Chapter 10: Revelation and the Self
Does my own life have any significance? If revelation is to make any difference to me. I rightly expect that it will respond to this undying question. In the previous two chapters, we portrayed revelation in terms of the universe and history. Here we ask, more explicitly than before, what it may mean for us as individual persons concerned with meaning and, perhaps above all, with freedom. Such preoccupation with individuality would probably not have occurred to Abraham, Moses, and most of the prophets. Their emphasis was on the meaning of God’s promises for the family, the tribe, the people, or the nation. They did not formally ask, "what does it all mean for me?" Concern for the distinct self in our modern sense had not yet arisen. Perhaps for that reason, even the question of subjective survival beyond death was not a major preoccupation. The Israelites understood God’s promise in terms of the survival and status of a whole people. Israel’s sense of divine revelation responded primordially to a communal hope in the future rather than to private aspirations.
Up until the time of Jeremiah, Israel’s emphasis on collective responsibility and guilt at times obscured any clear apprehension of singular self-hood. But Hebraic thought had long contained the seeds of a sharper sense of individual existence, and it occasionally showed signs of a quest for personal significance alongside that of the entire people. Even in some of the earliest psalms, for example, we are presented with prayers that express a deep feeling of aloneness and existential anguish, and an intense preoccupation with Yahweh’ s significance for the suffering individual. The prophets themselves could not but lament their own personal ostracism. Out of the inevitable loneliness to which rigorous fidelity to the promises of God often leads one, there quite naturally arises the need for clarification of what it means to be a self in relation to God. In the literature of Israel, the Book of Job is perhaps the most obvious expression of this demand. This work makes it clear that revelation must respond to our personal suffering as well as to the more global demands of history and the universe.
In the Gospels, the question of human destiny is still largely framed in collective terms. God has visited the people, Israel. The Annunciation is understood by Luke as a climactic moment in a long series of divine promises intended not simply for an individual but for the whole people. The meaning of revelation is seldom if ever expressed in purely individualistic terms. Even when Jesus is raised up, he is still understood as the firstborn of the many who are destined for resurrection. Resurrection is primarily a collective event to which Jesus’ personal exaltation provides access for all those devoted to the definitive coming of God’s reign. Even in the writings of Paul, who relates revelation more immediately to the individual, it is inappropriate for Christians to think of their redemption in exclusively individualist terms. Fundamentally, the revelation of God is a cosmic and historical occurrence in which the individual is invited to participate. In fact, the individual’s consciousness of salvation occurs only in those moments where there is a sense of belonging to a larger body comprised of others and the entire universe as they are collectively being brought into unity by God. There can be no purely individual salvation.
On the other hand, in the Bible the promise of deliverance is mediated to a group primarily through the consciousness and responsiveness of exceptional individuals. This is the case from Abraham through Jesus, Paul, and other personal vehicles of the biblical promise. The immediate context for the reception of revelation is the partly incommunicable consciousness of individual persons. Thus, the font of any specifically Christian revelation is, in some sense at least, Jesus’ own consciousness.(This is the conclusion of Gabriel Moran’s study, Theology of Revelation [New York: Herder and Herder, 1966]). We have previously pondered what seems to have occurred in the privacy of Jesus’ own heart as he contemplated the divine promise in the light of his ‘abba’ experience. It is ultimately from this deeply interior and never fully communicable experience of Jesus’ relation to God that Christian revelation has its specific origin.
Moreover, it is doubtful that we would be very concerned about revelation apart from its fortifying our own personal existence as well. Revelation must speak to our own deepest natural longing to be regarded as intrinsically valuable. That we all crave for such valuation does not need lengthy argumentation. It seems self-evident. Along with common human experience, the behavioral sciences provide much data that can only be explained in terms of the individual’s fundamental desire to be valued. Even the pain experienced in our self-rejection stems from the fact that it is so deep in our nature to want to be valued and accepted.
