Cut-Throat Christ

There’s a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk,
There’s a Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk,
There’s a Christ for every sinner, but there’s one thing there ain’t,
There ain’t no Christ for any cut-price saint.

James Fenton, Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011 (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).

Jack, Molly and Aslan

I read to my two eldest children, Jack and Molly, before they go to bed at night. This Christmas season we have been reading C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It has been a tremendous joy for me as a father getting to read this with them; especially tonight.

Earlier we had read about Edmund’s conversion and about the pact that Aslan made with the Witch. For a few days Jack was desperate to figure out how it was that Edmund could live, and how the Emperor’s law (that required the death of a traitor, which Edmund was) would be satisfied. My thoughtful son finally determined that it must be Mr. Tumnus, the Faun, who would have to die (not a bad guess!). So, with all this in his mind, the truth of the matter hit him like a tonne of bricks.

As I read about Aslan’s slow ascent to the Stone Table, with Lucy and Susan watching in horrified wonder, Jack lay perfectly still on his top bunk. I read about the awful and ugly jeering of the Witch’s hordes as they abused the passive Lion; the one who could have killed them with one blow had he wished. Then I read about his agonizing, lonely death, and how the two girls who were spying from their hiding places could not watch it. In silence, the chapter concluded and I put the book down. With all of the weight and poignancy of the moment, I said good night to my children and kissed them. When I looked at Jack, I was crestfallen to find that he had fallen asleep. His five-year-old body lay perfectly still under his covers. I thought: “Why, at the perfect moment, is he sleeping?!” As I turned to walk out of the room, I heard him stir. I looked back to find him sitting bolt upright in his bed staring at me. I walked back and in the darkness of the room could detect that his cheeks were flush and his eyes holding back tears. I reached out my arms and asked if he was okay, only to have him lean into me and sob his little heart out.

Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I told them to lay back down and began to read the following chapter about Aslan’s glorious, victorious resurrection. The radiance of his majesty, the joy of Susan and Lucy, the laughter they had at playing with him. We learned about the Deeper Magic from before Time that says if a person who has done no wrong gives up his life for another—as the perfect Aslan did for Edmund—then that sacrificed one can rise again. As we finished this moving chapter, I asked Jack and Molly for the technical term we use when someone has been raised from the dead. Jack replied: “Resurrected.” I asked, “Who does this remind you of?” And he said: “Jesus.”

It truly was amazing.

We prayed, and thanked God for Aslan and his triumph over the evil Witch in his resurrection, and his giving of himself for Edmund. Then I praised God for Jesus, who died for me, for Jack, and for Molly, and how he was raised again, conquering death. And prayed that he would win the final battle.

Jack, definitely, got the impact of the story.

Thank God for C. S. Lewis.

Look Who’s A Big Deal Around Here

Our own Ian Clary was quoted today over at this other blogging site, The Gospel Conflagration, or something.

C. S. Lewis on Going Back

As today is the 166th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’ birth, I thought I would post this quote from Mere Christianity on the importance of “going back.” It does my historian’s heart good.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 28.

Tony Jones Gets Mainline Churches Wrong

There is some study out that indicates that there is a broad range of political and social opinions in the ranks of those pastors who self-identify as Emergent. Tony Jones has attempted to use this as an “a-ha” moment where he turns into a comic book can prove David Fitch wrong when it comes to the latter’s prediction that emergent evangelicals are on a glide-path to become indistinguishable from mainline Protestantism. The assumption that Jones appears to make is that if emergent leaders were to become more mainline, they would appear to be uniformly or at least predominantly “liberal” (whatever that even means anymore). I suppose that relative to evangelical churches which are – at least officially – uniformly supposed to be conservative, by contrast mainline churches will appear relatively more liberal, but what that looks like on the ground is the presence of many churchgoers and many clergy who would affirm many of the same things that evangelicals would about scripture or the divinity of Christ or what-have-you even while there are others who might not. In other words mainline leaders look a lot like those self-identified emergent leaders do in Jones’ survey. It’s kind of ironic that he perceives mainline denominations in pretty much the exact same way as Mark Driscoll or any of the other evangelicals he doesn’t care for.

