Revelation Bias Fair and Balanced Part 1
Sometimes only America’s favorite family, the Simpsons, can most accurately demonstrate a point in the most simple and humorous terms. The full Simpsons’ episode that I am using to introduce my post is here if you want to watch it. If you’ve seen the episode and just want to watch the segment I’ll be referencing, go to 8:52 to see Lisa in the role of Joan of Arc. Pay close attention to 13:51 where Joan of Arc is captured and stands trial.
So to summarize, Joan of Arc, while praying, hears the voice of God telling her to lead the French in battle against the English. She takes up the battle proclaiming her divine mission. She is then captured and brought to trial by an English soldier (played by Willy, the Scottish janitor at Lisa’s school). During the trial Lisa calls God as her first witness. As God testifies, He is confronted by both the defense (the French) and the prosecution (the English). Both parties allege that He told them to do the exact
same thing – lead their armies to victory against each other. God then leaves the room saying, “I didn’t think you would be in the same room at the same time”.
After we have had a little chuckle, we might wonder what God’s intent would be in giving the exact same instructions to two opposing parties (in this historically inaccurate portrayal, both believed it to be God’s will) when it obviously wasn’t going to end well for one party. To have massive bloodshed and death? To cause pain and suffering? But did God really reveal to the English that they needed to wage battle against the French? Did God really reveal to Joan of Arc that she needed to defeat the English? Did she just make it all up for political advantage, or to rally the troops, or did she truly believe that it was instruction from God? She told a pretty convincing story about some Saints telling her to drive out the English… Was she just crazy? What was it really?
Obviously we can never truly know what happened to Joan of Arc, whether or not she had divine revelation, and that is exactly the point I am trying to make. How do we know what is truly revelation? So much of it has the potential to become distorted when man is involved because, well, we are human. We are not perfect. We misunderstand. We misinterpret. Our lives and experiences become deeply ingrained in how we interpret everything that comes at us – for good or bad.
Before things get too deep, let’s talk about revelation. What is revelation? Here is William Lane Craig’s definition: “Revelation means the unveiling of something hidden so that it may be seen and known for what it is. Revelation is disclosure of something, the uncovering of something…God’s mind and will on any particular subject.” (William Lane Craig; Defenders Podcast) Craig goes on to identify different types of revelation as follows:
General revelation: People look to nature, or morality as a sign that there is a God. General revelation doesn’t give any details about Jesus Christ, his death or who he was. I think we can all agree that everyone has access to this and no special authority is needed for general revelation…Fingerprints of the potter in the clay, brushes in a painting, or God’s hand in nature and all his creations.
Special revelation: Special revelation is more specific, it reveals things like Jesus is the son of God, Jesus atoned for your sins, etc.
To receive revelation from God, there must be a human involved and any time you get humans involved with anything there is a filter – a human bias, for good and for bad. While being interviewed, Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling and also stake patriarch, lamented that it was more difficult to bless his family members than it was to bless total strangers when giving a patriarchal blessing. Why? Because in giving a blessing to a family member he wanted the absolute best for them. So, it seemed to be more Richard speaking than inspiration. Anyone that has given a baby blessing or any other blessing can relate to this at some level I think.
Do we have errors even when we are dealing with godly matters? Absolutely. We are human, that’s what we do! As humans, we obviously lack the capacity to fully grasp heavenly concepts. I imagine the all-knowing God has to “dumb down” his communication quite a bit, or even just give us bits at a time in order for us to begin to understand his will “according to our language, unto our understanding” (2 Ne. 31:3). God accommodates us by speaking to our level of understanding. How much would he reveal to someone in Africa vs. someone in Mexico or Germany? Would he package the message differently? I would argue yes. I think culture, language, understanding, and education could definitely be some of the factors that influence what is revealed, how it is revealed and how much is revealed.
Brigham Young said:
“I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities . . . ” (Journal of Discourses 2:314)
So we are dealing with a human filter in any communication with God. A simple example of this is when we discuss scripture with different people: they point something out in the wording that strikes them differently; they have a different interpretation than you even though you’ve read the same scripture yourself a million times. Because of things such as personal upbringing, phases in life, trials, and/or worldviews, a person will naturally interpret and apply things differently than someone else reading or seeing the same thing.