Another way of putting this point is to say that we seek to live without shame. Shame is the feeling that takes us over when we begin to become aware of an aspect of our being that seems unacceptable both to us and to those in our social environment. Shame is a universal human phenomenon, and in a certain sense it is a necessary response to the facts of social existence. The most intimate aspects of our lives, in particular our sexual and religious feelings, need to be shielded from the objectifying and trivializing gaze of the public, and so shame can provide a sort of protective function.(See Victor Frankl, The Unconscious God [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975]) But shame may also lead us into self-deception. It may push completely out of consciousness that which we take to be unacceptable in ourselves. Thus we may completely forget essential chapters of our own life stories and repress obvious facets of our personalities for the sake of wanting to fit into some social or even religious habitat. Shame holds us back therefore from full self-knowledge, freedom, and the fulfillment of our personal lives.(We must distinguish what we are calling shame from the healthier and essential feeling of true guilt or sinfulness, for the latter may itself be concealed beneath shame. The awareness of sin actually becomes most vivid in the experience of grace, an experience in which shame is removed and by which we are enabled to acknowledge our failings without trying to hide from them.)
According to the insights of depth psychology, our denial of any shameful aspect of our character may lead us to project it outside of ourselves onto those in our social surroundings where it will be interpreted as something alien to ourselves, and as deserving of our antipathy. We may easily displace the disowned portions of our self onto others whose existence then becomes interpreted as inimical to our own. The sense of shame may then have disastrous social and political consequences if we decide to harm or destroy those who have become the imagined or real carriers of our own despised features.
Hence, the specter of anything approaching a wholesome life or integral society requires that we eventually learn to live with and accept as part of our own constitution those experiences and those features of our character which at present put us to shame. Revelation, if it is to be of significance to us as persons, and through us to society, must somehow address this nearly universal situation of shame.
The Bible is clearly aware of the human condition of shame. The well-known third chapter of the book of Genesis tells of the embarrassment of nakedness that led the man and woman to hide from God. The aboriginal consequence of sin is shame. The historical books of the Bible, the Prophets, Job, and the Psalms make numerous allusions to the feeling of shame: "All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face. . . . (Ps. 44:15) Indeed, shame could be said to be one of the dominant themes in the biblical description of the human condition. In Israel’s experience, it was considered shameful to be barren, to be sick or menstruating, to be subject to the authority of an alien nation, and to be dying or dead. Such experiences were commonly interpreted as evidence of divine disfavor, of being cut off from healthy relationship to others and the world, as reasons to hang one’s head or to seek refuge from the living God.
And shame still remains as a major facet of our own experience today, thus linking our situation very closely to that of the Bible. This aspect of our existence opens up a common context (a hermeneutical circle) allowing the Bible to speak directly to us in our concrete individual lives. Because of its dominating concern with this common human experience, it is difficult to support the notion that the Bible is too foreign for us to understand it. Shame continues to shade the lives of all of us to some extent, including those who call themselves followers of Jesus. In the case of many individuals, shame is especially crippling. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the anguish of shame is the main problem each human being has to face. And the fact of shame also still has enormous social repercussions. How many evils and horrors in our social and historical life can be accounted for simply as the result of attempts by powerful individuals to conquer or cover up their own private disgrace? By overcompensating for some unaccepted weakness in themselves, potentates and tyrants unleash their demand for significance in ways that end up destroying the lives of other people as well as their own subjects.
Erich Neumann, among others, has shown how those who think of themselves as strong and self-sufficient may at times project their inner sense of inferiority onto the more vulnerable ethnic, economic, and religious groups in their social environment. This is how he interprets the phenomenon of Nazism. Like all the rest of us, the Nazi has a "shadow side" consisting of disowned weakness, cowardice, moral ineptitude, and general vulnerability. And when this shadow side is not integrated into self-consciousness, it is easily projected outward onto others, or onto social minorities. This leads to an obsession with eliminating Jews and other groups who seem to embody those features that one hates in oneself. Ideal human development, on the other hand, consists of a conscious and often painful appropriation of this shadow side.(Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, trans. by Eugene Rolfe (New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1973).
One does not have to be a follower of C. G. Jung, though, to realize that we all have something like a "shadow side," a complex of feelings and character traits that we have perhaps unconsciously disowned. We usually first encounter this shameful side of ourselves as it is reflected back to us from other people who seem to carry our own despised features. The inability or refusal to acknowledge our own weaknesses leads us then to reject other people who appear to us to embody these traits. It would follow therefore that whatever propels us toward reintegrating the lost or shameful aspects of ourselves could also facilitate reconciliation between ourselves and other individuals or groups. Does revelation contribute to such integration? And if so, how might we articulate its effectiveness?