What Role Do Nutjobs Play In Declining Church Attendance

I don’t know if there is a nicer way to characterize something like this:

There is, in almost every church of more than, say, 100 people, at least one person like this. The rambling conspiracy nut who is convinced that some coincidental use of various symbols actually means that a random artifact of modern life is actually satanic. Now, the people who promote these nutty conspiracies rarely get time at the pulpit, but since they are usually very involved in the church it seems that there is often little or no effort made to correct them, their paranoid rambling is passively tolerated. Of course eventually they will express their insane views to nearly everyone in the congregation, and (hopefully) those stronger, more mature members will likely just roll their eyes. Nonetheless one has to worry that a casual visitor or a younger person might look at this and decide that, if that person is allowed to actively peddle this sort of wackiness, then what kind of place is church? Are we prepared to confront the conspiracy nut jobs in our midst and have them shut up?

What Social Media Feels Like

As we all know after a while it’s possible to get an entire Twitter/Facebook feedback loop around oneself wherein all of the content is stuff that the reader already agrees with:

Give Me That Old Time Worship War

Some things in the past don’t stay in the past. Here’s an attempt to re-hash the internecine struggles over worship music that transpired through the 1980s and 1990s (interspersed with my own thoughts):

By imminent decline, I do not mean imminent disappearance. Commercial forces have too substantial an interest to permit contemporary worship music (CWM) to disappear entirely; and human beings are creatures of habit who do not adapt to change quickly. I do not predict, therefore, a disappearance of CWM, sooner or later. Already, however, I observe its decline. Several years ago (2011) Mark Moring interviewed me for Christianity Today, and in our follow-up communications, he indicated that he thought the zenith of CWM had already happened, and that the movement was already in the direction of traditional hymnody. He did not make any claims about the ratio of CWM to traditional hymns; he merely observed that whatever the ratio was, the see-saw was now moving, albeit slowly, towards traditional hymnody. If the ratio of contemporary-to-traditional was rising twenty years ago, it is falling now; the ratio is now in decline, and I suspect that decline will continue for the foreseeable future. What follows is a painfully abbreviated list of eight reasons why I think this change is happening.

So this gives you a pretty good idea of how this articles is going to go, if you still use contemporary music it’s probably because you’re under the sway of some manner of “commercial forces” which seems to suggest you’re a stooge for some record label or something. A decline, for what it’s worth, would likely be about the only direction that contemporary worship music *could* because, for better or for worse it has become pervasive in evangelical culture. This is like predicting a relative decline in Taylor Swift’s popularity, when you’re on top, there’s pretty much one way to go.

1. CWM hymns not only were/are comparatively poor; they had to be. One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.

This is an extremely poor and confusing argument to lead with. The point Gordon seems to be making is that there have been several centuries of hymns and from all these composers over all this length of time our current collection of hymns represents the very best of the best. How can contemporary composers even try to compete with that? The implication is that our current collection of hymns is durable whereas most of the current “contemporary” church music is disposable. Except that hymns were also disposable, Gordon says so himself. According to Gordon, Wesley wrote over 6500 of them and we retain 42! Thousands of hymns were composed, sung, and forgotten, they were disposable. Most contemporary worship songs will be composed, sung and then forgotten. It’s the same process, Gordon sees a contrast here where there frankly is none. What of the sacred music prior to hymns? Again, pretty much all forgotten. If even the hymns of Wesley were forgotten, so what? T. David Gordon would be sad? The hymns of Wesley have no power to save! Music may grow and change and maybe some hymns will be recovered and much of contemporary worship music lost, but I do not see a straightforward return to hymns as they have previously been sung as the only inevitable future.

2. Early on in the CWM movement, many groups began setting traditional hymn-lyrics to contemporary melodies and/or instrumentation. Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, Reformed Praise all recognized how difficult/demanding it is to write lyrics that are not only theologically sound, but significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical). If the canonical Psalms are our model, few hymn-writers could hope to write with such remarkable insight (into God and His creatures, who are only dust) and remarkable craftsmanship (e.g. the first three words of the first Psalm begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph (?), each also has a shin (?), and two of the three also have a resh (?), even though each is only a 3-letter word. Even those unfamiliar with Hebrew cannot miss the remarkable assonance and alliteration in those opening three words: “ashre ha-ish asher”).

I think this point translates as “I like the psalms, also I took at least one ancient Hebrew course .” I have no idea where Gordon is going here, that writing music and lyrics is difficult? So everyone should just give up and resort to Wesley’s attempts? What if Wesley had done that?

