Chapter 11: Reason and Revelation
Even though it presupposes the idea of revelation, the Bible does not make it an explicit topic of discussion. There is no self-conscious theology of revelation in the Scriptures, and the topic receives little formal attention even in the history of doctrine up until about the time of the Enlightenment. But we need not be surprised at this apparent neglect. Precisely because everything in the Bible presupposes something like what we are calling "revelation," it did not need to be an independently justified theme during most of the Christian centuries. The pervasive notion of God’s word is already, in substance, equivalent to what we have been calling revelation. The tendency to establish on rational grounds the plausibility of revelation, or even to set it apart as a distinct subject of theological discussion, did not arise very explicitly until the birth of modern skepticism. The highly critical consciousness of modernity began to question the existence of God and therefore also the possibility of revelation. And so the formal concept of revelation became a major preoccupation of fundamental theology only in modern times.(See Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol, I., 172.) The problem of revelation coincides (though it is not coextensive) with what might be called the "God-question." And deliberate theological defense of revelation occurs only in an age that has come to doubt the reality of any divine transcendence at all.
The modern situation of skepticism, however, has led to an overburdening of the notion of revelation in much contemporary theology. Since mystery often falls to show up palpably in ordinary experience or in the investigations of science and academic life, many Christian theologians have argued that it is the task of special divine revelation to give us our first awareness of the dimension of transcendence essential to religious experience.(This is implicit, for example, in Ronald F. Thiemann’s important book, cited earlier, Revelation and Theology. It is the approach taken by Karl Barth and many other, mostly protestant, theologians.) Mystery, they imply, touches our lives only in our contact with the Christian Gospel. Evangelically inclined theologians, for example, generally insist that a special Christian revelation is our only authentic access to the sacred. Thus, for them mystagogy no longer precedes a theology of revelation but is a consequence thereof. Revelation provides the answer not only to the question about what God is like or who God is, but also to whether there is any divine mystery at all.
This approach, which makes the event of revelation also do the work of fundamental theology, is not always helpful for Christian faith’s encounter with the modern world. First, it displays an unwarranted distrust of human nature and of the created order inasmuch as it denies our native capacity to know something of sacred mystery apart from our being specifically Christianized. Second, it undermines the possibility of our learning anything about God from an encounter with other religions. And third, it ignores the legitimate demands by sincere critics that a theology of revelation, though it cannot be derived from reason and science, must at least show itself to be consonant with them.
A theology of revelation that ignores these three objections collapses into an esotericism, releasing Christians from their obligation to participate in the realm of public discourse. Thereby, it renders their faith of little consequence to communal human life and at times also allows it to retreat into political and social irrelevance. Earlier, we supported the first objection by arguing that a theology of revelation must be prefaced with a mystagogical opening to the silent dimension of mystery from which any revelatory word or vision might come forth to us and thus be experienced as disclosed or "unconcealed." The very notion of revelation cannot make sense without some pre-apprehension of mystery.(Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly states: "It is not true that the revelation, the self-disclosure of God, falls from heaven ready-made. Nor must it be the starting point of all knowledge of God, as if one could not otherwise know anything about him." "The Revelation of God in History," in Theology as History, edited by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb. Jr. (New York, Harper & Row, 1967) 118.) And we articulated the second objection by insisting that a Christian theology of revelation must not be isolated from the revelation of mystery as it occurs in the sacramental, mystical, silent, and active features of other religions as well.
Having already addressed these first two issues, in the present chapter we shall focus on the questions raised by modern critics about the consonance of rational and scientific discourse with the idea of revelation. Though it is not possible to establish that revelation is a fact on rational or scientific grounds alone, can we at least show that our trust in revelation bears the mark of truthfulness, especially in the face of so much contemporary skepticism rooted in the enlightenment and the scientific revolution? Is trust in revelation a "truthful" posture for human consciousness to assume?
Truth as Disclosure
Traditionally, truth means the correspondence of the mind with reality. In this sense, truth is formally an aspect of propositions or judgments. But there are other ways in which the word "truth" can be understood. One of these is the pragmatic model of truth, according to which the truth of something is assessed in terms of its functional value or its usefulness. Another is the disclosure model of truth, according to which truth is that which manifests or "unconceals" itself. For example, a great work of art or literature can have such a profound effect on us that we are immediately certain that a new depth of reality, previously unknown, has now been revealed to us. This experience of truth as disclosure is most naturally congenial to the idea of religious revelation, though in a limited sense the correspondence and pragmatic models may also be used in our assessment of its truth status.
