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Sermon Notes for:

Reason and Revelation

TV show on Hubble Deep Field--discovering what is there in the farthest reaches of the universe and at the dawn of time. The rabbis called this the Lore of Creation.

Ancient scriptures dealt with the same things, e.g., 1 Enoch. Astronomy, astrology, calendar polemics. But see even Genesis 1.

What is the difference between the two approaches? The ancient and the modern? They have much in common. Both are Promethean efforts to use human reason to plumb the upper depths--the secret arcana of the heavens. Examining the old writings makes it evident the authors were "natural philosophers" like Thales and Pythagoras, speculating on what they could see.

There are 3 types of differences--

ááááááááááá 1. The ancients' conclusions, though plausible, are mistaken, because...

ááááááááááá 2. They lacked sophisticated observational technology. But of course they ááááááááááááááááááááááá did have the brains to eventually come up with it.

ááááááááááá 3. They appealed to divine authority to get their speculations accepted. But even this is not so different from the dogmatism of scientists today who are naively heedless of the whole paradigm thing, "objectivists."

Aquinas was saying something like this when he said that when reason and revelation overlap. when God reveals something the human mind unaided could and has come up with, he revealed it for the benefit of those who lacked the wits to discern it for themselves. This reflects a kind of benign condescension experts still have toward the laity, having to oversimplify. The way we explain things to kids 

But there is a huge difference when you get to the point when you champion revelation against what reason and science show. The same speculative process (aided now by better observational means) has yielded new results unanticipated by the speculations of the ancients, and in the name of loyalty to the old writings, religious leaders try to exclude science in favor of literalism or biblicism. Now you are defending the nursery version against the facts, as if a church said God had revealed that babies are brought by the stork, and that it was godless Darwinian heresy to say babies were conceived sexually!

It wasn't deceptive priestcraft for the ancients to attribute their astronomical speculations to God's revelation. They probably felt like a modern scientist does when a flash of insight seems to strike out of the blue. So it was even sort of true.

It becomes priestcraft, and religion becomes the enemy of science and reason, when someone opposes revelation to reason and speculation. What has happened here is an equivocation on the word "revelation"--it has ceased meaning a flash of intuition, and is applied instead to the dead letter of an ancient book.

It is doubly ironic that what is in that book got there in precisely the same way that ideas come to the rational scientist today! This means the writer of Genesis or Enoch would be the last to want his book quoted against the very scientific endeavor he was trying to promote in the language of his own time!

Seen this way, the opposition of revelation to reason reduces to a variation on the theme of the canon of old revelation suppressing supposed new revelations. It is not just an analogy but another case of the same thing. (And this is how and why the Enlightenment and Pietism could make common cause against stifling Lutheran Orthodoxy in the seventeenth century.)

Thus I'd say that revelation bears the same relation to reason as astrology does to astronomy and alchemy does to chemistry.


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