3. As a result, the better contemporary hymns (e.g. “How Deep the Father’s Love,” “In Christ Alone”) have been over-used to the point that we have become weary of them. These two of the better CWM hymns are sung a half-dozen times or a even a dozen times annually in many CWM churches; whereas “A Mighty Fortress” may get sung once or twice (if at all); but neither of the two is as good as Luther’s hymn. What is “intrinsically good” (to employ Luther’s expression about music) will always last; what is merely novel will not. Beethoven will outlast 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera. His music will be enjoyed three hundred years from now; theirs will be gone inside of fifty years.

Oh, I see, point 3 is merely a continuation of point 2, perhaps it’s actually point 2A? Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is better? Gordon doesn’t even bother to explain how. Maybe he likes the lyrics, and I won’t argue with them, but the melody I find clunky and the weird time changes are either obtuse or lazy, I’m not sure which. Marty did quite a bit for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that his hymns are automatically gems.

4. It is no longer a competitive advantage to have part or all of a service in a contemporary idiom; probably well over half the churches now do so, so we have reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Tipping Point.” CWM no longer marks a church as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward-looking, because many/most churches now do it. Churches that do not do other aspects of church-life well can no longer compensate via CWM; they must compete with otherchurches that employ CWM. Once a thing is commonplace, it is no longer a draw. And CWM is now so commonplace that it is no longer a competitive advantage; to the contrary, smaller churches with smaller budgets have difficulty competing with the larger-budgeted churches in this area.

Once again, the implication here is that no one actually *likes* contemporary worship, they’re just doing it to “compete” – maybe still under sway of those shadowy “commercial forces.” It seems that Gordon finds it impossible that anyone would actually enjoy worshiping with anything other than his particular canon of hymns. And these praise bands cost money. Because pipe organs are totally free and you can buy them anywhere. Actually every contemporary worship musician I know has purchased their own music equipment whereas I have never known an organist to do the same.

5. As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new (and commercial culture always does so in order to sell what is new), most people will pine for what is new. But what is new does not remain so forever; and once it is no longer novel, it must compete by the ordinary canons of musical and lyrical art, and very little CWM can do so (again, because its authors face a fifty-to-one ratio of competition from other generations). Even promoters of CWM prefer some of it to the rest of it; indicating that they, too, recognize aesthetic criteria beyond mere novelty. Even those who regard novelty as a virtue, in other words, do not regard it as the only virtue. And some, such as myself, regard novelty as a liturgical vice, not a virtue because of its tendency to dis-associate us from the rest of our common race, heritage, and liturgy.

Contemporary music is all mere novelty, and all commercialized. Once again, sure, most contemporary songs will fade away like most hymns did per Gordon’s own admission! He then returns to this specious 50:1 comparison. What about the generations that sang chants in monasteries? Monastic movements started in what? The 300s? And lasted till, um, today? 1700 years of chants, hymn-singer, you can’t compete with chanting! Surrender!

6. Thankfully, my own generation is beginning to die. While ostensibly created “for the young people,” the driving force behind CWM was always my own Sixties generation of anti-adult, anti-establishment, rebellious Woodstockers and Jesus freaks. Once my generation became elders and deacons (and therefore those who ran the churches), we could not escape our sense of being part of the “My Generation” that The Who’s Pete Townsend had sung about when we were young; so we (not the young people) wanted a brand of Christianity that did not look like our parents’ brand. Fortunately for the human race, we are dying off now, and much of the impetus for CWM will die with us (though the commercial interests will “not go gentle into that good night,” and fulfill Dylan Thomas’s wish).

“Thankfully my own generation is beginning to die” – I’m going to just repeat this bizarre statement of self-hatred. As if the baby-boomers were a monolith. I’ve encountered plenty of Gordon’s generation who were not especially counter-cultural. Woodstock was one place, less than a million people were there for what, a weekend? So what. If there is any reason to usher the baby-boomers off the stage it’s that they get caught in these “us versus them” types of dichotomies in ways that (hopefully) younger generations will seek to avoid. Gordon does not hold out any hope that some kind of compromise or fusion or future synthesis of different worship cultures will emerge. Nope, it’s hymns versus praise bands in a death match.