If there is truth in religion or in revelation it would fall, primarily at least, in the category of "manifestation" or "disclosure." In this case, it would be inappropriate to employ the notion of truth as correspondence of mind and reality, since by definition the content of revelation far surpasses the adequacy of our own minds. As in art, music, and poetry, the truth of revelation is not something that we might arrive at in the same way as scientific or logical truth. It is, instead, a truth that grasps us by its disclosive power. We could hardly subject it to our verificational control, but would instead be required humbly to surrender ourselves to it in order to encounter its content.
Still, after acknowledging this obvious fact, we are nonetheless obliged to determine whether there is a positive relationship between revelation and scientifically enlightened reason which employs the correspondence notion of truth. If these are in conflict, as indeed they seem to many critics to be, then the notion of revelation will not be taken seriously by intelligent people. We must at the very least establish that revelation does not contradict science and reason. And if we could go further, and demonstrate that a trust in revelation actually supports the work of science and reason, we would have taken a further step in responding to the skeptics.
Skepticism approaches the question of revelation’s truth-status by asking whether its content can be independently verified by science or reason. However, it seems that the very character of revelation places it beyond the scope of any procedure that might demonstrate, here and now, its congeniality to rational or scientific inquiry. For, as we have been emphasizing, revelation comes to us in the form of promise. If this is the case, then it would seem that in the present we are simply not in a position to verify it. We can do so only if and when the promise comes to fulfillment. As Ronald Thiemann argues, any justification of truth-claims about revelation "has an inevitable eschatological or prospective dimension. The justifiability of one’s trust in the truthfulness of a promise is never fully confirmed (or disconfirmed) until the promiser actually fulfills (or falls to fulfill) his/her promise." And then he adds: "Until the time of fulfillment the promisee must justify trust on the basis of a judgment concerning the character of the promiser."(Thiemann, 94) It is only in relation to what we can discern from our faith story about the character of God that we can make any defense of revelation in the face of critical objections to its validity.
How such discernment itself takes place, though, is itself not entirely clear. It would seem that once again we have to resort to something like Niebuhr’s distinction between internal and external history, at least as a point of departure. It is not unreasonable to insist that an adequate discernment of God’s character as "faithful to promise" could take place only from within the framework of our involvement in a faith community built up around the narration of previous instances of God’s fidelity. To attempt a justification of revelation from a foundational standpoint completely detached from an involvement with the stories about God would be futile. Such an approach would amount to something like an attempt to prove logically or scientifically that someone has fallen in love with you even though you have never met that person or experienced his or her love. The experience of revelation occurs only in the concrete context of attending to the accounts of God’s fidelity as they are told to us (or in some alternative way brought home to us) by others who have actually, according to their own testimony at least, been touched by God’s fidelity in their own lives. And it is especially in our experience of the ways these others themselves sacramentally embody and live out the character of God’s faithfulness in their own lives that we become convinced of the fact of a transcendent fidelity. The justification of revelation requires that we ourselves first risk involvement in a community that promotes a life of promise-keeping.(It is especially for this reason that a lifetime marriage commitment is such a powerful sacrament of God’s own character as promise-keeper. Without sacraments of promise, we might well wonder how we could ever be lead to the belief that fidelity to promise is also the nature of ultimate reality. Such sacraments [and not necessarily in the formal sense] are our most powerful media of revelation.) It seems fruitless to attempt any adequate justification of Christian revelatory truth claims if at the same time we make only optional the requirement of belonging to a sacramental community.(But see the qualifications regarding formal ecclesial membership made in Chapter 6.)
Nevertheless, it is not entirely without value for theology to attempt at the same time, in a subordinate and supportive manner, some kind of rational "justification" of the central claims of revelation. Such an effort is a necessary component of any sort of engagement of theology with those who live outside the context of the faith community. If we fail to make such an effort, we risk isolating Christian faith from cultural and academic life. It might even be arrogant (and "gnostic") for us to refrain altogether from such a dialogical enterprise. The recent trend of much Christian theology toward a so-called non-foundational approach runs the risk of such esotericism. Its a priori ruling out the possibility that there are shared cognitional characteristics between the members of the Christian tradition on the one hand and the kind of critical thinking that goes on outside of it on the other is defeating to both faith and thought. Only a joint faith in the possibility of finding some common ground can bring about genuine conversation between believers and non-believers, or between and among representatives of various faith traditions.