The Dynamics of Shame
The Bible commonly presents the prospect of salvation in terms of the removal of shame. The promise of God to the people of Israel is constantly one that in effect says: "I will take their shame away from them." "Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed" (Ps 34:5). According to the Scriptures, a human life shaped by the promise of divine justice is one in which we are liberated to walk boldly with our heads held high, with no need to look back, and with confident expectation of a glorious future. God’s word, power, and revelation become evident in the life of the individual particularly through the experience of the removal of shame. The remarkable happiness Jesus brought to his friends and followers is due in large measure to their experience of the abolition of shame as they lived in his forgiving presence.
The feeling of shame stands in the way of any adequate satisfaction of the very wholesome human need for a sense of freedom and significance. A theology of revelation must ask, then, how it is that life in the presence of Jesus conquers the sense of shame and restores a cognizance of one’s inner worth. In order to gain some insight into this remarkable possibility we need to examine the phenomenon of shame more closely than we have up to this point.
Shame can be defined only by contrasting it with the feeling that the self in its totality is significant. The need to be valued and esteemed is universal among humans.(See, for example, Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973); and Sebastian Moore, The Inner Loneliness (New York: Crossroad, 1982). We generally seek to fulfill our longing for esteem by carrying out our lives in the eyes of another or of others who regard us as significant. Sociologist Ernest Becker thinks that human existence is largely a performance we put on in order to gain a feeling of value in the eyes of others, or perhaps just one other.(Becker, 3-8 and passim.) And when our performance turns out to be a failure, we are beset by feelings of worthlessness. For example, a college student’s relentless pursuit of academic excellence in order to become a very successful professional may, in considerable part, be an unconscious performance before his or her parents, teachers, or others who embody an important cultural ideal. In order to feel consequential in the eyes of such important persons, a successful performance seems to be absolutely necessary. Anything short of perfection may lead to a deep sense of being held in disfavor, and this can lead to various degrees of self-rejection. Such a student may at times suffer considerable torment under either the real or simply imagined expectations of esteemed others. The performance may become a terrible burden, especially when one fails to fulfill the intended ideals. A sense of shame is the inevitable result. More than one student has been tempted even to suicide in the wake of real or imagined failure.
One can think of many other ways in which shame follows from our failure to measure up to familial, societal, academic, ethical, psychological, and perhaps especially, "religious" standards of performance. Everyone’s life story contains some threads of shame resulting from deficiencies of one kind or another. A particular cultural or religious community, for example, can lay out excessively rigorous criteria of personal self-worth systematically designed to make entire groups of individuals who fail the test of belonging feel ashamed and unacceptable. Africans, Hispanics, Asians, women, homosexuals, homeless, religious minorities, agnostics, doubters, uneducated, intellectuals, poor, and almost any other category of social life can, under certain conditions, be regarded as failing the appropriate tests of true membership in a society. Any society obviously requires some criteria for belonging. Hence, informational boundaries are erected and often fortified to make sure that distinctions among groups, including especially religions, remain clearly defined. Otherwise there might be no significance attached to membership. A society without at least some criteria of belonging could not be sustained for very long. But the other side of this requirement is that some individuals and groups will inevitably feel that they do not belong.(We may wonder whether any of us ever belong completely to a societal situation. It is the assumption and hope of religions that we do not belong in every sense to such a restrictive context. For if we do feel completely at home, then we quite likely have little taste for transcendence or for a wider and more inclusive future. For this reason, the longing for a radically new future, especially in the Biblical narratives, seems to originate in the awareness of those who feel they have been excluded and that they do not really belong (We may wonder whether any of us ever belong completely to a societal situation. It is the assumption and hope of religions that we do not belong in every sense to such a restrictive context. For if we do feel completely at home, then we quite likely have little taste for transcendence or for a wider and more inclusive future. For this reason, the longing for a radically new future, especially in the Biblical narratives, seems to originate in the awareness of those who feel they have been excluded and that they do not really belong (the poor, the marginalized. the untouchables). Then, in their interaction with the society at large, they will be reluctant to advertise the "unsocialized" components of their being. In shame they will conceal these aspects from others, and quite likely from themselves as well.
The establishment of social criteria of acceptability are closely connected to our basic human need for significance, and in a sense, they may be said to have their origin therein. The need to be esteemed requires an informational context within which to carry on the performance that will potentially prove one’s significance in the eyes of others and oneself. And one of the functions of a culture or sub-culture is to provide this context. In Becker’s helpful terminology, the life of performing before others is something like a quest for heroism. Our craving for significance requires that we experience our lives as heroic in a way that will fill us with self-esteem. We typically act out this urge within a system of heroics prefabricated by human culture.(Becker, 82.) And although human culture is not reducible to being a mere system of heroics designed to grade our individual performances, nevertheless it clearly includes such an ingredient.
