeply held philosophical beliefs in naturalism or atheism dogmatically hold that any claims that involve a supernatural agent or cause must by definition be false. This is not a scientific view. While a functional and reasonable naturalistic assumption is made in the scientific method, this does not mean that supernaturalism does not or cannot exist. By definition, ALL scientific beliefs can and over time must be altered to conform to what verifiable evidence demonstrates to be true. We should be careful not to confuse the present inability of science to prove specific supernatural claims with the separate idea that such things cannot by definition be true.
There are some basic facts of the world that science has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that are pertinent to our discussion. First, the earth really has been around for billions of years. Second, species really did evolve by a process we call natural selection. Third, the archaeological studies of the past are, to a large extent, accurate. It is a logical thing to say that if someone disagrees with these basic facts, then they are not basing their beliefs on anything that could be called verifiable evidence. To put it bluntly, if all the scientific evidence gathered from around the world over a long period of time indicates something is true, than we must proceed as if it really is true.
The final assumption I will ask the reader to accept is that the validity of revelations should be evaluated by two different criteria. The first is the obvious idea that if a revelation came directly and entirely from God it should not contain any major inaccuracies. In other words, the Word of God must be factually true. To what extent a revelation can be partially or mostly the Word of God is a matter for others to debate. But for our present examination we will demand a substantial degree of correctness for all verifiable information claimed to be the inerrant Word of God.
The second criteria for the evaluations will be a more subjective moral test based on our modern understanding of human rights. There are major ethical disagreements between modern sensibilities and those of the ancient world. Most theologians the world over would agree that the Word of God must be good. We will therefore look specifically at revelations for their beliefs regarding three great moral failings of our ancestors: genocide, slavery and the subjugation of women. If, for some reason, the reader thinks that God could actually endorse any of these beliefs then I would hope you would at least accept the validity of the first criteria.
But before we examine the world's great religions in more detail, let me again restate some important facts. Each of the great faiths are based on metaphysical beliefs that no one has been able to disprove. If you are a believer in one of world religions understand that no one has been able to actually disprove your sacred beliefs, just as no one has been able to disprove the beliefs of the other faiths that contradict yours. This obviously also means that no one has been able to prove that the metaphysical basis of your faith is true, just as no one has been able to do the same with rival faiths.
The specific critiques that I have chosen to make about each religion has only to do with claims by fundamentalists that their sacred scriptures are inerrant on each and every doctrine. This is in large part the basis for the fundamentalist ideology that leads inevitable to intolerance and persecution of those with different religious beliefs. I think religious history is very clear that this is an anti-God ideology that has no place in the modern age.
Part of the rationale for religious toleration is the acceptance that no religion can claim to be without fault. Theologically unimportant though the mistakes may be, each of the world religion does contain claims that have been proven to be untrue. Combined with the reality that no one can actually prove or disprove the metaphysical basis of any of the world religions, some degree of toleration toward rival religious beliefs seems more than justified.
So with that heavy caveat we will examine the four largest world religions of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Because of its importance in the development of Christianity and Islam, we will also examine Judaism. Each of these world faiths can claim to have brought millions of people closer to God. Each can claim to have given humanity a moral belief system that gives profound meaning to life. To each we should show respect and reverence. But we must also show the moral courage to point out where on occasion ancient world beliefs have violated human rights and the facts of science.
For like it or not, studying the revelations of different faiths reveals a deep, dark secret about religion. The simple truth is that human beings cannot tell if they are talking to God or talking to their own imaginations about God. The very existence of contradicting religious dogma testifies to this fact. This is demonstrated by the conflicting revelations of the great religious founders such as Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or the writers of the Rig Veda. This clear human failing is further shown by every theological disagreement within each religion, such as the splitting of Islam into the Sunni and Shiite sects, or of Christianity into Catholic, Easter Orthodox and Protestant denominations. It is demonstrated every time anyone claims God told him or her something that contradicts other religious belief. As we are about to see, human beings just cannot tell the difference between talking to God and talking to their own imaginations about God.