One Revelation, Many Revelations? by Karl Jechoutek

One Revelation, Many Revelations? by Karl Jechoutek

The recent conversation at RUC between members of our congregation and representatives of the Muslim faith brought into focus what has been occupying the minds of scholars and theologians of religion over the millennia: where does revelation start, where does it end? Who can lay claim to the key parts of the revealed canon? One of the questions posed to our Muslim friends dealt with the overlap between the biblical canon and the Qur’an – the answer is complex, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an and Muslim tradition recognise the Hebrew bible and the New Testament as legitimate instances of revelation, complemented and capped by the text revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an refers with great respect to many key personalities of the Old and New Testaments.

In a way, the disputes are not about whether there are parallel, competing sets of scripture. The question always is where the sequence of revelation gets truncated, which part of revealed scripture is seen as the last word. Jewish scholars see the Hebrew Bible as the complete communication so far, Christians put the end point after the books of the New Testament written in the first centuries AD, and Islam considers the Qur’an as the last word in the seventh century, facilitated by the archangel Gabriel. It does not end there, though. The Mormon prophet John Smith presented a new revelation in the early 19th century that was said to build on and complete previous Christian scripture, again helped by an angel. Many others since have claimed to have received further revealed truths that refer to an existing canon, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

This is confusing. What is orthodoxy, what is heresy? What is truth, what is illusion? Can there be an end to revelation? If not, how does one recognise what is legitimate? Should we all be Mormons, or Muslims, or traditional Christians? Separating the wheat from the chaff is an impossible task in an environment that relies on belief rather than proof. But deciding arbitrarily where the final sentence should end also is not very satisfactory. If we remember the interminable learned disputes among the early Christian church fathers on what should be included in the Christian canon, we should realise that the final decision was taken by a committee. Similarly, the first compilation of the text of the Qur’an from oral tradition was not accomplished without fierce debate. A tempting conclusion is that revelation does not end. Whether we recognise it as such or not, there may be a steady stream of revealed truth coming at us all the time. It may be up to us to see it and deal with it as best as we can – a huge challenge.

Dostoyevsky, in the ‘Brothers Karamazov’, shows us in a little parable why this concept is frightening. The Grand Inquisitor of Seville, at the height of the inquisition, observes an itinerant preacher and healer drawing the crowds, recognises him correctly as Christ returned to continue his work – and promptly has him arrested. His justification, given in a long night-time conversation with Christ in the prison cell, is simple: the Christian message has been delivered and completed long ago; life and the law of the church have settled into a routine; terror and fear are necessary to enforce it and to ensure social stability; and a resumption of the original message would be dangerous and destabilising for society. This resonates with our need for closure, and with our fear of having to change our adopted position that we have crafted so carefully over time. What if a new truth hits us between the eyes and forces us to re-assemble our thoughts? It takes courage to accept change.

So can we live with the thought of continuing revelation? It may at least help us to understand those who live and believe according to a revealed truth that ends at a different finish line than ours. And it may assist us in opening our eyes to new horizons.