It is always a startling discovery to have our culture or subculture’s system of heroics exposed for what it is. And it would be most illuminating, Becker says, if we would each just admit our longing to be heroic, that is, our need to be held significant in terms of some system of heroics. "The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are."(Becker, 4.) Such an admission might be the first step in our conquering of shame and placing our sense of self-worth on a less unstable foundation than we are accustomed to doing. This admission would also have repercussions for social existence as well.
Some understanding of what it is that causes us to feel shame might begin to emerge if we simply asked ourselves: "Whom am I trying to please and why am I doing so?" An honest answer usually reveals that we have been carrying out our performances in front of those whose positive regard we value deeply, but who may also be incapable of accepting or appreciating some hidden dimensions of our being. We may not even be aware of these aspects of our lives because we have been so intent on establishing our significance in terms of a clearly defined informational context. Often it is only after we have satisfied such requirements that a previously unacknowledged darkness within us begins to surface. Then we realize the limiting effect our performance has had on us. We recognize that a part of us does not belong at all to the circle of heroics in which we had become engaged. At such times, there often occurs a keen awareness of the deep loneliness of our existence. And it is often at such times that we begin to embark, perhaps for the first time, on the quest for a context in which all aspects of our being can be included. It is in terms of such a search that we may understand the individual’s quest for revelation.
Jesus and Shame
As far as the individual is concerned, the illuminative power and novelty of Jesus’ person and gospel consist, at least in part, of their bringing to light the ways in which a cultural or religious system of heroics can lead us toward needless shame. Simultaneously, this same gospel’s implicit announcement of God’s self-emptying love enables us as individuals to move toward the "devastating release of truth" of which Becker speaks.
In Chapter 5, we observed that the novelty of Jesus’ consciousness of God comes to light in an especially shocking way in his critique of the alternative proposals for holiness set forth by several religious movements prevalent at the time he lived and proclaimed the Good News. We may recall that Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries were an oppressed minority within the huge Roman Empire. Given this circumstance, it would have been most difficult for many of them to build their sense of personal significance on any participation in power politics. This possibility was simply not open to them. In terms of the empire itself, they were utterly insignificant. However, in place of any opportunity to glory in Roman citizenship, their culture offered them several alternative systems of religious heroics as potential frameworks within which they might fulfill their need for esteem. The Essenes, for example, held forth ideals of righteousness that demanded the fulfillment of exacting ritual and other requirements as a condition for belonging. If one could fulfill these requirements, it might be possible to partake of a unique kind of heroism through which one could feel worthwhile. Likewise, the Pharisees and Sadducees set forth rigorous paths toward religious salvation that some could trod in order to discover and measure their self-worth. The problem, however, was that these religious ways involved stipulations that guaranteed the exclusion of all who were not strong enough or holy enough to adhere to them. And without any prefabricated religious systems of heroics into which they might fit their lives, many had little opportunity to discover and feel deeply the sense of significance they needed in order simply to exist as persons.
It was especially to those who felt left out and devoid of heroism that Jesus addressed the Good News and for whom he himself eventually took on the stature of hero or champion. But instead of imposing an alternative religious system of heroics on these poor, he spoke to them about a reign of God wherein one is not required to conform to any cultural or religious heroics as a condition of belonging to the divine fellowship. This reign of God lacks the severe informational boundaries that segregate people into those who belong and those who do not. The revelatory nature of Jesus’ teaching consists of the disclosure of a loving God, abba, in whose realm we are not required to perform any heroics at all in order to feel significant.
This boundary-less situation is depicted vividly in such parables as that of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), given in response to the question: who is my neighbor? Who belongs, and who does not, to the circle of those about whose welfare I should be concerned? The answer Jesus gives frustrates the implicit boundary-drawing expected by the question. The Samaritan, who has been excluded from "right" religious communion, is the very one who proves to be unconcerned about religious boundaries.(In this respect, Jesus himself is eventually shown by the Gospels to be the "good Samaritan," that is, the one who is indifferent to criteria of religious belonging. In giving this parable, he gives the key to his own self-understanding.) Jesus’ parable shows that belonging to the right religious sect is inconsequential in terms of what really matters. The point is that love of neighbor for neighbor, the praxis of the reign of God, may occur irrespective of cultic credentials. Love makes boundaries insignificant.
