Chapter 1: The Idea of Revelation
“It’s all so one-sided.”
A well known theologian recalls a time when, after delivering a sermon on trust and doing God’s will, he was challenged by a member of the congregation. “You speak,” the latter said, “of trusting God, of praying to Him and doing His will. But it’s all so one-sided. We speak to God, we bow down before Him and lift up our hearts to Him. But He never speaks to us. He makes no sign. It’s all so one-sided.”(John Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York Columbia University Press, 1956). p. 137.) Probably many other believers have had the same complaint.
In the Scriptures, however, we read over and over again the words: “Listen!”, “If you but listen to the voice of the Lord. . . ,” if you remain alert and attentive you will hear something after all. The imperative to “hearken,” to remain receptive to a revelatory “word” is pervasive in the Hebrew and Christian (as well as the Islamic) texts. Although the notion of revelation does not appear formally within the Bible (and in fact does not become a central theme of theology until after the Enlightenment), the sacred writings and traditions all invite us to listen closely, and they promise that we shall hear a word bearing good news. The idea of revelation, then, is by implication a dominant, overarching theme in biblically based religious traditions. And yet, those of us who profess allegiance to these traditions cannot always suppress a sense that no matter how hard we listen, we often do not hear anything:
Ah yes, we may reply, that would indeed be an experience to enjoy, but is it really available to us? It is well enough to Invite us to listen, but what if, when we do listen, we hear nothing? That, we may say, is the root of our trouble. Hearken we ever so diligently, we are rewarded only with a stony silence. After all, has not mankind listened attentively enough through these thousands of years? How men have searched for God! How that old firmament above us has been scanned on starry nights with all the agony of prayer! How the paths of logic have been scoured and scoured again, if haply they might reveal some sign or hint of the divine reality! And what, we may ask, has been the result but a tense and oppressive silence? That Sphinx in the Egyptian desert is the true representation of Deity. Upon our stormy questionings it turns its inscrutable, expressionless face; but no one has ever heard it speak.(Ibid., pp. 136-37,)
Those who are familiar with Western religious traditions have been instructed repeatedly that the content of these faiths has been “revealed” to us. Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths are said to be rooted in a “revelation” that we would hear clearly if we would but hearken. The Scriptures are said to be the “revealed” word of God. And history is said to be the explicit locus of God’s revelation. But what is this “revelation?” What does “God’s revelation in history” really mean? How could we hear it if it is indeed addressed to us? What difference would it make to us? In the final analysis, aren’t things a bit one-sided after all?
Christians traditionally have believed that God has spoken clearly enough, first in the creation of the world, second in the history of Israel, and finally in Jesus the Christ. According to this tradition, if there is any one-sidedness it is on God’s part. There is an overwhelming fullness to God’s word to us, but a troubling feebleness in our attentiveness. In traditional Christian faith there is no hesitation in affirming constantly that a “word” has been sent to us, that things are not one-sided, that our questions and pleas are not projected into a vacuum. But can we really believe this, and especially can we believe it today?
The most general claim that believers make for “revelation” is that “somehow” it makes things make sense for us. It ties together the world of our experience in a manner that would be impossible without revelation. Without the “stories of God” that form the content of biblical religion much of reality would be unintelligible. Revelation (from the Latin revelare. “to remove the veil”) narratively illuminates reality so that we can see it more clearly than by reason or ordinary experience alone. It gives us a sense of who we are, both socially and individually. And it gives us hope. This, at any rate, is how “revelation” appears to its alleged recipients. But what is it? Precisely how does it “work?” Is it trustworthy and truthful? Why isn’t it obvious to everyone? Is the notion of revelation even credible today — especially the doctrine of a divine revelation in history? Why would revelation be given to a particular people at a particular time? How can we be expected to believe that a God of all would be so partial in imparting revelation only to a few? In short, doesn’t it seem that the idea of revelation has become untenable today, at least for many people in the modern world?