Chastened by our new awareness of the historicity, relativity, and linguistic constraints that shape all modes of human experience and consciousness, we may nonetheless attempt here to demonstrate that there already exists, even in the consciousness of skeptics and critics of revelation, a natural and ineradicable experience of the fact that reality at its core has the character of consistency and "fidelity" that emerges explicitly in the self-revelation of a promising God. It is possible to argue that without an implicit conviction that reality in its depths is faithful and not capricious, even doubt and criticism are inconceivable. The reflective discovery (by what is called transcendental inquiry) that reality is grounded in that most faithful bedrock, namely, "truth itself," is not incidental to a justification of Christian revelation’s central truth-claim that reality at its core is forever faithful. While such assurance emerges in an adequate way only in the sacramentality of religious existence, it can be argued that it is also implicit even in criticism, doubting, and suspicion.
The Roots of Critical Consciousness
We live in what Paul Ricocur calls an "age of criticism." Criticism thrives especially in our universities, but to an extent it has infiltrated popular culture as well. Criticism is the spirit of the intellectual component in our culture. Critical consciousness is at heart nothing less than a noble passion for objectivity and truth. It is suspicious of any ideas that seem to come only from authority, common sense, or faith rather than from reason, direct experience, or scientific inquiry. It is uncommonly aware of how easily the human mind is seduced by ideological biases and childish wishes. Thus, criticism seeks a method for discovering truth independently of human feelings and preferences. Understandably, then, it latches on especially to the procedures of science, for it sees there a detached, impersonal, or disinterested method of gaining access to the real. Scientific method allegedly keeps our fickle subjectivity as far out of the knowing process as possible. By suppressing personal biases, our minds seemingly have a better chance of approximating "reality" than a more passionately involved approach -- such as we find in religious "faith" -- would allow.
Critical consciousness maintains that our insights and judgments are meaningful and true only if they can be verified by publicly available methods. Criticism distrusts ideas and fantasies that individuals construct merely out of the privacy of their own imaginations. The methods of logical deduction and induction, and especially of scientific method, seem to possess a neutrality and public accessibility that renders them adequate standards for determining the veracity of all of our notions. The impersonal character of these cognitional methods rules out the subjective desires or involvements that might lead us away from reality. So if we can remove the subjective component from knowledge altogether, we have a better chance of getting in touch with the "real" world "out there."
This is not the place to dispute modern criticism’s epistemological assumption that only impersonal cognitional methods are fully trustworthy. In fact, such a view appears excessively reductionistic in that it overlooks the ineradicably personal character of all knowing.(See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge.) But here we shall be content only to show how even the possibility of mobilizing such critical consciousness requires beliefs or assumptions that correlate well with faith’s claim that reality in its depths has the character of absolute trustworthiness. And we shall go even further, for it is not sufficient simply to argue that there is no contradiction between revelation and critical consciousness. We may also be able to show that a genuine trust in the substance of revelation actively promotes the process of critical inquiry and is in no way its enemy.
Let us recall that the goal of all critical inquiry is to put ourselves in touch with reality. The quest for the real is what motivates reason, science, and critical consciousness. That part of us which seeks reality may be called our "desire to know." Bernard Lonergan has argued at considerable length that human consciousness is rooted in an unrestricted desire to know. This desire is satisfied only with the truth, and so it is constantly concerned with distinguishing illusion from reality. In fact, we may best define reality as "the objective or goal of our desire to know." Put otherwise, reality (Or being) is that which is intended by our unrestricted desire to know.(Bernard Lonergan, S. J. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 3rd. ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1970) xviii, 4, 9, 271-347 and passim).
The root of our rationality is this desire to know. And the fundamental standard of truthfulness is fidelity to the desire to know. Thus, if we are interested in being rational and honest, we must do everything we can to allow our desire to know to pursue its objective -- being or truth -- unimpeded. We must seek to remove all obstacles from its path. Being rational and realistic means that we must learn to cherish and nurture our desire to know. We must let this instinct for the truth assume the position of being the primary striving of our being. But we can begin to do so only by distinguishing it carefully from any other cravings that motivate us.
