The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

Arrogance and Academics

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English: This image shows an academic gown as ...

English: This image shows an academic gown as worn by someone of the degree of doctor of philosophy. The design follows that set forth by the Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume which is the dominant style used in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

I am lucky at the institution where I teach. The faculty members I know take their teaching seriously and genuinely care about the students. Although some do a great deal of research, those faculty are missing the kind of arrogance one sees sometimes among academics at larger institutions.

 

Academics have had educational opportunities that most people in the world have not experienced. There may be a glut of Ph.D.s in the academic job market, but even in the United States, Ph.D.s make up a miniscule part of the population. It becomes an easy step for some academics to jump from “I’m better at biology [or history or philosophy, etc.] than most people; therefore, I am better than most people.” The latter does not follow from the former. There are ordinary farmers with a high school education I’d rather be around than some big name academics I have seen at large conferences. Yet there are well known academics who are down to earth, humble, and who help someone asking for advice on a project or advice on how to get an academic job. Other academics, unfortunately, allow their degrees to get to their head. I once heard of an academic who asked his wife to refer to him as “Doctor.” I do not know whether or not she obliged him, but she should have replied, “Doctor,, my a..!” I would be dishonest to deny that I am proud of earning a Ph.D.–but I tell my students they can call me “Dr. Potts,” “Prof. Potts,” or “Mr. Potts,” and after they have graduated they can call me anything, including S.O.B. if that is what they think. I require respect, but “Mr.” is an honorable title, and I would rather not insist on being called “Dr.” I’m reminded of the joke I read in Reader’s Digest a number of years ago–I think it was based on a true event. A man has just received his Ph.D. The phone rings. His eight-year-old son answers the phone, and someone asks for “Dr. John Doe.” The boy replies, “Yeah, my dad’s a doctor, but he’s not the kind who can do you any good.” Humility is one virtue that would help s man not be hurt by his son’s statement.

 

How many professors today will write works that will be remembered one hundred years from now? I expect that most or all of my works will be like the millions of other works in journals sitting on library shelves–not because they’re bad works–I am proud of my scholarly work and of my creative writing–but because I am not an Aristotle, an Aquinas, a Wittgenstein, or a Heidegger. Fulfillment comes from continuing a tradition of scholarly research in philosophy and in knowing that some people find things of value in my work. But I am a man, a human being, with the same bodily needs, limitations, temptations, and sinfulness as all other human beings. Academics who consider letting their degrees and/or accomplishments get to their heads should remember what a Catholic priest says when he crosses the ash on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”