If this book is to be of any interest to the reader, who has perhaps been bothered by some of these same questions, it must take them into account. And, rather than being a simple repetition of remote and abstract doctrines, it must be addressed to real concerns rather than artificial problems devised by remote theological abstraction. If the idea of revelation is to be at all plausible or significant to us, it must be understood in terms of those questions that are most important to us. And if our discussion is to have any value it must deal with issues that preoccupy us at this particular time in the universe ‘s and society’s history. If we fail to relate our topic to such issues we are not doing theology in an appropriate way. For, in a sense, the question of the possibility of doing theology today coincides with the question of the very plausibility of revelation.(Heinrich Fries. Revelation [New York: Herder & Herder, 1969], p. 19.)
I shall attempt here to think about the notion of revelation in a fresh manner. Of course I will have to draw upon the many rich studies of revelation that have been written both in the past and in recent years by significant theologians. But I do not intend simply to repeat their ideas nor to make this book a mere summary and classification of the various theories on our subject. In any case, such studies have already been competently written by others. Instead I shall commence almost as though we have never even heard of the notion of revelation at all. The first part of each chapter will sketch an aspect of our situation in the world as if this situation had never been illuminated by a revelatory word. And the second part of each chapter will discuss the meaning of revelation in terms of the analysis given in the first part. Obviously our cultural situation has already been shaped by images and ideas flowing from what Christians would call revelation, and our concrete questions arise out of a context that has been deeply influenced by biblical motifs. But our questions are nevertheless signals of our fundamental uncertainty and our longing for a clearer vision of the reality in which we dwell, it is important therefore that we first bring our questions and uncertainties out into the open. Using this method of beginning with our own immediate questions we might be able to grasp the significance of “God’s revelation in history” in a more dramatic fashion than if we started by merely giving definitions and then elaborating on them. And in this way we shall be able to “correlate” any possible revelatory pattern of meaning with the actual questions that preoccupy many of us today.(This method of “correlation” has been proposed most explicitly by Paul Tillich. It has recently been endorsed and revised by David Tracy who insists that any correlation of revelation with our human questions be “critically” undertaken.)
What then are our uncertainties? In what way do we still live in darkness? We can ask these questions meaningfully only if we first become aware of our “situation,” that is, the context out of which our questions arise. It is obviously impossible for us to cover every aspect of our situation, but we can at least delineate six major areas.
1. The cosmic context. We exist first of all as inhabitants of a vast and expanding universe that originated fifteen to twenty billion years ago in a mysterious event which scientists today call the “Big Bang.” We shall call this first arena of questioning the cosmic context of our existence. Most of science today maintains that our universe is in “evolution,” that through billions of years it has gradually unfolded, starting from pre-atomic elements and then moving through atomic, molecular, living and now conscious developments. It is difficult for those of us who have become even superficially familiar with recent cosmology to suppress certain fundamental questions: why is the world an evolutionary movement rather than a stationary, immobile mass? What is the meaning of this evolution? Is there any purpose to the universe? Does it have any aim or discernible directionality? Where do we go to find any intelligibility in this bewildering world-in-process? These are some of the questions we shall address in Chapter 1. There we shall ask whether the notion of a divine revelation in history helps us in our understanding of what sort of reality the universe is.
2. The historical context. We also belong to the history of the human species. Homo sapiens has been living in our terrestrial sector of the cosmos for less than a million years. Through most of this time humans have dwelt in isolated tribal arrangements in proximity to nature. It was not until somewhere between eight to five thousand years ago that this tribal existence gradually gave way in certain regions to broader and more complex social arrangements that eventually led to the great civilizations, nations and cultures of more recent times. At some time in the relatively recent past, perhaps several thousand years ago, some peoples began to develop a consciousness not only of living in nature but also in history. And as this historical consciousness began to emerge, the question of meaning in history arose along with it. In our own times this question of the meaning of history has reached a climax of urgency. Hundreds of ideologies, the most obvious being Marxism, have attempted to answer this question. Visionaries galore have tried to instruct us on where history is headed. The plurality of positions on this issue has caused a confusion that leads some to despair, and others back to nature. Does history have any meaning to it? Where does the sense of living in history come from in the first place? How are we to understand our historical identity? Is history leading us in any discernible direction? These are just some of the questions we shall deal with in Chapter 3.