7. CWM is ordinarily accompanied by Praise Teams, and these have frequently (but by no means always) been problematic. It has been difficult to provide direction to them, due to the inherent confusion between whether they are participants in the congregation or performers for the congregation. In most circumstances, the members of the Praise Team do the kinds of things performers do: they vary the instrumental or harmonious parts between stanzas, they rehearse, etc. In fact, if one were to watch a video of the typical Praise Team without any audio, they ordinarily look like performers; their bodily actions and contrived emotional expressions mimic those of the entertainment industry.

Theologically and liturgically, however, it is the congregation that is to sing God’s praise, and what we call the Praise Team is merely an accompanist. But there is a frequent and ongoing tension in many CWM churches between the performers feeling as though they are being held back from performing for the congregation, and the liturgists thinking they’ve already gone too far in distinguishing themselves from the congregation. Many pastors have told me privately that they have no principial disagreements with CWM, but that they wish the whole Praise Team thing “would go away,” because it is a frequent source of tension. I have elsewhere suggested that the Praise Team is not biblical, that it actually obscures or obliterates what the Scriptures command. I won’t repeat any of those concerns here; here I merely acknowledge that many of those who disagree with my understanding of Scripure agree with my observation that the Praise Team is an ongoing source of difficulty in the church.

Most choirs have soloists. Let that sink in. Many organists can take on star status in their congregations (I was part of a congregation where this became something of minor blow-up). If Gordon thinks that “performance” is a problem that started with contemporary musicians than he is truly deranged in his view of worship. Consider the very nature of the organ, the old ones I mean, the giant mass of pipes at the front, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and dwarfing the altar.

8. We cannot evade or avoid the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed forever. Even people who are untrained theologically have some intuitive sense that a local contemporary church is part of a global and many-generational (indeed eschatological and endless) assembly of followers of Christ; cutting ourselves off from that broader catholic body may appear cool for a while, but we ultimately wish to commune with the rest of the global/catholic church. Indeed, for many mature Christians, this wish grows as we age; we become aware that this particular moment, and our own personal life therein, will pass away soon, and what is timeless will nonetheless continue. Our affection for and interest in the timeless trumps our interest in the recent and fading. We intuitively identify with Henry F. Lyte, whose hymn said, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” We instinctively wish to “join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all” (to use Edward Perronet’s language). Note, in fact, the opening lines alone of each stanza of Perronet’s hymn, and observe how, as the stanzas move, our worship is connected to both earthly and heavenly worship, past and future worship:

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;…
Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall…
Crown Him, ye morning stars of light, who fixed this floating ball;…

Crown Him, ye martyrs of your God, who from His altar call;…
Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, ye ransomed from the fall,…
Hail Him, ye heirs of David’s line, whom David Lord did call,…
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall,…
Let every tribe and every tongue before Him prostrate fall…

O that, with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!

It is not merely that some churches do not sing Perronet’s hymn; they can not do so, without a little dissonance. Everything that they do intentionally cuts themselves off from the past and future; liturgically, if not theologically, they know nothing of martyrs, of Israel’s chosen race, of David’s lineage. Liturgically, if not theologically, everything is here-and-now, without much room for angels or seraphs, nor every tribe and tongue (just those who share our particular cultural moment). To sing Perronet’s hymn in such a setting would fit about as well as reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at a Ku Klux Klan gathering.

“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.

I think Gordon is trying to conclude here by strongly hinting (but not actually saying) that all the saints of the church both past and future(!) are singing hymns, just like Gordon would! Really? The apostle Paul would not have recognized the language, melody or structure of anything that was in any of the hymnody. Same with Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Even the Iraqi martyrs killed by ISIS this year would likely have no idea about Wesley and likely never ever sang anything by Martin Luther. What a parochial, narrow view of the church Gordon has!

Contemporary worship has problems, some contemporary worship is just terrible, but the same might be said of hymnody. To set up a restoration of hymn singing as a panacea is to do nothing short of constructing an idol.

