The Empirical Truth of Revelation

"The experience of transcendence, as previously defined, is a movement of the soul that may culminate in an act of transcendence. In the optimal case, as it brings to acute consciousness the relation between God and man, it will reveal the presence under God as the truth of human existence. An experience of this type would in any case be of importance to the person suffering it; but if the description were exhaustive, if the experience did not contain an additional factor, it would not be a constituent of history. The historian would have no occasion, for instance, to attach relevance to such an experience unless he were writing the biography of a person to whom it occurred--and quite probably he would never write the biography because persons plagued by such oddities would be devoid of historical interest... This additional factor that makes the experience historically relevant is the truth of order that it reveals with a obligatory force for every man. The obligatory force the experience establishes, in addition to the new relation between God and the man who discovers the truth, a new relationship between the discover and his fellow men: the nature of the truth revealed obliges the discoverer to communicate to the men among whom he lives, while it obliges those within hearing to listen to and receive the truth, as an ordering force, into their own existence. By virtue of its obligatory force, the truth of the experience becomes the center from which radiates a new order for the existence of man in society." -- Eric Voegelin, "What Is History?", Collected Works Vol. 28, pp. 47-48

This explains why the empirical historian, while not able to confirm or deny the literal truth of scriptural assertions such as the virgin birth of Christ, can quite definitely, unless his whole enterprise is shackled by positivist presuppositions, confirm the fact of a "spiritual outburst" in first-century Israel: whatever precisely occurred then and there, it established a "new order for the existence of man in society," namely, both Western civilization, as well as Eastern Orthodox civilization! The Gospels, far from even possibly being "made up," express the emergence of this new ordering force into human consciousness.

This point of view is consistent with a belief that scripture is literally true, but it does not assume that it is: it is an entirely empirical look at the facts of the matter. We might compare this situation with the complex containing the historical conclusion that the understanding of science fundamentally changed between, say, 1200 and 1700, i.e., that there was a Scientific Revolution, but which also contains the sort of historical nonsense that asserts, e.g., that Galileo proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The fact that the latter sort of nonsense exists is, in fact, good historical evidence of the change in consciousness that occurred at the time: that change was so profound that people express the transformation with stories that literally speaking are quite false. (Again, I am not trying to say anything about the historical veracity of any parts of scripture, but merely noting that even proof that some part of it is not a literal description of what occurred would not diminish the historical importance of the fact it was put forward as expressing a truth: it is then the job of the historian to ask why this literally untrue story gained wide acceptance.)

To conclude, I offer a very crude and highly simplified schema of what I am saying here that compares two "visions":

St. Paul

Vision: the resurrected Christ.

Result: Western civilization, great cathedrals, music of Bach, art of Michelangelo, universities, modern science, a reform of pagan ethics, increased respect for women, the gradual abolition of slavery, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.

Empirical, Historical Conclusion: vision of St. Paul = True.

Karl Marx

Vision: the communist utopia.

Result: Stalinism, Maoism, the Gulag, the Iron Curtain, show trials, mass starvations, The Killing Fields, etc.

Empirical, Historical Conclusion: vision of Marx = False.

Please, as I note, this is a crude, highly simplified expression of this idea, so yes, there was an Inquisition, and Communists sometimes did good things, so please don't bring up such quibbles in the comments, as I won't post them.

7 comments:

  1. Gene, first of all, why does the fact that Paul's vision had such positive effects imply that his vision is true? Can't false visions leads to such effects?

    Second of all, are you suggesting that because Paul's vision had such positive effects, that we should therefore accept his claim that the atonement has occurred? Because if we cannot conclude that atonement has ever occurred in the past, then Christianity collapses.

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    1. This additional factor that makes the experience historically relevant is the truth of order that it reveals with a obligatory force for every man. The obligatory force the experience establishes, in addition to the new relation between God and the man who discovers the truth, a new relationship between the discover and his fellow men: the nature of the truth revealed obliges the discoverer to communicate to the men among whom he lives, while it obliges those within hearing to listen to and receive the truth, as an ordering force, into their own existence. By virtue of its obligatory force, the truth of the experience becomes the center from which radiates a new order for the existence of man in society."

      Note the repeated use of "truth" here.

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    2. Gene , what does it mean to say that truth has an obligatory force? Does it mean that you have certain moral obligations regarding the truth, whether you know about those obligations or not? Or does it mean that the truth compels people to act in certain ways? If the latter, how does the mere fact that something is true make the listener realize that it is true? It seems like belief would compel behavior, whether that belief is true or false. I don't see how the correctness of a belief has a bearing on whether it has "obligatory force" or not.

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    3. "Second of all, are you suggesting that because Paul's vision had such positive effects, that we should therefore accept his claim that the atonement has occurred?"

      He did not make a "claim": he expressed his own experience using certain symbols. And yes, his experience of atonement IS atonement: do you expect something else to go along with it, like a "certificate of atonement," stamped by God, that would "verify" that it occurred?

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    4. "Gene , what does it mean to say that truth has an obligatory force? Does it mean that you have certain moral obligations regarding the truth, whether you know about those obligations or not?"

      We are obligated by the truth because we feel its pull. Because our reason is participation in the divine nous.

      "Or does it mean that the truth compels people to act in certain ways? If the latter, how does the mere fact that something is true make the listener realize that it is true?"

      That something is true is no "mere" fact! As Aristotle noted, the draw towards truth is inherent in human beings. That, of course, does not mean it can't be resisted!

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  2. Gene, this is an absolutely brilliant post. Thank you for shedding more insights into Voegelin... He is without a doubt the most important philosopher that I am currently reading. This is an unbelievable way of looking at things.... Wow. I MUST now get Order and History along with The Ecumenic Age!!

    Sorry about gushing, but... Voegelin has said more profound things in a single book than even the best philosophers have said in their entire careers. Unbelievable...

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  3. [dark humor|]The Gulags weren't o bad! People were only sent there to do hard labor, not die.[|dark humor]

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