Thanks to our friends over at New Cool Thang, I’ve been provided with the stimulus to formulate more clearly, for myself, my position on the epistemological role personal revelation should play.
Like Geoff, I believe the individual’s personal encounter with the divine lies at the heart of Mormonism; I believe that personal revelation should occupy a position of primacy in the formation of individuals’ religious convictions and attitudes.
I nevertheless disagree with the extravagance of his claims on the following grounds:
Ambiguity in Personal Revelation
Personal revelation is not self-interpreting, and the process of extracting propositional truth claims from encounters with the divine is anything but straightforward. Revelation is ineluctably subject to the cultural and idiosyncratic predispositions of the individual through whom it is conveyed. As Geoff also concedes, some apparent revelation is better construed as psychotic episode:
Just because some people mistake their own psychosis for revelations from God does not mean there aren’t real revelations from God available to us. Sorting out the difference can be arduous but it also can be done.
The question is, how does one assess the validity of apparent divine encounters? Obviously personal revelation cannot serve as a check on itself–some independent epistemological check is necessary. The diversity of conclusions that have been drawn from individuals’ revelations make it clear that other additional sources of knowledge are paramount–granting charismatic authority a virtual epistemological monopoly cannot sustain the theological homogeneity necessary to maintain a community.
Personal Revelation and the Meaning of Sacred Texts
The issue rests, of course, on one’s understanding of the role the trump card plays in this pietistic game of cards. How exactly does the trump card function?
One possibility is that the trump card overrides conclusions drawn from other sources of religious knowledge, such as sacred texts. But an even more extreme model than this has been proposed, a rulebook granting the trump card licence to construct the very meaning of those texts. This approach suffers from at least two flaws:
First, it exploits the inherent instability of language without holding itself accountable to that very instability. The ambiguity of text is acknowledged only for canonized texts, not for charismatic conclusions formulated from personal revelation. But if these conclusions are articulated as propositional truth claims couched in language, they are every bit as subject to the same interpretive whims that are invoked to manipulate the meaning of canonized texts. Revelatory information cannot clothe itself in language and continue to lay claim to a higher epistemological plane than language.
(Hypothetical example illustrating the resultant instability: Brother J. believes God has revealed to him that women are equally valued. He then somewhat loosely interprets “possession” to mean “independent actor valued for her autonomy.” Sister Z. believes God has revealed to her that women are valued for their ability to facilitate men’s salvation. She then interprets “valued” in Brother J.’s revelation to mean “cherished as prized piece of property.”)
Thus, this model’s attitude toward text destabilizes the legitimacy of its own conclusions.
Secondly, logically, divine inspiration plays little role in constructing the meaning of a text. A text is a social artifact whose meaning is constructed in accordance with the reader’s linguistic competence and experience. To argue that we should resort to personal revelation to construct the meaning of texts is as nonsensical as arguing that when experiments are conducted using the scientific method, personal revelation should be relied upon to formulate conclusions. What then is the point of experimentation or text, once this epistemology as a category has been “trumped” and nullified by personal revelation?
This approach offers a patently ridiculous admixture of epistemologies. Personal revelation is used to neutralize texts as a valid, relatively independent alternative epistemological source. If we say that we only trust personal revelation when it accords with what the Church teaches, but we make sense of what the Church teaches by appealing to our capacity for personal revelation, we engage in circular reasoning–texts cease to function as a potential epistemological check. What texts mean can and should be evaluated independently of one’s experience with the divine.
The Role of Personal Revelation in the Community
Finally, personal revelation is just that–personal, individual, and ultimately unfalsifiable. It therefore serves as an important trump card of sorts when one is playing solitaire. But the community as a whole requires a less ambiguous, more communally accessible anchor on which to plant its shared truth claims. Admonishing others to incubate one’s own revelatory experience is not usually a productive conversational tactic and is likely to result in impasse as unfalsifiable individual revelations are pitted against each other. In appropriate circumstances, we can, and should, testify to our encounters with the divine. But unless we occupy positions of authority in the community, these experiences in and of themselves have little leverage in theological discussion.
- 24 April 2007