In Jared Anderson’s paper “Expectation and Revelation: Preparing the Way for LDS Biblical Studies,” he states:
Again, I suggest that God conforms revelation to the recipients expectations, world view, and language, and that this model best explains conflicts between scripture and scholarship. This concept may trouble the handful of us conscious of these difficulties, but from a salvation and communication perspective, it is the most efficient way for God to transmit spiritual truth. We as scholars are concerned with accuracy and historicity defined in a narrow sense, but such is not the case with the majority of God’s audience. When God grants his child a revelation, he is not going to sideswipe them with unexpected historical niceties. A vision recounted by Orson Whitney illustrates my point. This mystical experience is spiritually efficient and emotionally powerful, but sets off a few alarms in the corridor of historical criticism.
“Then came a marvelous manifestation, and admonition from a higher source, one impossible to ignore. It was a dream, or a vision in a dream, as I lay upon my bed in the little town of Columbia, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I seemed to be in the Garden of Gethsemane, a witness of the Savior’s agony. I saw Him as plainly as ever I have seen anyone. Standing behind a tree in the foreground, I beheld Jesus, with Peter, James and John, as they came through a little wicket gate at my right. Leaving the three Apostles there, after telling them to kneel and pray, the Son of God passed over to the other side, where He also knelt and prayed. It was the same prayer with which all Bible readers are familiar: ‘Oh my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt.’
“As He prayed the tears streamed down His face, which was toward me. I was so moved at the sight that I also wept, out of pure sympathy. My whole heart went out to Him; I loved Him with all my soul, and longed to be with Him as I longed for nothing else…He offered up the same prayer as before; then went back and again found them sleeping. Again He awoke them, readmonished them, and once more returned and prayed. Three times this occurred, until I was perfectly familiar with His appearance– face, form and movements. He was of noble stature and majestic mien– not at all the weak, effeminate being that some painters have portrayed; but the very God that He was and is, as meek and humble as a little child. “All at once the circumstances seemed to change, the scene remaining just the same. Instead of before, it was after the crucifixion, and the Savior, with the three Apostles, now stood together in a group at my left. They were about to depart and ascend into Heaven. I could endure it no longer. I ran from behind the tree, fell at His feet, clasped Him around the knees, and begged Him to take me with Him.
“I shall never forget the kind and gentle manner in which He stooped, raised me up, and embraced me. It was so vivid, so real. I felt the very warmth of His body, as He held me in His arms and said in the tenderest tones: “No, my son, these have finished their work; they can go with me; but you must stay and finish yours.” Still I clung to Him. Gazing up into His face– for He was taller than I– I besought Him fervently: “Well, promise me that I may come to you at the last.” Smiling sweetly, He said, “That will depend entirely upon yourself.” I awoke with a sob in my throat, and it was morning. “…. I saw the moral clearly. I have never thought of being an Apostle, nor of holding any other office in the Church, and it did not occur to me then. Yet I knew that these sleeping Apostles meant me. I was asleep at my post — as any man is who, having been divinely appointed to do one thing, does another.
“But from that hour, all was changed. I never was the same man again. I continued to write, but not to the neglect of the Lord’s work. I held that first and foremost; all else was secondary.”(Orson F. Whitney, “Through Memories Halls”, 1930, p. 82 Quoted in Bryant Hinckley, The Faith of our Pioneer Fathers, 211-213).
No one could deny the spiritual and emotional power of this account. It changed Orson’s life and touches the reader’s emotions. Obviously, this vision fulfilled God’s purposes. And as Orson repeatedly emphasizes, this vision was as real to him as any other experience. But to those of us attuned to such things, the anachronisms are striking—Orson sees not the Gethsemane of Jesus’ time, but a garden like those with which he would be familiar. Instead of hearing Aramaic interpreted through the gift of tongues, Orson heard not only the exact King James rendering of Jesus’ prayer, but specifically the one he knew best—drawn from Matthew 26:39. This sublime experience drives home the point of this paper—God gave Orson exactly the vision that would maximize its spiritual affect; at the same time, the details reflect not historical reality, but the recipient’s expectations.
Let’s use this example and apply it to some more controversial LDS topics (The Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham, the priesthood/temple ban of blacks, Masonic rituals/temple ceremonies, etc.). As we do this, I want the reader to understand and keep in mind that in regard to revelation there is always a human touch as well as God’s hand. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to look past the discrepancies and oftentimes blatant errors that we find in religion that result from human filters. Sometimes I get so caught up in the inaccuracies and inconsistencies that I could definitely miss the message that was intended. It can be really easy to discredit aspects of any religion based solely on blunders from the human touch. So how do we get past that? How do we see God’s messages for what they truly are through years and years and years of human filters?
In next week’s post we will be covering the “translation” and anachronisms of the Book of Mormon and how this relates to revelation and human touch.