3. The social context. Human history has been a chronicle of upheavals followed by some stability followed by yet more turmoil. Our sometimes tranquil circumstances can easily cause us to repress the memory of the millions of people both today and in the past who have been displaced, slaughtered and eventually forgotten throughout human history’s painful transitions. The events we read about in history books tell about the lives of only a very few of our fellow human beings. And most of the time the histories have been written by the conquerors. But what about the rest? What about the lives and sufferings of those countless forgotten victims of history’s brutality? Is there any significance to their suffering? Is there any redemption from it? Where can we turn for answers to these questions? Are there any answers available?
And what about the situation of poverty and hunger in the world today? Most of us live our lives as members of a nationalistically organized society. Or we probably belong at least to one nation more focally than to others. One of the most determinative characteristics of the nations of the world is their economic status. We know today, much more vividly than did our philosophical and theological predecessors, how important economic arrangements are in shaping the values, ideologies and cultures of various states. Our ways of thinking and relating to others, our most important ideals, are not arrived at independently of economic factors. Members of North American society in particular are faced with some very difficult questions today. These questions arise most obviously out of our situation of belonging to a social framework that has already opted for an economic system whose policies often have questionable implications for the poor within our own country and in other nations. How do our economic arrangements affect the concrete lives of the poor and the people of other nations, and how do they influence the international economic situation? These questions, it will be observed, all converge on the issue of justice. But what is justice — in its deepest dimensions? What would constitute the most just arrangements of our social, political and economic structures? How would a more just economic framework affect our consciousness, and how would a consciousness shaped by justice influence these structures? Does “revelation” have anything significant to say to what is perhaps the most pressing concern in our world today, the demand for justice? And what are we to make of the forgotten sufferings of injustice by the millions who have preceded us and who are usually left out of our attempts to understand history? Does the notion of revelation help us in our quest for some answer to the problem of suffering and injustice in society? This question of suffering and social justice, though far beyond anything that we can discuss adequately in this short book, will be the subject matter of Chapter 4. There we shall also make mention of the terror of possible nuclear annihilation and seek to position this seemingly desperate situation in terms of the idea of revelation.
4. The religious context. Throughout the ages most people have been participants in what we now call “religion.” The religious “situation” is inseparable from human existence as such. Religion as an expression of and response to the sense of “mystery” or a “sacred” reality seems to be nearly universal. Most people up until modern times — and here the exceptions are often intellectuals in university communities — have had an explicit sense of some “other dimension,” a sense of the sacred, the divine, the numinous, or what we shall call, in a general way, mystery. And even in secular cultures today there is the search for something “ultimate”(even if it be something purely material or secular) to trust in or to worship. The sense of “God” may have been lost or may have at least diminished in some corners of modern consciousness, but the religious tendency to seek some manifestation of ultimacy has not perished. And religion as a sense of mystery still abides, even though the awareness of mystery is often repressed to some degree. Religiousness in this broad sense of an encounter with “mystery” seems to be a most durable aspect of our human situation. And out of this dimension of our existence arises a fascinating set of questions: what is the deepest meaning of the mystery that surrounds our birth and death in this universe? What is the mystery really like at heart? Is it fundamentally unknowable, fathomless, inexpressible, unintelligible, sphinx-like? Or does it have a face that we can relate to in a personal way? Is the mystery in which we are embedded indifferent to us, or does it draw near to us in caring intimacy? Where do we turn for an answer to this perennial question? Is there an answer? Or is the ageless religious sense of the mysterious destined for shipwreck on the rocks of a totally secularistic interpretation of the world? What is the relation, if any, between the human sense of mystery and the Christian’s belief in a special historical revelation? As I shall argue in Chapter 5, we all have some sense of mystery (even if we call it by other names), but we long to know more about it. What does “revelation” mean in relation to our pervasive human sense of mystery?