Likewise, the love of God for us occurs irrespective of our religious and ethical rectitude. The parable of the so-called prodigal son exhibits Jesus’ revolutionary disregard for the walls that we normally build in order to guarantee our own favorable status in the eyes of God. The elder son represents our typical religious and ethical establishment of barriers between those who are "just" and those who are not. The younger son, on the other hand, stands outside the circle of those whose ethical and religious performance has apparently sealed their righteous heroism in the eyes of God. But the father’s generosity overflows these boundaries and accepts the one who does not belong, even while "he was yet at a distance" (Luke 15:20). Even when standing outside the confines of right ethical and religious performance, he is fully embraced by the father’s love. And the father in the parable, by adorning the lost son in the regalia of royalty, removes any need for shame. He restores the lost son’s self-esteem even though it has not been earned by any performance.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the parable about the laborers who came late to the vineyard makes the same point (20:1-16). Namely, from the point of view of God’s reign, our usual boundaries are nullified. Those who have labored the whole day long preferred, on the basis of their performance, to draw a clear line between themselves and the laggards. Jesus teaches that the reign of God does not work according to our own standards of heroism. Rather, it is the situation in which absolute generosity rules. And this means that performance counts for nought as far as our intrinsic worth is concerned. Children of the kingdom, those whose faith is pure, can rejoice in this subversion of our typical economic, cultural, or religious criteria of worth. The inclusive character of God’s reign is revelation’s response to our quest for individual significance at the same time that, in principle, it wrecks our normal social systems of heroics.
The subversion of our customary heroics is evident in Jesus’ actions as well as in his words. This is especially true of his practice of table fellowship with sinners and social outcasts, a habit for which he was severely criticized by those whose religious heroism was implicitly put in question by such inclusive praxis. The simple gesture of gathering at table with tax-collectors and prostitutes overturned an entire system of heroics. In doing so, it subverted any effort to establish a human sense of belonging to God’s reign on the basis of anything we have done. In the parable of the tax collector who admits his sin and the Pharisee who recounts his religious heroics, it is the former and not the latter who is truly right before the God who looks not to performance as a basis for valuing humans (Luke 18:9-14).
There is unquestionably something deeply disturbing, even revolutionary, about Jesus’ inclusive actions and teachings. For they entail, in principle at least, the overthrowing — the complete abolition — of any system of heroics that would lead us to experience shame about ourselves. Were we able through faith in Jesus’ revelation to come to a more accepting posture toward our own shameful side, we would likewise be delivered of the compulsion to project it out onto others. And by appropriating our own darkness, we might also undercut the compulsion toward hatred and violence that occurs whenever we disown that part of ourselves.
The Humility of God and the Quest for Significance
The portrait of God as self-giving love, capable of sharing in our suffering, can have a very destabilizing effect on society and its history. We may now observe how this same image interrupts the "ordinary" life and self-consciousness of the individual. Those who have truly been conquered by this image have undergone a dramatic, inward transformation. They have found in the image of God’s own self-effacement a refuge from the compulsion to persist in a life based on shame. This revelatory image of ultimate reality as self-emptying love liberates them from the anxiety of never having done quite enough to please the other. Let us look more closely at how this may be so.
So powerfully internalized are societal and religious criteria of personal worth, that often we cannot conjure up any other images of God than those modeled on significant persons before whom our societal performance is ordinarily executed. Thus, our "God" is likely to be in large measure a projection Onto mystery of those very authorities before whom we experience shame whenever our performance is deficient. Hence, by its challenge to our favored images of God, especially those that present God as one whose favor we must win by our religious or ethical performances, the subversive, revelatory image of a God who participates in our own shame pulls the rug out from under a society that seeks by way of religion to legitimate its exclusivism. Simultaneously, it also undermines the individual’s compulsion to "perform" in order to prove his or her significance.