We do in fact have many other desires, some of which are at times in conflict with our desire to know. For example, we long for pleasure, for power, or for security. We seek to be admired, loved, and accepted. All of these desires are an essential part of our make-up, and it is always honest to acknowledge their powerful persuasion. But if they are not linked up with our more fundamental longing for truth, they can easily lead us into the world of illusion. The will to power, the need for pleasure, the longing for security, when detached from our desire to know, will inevitably lead us away from the real and toward the illusory. At times we allow our lives to be dominated by one or more of these other desires. And it is possible to live, sometimes for long periods of time, without any strong inclination to "face reality." But buried in the depths of our consciousness there is an often somewhat repressed, though nonetheless ineradicable, desire to know. If the reader is questioning this last statement, it is only because of the desire to know that underlies his or her own questioning. The simple fact that we spontaneously ask questions is evidence enough that a desire to know is present within us. How it will be released to pursue its own interest in truth, however, is another matter.
This discussion of the distinctiveness of the desire to know is applicable to our quest to know the truth-status of revelation. For it can be argued that trust in the content of revelation, an opening of ourselves to the fidelity of a promising and self-humbling God, can transform our consciousness in such a way that the desire to know is supported, strengthened, and liberated. By surrendering to and immersing itself in the images and stories of a faithful God revealed as self-emptying love, the desire to know is set free to seek reality or truth. Indeed, a faith in revelation may release our desire to know and reinforce the spirit of criticism in a much more radical fashion than rationalism, scientism, or adherence to other ideologies would by themselves allow. If trust in revelation can thus liberate our desire to know, then we may conclude that it is a truthful posture for human consciousness to assume, and that the substance of revelation which evokes such trust may be called true also. But how is all of this so?
In the preceding chapter, while we were relating Christian revelation to the existence of the individual, we noted how the content of revelation has the capacity to erode our customary self-deception. The image of a self-humbling God who identifies with the broken, the lost, and the unaccepted has the power to remove the stigma of shame that leads us to self-deception. By restoring to us the sense of our intrinsic value, revelation frees us from the need to justify our existence and therefore from the accompanying inclination to evade the truth about ourselves. We saw that self-deception arises in the process of our seeking significance in terms of a restrictive system of heroics. But the revelatory image of a God who identifies with social outcasts, who embraces those sectors of human life that do not seem to "belong," has the existential implication of retrieving also those portions of our private selfhood that may have become lost to our explicit consciousness. The revelatory image allows us to accept without embarrassment our imperfections and our failures to fulfill all the criteria of worth that our familial, academic, social, or religious environments expect of us. As we have been maintaining from the beginning, there is an enormous heuristic power contained in the image of God’s self-limitation as manifest in Jesus the Christ. This is a power to bring forgotten or marginalized elements, whether of society or of our selfhood, into a fresh and continually wider scheme of coherence. In the case of our own identities, this heuristic power consists of the fact that it encourages us to integrate into the concept of our self those aspects that we usually exclude because we fear that they render us unlovable or unacceptable. Thus our surrender in faith to the paradoxical image of God’s own proximity to the lost and repressed aspects of the world (and therefore to the excluded aspects of our own selves, which are also a part of that same lost world) can bring a new intelligibility and truthfulness into the understanding of our own lives.
Still, how does this integration liberate and promote the interests of our rationality which is itself rooted in our desire to know? In response to this question we must first set forth the truism that our desire to know is fully unchained only if it can first get past the barrier of our self-deception. Self-deception is the major obstacle our desire to know has to overcome if it is to reach its objective, reality. It is self-evident that if we cannot be truthful about ourselves, we can hardly be truthful in our understanding of others and of the real world around us. We may be able to reach mathematical and scientific truth since these require less personal involvement. But in our relation to others, to ourselves, to the totality of the world and the mystery that embraces it, the fact of self-deception certainly frustrates our desire to know.
Self-deception, as we saw in the previous chapter, happens because our natural longing for significance often leads us into spurious kinds of "performances" before others whose esteem we regard as essential to our own sense of self-worth. In order to gain their positive regard for us, we are inclined at times to deny both to others and ourselves that there are aspects of our existence that simply cannot measure up to others’ real or imagined demands upon us. But because we want so desperately to be heroic in their eyes, we hide our inadequacies, sometimes in great shame, in order to gain their acceptance. And in denying ourselves, we distort the rest of reality as well. Thus, truthfulness about the world requires that we begin to emerge from self-deception, at least to the imperfect degree that this is humanly possible. But this emergence from self-deception entails a critical look at those social criteria of worth that may have led us to self-deception in the first place. All of this would amount to a release of our desire to know, and thus to the liberation of the core of our rationality.