For the Healing of the Nations

Our friends at Davenant Trust have just released their first publication edited by W. Bradford Littlejohn and Peter Escalante called For the Healing of the Nations. These are the conference proceedings from a recent Convivium Irenicum. It is great to see that our own Andrew Fulford has an article on Calvin and the theological foundations of resistance. Here is the table of contents:

Peter Escalante
1  Abraham Kuyper: A Compact Introduction
Dr. James D. Bratt
2  Sphere Sovereignty among Abraham Kuyper’s Other Political Theories
Dr. James D. Bratt
3  And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and Why to “Plunder the Egyptians”: The Case of Jerome
Dr. E. J. Hutchinson
4  “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual”: John Calvin’s Concept of the Restoration of the World
Dr. Matthew J. Tuininga
5  Participating in Political Providence: The Theological Foundations of Resistance in Calvin
Andrew Fulford
6  “Bavinck’s bug” or “Van Tilian” hypochondria?: An analysis of Prof. Oliphint’s assertion that cognitive realism and Reformed theology are incompatible
Laurence O’Donnell
7  De-Klining From Chalcedon: Exegetical Roots Of The “R2k” Project
Rev. Benjamin Miller
8  Narrating Christian Transformationalism: Rousas J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in Current Histories of American Religion and Politics
Dr. Brian J. Auten
9  Nature and Grace, Visible and Invisible: A New Look at the Question of Infant Baptism
Joseph Minich

Conscience and Revelation

In light of some recent discussions in the blogosphere on these subjects, I thought I would share my views on them, such as they are.

How do feelings, reason, and conscience relate? 

What determines right and wrong is not simply a feeling. Feelings are reactions to perceptions, real or imagined. They don’t give us new data, they are in fact our reactions to what we perceive. But our perceptions can be mistaken, and so our moral feelings partake of that fallibility. What ultimately determines right and wrong is the objective moral order; our conscience is most basically our awareness of that order. It is, in line with the classical definition of “reason”, the adequation of our mind to the moral aspect of reality. However, like awareness of the material world and other aspects of reality, our perception of the moral aspect of the world can be faulty, our reasoning can go off track, and our feelings react improperly to what we perceive (through force of habit or for some other reason). For this reason we should always remain open to correction by the facts.

Does revelation call us to act against our conscience?

This question can actually be understood two different ways. The first is as many people who pose it understand it: can revelation demand that our will choose a course of action that our reason regards as wrong and our emotions find repulsive, and do so without giving us reason to suppose our prior judgment (the source of our emotional reaction) is mistaken? In this case, the Bible, and representatives of the Christian tradition like Thomas Aquinas (cf. ST II-I.19.5-6), would say “no”. Acts against a mistaken conscience are still sinful, precisely because they are acts against the conscience.

The second way to understand the question is as follows: can revelation provide new information that would demand that our former beliefs about reality be abandoned for new ones? And could there be a situation where we are called to do something we previously found repulsive which revelation now gives us reason to regard as right? To this question the Bible and Christian tradition would answer “yes”. A good example of this in scripture would be Acts 10:9-43. But also, general experience would suggest an analogous truth: even abstracting from questions of revelation, it seems any reasonable ethic will have to acknowledge that the conscience can be mistaken, and should change when presented with new facts. One famous recent example of someone claiming this happened in his own experience would be President Barack Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage.

Are reason and revelation hierarchically ordered? How do they relate?

This is an old and important question, and even within the Reformed tradition there are very complicated discussions and disagreements about this. However, I would suggest that Richard Hooker’s approach to this question is best. He suggested that we must have reason to believe that scripture is the word of God (Laws, 3.8.13), but that once we do have such reason, the word of God provides the strongest evidence we have, even stronger than evidence we have for truths we directly intuit like the law of non-contradiction, because God’s vision of reality is intrinsically more reliable than our faculties of knowledge (Laws, 2.7.5). As Aquinas similarly says (ST I.1.5), “other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas [sacred doctrine] derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled….”

But this is not revelation “trumping” reason in the sense that it demands we believe something we have no reason to believe. Rather, this scheme is rational all the way down, in that reason provides us with warrant to believe that God is infallible and good, and that God in turn has provided us testimony for certain facts that otherwise we might not believe. Given the nature of God as infinite and infallible, and given our nature as partly ignorant, partly sinfully motivated to deny the truth, it is conceivable that God could reveal something to us we may initially not already find to be true. Nevertheless, if we have an antecedent reason to regard the revelation as truly from God, we have good reason to regard our initial lack of a sense of something’s veracity as mistaken, even if we don’t know how we are mistaken.

It is important to note here that this does not commit us to the position that truth is multiple; the point is not that reality can be self-contradictory, but that our mistaken or limited perception of it might lead us not to see how it is actually consistent, though it is ultimately consistent.