In Jesus’ teaching about God, our childish projection of a deity who scrutinizes our performance and keeps a record of it as a basis for accepting or rejecting us is shattered. And in Christian faith’s never fully cherished identification of God with the crucified Christ, the projection is radically dismantled. Death by crucifixion was quite probably the most shameful situation imaginable for an individual at the time of Jesus. And Christian revelation, along with subsequent theological reflection, announces to us that God was fully present in this Jesus, in this most shameful of conditions. The corresponding image of God as one who embraces this depth of human shame as an aspect of the divine life amounts to nothing less than a metaphysical abolition of all the alternative ideas of God, most of which lend sanction to our exclusivist heroics. By identifying with the outcast Jesus, the man slain through the most shameful form of execution, God is disclosed as one who includes all that we normally exclude. And this means not only others that we may have rejected. It also includes our own weakness and shame.
Thus, devotion to the kenotic God can be altogether disruptive of our "normal" social arrangements, all of which have some degree of exclusivism. And the possibility of such suspension of normality helps us understand why so few societies and religions (including most forms of Christianity and Christian theology) have taken this image seriously. On the whole, they have been much more comfortable with the dictatorial image of God, an image that legitimates and preserves the status quo with all the built-in exclusivity that this implies. They have eschewed the defenseless deity revealed on the cross and have preferred instead one whose central function is to keep a record of our ethical and religious achievement. This works-oriented deity legitimates the comfortable, informational boundaries that keep us segregated from one another in our social and religious worlds, as well as from the suppressed dimensions of our own selves.
Any revolution at the social level cannot be effective in a lasting way apart from a radical change in our personal self-understanding. It is doubtful whether social transformations that might open us to the otherness within society could really become actual unless individual persons within that society simultaneously learn to accept the "shameful" otherness within themselves.(See Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. At the same time, as we have been arguing, the revolution within the self cannot take place independently of a social revolution that dismantles those external informational boundaries that we internalize in such a way as to cause shame. It is not a question of the priority of self-transformation over systemic societal change. Rather, both can occur only in an ecology that involves an ongoing dynamic and reciprocity between individual and society.) The individual’s own partialized sense of selfhood is inseparable from and reflective of the exclusivist social situations in which we learn how not to be whole. A society that avoids the alien elements within itself teaches us as individuals to accept only those aspects of our own private existence that correspond favorably to the system of heroics that shapes our performance. For that reason, someone whose personal character becomes clearly manifest in its willingness to accept compassionately the excluded and forgotten, those whose lives are burdened with shame, will be exceptionally disruptive both to society and the individuals within that society.
By virtue of our personal avoidance of the shameful side of ourselves, we become accomplices of society’s neglect of those elements that do not fit into its requirements of worth. Our self-definition in terms of a society’s restrictive standards, as existentialist philosophers have taught us, is rooted in our own free decisions. We choose freely to shape our private lives by making concrete selections from the list of criteria of self-worth already available in society’s inventory of values. Of course, for the most part we have not made these choices consciously, but it is important nevertheless to acknowledge our responsibility for them. Otherwise we will become paralyzed by the illusion that we can do nothing to help change things in a fundamental way.
In summary, how then does revelation confront this situation? By our faith in the God who identifies with Jesus, the God who is inseparable from the man forsaken and abandoned on the cross, we announce not only a revolution in our fundamental image of mystery, but also a drastic revision of our self-understanding. This inner revolution involves the conquering of shame and of the need for self-deception. It opens access to the otherness within ourselves even while it embraces the others without.
The Self, Freedom and the Future
When we reflect on selfhood and its deepest longings, including the need to live without shame, we are, underneath it all, thinking about the possibility of freedom. Today, we often speak of the individual’s quest for meaning or the search for identity, but above all we think of personal freedom. Without freedom there is no self, no distinctive identity, no personality, no meaning, no real life. The experience of freedom is what the individual needs more than anything else in order to be a self.
And yet the actual situation of human existence is one in which the self is not really free, one in which people often do not have a clear sense of who they are, and one in which true personality is lost in various forms of enslavement to convention or mass-mindedness. Freedom is either taken away by force or it is willingly surrendered. As the Bible itself was aware, and as existentialist philosophers have recently accentuated, freedom is something we would often rather live without. To accept our freedom means to live with a certain kind of anxiety, and this requires a courage that we do not always have. Accepting freedom means accepting the future as open and full of unknown possibilities. This, as we have seen, can be quite unsettling, even while it is also enlivening. It means living without security in the present.