To summarize, if the desire to know is ever to be satisfied in its quest to encounter the reality of the world around us, it must first be set free from the restraints of self-deception. If our rationality is to become authentic, then we need to find a way to counter our self-deception and to relativize those criteria of worth that have led us to deny substantial portions of our being. Most of our own efforts to do so will probably prove unsuccessful. Even setting for ourselves the goal of removing self-deception can lead us to deeper self-rejection in the wake of our many failures to do so. However, the startlingly revelatory character of the image of God’s identifying with the lost, at least as it relates to the repressed aspects of our selfhood, interrupts our frustrating attempts at self-justification. Because it so abruptly Overturns our "normal" way of looking at ourselves in terms of our socially limited systems of heroics, it deserves the name "revelation." Indeed, revelation shows itself as interruptive not only in its judgment upon the narrowness and exclusiveness of history’s social arrangements, but just as dramatically in its overturning our individual tendency to push out of consciousness the undesirable or shameful aspects of our own selves. By our indwelling the image of a God who identifies with the lost, we are -- at least in principle -- delivered of the need to exaggerate our performances or to lie to ourselves about our shortcomings. We are allowed to include in our self-concept those items that had previously been submerged in the sub-regions of awareness.
In other words, a trust in the revelatory disclosure of an ultimate environment of self-humbling love is capable of breaking through the contexts in which self-deception thrives. If we trusted deeply that the ultimate environment of our lives had the essential character of self-giving love, would we any longer feel the obligation to cling as tenaciously as we usually do to the more proximate, and confining, social criteria of worth in order to find the approval we legitimately seek? Trusting in such an ultimate horizon is capable of liberating us from the futile tendency to demand an impossible approval from those who make up our immediate environment. The love and care bestowed on us by others can then be seen as symbols or sacraments of an ultimate fidelity. They need not be taken as ultimate themselves and thus be overburdened with our unrealistic expectations. Likewise, revelation’s gift to us of an image of ultimate fidelity delivers us from the need to "perform" to the point of self-exhaustion for finite others in order to gain their approval.
Sincere trust in the God whom revelation understands as absolute self-gift and unconditional outpouring of love could not help but promote the innate interests of our desire to know. By satisfying our deep and ineradicable longing for approval from a font of infinite love, this trust would deliver us of the need for self-deception before finite others. Hence, faith in revelation could be called truthful in the fundamental sense of liberating the core of our rationality.
The fundamental criterion of truth, following Lonergan’s thought, is fidelity to one’s desire to know. The conclusion to which the above argument leads is that any transformation in our self-understanding that eliminates the need to deceive ourselves also supports the interests of our desire to know. By definition, our desire to know is intolerant of deceptions and illusions. And so any mode of existence or consciousness that assists us toward truthfulness about ourselves must be functioning in the interests of that desire and of the truth it seeks. Revelatory knowledge provides the basis for such truthfulness. Therefore, trust in revelation could legitimately be called truthful.
This is not a justification of revelation in the scientific or foundational sense of independently verifying the "object" of faith. Such a detached mode of justification would be inappropriate for a subject matter that arouses the highly involved stance of religious devotion. Rather, it is an indirect justification of revelation’s truth-value inasmuch as it allows the believer to examine the effect of faith on the desire to know, which is the source of all critical consciousness. Without first being caught up in the circle of faith in revelation, we would not be in a position to undertake the above exercise of justification. We cannot decide the question of revelation’s truth-value from a completely neutral perspective. However, this does not mean that we have to fall back into a purely fideist posture whereby we would simply refuse to be interested in the question of faith’s compatibility with reason. Only after the fact of having been grasped by the substance of revelation are we in a position to inquire into its truth status. But insofar as we find that our faith in revelation supports the desire to know we may conclude also that it satisfies what we have called the fundamental rational criterion of truth.