5. The personal context. There is also what may be called the personal dimension of our existence. As individuals we have many concerns that we share with others who exist alongside us in the above-mentioned contexts. But there is an aspect of our being that we cannot completely share with others. It is our deeply private, personal and incommunicable “selfhood.” Out of this hidden selfhood come perhaps the most urgent of our concerns. I am referring especially to what has been called the “quest for meaning,” the “quest for freedom” or the “search for identity.” Whatever we choose to call it, it is an attempt to find an answer to the eternal questions: who am I in the deepest core of my selfhood? Do I fit in anywhere in a complete way? Do I fully belong to any context that I can clearly identify? How do I satisfy my longing for significance? Though my personal quest may be satisfied partly by my participating in the other five of our six contexts, there is still a residue of individuality that cannot be grasped in terms of an analysis of any of them. Would an historical revelation assist me in any way in this very personal quest? In Chapter 6 we shall look at this question in more detail.
6. The critical context. Many of us also belong to communities searching after “truth.” I am myself part of a university which, like all academic institutions, considers itself to be a community attempting to arrive at a reasonable understanding of things. This society of scholars and teachers is concerned that we not only have an understanding, but above all a critical understanding of things. This means that we must always be ready to revise our understanding as new data come into the sweep of our experience. We must follow a fruitful method, such as science, if we are to arrive at the truth. The desire to know the truth is for many the most intense and irrepressible of all human longings. Some are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the sake of what they take to be the “truth.” But what is truth? Are we sure that we already know what it is? How would we recognize it when we come upon it? Above all, how can we keep our desire for truth from being consumed by other desires that are not at all interested in the truth? In what sort of context is our desire for the truth most capable of surviving and even thriving? Is the quest for truth compatible with our having any sort of faith in revelation? Or would not such faith Interfere with or distract us from any disinterested searching for objectivity and truth’? We shall deal with this question, often referred to as the question of reason and revelation, in Chapter 7.
The perspective I bring to the topic of revelation is shaped by my own sense of belonging to these six circles: cosmos, history, society, mystery, personality and critical inquiry. Of course these circles all overlap and interpenetrate, but out of each of the six there arise distinct questions. And the structure of this book will follow the patterns of questioning that come from each diverse context. In each of the following six chapters I shall attempt, in a very sketchy way, to present the significance of the Christian notion of an historical revelation in terms of the issues that emerge from our reflecting on the six circles that constitute our situation.
Recent Theologies of Revelation
In the history of theology “revelation” has often been understood as an inner “illumination” or as a sort of divine teaching and instruction. At other times it has been understood according to a “propositional” model. That is, “revelation” has been taken to be the communication of information capable of being expressed in sentences or propositions. Today, however, the central model for understanding the idea of revelation has shifted to a more “personal” one, at least in most important theological reflection. Revelation is understood by theology today, and especially Catholic theology, fundamentally as God’s self-revelation. It is first of all the gift of God’s own self, and only derivatively is it the propositional unfolding of the event of this divine self-gift. Revelation is not primarily the uncovering of information that is otherwise inaccessible to reason and ordinary experience. Such a “gnostic” idea, tempting though it has been since very early in the history of Christianity, trivializes the idea of revelation, making it appeal more to our sense of curiosity than to our need for transformation and hope. Instead revelation means essentially God’s gift of self. And the awareness of such a self-giving God is “revealed” to faith not as a proposition or doctrine but as a promise of ultimate fulfillment. The sense of God’s revelation in history happened first to people whose lives swelled with a sense of expectation. Today as well, any meaningful sense of revelation would occur only to those of us who can share this same sense of promise and the hope that accompanies it.
Revelation is not as complicated or as magical as we might once have suspected. In its depth it is an exceedingly simple notion, though that does not make it any easier to accept and understand. As Karl Rahner has often emphasized, revelation means fundamentally the communication of the mystery of God to the world. This divine self-communication influences the world at every phase of its coming-to-be, and not just at the human level of propositional understanding nor within the confines of the biblical world alone. Revelation is a constant, ongoing outpouring of God’s creative, formative love into the world. In this sense it has a “general” character, and in some way every being is affected (and even constituted) by this universal divine self-communication. Thus the idea of revelation in contemporary theology tends to converge with the biblical theme of creation. Creation itself is already the self-revelation of God.
