Looking for Revelation
If there were a God and this God were to choose to reveal Himself and His plan for man, then it would be much easier to discern the nature of human dignity, to understand what makes the human person special, and what ends the human person must pursue to reach the sort of perfection his Creator has in mind. It makes eminently good sense, then, to consider the possibility of a Divine revelation when exploring the question of human dignity.
We have already seen that St. Paul faulted the pagans for closing their minds to what they could plainly see God had revealed to them in nature, that is, His existence and the design He imparted to natural things (Rom 1:19-28). The natural order provide keys to its proper use, including the use of our own bodies—and, of course, the natural order demands the basic virtue of religion, by which we are bound to honor the Creator.
Certainly the very wonder of nature and its inescapable design bear powerful witness to the existence of God. As I’ve said before, it takes an almost Herculean case of denial or a powerful ideology to convince ourselves that the world we see around us has no intelligent cause. St. Paul apparently regarded the pagans as being in denial. Our own age masks that denial with a specious scientism, a preposterous ideology which holds that if we choose to restrict our inquiries to the purely natural, then the supernatural must not exist.
But there is another great indicator of God which comes not from our observation of the world without, but from our contemplation of the world within. Just as the human person begins to understand the difference between right and wrong as soon as he develops the capacity for the necessary conceptualizations, so too does he find that something deep within accuses him of betrayal when he fails to do the good. We call this “conscience”. Now there is no ground for the assumption that conscience is nothing more than the impress of various interest groups, or that our sense of right and wrong is completely taught to us by others. Rather, all the evidence suggests that the conscience is part of our deepest nature, operative everywhere and in all, working in tandem with our growing awareness of a moral universe.
Blessed John Henry Newman regarded this deep conscience as the most powerful of the arguments for God. Newman stated that through the faculty of conscience we all feel ourselves to be somehow subject to judgment, and that this sense of existing under judgment forcefully implies the existence of a Judge. Therefore, from the deepest recesses of our being, especially our moral being, we intuit that there must be a God.
We also intuit something more. We further grasp (for nothing else is logical or credible) that a God who would create the entire natural order with man at its apex must be deeply interested in man. This is a key insight which classical philosophers and 18th century Deists often seemed to miss: Creation and design presuppose, if not necessarily love, at least some sort of significant interest. And this presumption is even stronger in connection with the argument from conscience. If God is a judge, if He cares about how we act morally and whether we please Him or not, then clearly He cares about us a good deal.
But we can intuit even more than this from the existence of conscience. For if God cares about how human persons act, such that acting in one way results in a positive judgment and acting in another way a negative one, then we must still further conclude that such a God would want to make His will clear to us, as a basis for judging and being judged. It is just possible, but only if Creation is a great cosmic joke, that we could be wrong in intuiting these things about God, but we are inescapably led to intuit them, and we find that people must exert a considerable psychological effort to escape such obvious and sound perceptions.
In other words, we ought definitely to expect from God some revelation, and particularly some revelation about our nature and purposes, the ends for which God made us, and thus the keys to our right behavior. In the abstract, at least, any intellectually competent person who does not look for such a revelation shirks his responsibilities. Either he lacks due seriousness, or he so prefers his own weak judgment that he does not wish to know God’s. I say “in the abstract” only because defects and influences beyond a given person’s control can sometimes make it extremely difficult for someone to respond appropriately even to such fundamental human intuitions as these.
Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that all men and women really ought to be led to these considerations, whatever reasons we may advance for their frequent confusion in matters of religion, or for their more fundamental rebellion against God. This is true not only from the arguments advanced here but from what we saw in the fifth part of this series concerning our inescapable recognition that we are spiritual beings who find our basic dignity in learning and living in accordance with meaning.
I have argued elsewhere that, to be credible, an alleged revelation must be marked in some way as being of Divine origin. We would therefore expect it to be accompanied by signs and wonders of a public character which can be explained only by the power of God. Of course, we might look for such signs without success, beginning with the claims of religious groups which purport to teach others about God, in which case we could conclude that the expected revelation has not yet taken place.
Or we might seek and find. If we do seek, we will find first that some religions claim no supernatural revelation at all (one thinks of Buddhism or Confucianism or Hinduism); others claim a purely private revelation which can never be verified in a public way (as with Islam or Mormonism); and still others claim that their revelation is definitively historical and was publicly witnessed in the most direct and tangible ways (a claim made exclusively by Judaism and Christianity, the latter claiming to be the fulfillment of the former). Speaking purely from a rational viewpoint, without any cultural presuppositions, there is little question which religions make the strongest claims and merit the first and closest examination.
It lies beyond the scope of this installment to go further. For now, it is sufficient to understand, first, that we are right to intuit the existence of a God who cares about us; second, that we are right to assume that this God wishes to communicate with us; third, that we are remiss in our duty if we do not seek to find this revelation; and finally that such a revelation must certainly contain further information about our nature, purposes, and ends, about how to live rightly—about what it means to be human. Such are the keys to a full understanding of human dignity.
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Posted by: -
Jun. 30, 2011 10:17 AM ET USA
"Creation and design presuppose, if not necessarily love, at least some sort of significant interest." But I think love does necessarily follow from creation, as a Being who created and then was either indifferent to His creation or manifested only "interest" would be far inferior to one who loved. And being inferior, he would not be God. A powerful spirit, to be sure, one that should be feared and respected, but not God.