In light of the above argument, the kenotic image of God may be said to be especially truthful. For by its power to remove fear of retribution and anxiety about looking into ourselves, it arouses in us an unprecedented trust that counters our normal tendency to self-deception. It shatters every image of God that rests upon tyrannical notions of power or omnipotence which typically suppress our desire to know. Our ordinary, pre-revelational images of God are often little more than expressions and legitimations of those powers before whom we act out our heroic performances in an effort to gain the significance for which we crave. These are the images of a god that supports our self-deception and thus frustrates our desire to know.
Because our sense of God is usually overlaid with some aspect of those powers that we attempt to please in our ordinary heroics, we may acknowledge that there is a good deal of illusion in concrete theistic religion. In the interest of truth, we must open the illusory aspects of our God-consciousness to the purification of critical consciousness. Once we do so, Christian faith can begin to make some sense of the phenomenon of modern atheism. The most powerful forms of this atheism appear to have grown up in opposition to the kind of theism that has suppressed the kenotic God of revelation. As such, they are themselves perhaps expressive of a longing for a way out of the self-deception sacralized by God-images that merely reflect or magnify our limiting systems of heroics.
The "Odd" Logic of Promise
We have been looking into the question of the rational justifiability of faith’s trusting in God’s self-humbling love. But the other aspect of revelation that we have been highlighting throughout this book is its promissory character. In the biblical experience of revelation, mystery has the character of promise. Ontologically speaking, revelation is the self-gift of God, but historically and linguistically speaking, this gift takes the shape of a promissory utterance. Apparently, within our finite temporal context, the infinite mystery we call God can be received only indirectly as promise, rather than directly as knowledge.(See Ronald Thiemann. 151-56.) Finite reality, in any case, could not assimilate the fullness of infinity in any single receptive moment. Hence, God’s revelatory self-gift could hardly become fully manifest in any particular present. In its superabundance it conceals itself, according to the nature of promise and hope, in the mysterious and inexhaustible realm of the future.
For this reason, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly refers to revelation as the "arrival of the future."(According to Pannenberg it is especially in Jesus’ resurrection that we are met by our ultimate future. "By contemplating Jesus’ resurrection, we perceive our own ultimate future." And he adds: "The incomprehensibility of God precisely in his revelation, means that for the Christian the future is still open and full of possibilities." Faith and Reality. 58-59.) The divine futurity reveals itself to us in our present history only in the mode of promise. The God of the Bible constantly "goes before" us and speaks to us out of an always new future. In order to receive this revelation, the addressees of promise must in turn assume a posture of radical openness to the future. This is the posture known as hope.
Our question then is whether such hope can in any sense be taken as a realistic attitude, one that could withstand the objections raised by those who consider revelation to be a groundless notion. To return to an issue raised earlier, how can we be certain that such so-called "hope" is anything more than wishful thinking? Can we distinguish the images of hope that biblical religion suggests to us, from the frothy fantasies that arise all too easily out of what Freud called the "pleasure principle?" How can we plausibly argue for the truth of revelation in the face of modern, and now post-modern, types of criticism? How can we say that trust in a divine promise is reasonable? Specifically, what response can theology make to critical consciousness as the latter voices its suspicion concerning our hope for resurrection and the constant biblical aspirations for new life?
There is a kind of logic operative in promise and hope that seems to resist critical consciousness as we usually understand it. Influenced by scientific method as it is, criticism takes its bearing from what seems plausible and expected on the basis of common sense, reason, and empirical investigation. If something lies in principle outside the domain of predictability, in the open future or in the arena of what Ernst Bloch calls the Not-Yet-Conscious,(Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope. Vol. I, 114-78.) it will likely be ignored. If there is any aspect of reality which by definition is surprising, extravagant, and purely gracious, the three notes we have observed in revelation, it would understandably elude the net of critical thinking. Criticism, after all, is generally conditioned to embrace only those ideas for which there are already analogies and precedents accessible to "objective" scientific verification. Scientific reason operates only by generalizing from large numbers of similar occurrences. If no analogies from past or present experience are available by which to interpret new data, critical consciousness is often inclined to discard, or completely overlook, any true novelty. As the history of science shows, it is often only reluctantly that one scientific generation abandons its pet paradigms for interpreting the world and opens itself to the revision that would render coherent the influx of new data. Though in theory scientific method is always open to revision, in practice this transformation does not take place easily.