If revelation can “trump reason”, does that unleash anarchy or oppression? 

The question that may arise at this point is one that has been raised at least since the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: if revelation can go beyond reason, won’t this unleash anarchy and every evil conceivable? Couldn’t someone use a claim of revelation to justify anything?

The answer to this is partly “yes”, partly “no”. Firstly, yes, in an obvious sense, nothing can physically stop someone from making such a claim. Secondly, no, it does not mean that anyone else is obligated to accept such a person’s claim. People are obligated to believe what they think all the evidence they know of tells them to believe. And Christians can appeal to evidence for their faith, as they have since the beginning of Christianity.

Of course, the hypothetical evil person claiming revelation could simply claim they have direct revelation from God that is stronger than any evidence Christians might appeal to; the question may then arise, “how do we respond to that in a way that will psychologically compel them to agree with us?” The answer is basically: “we can’t”. As epistemologist Michael Bergmann put it:

How can we say that the religious fanatic, who claims that the difference between her belief and ours is that hers is formed in accord with proper function and ours isn’t, is making a permissible move in a proper philosophical exchange? These questions arise, I believe, out of some important misunderstandings. One misunderstanding is the thought that radical disagreement (about such things as fanatical religious views) can be resolved if we follow the rules for permissible moves in a proper philosophical exchange. This thought is a pipe dream, a philosopher’s false hope. The disagreement between clever religious fanatics and those skeptical of their claims, like the disagreement between High Standard moderate nonexternalists and those skeptical of their claims, can ‘bottom out’ in the sort of exchange we’ve been imagining. The High Standard moderate nonexternalist can insist that genuine direct acquaintance with certain facts is sufficient for justification and that the demon victim with merely apparent direct acquaintance is out of luck justification-wise. The skeptic will find that unsatisfying. But the High Standard moderate nonexternalist won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction. The same sort of thing will happen in the case of religious fanatics: they won’t be moved by the skeptic’s dissatisfaction with their externalist response (nor, of course, will the skeptical be moved by their externalist response). …

I say that we can insist the religious fanatic is hallucinating and that those skeptical of introspection are subject to some sort of blindness. But can’t the religious fanatic just respond by saying that those of us who reject her view are subject to some sort of blindness? And can’t those skeptical of introspection responding by saying that we who rely on it are or might be hallucinating (where it seems to us that our introspective beliefs are genuinely infallible or that they are about facts genuinely before our minds, even though they aren’t)? Yes, the religious fanatic and the skeptic about introspection can respond in those ways. But in response to the religious fanatic, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re hallucinating and your claim that we’re blind is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. Likewise, in response to the skeptic about introspection, we can say: ‘the difference between our claim that you’re blind and your claim that we’re hallucinating is that our claim satisfies the conditions necessary and sufficient for justification and yours does not’. It’s true that this is unlikely to satisfy the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection and that they will likely have similar things to say about us. But the point here is just this: The fact that those with whom we disagree (e.g. the religious fanatic or the skeptic about introspection) can respond with philosophical moves similar in form to our own might keep us from complaining that they aren’t following the proper rules for philosophical exchange. It may even prevent us from resolving our dispute with the methods of philosophy. However, it doesn’t commit us to thinking that their views are sensible or respectable. [Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism, 231-2]

To summarize Bergmann: any philosophical or religious disagreement can come to an impasse when one person claims something is obvious, and another says somebody is hallucinating when they claim something is obvious. But even in such a deadlock, people can be rational in holding their beliefs. For knowledge must be of the truth perceived by properly functioning epistemic faculties, while belief can be in error, and the side in the aforementioned impasse with the truth will have grounds for regarding the other person as mistaken. But it will mean that not every disagreement can be resolved by following common position-neutral philosophical rules.

What this means for the social question, “won’t this result in anarchy?”, is a negative answer. Societies are composed of people with beliefs, and they can respond to a minority of religious fanatics according to the evidence as they see it; even if they cannot persuade the minority with position-neutral philosophical arguments, they can still respond to them with other tactics beyond “the methods of philosophy”. They can make laws according to the truth as they see it. Of course, the majority might also be in error, but it is a mistake to think that a philosophical method will ever make such an error impossible. Tragedy is unfortunately always a possibility in this world.