In defense of religion VII: The reasonableness of revelation
Of course, no one believes in religion in general; nearly everyone who believes in God believes in some particular religion—Christianity, Islam, etc. These religions contain the elements described in earlier chapters: a sense of the sacred, God, and His connection to morality. They contain another element, though, and this is the assertion that a revelation has taken place. Each religion that is more than a school of speculation affirms that, at some particular times and places and to certain particular people, God has communicated information about Himself and instructions to His worshipers. The rest of the followers of the religion get these messages not directly from God, but from other believers, who in turn got them from other believers, and so on until we get back to the people who directly received the revelation. The original revelation is generally given to very few people, often just one, and usually in isolated places like a cave or a mountain, where there is a dearth of witnesses.
I think it’s fair to say that revelation is the thing about religion that strikes atheists as being the most absurd. Even if the above chapters were to convince them that there is good reason to believe in God, surely it is too much to believe that the Creator of the universe would arrange his relations with mankind in this way. Of course, one cannot deny that God could supernaturally communicate with particular people, just as the revelation stories say—He is omnipotent, after all. Nor I think does it make sense to say that God would have no motive for communicating with His creatures. Man, as we have shown, is ordered to God, so there would be nothing more beneficial to us than for God to help us to know Him and to establish a regular relationship with us. No, what makes the whole thing seem implausible is that it seems like an omnipotent Being could have gotten His messages across in a more certain and forceful way. Why act through messengers at all? We can understand why a professor with a class of hundreds would have most of his teaching done through teaching assistants—there’s just too many students for one man to give them all any kind of attention. But that’s because the professor is a limited being. God is not limited; He could give everyone a revelation if He wanted to. If He wanted to, He could have equipped every human being with a sort of spiritual antenna and then blared out His messages at all times and places, so that everyone would get them loud and clear. He could have done it, but He didn’t. Why?
Let’s rephrase the question. Is there any reason, other than lack of ability to do otherwise, that a teacher would instruct some students and then have those students instruct other students, rather than having them all get it directly from the teacher? I can think of one reason. It may be that the teacher’s intention is not just to share knowledge, but also to form a connection of his students with each other. If all the students were to sit passively and listen to the teacher, each of them might as well be alone with the teacher. The presence of other students contributes nothing. (Any teachers reading this will know that it actually detracts something, because students are more reluctant to ask questions in large groups, and teachers are unable to interact with individual students to see how well they’re following the material.) On the other hand, if I have to learn something from another student, then I must rely on that student, and he has an obligation to me. If I know that I’ll have to pass down the knowledge in turn, then I’ll be learning not just for myself, but for the students that I’ll have to instruct later.
Of course, we can’t prove that God has done or will do one thing or the other; He can do whatever He wants. However, it’s not unreasonable that He might want His revelation to both connect humans with Himself and connect humans with each other. He might want His revelation to become a tradition. “Tradition” literally means something handed down. A tradition can be a belief or a practice, but what separates it from other beliefs or practices is that it creates a bond between the people who share it. For example, walking upright is a practice, but it’s not a tradition. If I see a total stranger walking upright, I don’t think to myself, “Here is another of my people, who shares my customs and history!” It doesn’t mean anything that a man walks upright, because that’s the only sensible way for a biped-structured animal like man to walk. Two men may both walk the same way and have no cultural affinity whatsoever. To be a tradition, therefore, a thing must not be necessary. To be meaningful as a tradition, it can’t be something that everyone just logically must believe or do. So if God wanted to establish a tradition, He couldn’t just blare out His message always and everywhere. If He did, belief would create no bond among the faithful, everyone would have God’s revelation with no dependence on anyone else, because not believing would be as crazy as walking on all fours. Actual religions are traditions; they bind the faithful currently living to each other, and they bind them to the dead and the unborn. Revelation is a trust received with gratitude ultimately from God, but directly through our ancestors. The story of revelation coming to Ireland involves both Christ and Saint Patrick, and the more the Irish revere Christ, the more grateful they will be to Patrick. Through tradition, God doesn’t usurp the honor given to our ancestors, but rather cements it by making our ancestors His own messengers. Nor does the believer think revelation is given to him solely for his own use and his own salvation. Like all traditions, it is a trust, and each link in the chain has a sacred duty to pass down what they have received. Each generation knows that if they apostasize, they will break the chain and condemn not only themselves, but future generations as well.
None of this, of course, establishes which if any of the world’s religious traditions is founded on a genuine revelation. To determine that, one would have to examine the historical evidence of each revelation to see how strong it is, and one would have to examine the content of each revelation to see how compelling it is and whether it is consistent with all we know from other sources. However, it is certainly plausible that one revelation is genuine (or more, if they don’t conflict with each other). My recommendations are as follows: First, truth must always be the ultimate issue, not whether a religion is popular, whether its adherents are morally or intellectually exemplary, or whether it is regarded as “progressive”. Second, where truth is doubtful, be not quick to abandon the faith of your fathers and the bond to home and kin you’ll find in it.