Faith in revelation, however, is much more concerned than science is with the influx of the Novum, the New. If a completely novel, unpredictable, or unique occurrence took place, such an event would not be suitable subject matter for the kinds of generalization that scientific method or critical consciousness seeks. Only large numbers of similarly repeated happenings can provide the basis for an acceptable scientific law or theory. Hence, a conceivably unique reality or utterly surprising occurrence would fall outside the sweep of our typical critical inquiry. Scientific method is ill-equipped for dealing with the radically incalculable. And since biblical revelation always has the character of unpredictability, in that its arrival transcends our anticipations, its justification would strain critical thinking beyond its usual limits. Furthermore, revelation is usually experienced in the context of circumstances that seem to our normal and critical consciousness to be impossible, devoid of all promise. The experience of God’s promises typically occurs, according to the biblical stories, in moments that would ordinarily generate despair. And so to those for whom scientific criticism is the only legitimate norm of truth, revelation will inevitably appear unrealistic. Its signals will not be picked up by a receiver wired only to accommodate that for which there are clear precedents. As we have emphasized, there is an element of informational surprise resident in revelation’s promise. And it is experienced most decisively in those situations that we would normally characterize as hopeless since there appears to be no precedent, outside the stories of God’s marvelous deeds of deliverance, on the basis of which one could predict deliverance. The real challenge of revelation to normal human reason consists of its defiance of the outcomes we would customarily expect to occur.
We must emphasize once again that what we are calling critical consciousness is shaped primarily by what it can clearly determine to have happened in the past. Scientific method relies on present data deposited by the past. For example, evolutionary theory needs the present fossil record, left over by past cosmic happenings, in order to arrive at appropriate Judgments about the emergence of the various forms of life. The situation is quite different, though, when it comes to revelation. Here, the data from which the hypothesis of revelation is construed by faith have their proper origin in the domain of the promised future. It is from out of the future that the divine reality discloses itself. And since the future lies beyond what can be made empirically available, there is a sense in which we must conclude that it is impossible for us to justify revelation according to critical methods. If we had complete access to or possession of revelation, moreover, it would no longer hold out any promise to us. Hope would fade in the face of the total presence of what had been concealed but now has become perfectly clear. Life would lose its depth and there would be no more future to look forward to.(It is questionable, therefore, whether even an eschatological fulfillment for finite beings could be one in which the divine presence completely obliterates the futurity (mystery) of God.)
We must, of course, agree with criticism’s demand that we remain faithful to our desire to know and its requirement that we avoid all illusions. It would therefore be inappropriate for us to hope in something we suspect may not be grounded in reality. To this end, we must accept criticism’s demand that we test our private aspirations by bringing them before the tribunal of a community shaped by a common interest. Our ideas must in some sense be publicly acceptable, as modern scientific criticism necessitates. This does not mean that the content of revelation needs to pass the specific tests devised by academically critical methods which generally accept only those ideas that pass muster with scientists. Such methods of testing ideas are certainly pertinent to a limited range of data. But when it comes to revelation’s setting forth of the ways in which God acts to bring about the seemingly impossible, such methods would be strained beyond their proper capacity. To admit that our ideas require public verification does not mean that the scientific forum, or any academic context for that matter, is the best one in which to test the truth of revelation’s substance. An ecclesial community would be more appropriate.
However, if we suggest instead that the ecclesial community is the only one qualified to pass such judgment, we are inevitably going to be presented with the charge that group bias or some such collective illusions can seize this particular public and blind it to the truth, perhaps even more readily than private caprice can cloud the consciousness of the individual. At least the scientific community employs detached and objective standards that undermine our efforts to take refuge in the slanted judgments of shared faith. Can theology point to anything comparably rigorous and objective as a context for testing the truth of faith’s trust in the self-emptying mystery of God and the promises given to us in revelation?