Hoping, on the other hand, means being open to surprise rather than living with a calculated certitude that would prevent a truly novel future from ever really happening. In the biblical vision, openness to promise coincides with true human freedom. In hope, we open ourselves to yet undreamed of possibilities, and this frees us from the settled past or a hopeless present, setting us forth to adventure and even to get lost in the indefinite mystery of the future which through revelation seeks us out. We may say then that our freedom too is a gift of revelation in that the latter opens the future to us as a realm of infinite trustworthiness. In the ambience of God’s promise, a sense of personal freedom begins to blossom. Historically, freedom too is born out of promise. And by surrendering to the mystery of fidelity that faith perceives in the promised future, we are thereby given the courage to conquer the anxiety that goes with all true freedom.
But it is only when we reflect on the self-emptying love that lies in the depths of this mystery (or that constitutes the mystery itself) that we discover the true ground of human freedom. Readers familiar with the history of Western theology may recall that one of its most troublesome problems has been that of how to reconcile the fact of human freedom with the existence of God. For if God is Omniscient and omnipotent, as theism teaches, then how can anything else exist autonomously? It is well known that some of the most significant atheism in the modern intellectual world has been aroused because of the apparent impossibility of reconciling the idea of God with the fact of human freedom and creativity. What can we create, says Nietzsche, if a Creator God has already done all the work for us? And in our own century, Jean-Paul Sartre has expressed the parallel conviction that God and human freedom are incompatible notions. Thus, he and many other atheists sense an antagonism between God and full human self-realization. And if no resolution seems possible, some courageous individuals will opt for human freedom and reject the idea of God as a form of enslavement. Then, in response to such a radical severance of freedom from any relation to God, theists will typically accuse the unbelievers of demonic arrogance or of an adolescent refusal of obedience to the Almighty.
It is of course undeniable that the atheistic rejection of theism is often accompanied by a certain kind of arrogance, but this does not fully account for the modern "revolt against God." Rather, as our best theologians in this century have increasingly confessed, the roots of much serious atheism can be found in long-revered ideas of God that have not yet been shaped either by the promissory aspects of revelation (especially in the case of the kind of atheism associated with Marx) or by the revelatory image of the kenotic God (especially in the case of the atheism associated with existentialism). For too long now, theology and religious education have presented us with a God who is the very contradiction of our freedom rather than being its ontological foundation. And even where there has been progress toward a more humanizing view of the absolute, alienating elements still cling to our God-images. It would seem then that the only way to purify our concepts of God of the false authoritarianism which can only sanction a suppression of our natural love of personal freedom, is to accept without reservation the image of the defenseless (but by virtue of that quality, radically powerful and creative) God who withdraws any intrusive presence and thereby opens up the future in which alone human freedom can dwell and find nourishment. The truly intimate God of revelation wishes dialogue with persons, and abhors a religious slavery that in turn invokes the accusation against the divine that we can observe, for example, in the writings of Nietzsche and Sartre. In order to guarantee the true otherness and autonomy of the dialogue partner, the humble God of revelation restricts the divine selfhood so as to give the other room for being. Thus our freedom is rooted in the loving "letting-be" which is God’s creative style. It is not contradicted, but grounded and affirmed by this God’s self-renunciation.
We should emphasize, though, that the self-kenosis of God is not a negative occurrence in the Godhead but a positive movement whose purpose is that of bringing about relationship to God’s other. The theology of the Trinity discloses to us that God’s own internal life consists essentially of relationship, and the theology of revelation shows that God wishes to extend this relationship of infinite love to the world and to the individual beings and persons who make up this world. In order to be absolutely related in love to the other, however, a willingness to share in the mode of being, including the sufferings, of that other is required. Therefore, revelation is in essence the self-gift of God to the other, a gift that holds nothing in reserve that might make that other feel slighted or resentful. And so what we have been calling the humility or self-abandonment of God is by no means intended as a model of masochism, but as a condition of God’s loving relationship to the world.
In its kenosis, of course, the divine self becomes utterly vulnerable to the freedom of the other. Thus, its surrendering any control over that other will be interpreted, by those who understand genuine power to be a form of coercion, as the utter absence or even the "death" of God. But by those who have become sensitive to the fact that their freedom is a gift of God’s self-absenting, a new and invigorating relationship of love and gratitude, and one of deep, mature dependency as well, may take over their lives and shape them into the new creation of which St. Paul speaks. Then they will understand that God is a powerful creator after all, but that God’s kind of power or creativity is not opposed to human freedom. They will then see the reality of God as the very ground of freedom.