An interesting question was raised here on the blog: “…I think this is the most fundamental religious question and it is more important than the question of God’s existence. If you don’t know what God is like, how do you know what to look for?”
This question led us to revisit “general revelation” (e.g. knowing God through the experience of nature) and it seemed to us that while it might be possible to recognize “a God” from general revelation, it is not possible to recognize “the God” of classical theism from general revelation alone. It seemed reasonable to conclude that special revelation (i.e. God being revealed through God’s own direct “unveiling” in the world, such as the incarnation) would actually be required if we are to know enough about God to recognize God in an encounter.
As an example of the problem of recognizing God in an encounter, the work of the author Philip K. Dick was mentioned (e.g. “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick” in 5 volumes). This writer had an unusual experience which he had difficulty classifying. He considered several possibilities, such as a direct encounter with God, a “flashback” brought about by earlier use of hallucinogenic drugs, or that space aliens had contacted him! His novels explore these possibilities and illustrate the difficulty of authenticating an encounter with the divine.
We revisited the ways in which we thought a “God experience” might be authenticated.
[We have discussed these previously on this blog: (i) if my behavior is changed in a way consistent with the “God experience” I have claimed, (ii) if the “God experience” is one that the community has seen historically as normative, and (iii) if the community claims Scripture as authoritative then the “God experience” should be consistent with that (as well as with historic tradition) in order to be authentic.]
The last of these three points led us once again to the issue of how a text, claimed as somehow central in a given religious tradition, might be of value in discerning the validity of a “God experience”. The problem arises, of course, when different traditions use different texts to validate their experience and these texts disagree on central issues. We considered, as a case in point, the Bible and the Qur’an which are aligned in some areas (e.g. both maintain that there is one God) but which differ in others (e.g. the nature and work of Jesus). We have previously discussed the various ways in which Christians have viewed the Bible (e.g. whether it is “revelation” or “a record of revelation”) and briefly discussed the conventional Muslim view of the Qur’an as being revelation in its own right (i.e. the words of Allah given directly to Mohammed). How do we deal with the question of which book to claim as central to our specific religious tradition? This is a question that has being lying on the table for a while. The question was previously framed this way here on the blog: before you are two books – let’s say the Bible and the Qur’an – and you are asked, “Why this book, why not that book?” – the rules of engagement are that quoting from your book of choice to justify it over the other is not allowed (because then quoting from the other book to justify it over your book is fair game, and we just go round and round citing our own favorite text in the face of citations from someone else’s favorite text).
We had several interesting and helpful comments that arose in regard to this issue. First, it was mentioned that the Bible was written by many people over many years and the witness of those people over an extended period of time is such that the trajectory for the narrative is one to which all the authors contribute. In other words, the trajectory of the narrative is validated by diverse voices over a very long period of time. The Qur’an makes no such claim, being a text said to be passed directly to one author at one time. Second, the eschatological nature of the Biblical text was one lifted up as a contributor to validating its centrality. In other words, the fact that the Biblical narrative is headed in a certain direction (it is “teleological” in nature – it heads towards a specific endpoint) means that we might assess it by whether or not those who hold to it are actually moving in that direction. It seems unlikely that the Muslim community would make such a claim for the Qur’an, although in all communities there are many voices with different opinions, so we will see.
There seemed to be general agreement that in any consideration of two texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an, the issue on the table is NOT the blanket rejection of one over the other but rather what to do when they disagree over a specific issue important to a given community. In such a case, both cannot be correct at the same time on that issue and hence a choice has to be made.
For example, for the Trinitarian Christian, who takes the Biblical witness on the nature of God and the person and work of Jesus seriously, the Qur’an in 4:171 will likely be very problematic [(Sura: An-Nisa’ in the YUSUFALI English translation): “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of God aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of God, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in God and His apostles. Say not “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for God is one God: Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is God as a Disposer of affairs”.]
Understanding why we choose one text over another and what the basis for that choice might be seem to be important in the world in which we live where religious pluralism is common. All of us involved in the discussion have friends who are of different faiths and nobody wanted to insult a friend by rejecting out of hand what that friend holds sacred. Yet, we saw that in cases where there are mutually exclusive truth claims being made, a choice is inevitable. We hope we can learn how to make good choices.