This question seems to presuppose that science and criticism are themselves activities of the mind completely unconnected to a deep personal or communal trust. Such an assumption, however, is no longer acceptable in many contemporary philosophical discussions of science and reason. All kinds of knowing, Michael Polanyi, among others, has demonstrated, have a "fiduciary" aspect, that is, a coefficient of personal faith or trust. Moreover, this personal faith is not unrelated to the community in which the individual’s trust is nurtured. The entire project of scientific inquiry and criticism, for example, is not self-justifying, but is instead built up out of an undeniable trust.(Polanyi, Personal Knowledge)
The fact that the enterprise of science is grounded in trust is brought home to us if we reflect upon the limit-questions that scientists occasionally find themselves spontaneously asking. These limit-questions, to which we referred in Chapter 3 in our attempt to show the place of mystery in relation to academic disciplines, include the following: Why should I be scientific at all? Why should I seek truth through science? Why should I remain faithful to the scientific method? Why not distort the data in order to promote an ingenious hypothesis and thus ignite my career? Why do I have this insatiable desire to know the truth and the need to avoid illusions? Why should I be faithful to the spirit of criticism when it would be so much easier to be less rigorous in my methods? Why should I sacrifice my own interests for the sake of the progress of truth? One could think of many other similar examples of limit-questions. What is notable about them is that they lead us to acknowledge that scientific work is energized throughout by a faith or trust that truth is worth pursuing, by a faith that it is worthwhile joining with others in an effort to uncover the facts about the world, and by the belief that it is wrong to deviate from a method that brings us to the truth. These are assumptions that we cannot have arrived at by way of science itself since they are necessary to get science off the ground in the first place. Rather, they are a priori assumptions akin to faith. We have believed in their self-evident truth as a condition for doing science, and we have entrusted or committed ourselves to them as we follow the spirit of criticism.
This commitment is of a deeply personal nature. We have risked something of ourselves in our allowing these beliefs (such as the belief that the pursuit of truth is worthwhile) to grasp hold of our lives. And without taking this "risk of faith," we would be utterly unable to dedicate ourselves to the scientific pursuit of truth. It is clear then that science and its offspring, critical consciousness, are not as innocent of trusting or believing as skeptics often think. Such trusting is obviously not identical with the faith that believers may have in revelation, but the presence of the unverifiable assumption that reality is intelligible and that truth is worth pursu1n~ is highly consistent with and supported by revelation’s claim that reality is at heart faithful, that God is truthful, and that the appropriate life of human persons is one of bringing our lives into conformity with the fidelity made manifest in revelation’s promise.
Our thesis then is that revelation as we have understood its substance throughout this book, though it is not verifiable by science, is fully supportive and nurturing of the faith assumptions that undergird reason and science. In the context of a university, for example, revelational knowledge does not conflict with but can properly be understood as assisting the autonomous search for truth undertaken by the various disciplines. We may recall (as stated in Chapter 3) how our limit-questions place all the disciplines in question and demand a justification that lies outside the boundaries of the disciplines themselves. Why bother with science? Why be concerned about the ethical life? Why seek beauty? What started out in this chapter as a question concerning the rational and scientific justifiability of revelation has at this point turned into a question about the justifiability of the enormous amount of trust that underlies the scientific, critical enterprise itself. That there is such trust beneath reason and science now seems undeniable. And this trust is no less in need of justification than is faith in the word of promise that we find at the heart of revelation.
It seems therefore that critical consciousness itself cannot find a point outside of trust, or devoid of trust, whereby it could settle the issue of the justifiability of the trust that motivates science and reason. Trust is a condition that makes critical consciousness possible in the first place, and it would also be a factor in all critical efforts we might undertake to justify any beliefs. The validity of trust in truth, goodness, and beauty, therefore, is incapable of being scientifically grounded, for it would have to be already present in every such grounding activity. Hence, faith in revelation’s word about the ultimately trustworthy character of reality is no less rational than is the trust in truth, goodness, and beauty that makes all academic pursuits possible. It is a companion to, and not an opponent of, the trust without which there simply can be no rational and scientific inquiry. Hence, it seems inappropriate for criticism to demand a scientific justification of faith in revelation when it cannot do the same with respect to the trust in which it is itself rooted. In the case of both faith and criticism, human consciousness seems to be related at some level to what we can only call trustworthiness or -- in terms of revelation -- fidelity.
We started out by asking whether the claims of revelation are in conflict with the desire to know. The fundamental test of the truthfulness of any content of consciousness is whether our holding onto it promotes the interests of our desire to know. We have argued that faith in the promise of divine fidelity given through revelation liberates our desire to know from the self-deception that stands between it and reality. By allowing our lives to be informed by trust in God’s fidelity, our desire to know can flow more freely toward its objective than could a life in which such trust is absent. Therefore, reason, science, and criticism are not in conflict with, but are actually supported by, the trust evoked by the promises of revelation.