Revelation and knowledge in Christianity
by Ernest Valea
A potential problem in the Eastern religions is the way they harmonize empirical and absolute knowledge, i.e., the way we know the physical world and the way we know God. Since Ultimate Reality has an impersonal nature and cannot be grasped by empirical means, the only way of getting a glimpse of it is shutting down normal perception and entering altered states of consciousness. The best example is the Yoga practice, which demands the abolition of body movement, breath, sensorial and mental activity. However, as mentioned in a previous article on its nature, what happens can be explained as a mere result of forcing our senses and mind to work in a way contrary to their nature, so that 'transcendental' experiences could be nothing more than hallucinations or distorted perceptions of reality.
But the other extreme is also wrong: If empirical human capacity of perception alone were sufficient for grasping what Ultimate Reality is, we would fall into the trap of Naturalism and assume that the physical universe is all that there is. Science is indeed the best way we have for researching and explaining the way our physical world functions, but it cannot offer a satisfying answer to the meaning of life.
Revelation as the only way of knowing God
Neither Eastern religions nor Christianity acknowledge the possibility of knowing God by using empirical means. Scientific research will never reveal God himself, but only the way in which his creation works. Intuition can lead us to think that there must be a creator who made our world like this. This is the so-called argument from design to prove the existence of God. (Our universe cannot be the result of chance, it appears to have been designed to work as it is by a designer.) But there is a better way of knowing God than following such speculations. God himself took the initiative to make himself known to humanity in a relevant way. This process is called revelation. It does not diminish human empirical abilities of knowledge, but unveils facts that are beyond these abilities.
According to Christianity we can know God only because he took the initiative to reveal himself. The story of his initiative is presented in the Bible, where he speaks in human languages, in intelligible ways so that he could be understood in all ages of human history. Revelation is informative and personal, from the divine Person to the fallen human person. Its ultimate purpose is to redeem humans from their fallen condition and bring them to a perfect relationship with him.
There are two basic elements that avoid the contradiction between empirical and absolute knowledge in Christianity: 1) both God and we, his creatures, are personal beings; and 2) both humankind and the physical world were created by the same God. Since we were created by a personal God in his image and likeness (Genesis 1,27-28) and live in the midst of his physical creation, neither personhood nor the physical world have anything intrinsically evil. By the fact that the same God created both our empirical abilities of knowledge (senses and mind) and the physical world, the senses give us true information about a true physical world around us, and the mind is able to make true judgments. God could not give us unreliable rational powers and senses while making us think they are reliable. He could not be capable of such a deception. Our minds are capable of understanding the world we live in because we are created by a rational God. Rationality in nature and rationality in humans are therefore correlated. As a result, absolute knowledge (knowing God) does not contradict empirical knowledge but completes it. In other words, a personal relationship with God is not against the mind but beyond it, and faith works beyond what our mind can grasp but without destroying it.
Mystical experiences in Christianity
Although God's revelation in the Scripture is enough for humans to be saved, there are many cases mentioned in the Bible and in church history, in which God has allowed some people to have "a closer look" at things that are beyond our world, or to receive direct instructions from him. Therefore it is important to evaluate the meaning and importance of Christian mystical experiences, and see to what extent they are compatible with those of other religions. There are six points that emphasize the main differences:
1) Mystical experiences in Christianity are always initiated by God, and never induced by believers using special meditative techniques. As examples see the special revelations granted to the apostles Peter (Acts 10,9-16), Paul (2 Corinthians 12,2-4) and John (Revelation 1,10-19).
2) Those who were granted such special revelations had to remember a coherent spiritual message and transmit it to their fellow believers. The content was informative and specific, not a mere set of negations (a "neti, neti" of Hindu type).
3) Special revelations are associated with external confirmations of their truth. For instance, the Apostle Peter was met by the men sent by Cornelius (Acts 10,21-22), Paul was forced not to boast by "a thorn in his flesh" (2 Corinthians 12,7) and John had to transmit his message to seven earthly churches that were confronted with earthly problems (Revelation 2-3). The same is the case with the Old Testament prophets. Although many of them had visions of other-world realities (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah), the message they received was meant to correct an earthly situation, in most cases Israel's apostasy.
4) Mystical experiences in the Bible and in church tradition always confirm previous revelation in the Scripture. They never contradict it or make Christian doctrine depend on them. Christianity does not proclaim mystical experience as the supreme way of knowing ultimate truth. Likewise, personal experience is not the primary instrument of knowing God, but of confirming the revelation already received from him in the Scripture.
5) Mystical experiences never give the feeling of atman-Brahman impersonal oneness. The Christian mystic never unites with the being of God, but only with his will in a better personal relationship. This is what is meant by being "transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3,18). Consequently, the Christian mystics speak of the soul's "marriage" with God, rather than of "absorption" or "merging" with the essence of God.
6) The effect of having mystical encounters with God must never be the forsaking of Christian doctrine and morals. Therefore the mystics who have abandoned fundamental concepts such as sin, evil and reverence toward God, and who consider themselves to have attained a realm beyond good and evil, no longer belong to the Christian tradition. They usually isolate themselves from other 'profane' people, which is another indication of a wrong direction (1 John 4,7-21). Instead of attaining a better relationship with God, heretical mystics feel they become "one with the essence of God." Therefore Eastern mysticism and Christianity hold irreconcilable positions concerning the meaning and importance of mystical experiences.