However, biblical faith has influenced theologians to speak also of “revelation in history,” “historical revelation,” or “special revelation” in addition to God’s universal or “general” self-revelation. In the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe that God who is present to the world everywhere and at all times manifests the divine essence in a unique and definitive way.
While Christians celebrate the apparently “exceptional” divine self-disclosure in Christ, the notion of a “special” revelation in history is today the source of much controversy. To those who approach the world out of what I have called the “critical context,” which has been deeply influenced by the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on “reason,” the idea of a unique revelation by a universal God to a specific people in a limited historical setting seems magical and mythical. It raises the question as to whether one can be a devotee of biblical revelation while at the same time accepting the norms of reason and critical consciousness. Can the truly enlightened person concerned with a critical, objective grasp of truth honestly accept a unique historical revelation? I shall attempt to express the consensus of much recent theology (Jewish, Protestant and Catholic) that the idea of revelation in history does not imply a magical intrusion of foreign information, as is often imagined in popular piety. In its deepest, promissory essence revelation is the opening of the universe to the very possibility of a truly historical mode of existence. Such an interpretation of revelation need not conflict with the legitimate demands of reason.
The idea of a special historical revelation is also problematic to many who dwell within the broad “religious context” of human experience. Although they are quite willing to agree that all people are always touched by the mystery that surrounds our existence, they see no need to posit a special and decisive historical revelation of this mystery. And they are sometimes suspicious of the apparent pretentiousness of those who do.(The German philosopher, Karl Jaspers. is one of the best-known advocates of this position See, for example, Karl Jaspers and Rudolf Bultmann. Myth and Christianity, trans. by N. Guterman (New York: Noonday Press. Inc., 1958). There is a refining edge to this objection, and theology today must take it into account. A certain triumphalism and sense of superiority has been a strong temptation to biblical religions grounded in the doctrine of special revelation. Although there are strong warnings against such inflation in the scriptures and traditions of these religions, a theology of revelation today has to be especially sensitive to the accusations of special privilege.
In order to offset the impression of any such arrogance in the present work I would once again point the reader to what is considered by many Christian theologians today to be the primary meaning of revelation: God’s gift of self to the world. Such a formula prohibits our restricting this gift to a specific people or to a specific church community. Revelation in its fundamental meaning is universal. If we still continue to speak of a historical revelation we do not mean that it is special in the sense that the people to whom it is communicated are thereby superior to other human beings. Nor does it mean that they are any more significant in the sight of God. Even though it inevitably bears the marks of particularity, a feature that is inseparable from the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the idea of God’s revelation in history means something much deeper, more universal and less pretentious than these suspicions suggest. Hence the theme of revelation as God’s self-gift with universal intent will be a constant one in each of this book’s chapters.
Because the notion of revelation seems to suggest a particularity that overrides the contemporary trend toward ecumenism and universalism, some recent theology has become altogether embarrassed about the idea. It has at times even suggested that revelation is a notion that any respectable theology of the future will have to learn to live without if it is to avoid triumphalism and religious imperialism. It is difficult to imagine how belief in historical revelation can be abandoned without destroying the very foundations of biblical religion, but every effort must be made to remove from the idea any shadow of arrogance. Therefore, I would suggest that the most important reason for our clinging to the notion of revelation is not to evoke a sense of privilege but to give strong expression to our sense of the always surprising initiative or “prevenience” of God and the conviction that we are not ourselves the authors of the promise we live by. The notion of revelation 15 indispensable for giving expression to the experience of our being encountered again and again by a mystery of promise that is by its very nature radically surprising, new and unpredictable when viewed according to our ordinary standards of expectation. If we lose the notion of revelation we lose a sense that we are being addressed and invited by something beyond ourselves. And when we lose that impression of being challenged by the mystery of the transcendent, our world becomes closed in on itself in a way that is too suffocating for the human spirit. The idea of revelation, among its other attributes, preserves the intuition that an unanticipated dimension of utter surprisingness lies before us and beyond our capacity to control.
