One of the definitions of the word revelation is “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world” — it is this sense that I’m using the term here; I’m not referring to the last book in the New Testament.

The history of Christianity includes many people having revelations about God, Jesus, prayer, sacraments or existence in general. The problem with a revelation is that it’s hard to tell if it is divinely inspired or just some crazy idea that popped into your head. Some Christian denominations teach their members to expect revelations (messages from the Holy Spirit) to guide their daily decisions. It seems to me that this would only be a good idea if you could tell for sure where the message was coming from; unfortunately too many bad things have been done with the explanation that “God told me to do it.”

So, how are we to differentiate “good” revelations from “eh, maybe not” revelations? This is the purpose of tradition and history in the Church (Christian community) — ideas that have stood the test of time are more likely to be “good” than those that have not. Of course, there are some ideas that stick around for centuries that are clearly very bad, but I think that it’s usually easy to suss these out. (Anything having to do with discriminating against people based on demographic details comes to mind as a very bad idea that keeps popping up for some reason.)

So, I’m skeptical when anyone wants to chuck away 2000-ish years of trial and error. Here are some of the ways that people mistakenly dismiss important revelations:

  • Failing to see ideas in the context of the time they were promulgated.
  • Failing to see the symbolic or metaphoric value of an idea.
  • Looking at an idea too concretely (related the the above).
  • Replacing an old idea with something new just because it’s new.

I referred to this problem previously in a post called something like Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. If an idea has stood the test of time, it’s credibility is enhanced.

Of course, an idea isn’t necessarily right just because it’s old either. People like simple explanations for things that are complex, and most real-world things are complicated. It’s not “just tradition” any more than it’s “just scripture” (sola scriptura) or “just grace” (sola gratia) or “just faith” (sola fide).

This is where I think the existentialists (starting with Kierkegaard) are helpful. When choosing, each individual has to incorporate their own experience and introspection, along with tradition, scripture, faith and (one can hope) grace. And then we have to take responsibility for our choice. Without responsibility we are not free, autonomous souls; and if we are not free, autonomous souls then we are at the whim of a God who has stacked the deck against us. This is why any talk of predestination results in a soul killing version of Christianity and is, I believe, doomed to eventual failure.

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Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Soren Kierkegaard