"Who are you, the writer of this web site?"
This was the subject of an e-mail received by me, "the writer of this web site", some time ago. I use it here as a title for a short confession concerning my spiritual quest. Following the Eastern tradition of answering tough questions by parables, I will use the story of a pantomime play I saw years ago on a student campus. Although the play took only a few minutes, its message is so dense that it describes my whole life.
Imagine the main character in the pantomime standing alone in his room, staring into space, sad and disappointed with his life. Let's call him John. He is too tired to go on looking for answers to life's questions in a hostile world. This dramatic atmosphere is emphasized by melancholic music in the background. Suddenly there is a knock at the door. Roused from his lethargy, John approaches the door and looks through the peephole to see who is there. It is a friend, his drinking companion, in a very good mood, coming to have another drink together. Before opening, John goes to the wardrobe, opens a drawer and takes out an object that he puts on his face. It is a mask. Suddenly his mood changes and he becomes as cheerful as his visitor is. He opens the door and the two have a nice party together, with a lot of drinks, jokes and fun. Then John sees his dear old pal off and closes the door. He approaches the wardrobe, takes off his mask and puts it away. Instantly he returns to his initial icy state.
Another knock at the door follows. Again John looks through the peephole and sees his girlfriend dancing to the rhythm of music. (However, the only musical background in the play is the same sad and monotonous music, which makes her appearance even more ridiculous.) Before opening, he takes another mask and puts it on. His transformation into her likeness occurs immediately. They dance and have a good time together. But this episode also has to end and the mask is put back where it belongs, in the wardrobe. Again there is loneliness and iciness, as if nothing had happened.
The next knock at the door is from a humped beggar. The mask of pity is put on and John opens the door. Very compassionate and merciful, he gives some money and gently directs him to other neighbors. Finally comes a wandering ascetic to visit him, holding his hands together as if he were praying. Our man takes a similar mask, spends some time miming the same "godliness," but gently invites "the holy man" to go, pushing him toward the door with his prayer postured hands. (In the context of our inquiry, a better illustration would have been that this visitor be a Yogi, and the two performing some asanas together.)
At last John is again alone, in his normal "state of consciousness," with all masks carefully stored in the wardrobe. Unexpectedly, a new knock at the door is heard. Exhausted, John goes to see who is next to bother him. Through the peephole he sees an unknown fellow, all dressed in white. It is Christ. Very confused, our man isn't sure which mask to choose. Finally he takes the first one and opens the door. Failure. Instead of accepting the invitation to have a drink together, the stranger snatches John's mask and breaks it. Getting even more confused, John takes the next mask and puts it on. But the stranger snatches this mask as well and breaks it. The third and the fourth masks are also tried on but with the same result. Dreadfully scared, John searches for another mask in the wardrobe, but there is none left. In his despair, he feels a gentle touch on his shoulder and reluctantly turns his face to the stranger, beginning to understand who he really is. Christ makes a sign of rejection toward the broken masks lying on the floor and draws the sign of the heart on his chest, pointing his hands toward John in a demanding attitude. Yes, Christ is pointing to his heart, the core of his true identity, which is beyond all masks. John repeats this sign as if testing that he truly has understood Christ's demand. The answer is affirmative and Christ keeps waiting with his hands outstretched.
After a moment of uncertainty, John puts his hands on his chest and then stretches them toward Christ, as if offering his heart to him. Christ accepts it and then stretches his hands horizontally, miming the crucifixion, the price he paid for renewing John's heart. Our man falls to his knees before Christ and is transfigured. His face becomes shiny; all despair is gone and replaced by real joy, gratitude and hope. Paradoxically, although the music is the same in the play, it seems to produce a different feeling, as if it is accompanying the new life that has begun.
Although my masks were slightly different, something similar has happened with me, "the writer of this web site." I too am indebted to Christ for liberating me from the burden of wearing masks and for giving me a new life. He liberated me from the yoke of being a stranger to myself, from the uncertainties of life, from pride and competition for prestige, from the fear of not being accepted by worldly standards - in other words, freedom from the power of sin. Although the world I live in is the same, as the musical background in the play, life with Christ is different. It is a life full of hope, full of meaning and certitude. In the midst of a world that seeks self-gratification at all costs, Christ can give true peace, joy and fulfillment.
I would probably have become a devout follower of Theravada Buddhism, as it presents such a clear and almost non-religious view of human existence. But one day Christ knocked at my door and I understood that truth cannot be found inside me, that it has to come from outside, that it has to reveal itself. I guess that many of you will look contemptuously on this confession. Many may be skeptical or be smiling tolerantly. I would only ask them to remember the scene of Jesus' healing of the man born blind (John 9), so wonderfully pictured by Franco Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth. Remember how people laughed at the blind man while he sought to reach the Pool of Siloam with his eyes covered with mud. Although it was quite a show, the eyes of the blind opened, and the laughter froze. It is possible that I too may be ridiculed for what I have written here, but, as the healed man once said, I have to confess at my turn: "One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" (John 9,25)