Revelation has nothing to do with the superiority of one religious group over another. Rather it is about the surprise that awaits us all and which none of our most creative imaginings and projections can come close to representing adequately. Revelation is a goad to our consciousness, urging it to strive constantly to imagine anew the ultimate context of our existence. But it is at the same time a judgment upon the inadequacy of any of these imaginings, and it is also a powerful stimulus to reach out further and further to the mystery that invites us into its incomprehensible grasp. If we keep before us the self-revising imperative given by revelation we can hardly fall into the complacency of which opponents of the idea are understandably apprehensive.
A Word about Method
Theology has to follow a method. And if it is interested in arriving at appropriate results it should be self-conscious about its method. Especially since the birth of modern science he various disciplines have become more and more sensitive o the need to be methodical in order to arrive at appropriate results. And contemporary theology is one such discipline.
The word “method” comes from the Greek méta hódos, meaning “according to a way or path.” The term implies that if truth is to be found then certain rules must be followed. The road to truth cannot be trodden indiscriminately. We must somehow plan our assault on the subject matter of our various disciplines. Bernard Lonergan has defined method as a “set of directives guiding a process to a result,” and today theology struggles to find the appropriate directives for dealing with its own peculiar subject matter, revelation.
In the present century there have emerged two opposing positions regarding theological method and how to approach the subject of revelation in particular. One of these has been proposed by the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Barth argues that we should not approach revelation with any predetermined method. For if we do we shall surely shrink and distort the subject matter of faith in order to make it fit our own presuppositions. Instead we should let revelation encounter us and take hold of us without our planning any sort of methodical approach to it. Let revelation bring its own method along with it instead of imposing one of our own making upon it.
The importance of Barth’s position lies in the fact that it insists on the initiative of God as the author of revelation. It maintains that revelation is always infinitely more than anything we could conjure up in our own minds. The promise given in revelation must be seen as independent of all our human wishing. It must retain its surprising, gratuitous and shocking substance if it is to function as revelation. This emphasis on the primacy of God is perhaps Barth’s most significant contribution to modern theology. And it is important that we always remain in touch with this aspect of his thought.
However, in order to preserve the sense of God’s initiative in revelation, there is no good reason to suppress our concern with being methodical. Rudolf Bultmann, who represents the opposing position, insists on the necessity of method in theology. He says that method is nothing other than a way of putting questions.( Rudolf Bultmann. Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribners Sons. 1958) p. 49-50.) In order for the content of revelation to make any sense to us it must respond to real questions and proccupations that we already have. If revelation does not respond to our own questions, then how could we possibly “hearken” to it? It is our questions that make us look for some revelatory answer in the first place.
Thus theology must also attend to the business of shaping our questions appropriately if we are to be exposed to the relevant aspects of revelation. The shape of the questions guiding our inquiry determines, in some vague way at least, the kind of results we will get from the inquiry. Paul Tillich has constructed a massive systematic theology employing this method of “correlating” our questions with the content of revelation, and I shall employ something like his correlation method in the following.
By dwelling in the six contexts listed above, and becoming aware of the questions that arise out of them, we will be attuned to aspects of revelation that might otherwise go unnoticed. At the same time, though, our own particular way of putting questions to the sources that are believed to contain a revelatory word will cause other hidden riches in these classic sources to go unnoticed by us, and it is the merit of Barth’s theology to have emphasized this point. No theology of revelation can ever be definitive, simply because we can never pose all the relevant questions for all times and circumstances. We are all limited by our particular situations. As times and situations change, our questions and concerns do also. So we can only say what revelation means for us, and we must not arrogantly pretend to speak for every age. Nevertheless, I think that in order for us to get to the substance of revelation at all we must first identify ourselves with the uncertainties and concerns that bring forth the most significant questions of our own times. For that reason we must be careful to specify in each chapter exactly what aspect of our situation we are attempting to understand. Can the idea of revelation provide the illumination we seek as we explore each aspect of our situation? Let us begin with the cosmos.